Monthly Archives: April 2014

A Mini-Rant on the overmarking of music… or the paint-by-numbers approach to making music

by Libby Sternberg

In addition to being a novelist, I’m a musician. I sing. (Yes, anyone who makes music is a musician–the word doesn’t just refer to instrumentalists.) I have a bachelor’s and master’s degree in voice from a music conservatory. (That and a few bucks will get you a…well, you know.)

I have a pet peeve. It is: composers and arrangers who overmark their music, with every page cluttered with dynamic and tempo markings. I don’t know if this happens in instrumental music so much or if composers/arrangers of vocal music have decided that singers are just so danged dumb that they have to tell them in virtually every bar how soft, how loud, how fast, how slow they need to be singing.

Last night at choir rehearsal, I saw a marking on a choral piece that, to me, illustrated the depths to which this overmarking lunacy has descended. We were practicing an anthem, a piece by a still-living Very Well-Known Church Composer. Every choir in the country has probably sung something by this excellent composer at some point in their choral lives. One of our basses, a volunteer with a wonderful voice, who is not a trained musician, asked our choir director at one point what a marking meant. The word above a particular section read: cantabile.

Deep breath. Cantabile. In a choral piece.

Let’s think about this. Cantabile means songlike. So the composer is telling us to sing…as if we’re singing.

Good thing he put that in there because I think all of us had it in our minds to sing that passage as if we were, oh, I don’t know...drumming?

As you can imagine, if a composer feels the need to tell singers to sing as if they’re singing a song, he’s not bashful about telling them other things. Such as crescendos and decrescendos to mezzo-piano, mezzo-forte, lots of  dolce markings (sweetly, as opposed to, oh, I guess “sourly,” our preferred method of singing).

The irony is that in this particular piece, all of these markings are redundant. This composer is so skillful at writing sweet songlike lines where tension in the underlying harmonies pulls and pushes you toward natural crescendos and decrescendos that he could have left the entire manuscript as unmarked as an unedited sixteenth century motet, and even the stupidest choir on earth would have been able to get the dolce lines right, the swelling sounds, the diminuendo and rallentando molto at the very end. (“Molto?” Is that really necessary when it’s as clear as day that the piece is slowing down naturally at the end, Mr…..?)

The problem with this overmarking isn’t just how it insults the performer’s intelligence. It sets up a situation where the fastidious directors and singers are constantly trying to honor the composer’s intentions, trying to find that perfect mezzo forte at the end of a crescendo, trying mightily to delineate it from that mezzo piano marked at the end of some other decrescendo.

To me, the effect ends up being like a paint-by-numbers canvas. Instead of really listening to each other, we’re all focused on whether we’ve gotten loud enough on the forte to pull back to the mf at the precise moment it’s marked above the bar.

Painting by numbers is fun. I remember doing it as a kid. But in the end, you have a painting with no soul and no meaning except blotches of color. The whole is not equal to the sum of its parts.

Let singers sing, composers and arrangers. We might not be the brightest bulbs in the pack, but we’re not complete idiots.

End of ranty-rant.

Carry on.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist, freelance writer and editor.

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Design Your Own Bookstore

by Libby Sternberg

Borders is gone, and Barnes & Noble is struggling. The book world keens. book_banner

Remember the days when these big-box bookstores were the subject of the same kind of criticism leveled at Amazon today? They were too big, too cookie-cutter, too impersonal, too greedy, too…whatever. Reacting, at least in part, to the rise of these mega-bookstores, the American Booksellers Association began Book Sense, a loose organization of independent booksellers who joined together for promotions and other marketing activities. Book Sense eventually morphed into IndieBound.

Personally, I don’t care whether a bookstore is big-box or small indie, as long as it’s good. So, what constitutes a “good” bookstore?  How would I design the perfect (for me) bookstore if I were as rich as Croesus?

Below are elements of what my Perfect Bookstore would look like. Before I begin, let me state the obvious: bricks-and-mortar bookstores, in order to be successful, have to find ways to compete with the online book-buying experience. I believe they can. But they won’t do it by trying to guilt customers away from online buying. Online purchases are a way of life. Don’t fight that. Join it. Think what makes online purchasing such a draw–depth of inventory and convenience–and what would complement that draw.


Size: It would be big, as big as the megastores.  Most Barnes & Nobles now have the footprint I like.

Offerings: It’s a bookstore. Books would be the primary products. They’d be the first thing you see when you come in the door. Not wrapping paper, CDs, DVDs, digital readers, a cafe or calendars. In-store coupons would provide generous incentives to browsers to keep coming back to the bricks-and-mortar store.

Other stuff: Despite the note above, my store would still offer CDs, DVDs, wrapping paper, goo-gaws, book-related merchandise, calendars, and a cafe. These are big revenue producers. And even I like to browse through these areas in bookstores.

Digital and POD: This is a crucial part of the new Perfect Bookstore, part of what will take the online experience and make it “more so.”  Currently, going into a bricks-and-mortar store can often mean not finding the book you want on the shelves. However, bookstores can lure the online purchaser into their stores to browse, to buy, if they also offer a superlative online buying experience. Somewhere in the store, there would be a corner devoted to online buys, digital offerings and POD books. Maybe several computer/tablet/digital reader stations?  My Perfect Bookstore would offer discount coupon codes at the entry to this area of the store for anyone buying this content AT THE STORE.  As to Print-on-Demand…my Perfect Bookstore would work with publishers to ensure that many books would be available this way, so that the customer looking for a read that’s not cost-effective to keep stocked in inventory can still get it quickly and easily…at a bookstore.

The Cafe: First rule: no print books in this section unless you’ve bought them. Second rule: you should be encouraged to keep browsing in the cafe…for books. Most tables should include a digital reader and/or other device that allows readers to sample books and then use an in-store coupon to buy digital material right there in the cafe.

Staff: The staff all have to be book lovers/readers. “Staff picks” should be promoted for all book areas and large displays would showcase the staff’s preferences. But here’s a qualifier: my Perfect Bookstore would require staff to choose favorites from independent authors and/or publishers. Readers already know James Patterson/Lee Childs/Michael Connelly/Nora Roberts/Jodi Picoult and all those fabulous best selling authors. And, they can pick up reviews of the latest Big Five literary gems. What readers can’t do is sort through the growing number of indie offerings and decide what’s best. At my Perfect Bookstore, staff would have to choose favorites from indies to help guide readers to what’s best in the indie field. (As an aside, one of my pet peeves with Book Sense was that it seemed to promote the same Big Five books I could get at big-box stores for less money.)

That’s all I have for now! But the goal of my Perfect Bookstore would be: to make the bookstore experience so enticing and so valuable that readers would hesitate before making an online purchase at home, thinking to themselves, “Hmm, maybe I should check out what Perfect Bookstore has to offer first.”

Send me your ideas for what your perfect bookstore would look like!


Libby Sternberg is a novelist and freelance writer and editor.



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