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‘Believe in the pencil’: At the Florida Orchestra, the music’s in the margins

How does an orchestra make a masterwork its own? Thousands of tiny, hidden, hand-drawn markings.

ST. PETERSBURG — The violins are late.

The players can’t hear it, but Michael Francis can. He knew he would. It’s common in this section of Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 7, a complex whirlpool of interlocking tempos and dynamics. And if he can hear it, the audience might, too.

He waves his hands and the symphony peters into silence.

“This happened last time,” says the Florida Orchestra’s music director. “The tempo on 114 will be exactly the same as the bar before. I’m feeling quite a big delay in the back of the section.”

In the back row, substitute violinist Hollis Hammonds grabs a forest green pencil from her stand and scribbles a note on her sheet music, right before the 114th measure:

don’t drag

Two words. That’s it.

But when the orchestra performs Sibelius No. 7 two nights from this early March rehearsal at the Mahaffey Theater, annotations like these will mean everything.

Hidden in the margins of each piece of sheet music are thousands of tiny, penciled-in symbols, reminders and doodles that bring to life the works of Sibelius, Beethoven and Bach. Codes, corrections, insights, memos — it takes weeks to add them by hand, and many are erased within days of a performance. They’re as ephemeral as they are infinitesimal.

Yet in the annotation-obsessed world of classical music, these markings matter almost as much as the notes themselves. They’re tiny details that add up to something massive, making every performance an orchestra’s own.

Without them, says violinist and concertmaster Jeffrey Multer, “it would be a complete disaster.”

* * *

Ella Fredrickson, principal librarian for the Florida Orchestra, works in the music library at the orchestra's offices in St. Petersburg in February. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

A symphony weighs 11 pounds. It arrives in a brown cardboard box no larger than a pillow, delivered on an overcast January Monday to the Florida Orchestra’s offices in downtown St. Petersburg.

This is where Ella Fredrickson slices open the tape and gets her first look. The orchestra’s principal librarian ordered Sibelius No. 7 a year ago, when Francis put it on the orchestra’s March 6-8 program. Now it’s here, 54 parts and three complete scores.

The orchestra has a vast archival library, including pieces they play every year. But about a third of an average season requires sheet music rented from a publisher. For this, the orchestra negotiates a contract for the parts it needs, when it needs them, when it’ll return them, and in what condition.

The condition part is key. Sheet music, even written by long-dead composers like Sibelius, is copyrighted material — publishers and their clients make money by shipping it all over the world. And the supply can be shockingly limited. For an upcoming performance of a Gustav Mahler arrangement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, Fredrickson said they’re getting the only available copy.

Each orchestra must keep each part in good shape for the next one. Fredrickson likens it to the old Girl Scout motto: “Leave a place better than you found it.”

Once she unpacks Sibelius, the real work begins. For that, Fredrickson needs pencils. Lots of pencils.

Ella Fredrickson, principal librarian for the Florida Orchestra, sharpens pencils before starting work on music at the orchestra's offices in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

In the orchestra world, pencils are sacrosanct relics. Taped above one desk in the library is a copy of a phrase found scrawled in a piece of sheet music: “Believe in the pencil.” To Fredrickson, it means musicians must adhere to everything written on their sheets, not just their printed part. There are good reasons for that.

A note reading "Believe in the pencil" is pictured on a piece of music on the side of a file cabinet at the Florida Orchestra's offices in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Sheet music isn’t perfect. Many works contain mistakes, known as errata — a missing rest, a quarter note that should be an eighth, and so on. Librarians share them to better correct each part before it gets to a musician, but new errors are discovered all the time. Fredrickson herself has found 18 errors in Sibelius No. 7 alone. She proofreads and fixes every part, adding measure numbers to streamline the rehearsal process.

Then come the bowings.

String musicians play by moving their bows up and down. The direction alters how a note feels. Upbows sound questioning, like an inhale; downbows sound confident, like an exhale. Synchronized bowings are the reason that, when you watch a string section, the bows all bob in unison. Without them, violins would sound shapeless and homogenized, like an organ.

So Fredrickson works with Multer and Francis to add bowings to nearly every phrase.

