ArticlesAugust 2022FeaturedIssues

Understanding the Score

By James Brinkmann


How can I better prepare and feel more confident playing with a pianist? I feel prepared when practicing and playing in my lessons, but I get lost at my rehearsals with the pianist! We fix rhythms and entrances in the rehearsal, but at the next rehearsal, I can’t remember how it goes again. It makes me nervous about the performance. 

The Rumble: A Lost Flutist Finds Their Way

I’ve been there too. Many rehearsals were challenging and performances were nerve-racking…until I really learned how to study the score.

In the 2015-2016 season, I gave five solo recitals in the span of 6 months. At that point, it was the most intense solo concert schedule I had ever experienced. The programs were challenging and included music by Bonis, Vine, Ran, Gaubert, Bowen, Zyman, Uebayashi, Mozart, Bach, Ravel, Debussy, and Taktakishvili. My friend and brilliant pianist, Talar Khosdeghian, was ready to take on and explore this demanding amount of repertoire with me. However, due to our schedules, we only had 3 to 4 rehearsals per recital. There was no time to waste. I explored five ideas that have proven helpful for me and my students in preparing for rehearsals with pianists.

  1. Developing a chamber music mindset when playing flute and piano repertoire
  1. What does it mean to know the score?
  1. Score study questions
  1. Listening to recordings with the score
  1. Developing the skill of score study


#1 Developing a chamber music mindset

Any time two or more musicians play together, it is a chamber music experience. Even though we may not always think of it this way, playing with a pianist is chamber music. This collaboration has the potential to be a fun, meaningful, creative, and enriching experience. 

It is important to respect the pianists who play with us and recognize they are colleagues, not someone who follows us and covers up for our mistakes. It may seem obvious, but it is an attitude worth cultivating and remembering before we even begin rehearsing. I like to start by thanking the pianist or any other musician for the opportunity to play with them. Then, show them gratitude and respect by being prepared with my part as well as by knowing theirs. Does it take time to learn the whole score? Absolutely! In a chamber ensemble, all musicians need to be equally prepared for rehearsals. This is a respectful chamber-playing mindset and leads to positive experiences. Be thoughtful in your score study and careful not to program more music than you can successfully perform.  

#2 What does it mean to know the score?

I remember being told once in a masterclass that “you just need to know the score.” While I think it was well-intentioned and true, I have found that phrase can leave students (including myself at the time) wondering: what does it mean to study the score and how do we do it? 

I like to think of the score as a map of the music. It contains all of the instrument parts and details. Score study refers to learning how all of the parts, especially yours, fit together. Many pianists will know both parts because they play off of the score and are often the ones to adjust if we get off. Regardless of skill level, I invite students learn how to understand the score and ask questions based on their experience with score study.


  • How do the rhythms generally line up between the flute and piano? 
  • When do you play together?
  • When does someone have a solo?
  • What happens in the piano part before your entrances? 
  • When are you going to cue the pianist? What does that cue look like and sound like?
  • Who will lead the tempo changes (ritards, accelerandos, etc.)?
  • Who has the melody? Who has the harmony? How does this affect our dynamics and creating a balanced sound as an ensemble?
  • Are there unique things that stand out that you want to explore in rehearsal? 


  • Know all the elements of “beginner score study”.
  • How do the flute and piano parts portray similar or different characters (articulations, dynamics, register)?
  • Consider character changes. How does each phrase portray similar or different characters (articulations, dynamics, register)? When do the flute and piano have the same or different characters?
  • What is the form of the piece (Ex. ABA sonata form)?
  • Where are the important climaxes and cadences? How do the harmonies influence your phrasing? 
  • Are there unique things that stand out that you want to explore in rehearsal? 


  • Know all the elements of “beginner” and “intermediate” score study”.
  • What musical moments do you want to highlight?
  • How do various details (rhythms, dynamics, articulations, key changes, harmonies, register, etc.) affect your expressive choices?
  • Are there unique things that stand out that you want to explore in rehearsal? 

