Karen Schnackenberg  

Who Is That Orchestra Librarian?

Karen Schnackenberg
May 2, 2019

When I was a player in the Oklahoma Symphony during the 1980s, my colleagues and I were often asked the question “What do you do for a living?” This was a particularly astonishing question, because it usually came from our own Board members, who were very well meaning but misunderstood the life of the professional musician. We would carefully explain that, although the orchestra didn’t perform in the summer (much like teachers not teaching), during the fall, winter and spring, this was our full-time job. This was our living.

When I became a full-time librarian, I quickly learned that this part of the profession carried with it an equally common question: “Are you a musician?” And, just as astonishing as with my earlier experience, this question was most-often asked by players in my own orchestra.

So, let me set the record straight right here from the start. Yes, your orchestra librarian is a musician. And, as a member of a professional orchestra, your orchestra librarian is a professional musician. They have been trained much as you have been trained – in music schools and conservatories – honing their skills in performance, music history or theory, musicology, orchestration or composition, or a possible combination of these disciplines. They love the art form, as do you, and are passionate practitioners, as are you. And they practice their art in the workplace, earning a living just as you do.

Some librarians may have decided early in their musical life that they were fascinated by how music is put together, from the composer to the copyist and publisher, and onto the page. For others, they realized that through their theory, transposition, orchestration, or arranging skills, they could participate in bringing the full score of a work to life. And there are those that came to the profession as string players first making extra money by entering bowings, and subsequently learning that they relished the process of marking parts and organizing the concert repertoire start-to-finish.

No matter how or why an individual musician decided to become a professional orchestra librarian, it’s important to remember that s/he chose to do so. Even though there is no formalized educational curriculum for orchestra librarianship, and even if s/he didn’t realize it at the time, the person doing the library work mastered difficult skills necessary for the job, and at some point decided to take that path. S/he probably spent time as an apprentice to a more established librarian, or learned something about the job from working in pre-professional orchestras, then worked his/her way up to professional situations. This was a career choice, just like yours.

Although you can’t see their musical specialty by looking – like playing the piccolo or mallet percussion instruments – your librarian probably has one or two. It could be s/he is an expert in the symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler, or is a talented music copyist, or has studied different editions of standard repertoire, or has a storehouse of knowledge about operatic arias and keys, or knows just how to track down obscure, unpublished works. Or all of the above.

In addition to their musical skills, successful orchestra librarians the world over are, to a person, organized (I didn’t say “neat”), able to handle thousands of details on a regular basis (an average full-orchestra classical program can involve 3,000 pages of music to prepare), exacting in their work on those details (ever seen an orchestra librarian correct parts against a score?), multi-taskers (most often working on at least 8 different programs at once), deadline-driven (those same 8 programs), thick-skinned (providing musical and informational services to up to 100 orchestra members, multiple conductors and concertmasters, operations and administrative staffs, full choruses, and guest artists), and passionate about music and their role in creating it.

They are your colleagues and have won their place through talent, hard work, and a commitment to artistic excellence. If you start a relationship with your librarian keeping this in mind from the beginning, it will be a harmonious one for sure!


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