My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Copyright Law and Sheet Music: why it can wreak havoc for an accompanist/collaborator

OK, I fear that I could possibly get into trouble because of what I'm about to write but I'm going to do it anyway!  If there's anyone out there that happens to prosecute folks for breaking copyright law, please stop reading right now and go look at something else on the internet.  Or read it and then have one of the Men in Black zap your memory.  Or read it and then go get the law changed so that an exception could be made for accompanists/collaborators.  

We all know that reading legal mumbo-jumbo can be awfully confusing.  It is so hard to read it and really understand what we can and can't do.  For those of you who are interested and can decipher the law yourselves, here is a website where the copyright laws are posted:

And here is a link to what I think is a very helpful explanation of how copyright law applies to music:

Now right off the bat, I want to clarify that I am definitely not an expert in this field and can barely understand either of these documents.  So please don't take anything I say as truth.  But on to my rant now and to my illustration of how copyright law is messing with my ability to do my job...

These past couple of years I have played piano for vocalists at a regional competition.  The organization that runs this particular competition has become very jittery in regards to photocopies and the law.  In order to avoid any conflict with the government, they have made it a policy that photocopies are not allowed at all.  The pianist for each vocalist must play from the sheet music or else the competitor will be eliminated.  I understand them not wanting to get in trouble but I feel like in their effort to be safe, they are making the collaborator's job very trying.  Fellow collaborators, you probably understand the problems that this causes, but for those that might not, let me paint a picture of how this policy affects how I do my job...

Problem #1: Transportation of music
So this past year I played for 10 singers at this regional competition.  Each singer sang between 3 and 5 songs each.  Do the math, and we're talking about me having to play between 30 and 50 songs.  This means we're dealing with about the same number of music books.  Two years ago when I did this, I mistakenly decided that I wanted to be the one responsible for getting the music to each audition but that meant lugging a very heavy crate around just so that I could transport the music.  Many collaborators use suitcases - it's really quite a funny sight to behold.  This past year I wised up and had each competitor hand me the music as we were going into the audition.  This definitely made it easier on my back but it also meant I had to give up control a bit...most collaborators I know, myself included, don't like giving up control!  In my mind it was also crazy because I had been given photocopies in order to learn the pieces in the first place.  So I had one binder full of all of the music I needed yet I wasn't allowed to use it.

Problem #2: Mechanics of keeping thick, stiff books on music rack & turning pages
Because I had to use the music books, I had to make a decision - struggle with keeping the music on the music rack and turn pages myself or run around making sure that I have a page-turner for every audition. Many of the pianos I played on were uprights.  I'm usually just fine with uprights but when you have to deal with keeping music books upright and deal with keeping the music open on the correct page, it can be a  nightmare!  I have had music literally fall of the piano in the middle of an audition - not fun! So if I was unable to find a page-turner for an audition (which is very likely the case since we are so busy just trying to find out where we're supposed to be), my ability to do a good job collaborating was hindered by my struggle to just keep the music open or even just on the music rack.  Again, with my one binder full of all the music I needed, none of this would be an issue.  When I put my music in the binder, I take several hours to tape the music together in such a way that I hardly ever have to turn a page.  I should also add that it can actually be very disorienting to have to read music that is set-up differently.  A tough passage might be located on the left side of the music in my binder but in the music book, might be on the right side.  These small details really do make a difference, at least to me.

Problem #3: Having music that has none of my markings
Because vocal music does not come with 2 copies - one for the pianist, one for the singer - I am not usually given the music books until right before the audition.  That's fine in one regard because the singer should keep referring to their music even after the music is memorized.  But what this means to me is that all of the markings I've put into my music as I've learned it have to either be copied into the music books at the last minute, or I have to do without them.  Perhaps I'm crazy, but because I have to learn a lot of music quickly I write quite a bit into the music: fingerings, breath marks, translations of the text, etc...  And since I'm not generally spending lots of time with each piece, I can't possibly memorize all of those details.  Without the markings, should I choose not to transfer them, my ability to do my job is challenged yet again.  

