Posted by Samuel Cottell
Saturday 10th January, 2015

Take Note

It has been present at almost every rehearsal, at the writing of great novels and at the hand of great artists. It is there when inventors have a sudden flash of genius. It is there when great leaders make serious decisions. It has been the tool of trade for many creative minds. I speak of the humble pencil.

This week we are in a pencil lovers’ paradise. Everyone at National Music Camp uses pencils: for composing, for marking their score, for writing blog posts. For musicians, the pencil is a very important tool. Pondering this, I decide to talk to people about their pencils. Do they have a pencil preference? How important is it to their day-to-day functioning as a musician?

I started by speaking with some of the younger musicians. Ruby, a viola player, said her pencil was a special one with a reindeer eraser on the top. She gets worried, she told me, when she forgets her pencil at rehearsal. ‘But I’m comforted by the fact that someone at another desk has one for me to borrow.’

Violinist Oliver gave us his clearly defined set of rules. ‘Flute pencils are always HB or worse. Like, you shouldn’t borrow a pencil from a flute player, you should always ask a string player for one. My preference of pencil would 2B or softer, because you get to see what you have written in the first place.’

Emma, another viola player, lamented on orchestra pencil politics. ‘They just go missing all the time. I cry when my pencil goes missing, usually because the conductors are freaking that we aren’t making notes on the score. I like my Disney pencil because it has fairies on it, but it got stolen yesterday [sobs]. The viola section has stolen it’.

Seeking a seasoned musician’s perspective, I spoke with Music Director James Judd, who told me a lovely story about a pencil that he has kept since he was a young man. His grandfather started a company called Drewrey Brothers, which had its own stationery made for the business. James has kept this pencil on his desk for over thirty years.

While James claims he doesn’t do much score marking any more, he prefers a 2B. James paused, then he contemplated a vision for the use of pencils: ‘I’d like to see composers have more pencils so that they could compose with them and not at the computer’.

Strolling to the composers’ room, I caught up with Jakob Bragg, who was hard at work on his piece. Jakob, a composer following James Judd’s vision, handwrites his compositions instead of using notation software. Jakob told me that he switched at the end of his second year at uni. ‘Like most people, I certainly used Sibelius, then I made the dramatic change to pencil and paper. Mainly, as a compositional technique. On Sibelius, for me, you learn a lot of bad habits, like copy-and-pasting. With a pencil, from the very first note I’m thinking: how is the note articulated and harmonised?’ Did the change to pencil help him think differently? ‘Yes, it marked a change in my old compositional style, which was more tonal, and now, I guess, I am writing in a more modernist style’.

When I asked Jakob about his favourite pencil he took a mahogany mechanical pencil from its case and told me: ‘I like the look and the feel of this pencil, it’s kind of retro. It was given to me by my mother, who is a visual artist, and I think it was given to her by my grandfather.’ I thought of James Judd’s story. ‘It is really fine, I think it is finer than an 0.5, which makes it really great for writing’.

Composition tutor Stuart Greenbaum wandered in. He expanded on the importance of using a pencil for mapping out ideas. ‘It is best to work with pencil as you can erase your ideas and rework them’. Stuart then reflected on his preferences: ‘It has to be a mechanical pen, a pacer. The other pencils are annoying because you always have to stop and sharpen them.’

Everyone at National Music Camp has their own taste in pencils, but they are not the only ones. Roald Dahl was very particular about the Ticonderoga #2 yellow pencil. Stephen Sondheim used the Blackwing 602 pencil, and was very upset when the company discontinued them, urging them to make more. Like Sondheim, I also use the Blackwing 602 and won’t use any other pencil.

Speaking of the Blackwing 602, when I was in the coffee line this morning I grabbed Dougie for a chat about his pencil preferences. He told me that he was an ‘obsessive, serial score marker’ and preferred a 2B. I asked Dougie if he wanted to try the Blackwing. He tested it out on my page, writing ‘I love it!’, and headed off to rehearsals.

Soon the coffee was ready, and in that brief moment of distraction I realised my pencil was gone. Did I leave it in the café? Does Dougie have it? Has it run away with a Ticonderoga #2? As I finish this blog I can not rest from worry as I go in search of my humble pencil.

– Samuel Cottell


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