An upbow looks like this: V

A downbow looks like this: Π

A violinist with the Florida Orchestra rehearses her part, amended with marks and notes, for a performance of Sibelius' Symphony No. 7. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Penciling thousands of bowings into a symphony is a painstaking process, especially if the previous orchestra’s bowings must be erased. Sometimes Fredrickson will zone out to Radiohead or Frank Zappa while she works in her office. Other times she and her assistant take parts home to work on at night. Longer symphonies can take 40 hours or more to prepare.

“The question is not how long does it take,” Fredrickson says. “It’s, how many erasers have I gone through?”

Fredrickson prefers Stetler block erasers (“Two swipes, and it’s like it wasn’t even there”) and Pacific Magic Writer pencils (“There’s a higher clay content in these, which makes them a little softer”). She goes through boxes of erasers and at least a gross (or 144) of pencils every season, grinding each down to a nub.

Sibelius No. 7 is just one piece. At any given time, the library is juggling six or eight. And all this work happens before musicians even see it.

“It’s the canvas for the artist,” Multer says, “that we’re supposed to paint on.”

* * *

Florida Orchestra music director Michael Francis acts and sounds out a violin part while going over notes on his personal score of Sibelius' Symphony No. 7 during a rehearsal at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg this month. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Jean Sibelius, born in 1865 in Hameenlinna, Finland, was a brilliant but troubled man, an adulterer and alcoholic who lived to 91, but largely stopped composing in his 50s. No. 7 was his final published symphony — a confession of his sins and excesses, Francis believes, and his towering achievement.

“Utter perfection, not a single note wasted," he says. "From the first note, everything is structured so carefully until the last one. Not an ounce of excess.”

Francis has his own score to Sibelius No. 7. It is his bible for each performance, flecked with changes in red, green, blue and black pencil. The annotations are crucial to his understanding of the music — not just dynamic changes and harmonies, but biographical details, culled from years of research, that tell him what Sibelius was going through, how the music should feel. Each time he conducts it, he adds something.

“If someone gave me a brand new score without my markings — if it was a different edition, even if the notes were the same — it would feel weird,” he said. “It’s like reading a childhood book.”

The personal score of Florida Orchestra music director Michael Francis for Sibelius' Symphony No. 7 is pictured during a rehearsal at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg this month. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Some notes are just for Francis. Others, he tries to convey to the orchestra in rehearsal — moments that should feel “spiky” or “austere." And musicians have their own methods of interpretation.

Like Fredrickson, musicians can be downright obsessive about their pencils. Each must write cleanly and smoothly (and be erased just as easily) on a wobbly aluminum stand. At rehearsals, you see all types of pencils jutting from folders and pockets and buns — schoolroom No. 2s, plastic mechanical BICs, expensive, hand-crafted imports.

Trombonist Joel Vaisse uses an antique Wolverine Gloves mechanical pencil he found for $3 at a thrift shop. Trombonist Ross Holcombe needs one with a clip he can hook to the underside of his stand. Substitute violinist Kasia Dolinska uses a minimalist Itoya Helvetica she picked up on tour in Japan. Another sub, violinist Kristin Baird, just got a box of Palomino Blackwings with replaceable eraser tips as a birthday gift from her boyfriend.

No matter how much time Fredrickson puts into bowings, they won’t sound right until musicians can hear themselves with their section. String players erase and re-draw bowings and fingerings during rehearsals until they’re satisfied with the sound.

Erika Shrauger, assistant principal clarinet with the Florida Orchestra, makes notes on her sheet music while rehearsing Sibelius' Symphony No. 7 at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg in March. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

If you want to see a classical musician panic, ask them to imagine performing without annotations.

“No, no, no,” says Dolinska.

“It would be bad, is the short answer,” says oboist Mitchell Kuhn.

“Oooh, I just wouldn’t feel comfortable,” said clarinetist Natalie Hoe. "If you’re off by an eighth note, it’s like a domino effect, and it kind of falls apart. ... Maybe the audience wouldn’t hear it. But once you start falling, it all falls.”

They see these cues peripherally, measures in advance, triggering a memory from practice or rehearsal. They’re notes to self that get musicians out of their own heads, cutting through the “fog of war," as timpanist John Bannon puts it, of a live performance.

Steady. Don’t rush. Bell up. My turn. More. Less. Violas! Tempo! Bow!

