Friday, 8 November 2013

IMSLP as a Practice Tool

If you haven’t yet heard of the International Music Score Library Project – IMSLP for short – then you have been missing out on something truly remarkable. It is without hesitation that I say that this website (available at is one of the greatest resource for musicians that is currently available. Put simply, IMSLP is a huge collection of music that is out of copyright and therefore free for anyone to download and use. As the site is based in Canada, this includes just about anything written by a composer who died more than fifty years ago. You don’t need me to tell you that this opens up a whole universe of music which would otherwise be inaccessible to the average musician.
The real beauty of it, though, is that for most works you can download individual parts as well as the full scores. So if you find yourself asked to play second flute in a performance of, say, Brahms’ third symphony, you can go on to IMSLP and download the exact part that you need. At the time of writing it has almost seventy thousand works in its catalogue, and that catalogue is growing every day. It really is little short of miraculous.
Of course, there are many ways in which we can put such a service to good use. For students it is invaluable, allowing access to scores that can be studied in detail. For those who want something to play in a concert but can’t afford to rent the music, it is ideal. It can even provide a source of accurate orchestral excerpts. What I want to focus on here, though, is how IMSLP can be used as a tool for practising ensemble playing.
After all, let’s face it – orchestral playing bears little resemblance to the solos and studies that we normally tackle in everyday practice, and it also calls for a completely different set of skills. When playing in an orchestra we must be able to adjust our tuning to those around us. We must be able to count ridiculous numbers of bars rest without getting lost. We need to have a feel of how the individual parts combine and interlock, and we must be able to follow someone else’s beat rather than our own. On top of this are the important skills of blending and, above all, listening, which are never needed in individual practice.
Normally we only get a chance to really tackle these things in actual orchestral rehearsals. But those tend to be few and far between, giving us little opportunity to truly develop these crucial skills.
This, then, is where IMSLP can come to the rescue. For it allows us to get hold of our own individual part for a piece and have a go at playing it along with a recording. Many of the pieces on IMSLP are accompanied by their own public domain recordings, but if not then there’s always YouTube. I confess that this method is not perfect, as playing along with a recording can never truly duplicate the experience of playing in a live orchestra, but it does provide a reasonable simulation and allow development of the abilities outlined above. And then when you do come to play in the actual orchestra you will be much better prepared for it than if you had just turned up on the day to sight-read the part.
In addition to this, IMSLP is a magnificent resource for sight-reading samples. When you want to test yourself, just find the part for a piece you are completely unfamiliar with, have a brief look at it and then try playing it along with a recording. Do this regularly and you will greatly improve your orchestral sight-reading abilities. And because of the vast range of music on the website you need never worry about running out of sight-reading samples.
In summary, IMSLP is brilliant. What makes it even more brilliant is that if you use it as a regular piece of your practice then it will help you enhance important skills that otherwise would take a long time to develop. In addition to that, it can be an excellent resource for sight-reading. Long live IMSLP.

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