At each level, if something in the music stands out to you, follow your curiosity! Ask questions and explore what is happening. It might be something you want to rehearse with the pianist.

#3 Score Study Questions

Make your rehearsals more than just lining up rhythms. By answering the questions above, rehearsals can be more fun and musically rewarding. Start at the beginner level and move to the next level after exploring all of those questions.

Here are two examples of how I might score-study Ernest Bloch’s Suite Modale Mvt. 1: Moderato.

I provide my written thoughts first. Following that are what I notice in the score (level of score study is color-coded) and how I would mark it in my flute part.

Score Example 1

Green (Beginner)

  • In measure 1, notice the pianist plays on beats 1 and 2. The flutist has a tie to beat 2 and should wait until hearing the piano chord on beat 2 before playing the 16ths. In measure 2, the pianist does not play a new chord on beat 1, so when they play, it is beat 2.
  • In measure 7, the pianist plays on the big beats, so the flutist’s 16ths need to line up with them. In measure 8, the pianist plays 8th notes, so the flutist’s 16ths need to be even more strict in time.

Blue (Intermediate)

  • The form of these 9 bars is interesting. Measures 1 and 3 are similar, but the flutist does something different starting in measure 5. Consider bringing this out because it’s new.

Red (Advanced)

  • The dynamics, tempo, and rhythms are changing in these three bars. There might be some varying colors that could make it even more expressive!


Score Example 2

Green (Beginner)

  • The pianist has the original melody. The flutist has a counter-melody (duet part). Both parts are important!

Blue (Intermediate)

  • Interesting! With the slurs in the piano part, beats 1 and 3 are strong and then weaker on the 2nd note. But, the flute part has a tenuto on beats 2 and 4. In rehearsal, this is a moment to explore whether to sing through those long notes or back away.

Red (Advanced)

  • There are tenutos on the piano’s quarter notes. Maybe the flute part could be more expressive on beat 1 too.

#4 Listening to recordings with a score

Recordings can be helpful tools for learning a piece when used with intention. When you listen while following the score, I recommend these guidelines:

  • Listen for specific elements that you made note of when looking at the score. If there was a part that stood out to you as curious or confusing when you were studying the score, listening to a good recording can help you understand what it sounds like.
  • Listen to multiple recordings so you can learn different interpretations and be inspired to make your own expressive choices for a piece!
  • Write down questions or specific sections you want to work on in rehearsal.  What sections might be tricky to put together? What things stand out that you want to review? These types of questions help make your rehearsal beneficial and interesting.

Note to teachers: I often play various elements of the piano parts on my flute when I teach lessons. The student should listen for these highlighted parts in rehearsal and performance. 

#5 Developing the skill

You might be thinking, “When will I have time to practice? This could take a few extra weeks to learn this piece!” Yes, it does take some time, and it might add to your recital preparation timeline. Like any skill (scales/tone/etc.), the more you practice score study, the better you become. More importantly, you are preparing better for your rehearsals and concert, and you are learning more about music and how you and your pianist can be more expressive together.

I recommend 5 to 30 minutes of score study a day depending on your skill level, the complexity of your repertoire, and the amount of music you are learning. Remember: any amount of time studying the score is helpful. Beginning the process early on will make your rehearsals less stressful, more productive, and the music more fun! If you do this work ahead of time, you and your pianist can begin sharing and combining musical ideas. You’ll begin to connect with it in unexpected ways, and your performance will most likely reflect your deeper connection with the music.

I like to think of score study as getting to know the music like a friend. The more I ask questions and pay attention to the details, the more interesting things I learn. Happy studying!

Prize-winning flutist Dr. James Brinkmann leads a diverse career as a performer, educator, and researcher. He creates interactive performances that strengthen the listener's connection to music, and his ethnographic research on those connections has led to a TEDx Talk called Collaborative Listening, performances at National Flute Conventions, and lecture-recitals around the country. He taught flute lessons and flute methods as a graduate assistant at Michigan State University, was on flute faculty and woodwind department chair at the Merit School of Music in Chicago, and has presented workshops on flute skill development and lectures on student-belonging at international, national, and local events.


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