So there you have at least some of the problems...not fun!  And this situation isn't just limited to this particular competition.  I recently was told that I would need to use the actual music at a voice recital because of copyright law.  I found this out about 5 days prior to the recital and it happened to be a very busy and stressful time for me since I had a concerto to perform with orchestra that same weekend.  I simply didn't have the time or energy to transfer all of my markings.  In this situation, I told the teacher that I was sorry, but that I would simply have to use the music in my binder and that I would take full responsibility if the copyright officials were to find out my egregious error.  I'd like to add that when I had all four music volumes in my bag the night of the concert (so that I wouldn't get in trouble with the copyright police should they show up) it weighed more than my cello does!  I was exhausted by the time I made it to the recital hall.

Doesn't this all seem kind of ridiculous?  Is there another way? I have read the law and I get what it says.  I also think I understand people's fears but I want those that make up these policies to understand is how their fear jeopardizes my ability to do my job.  There are other ways.  Some organizations will let the collaborator use photocopies as long as the originals are placed on the piano.  Others have the collaborator or competitor sign a contract upon checking in to the registration desk which releases the organization from responsibility.  Makes sense to me.  Maybe another solution would be for collaborators to register with the publishing houses.  Anyone doing this would could use photocopies as long as he/she knows that the vocalist  owns a copy of the music.  Photocopies used would then be destroyed after being used for performance.  Another solution would be for publishing companies to start providing two copies of  vocal music.  Instrumental music is sold in this way, why not vocal music? I don't know, there are probably some other solutions out there and I'd love to hear them.  

Phew! So now I'm through with this rant...I am not usually this vocal, but I guess now you know that if someone messes with my ability to do my job, watch out!  And if there are any music publishers or lawmakers out there reading this post, first of all, please don't prosecute me and second, please do consider us collaborators; all we want to do is do our job and help make beautiful music along the way!



  1. You should check out Copyright: The Complete Guide for Music Educators by Jay Althouse (pub by Alfred I think). My understanding, as a former band director, is that copies are acceptable in performance there is an original available. Meaning that if the vocalist has the original copy, you can use one copy to perform from. I would give out copied parts to my students, but only the number of original parts we had, then destroy the copies after the performance. I completely sympathize with your post, though - accompanying out of thick books is not a fun experience.

  2. I definitely sympathize as well.

    A question: if the music (and its edition) is in the public domain, would they still forbid photopcopies? That would simply be ridiculous. I realize this doesn't help for 20th century music and is sometimes a problem in the case of transpositions, but a lot of standard 19th-century artsong rep can easily be found in public domain editions.

    To be honest, I often prefer the old-world craftsmanship behind the engraving of those editions - the music is generally laid out on the pages efficiently and elegantly and often with fewer page-turns than in newer editions.

    In fact, let me just go off on my own little rant here. I HATE the Hal Leonard Vocal Library, and I find singers bringing those editions in more and more - those books are put together as if it never occurred to anyone that someone might use them at the piano. Notation software is great and can be used well, but it seems most publishers don't care about taking the time to lay out the music logically.

    The stupidest thing is how they routinely print an almost full-page of text/translation (a nice feature in itself) and then begin the music with one system at the bottom of that page. Sometimes, this means a page-turn happens within 4 bars! The music is then laid out quite poorly and across way too many pages.

    I posted a Twitpic awhile back of the first page from Mendelssohn's "Neue Liebe." In this edition, this little song requires 8 pages. I have a wonderfully laid-out old edition in which the same song is on 3 pages. (As a rather amusing aside, the very first note in that Hal Leonard edition is wrong - the piano part is supposed to begin with octave B's, but the first RH note is a C!)

    I also, just yesterday, had a student bring in a Hal Leonard Brahms volume. The first of the WoO posth Ophelia lieder is a two-phrase song with a repeat. They managed to put the first phrase on one page and the second on another, meaning not only is there a ridiculous page-turn, but one has to turn back for the repeat.

    I could go on and on, but the point is that many modern vocal editions are horribly conceived for pianists. Personally, I'd also prefer if they were published in spiral-bound format for the staying-open problem that you mention.

    Rant over.