“All this stuff, you’re going to remember until the pressure of the concert,” says substitute violinist Sean O’Neil. "And then, when you’re under pressure, it’s very easy to forget.”

Some notes are practical. Vaisse and Holcombe insert commas or the letters BB (“Big Breath”) to make sure they don’t both pause to breathe at once. Hoe writes bassoon and oboe parts in her music to better track the music while she’s resting. When it’s crucial to watch Multer for cues, string players draw little eyeglasses or write “Jeff.”

Alan Glick makes a note on his sheet music while rehearsing on double bass for a Florida Orchestra performance of Sibelius' Symphony No. 7 at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg this month. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Others are personal, almost philosophical. On one page of Sibelius No. 7, Kuhn writes, Listen & feel for pulse. On another: Everything on this page is exposed — meaning, if he makes a mistake, the audience will hear it. Later, simply: Courage.

Because Sibelius No. 7 is such a complex work, Francis’ main objective is making sure musicians listen to one another so they don’t miss a subtle cue — or, more importantly, the overarching emotion of the work.

Near the end of his score, around measure 500, Francis scrawled the word RESIGNED. The way the music is written, players might be tempted to make this bit sound victorious — and indeed, in the first run-through, some are accenting certain notes. That changes the climax completely.

“Strings, you mustn’t sound heroic,” he tells the orchestra. “It has to have more of a resignation, more of a feeling of failure, and something more tragic and deeper. ... He’s trying to reconnect with something. He’s almost giving up his youth. This is the heart of the whole piece, emotionally. If it has an accent, lose it.”

There’s a clink-clank of pencils on stands as players hunch into their folders.

* * *

Principal librarian Ella Fredrickson discusses final details for an upcoming performance with associate conductor Daniel Black at the Florida Orchestra's offices in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Fredrickson pulls up a YouTube ad for a Japanese-made score reader called Gvido. A woman at a piano opens the tablet and sits to play. She turns pages with a tap of her finger, adding annotations with a sleek stylus.

“It’s like digital paper,” Fredrickson says with awe. “It’s amazing. There’s no glare. The battery life is crazy.”

It also retails for $1,600.

Digitizing sheet music isn’t as simple as scanning it in. The resolution must be impeccable to replicate the look of music every performer grew up learning. There are copyright and royalty issues that could complicate the rental process. Besides, the Florida Orchestra still plays plenty of music from its physical archives, so what’s the rush?

Even if everyone had an e-reader, would they feel comfortable using it? Composers and musicians are creatures of habit, averse to any X factor that might disrupt a performance. A cracked screen, a distracting glare, a dying battery, costly upgrades — all are barriers to a world in which Sibelius No. 7 exists only digitally.

For now, the currency of the realm remains paper.

“Some conductors will never give that up, because that’s what they learned," Fredrickson says. "You can (scan music) for an emergency, you can do it to protect our markings or capture an archival footprint of what we did. But is it ever really going to take the place of paper? I don’t know. I don’t think so, in my lifetime.”

Under the baton of music director Michael Francis, members of the Florida Orchestra perform Jean Sibelius' Symphony No. 7 from rented sheet music at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa on March 6. [ JAY CRIDLIN | Tampa Bay Times ]

On the night Sibelius No. 7 goes up at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, the players open their folders and music, their annotations hidden from sight.

Bannon, his timpani tuning scribbled before the first measure, rumbles the piece to a start. The violins sweep in, never dragging. Then come the woodwinds, totally exposed, with Hoe tracking the bassoon part penciled in her music, then fluttering into a run of her own. Kuhn, sitting one row ahead, slides seamlessly in tempo behind her.

Vaisse takes sharp, gusty breaths during his majestic trombone solo; when Holcombe joins in, they pace their breaths so the crowd cannot hear. At measure 500, the strings rise and diminish dramatically, as if receding from an emotional peak. Eyes flicker to Multer, rocking and twisting in his seat, conducting with his torso as the symphony tumbles toward its climax.

The final note dies and Francis cuts. As the crowd applauds, the musicians close Sibelius No. 7 and tuck it back into their folders, where, days later, Fredrickson will find each part, grab her Stetler, and start erasing.

It’ll never be played exactly this way again.

Note to readers

The Florida Orchestra has canceled or postponed concerts in March and April to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. For complete information, visit