An interview with librarian Lisa Dempsey Kane


For composers and music preparers alike, there can be no greater ally than the performance librarian. The librarian is usually the last person to touch the music before it’s in the hands of the performer or conductor — the last chance to notice a problem or to raise a question, preventing disasters in rehearsals or recording sessions.

Being the last line of defense is only part of the job. Librarians procure the music, bow the string parts, track instrumentation needs, and work with publishers to achieve high standards — all while serving as mentors for others and sharpening skills that straddle the analog and digital worlds.

Philip Rothman and Lisa Dempsey Kane

I’ve been fortunate to work with talented librarians from whom I’ve learned a great deal, and a few have helped us with projects at NYC Music Services. One of the best is Lisa Dempsey Kane, orchestral librarian at The Juilliard School, who, in addition to working with NYCMS in her free time, was kind enough to sit down for an interview. We spoke about her career and what it’s like working in professional and student orchestras, bowing tips, MOLA, the role of digital technology, music prep advice, and much more.

Enjoy the video and/or follow along with the transcript of our interview, below.


Q: Hi everyone. I’m Philip Rothman of NYC Music Services and the Scoring Notes blog. I’m here with Lisa Dempsey Kane, librarian. We’re working together — I should say you’re working very hard — on a project that we’re putting out into the world of music, and we thought it would be fun to take a little break and talk about what it’s like to be a librarian and the type of work that you do. So thanks for being willing to do this and everything that you’ve been doing so far on this project and for taking the time to talk to us.

It’s good to be here.

Q: I always tell music composers and music preparers that the librarian is your best friend. You guys are often the last person — literally the last line of defense before the music gets on the stands, before it gets into the hands of a musician, before it gets into the hands of the conductor. You’re often the last person to actually see something if it goes wrong or to raise a red flag and make sure all the music’s there. It’s interesting because librarians have one foot in the music preparation world, I would say, and also one foot in the performing musician world. I don’t know how many other feet you have! And yet, it’s a role that I think a lot of professional musicians, even if they’re aware of it, they’re not really understanding of what the role is and how important it is.

So I was just wondering, how did you get into the business to begin with? How did you even become aware of what a music library or an orchestra librarian is and does?

I wasn’t aware at all when I when I started. I was a professional violinist for fifteen years with the Chattanooga Symphony and that’s where I got into it. But before that, when I was at New World Symphony I actually first noticed the librarian when Paul Beck was working there and I he was a friend of mine. I wanted to know what he was doing. I was so embarrassed, but up until then I didn’t even really notice the librarian. He showed me a little of what he was doing and Martha also showed me what she was doing there.

Paul Beck working with the National Youth Orchestra on tour (Photo: Chris Lee)

Q: Martha Levine?

Yes. I think I just kind of tucked it away for a while. I got a job in Chattanooga and maybe about 10 years after working there, there was a little opening in their library and I started helping out with bowings and started getting more and more involved in it.

But I was also playing concertmaster part of the time there, and it was really tricky to do the library and practice, and also we were gigging and we had a string quartet. It was so difficult to fit everything into the day, that by the end I would try to get all my practicing out of the way really quickly so I could do library [work] for the rest of the day, because that’s what I loved doing. It would take over my day, but I loved that I could see my big stack of work at the end of the day. With practicing, sometimes it wasn’t so good the next day even though you would spend hours [practicing violin]. Then the next day might be worse. So with library [work], it was tangible.

Q: You could actually see the work product at the end of the day. That’s interesting, because we do see especially in some of the smaller orchestras a performing musician also double as the librarian, but rarely the concertmaster. You said you were the concertmaster and the librarian, so you were you were doing your own bowings, so to speak.

Yes and I’m sure there are — I don’t know a lot of other orchestras that have that setup — I’m sure there are some. One of the challenges I found was if I had to put out a score and then I would have to come backstage, grab my violin, go back out to tune, and then hope there’s not any sort of solo getting into the piece, because you’re out of breath at that point, running back and forth and getting everything settled in.

But it was great to do my own bowings. Sometimes I would do the bowings for the whole quintet. I didn’t realize at the time that I was creating a skill that I used constantly.

The importance of bowings

Q: So can you talk about that a little bit? That’s something that I think is one of the quintessential librarian skills. I was actually explaining to someone else who isn’t a musician the role of bowings, putting in the bowings, and how each orchestra might want to have their own bowings. Sometimes they rely on other orchestras’ bowings, and it’s actually a big part of the job.

It is. In Chattanooga I would also make up some of the bowings, and that’s what I was referring to — just that I would create them — and now I can still use that sometimes in the library if I need to bow something really quickly and there are no principal [string players].

I think, sometimes, a professional orchestra will often just keep reusing the same bowings. Sometimes they’ll come from a conductor. An incoming conductor might send their bowings ahead of time. That can be tricky, because, do you want to take your own orchestra set and overhaul it with the conductor’s bowings or do you just create a second set? You create a second set with the new bowings. Maybe you can store that in your library as another option.

Music for Carnegie Hall’s Link Up program bowed by Lisa Dempsey Kane

Q: What would you advise composers who are writing new music to do regarding bowings? What should they do when they create a new piece and you get a clean set of parts? Should they put the bowings in or leave them out?

I think, unless you’re a really accomplished string player, don’t put in printed bowings. I think it’s okay just to leave them unbowed and leave it up to the orchestra. Then, if you do you can ask for masters after your reading. It is valuable stuff, to be able to keep those bowings and to have professional bowings which are nice. Printing them in I don’t think is really necessary.

Becoming a full-time librarian and working at Juilliard

Q: Okay, that’s good to know. So going back, when was the point at which you became a full-time professional librarian? Was there a tipping point, was that a transition? Was there like a moment that you were like, “yeah, this is it?”

I was offered a job in New Orleans with the Louisiana Philharmonic and I just did it. I just did a clean break — just left my job in Chattanooga midseason actually — and started in New Orleans. That’s not to say I stopped playing. I still played, but it just wasn’t full-time. It was so nice, because I could really enjoy playing and performing in the orchestra, and it did not have that pressure on me all the time. It really gave me a just a whole new perspective on playing.

Q: Tell me what it’s like working at Juilliard, which is an educational institution, as opposed to a professional orchestra.

First, I did want to say, when I first started that job, I thought it was going to be really different working in a school as opposed to a professional orchestra. I was really surprised to find out that it’s not. What I do in the library is exactly the same. The clientele is sometimes younger, but everything is exactly the same. I also thought there would be a lot of lost music and all kinds of issues, and there really aren’t. The students are really responsible, and so nothing really changed in that regard.

What did change is we have a lot of help. There’s so much going on in Juilliard, and we have 10 to 12 wonderful work-study students. It’s a real joy to be able to show them what we do in the library and to hear their questions. It brings me back to when I was starting. You work them through the whole process of showing them what the library does and to see how excited they are.

Q: You can put yourself in their shoes and you remember what that was like when you were a student. Was Juilliard your first educational institution that you worked at, or had you worked at other universities and/or conservatories before that?

Full-time, Juilliard is my first. I did work at Aspen for six summers.

Q: The Aspen Music Festival and School.

Yes. It is similar to Juilliard in a lot of ways. A mix of incredible students and world-class faculty; a lot of the same faculty, actually, between Aspen and Juilliard.


Q: Tell me about that. In this world of professional orchestral musicians, it is a fairly tight-knit group. You do see a lot of the same people, and you develop relationships and friendships. Within that community there’s MOLA, which is the Major Orchestra Librarians’ Association, which now encompasses other orchestras beyond the original mandate of the major orchestras. Yet you’re with with professional performing musicians, and you might be the only librarian in that whole orchestra. So this organization that exists of all the different librarians — maybe just one or two in each place — is probably very important, so you can share experiences, trade tips and tricks, learn from each other, and understand a little bit more about the business and the trade.

Absolutely. It [MOLA] is completely just invaluable. Starting at Juilliard I realized we don’t have we don’t have a concertmaster; we don’t always have the same string principals. MOLA has been terrific with sharing resources and bowings and things like that. It’s it’s so great to be in touch with my colleagues.

Often, it’s by text, like, “Hey, I need this or I need this,” but it’s a give and take, and I love that. I love to help out colleagues who I know are in a bind. Juilliard has an incredible library, so often we have what people need. But it’s also great to know that I can have bowings from the New York Philharmonic. I can tell the orchestra, these are from the Met — these are world-class bowings I can share with you, and that’s nice, too.

Using technology

Q: That’s really nice. It’s interesting because you’re talking about these skills and these practices, which have been handed down from each librarian to the next. There’s very much an analog component to it, and there’s a tradition to it. And yet, here we are in the 21st century, and we’re fully the digital age. I was curious, as someone who’s probably straddling both those worlds on a regular basis, what are you seeing in terms of developments in terms of technology? What tech do you use? On the Scoring Notes blog, we cover the intersection of music notation and technology. So I’m keenly interested in what you see on the ground and where you see things going.

Juilliard is interested in moving toward iPads, but we’re just exploring it right now, maybe with some of our smaller chamber groups. We’re probably not quite ready for the whole orchestra yet. We’re looking at the different software or the different devices out there to see what what could work for us, but definitely still in the educational phase of that. But it’s still the Juilliard School, and we would love to be a pioneer with that.

Newzik, an iPad music reader app, demonstrated at the 2019 MOLA conference

Q: You’re talking about performing from tablets, performing from iPads. What about preparing music even if it’s ultimately going to be printed? Do you use any notation software yourself, to manipulate files? Anything that goes on behind the scenes that helps you get the music on the stands?

We have Acrobat DC which we use all day long. That’s for prepping all of the music. We do scan everything at Juilliard to have backups, just in case, so Acrobat comes in handy. We do a lot of Photoshop, especially [because] two times a year we have auditions for almost all instruments. So we’re constantly making excerpts.

Q: Would you say that’s fairly typical for a lot of librarians where most of the day-to-day work is in the image manipulation, where they’re working with Acrobat or Photoshop or something similar so that they’re trying to work with music that already exists, as opposed to what we would consider a music copying job? Like there’s a real role for a music copyist separate from a librarian in many respects?

I think so. It’s not as common in our library — at Juilliard it’s not very common at all that we would need to engrave something. It is just manipulating, you’re right.

Advice for composers

Q: Can you think of any stories — either good bad, or otherwise — of music that has come in? And you’ve either been really pleased and it’s worked really well from a music preparation perspective, or something — and obviously new pseudonyms or no names! — something that maybe didn’t work out so well? And any advice that you could perhaps share?

Sometimes we’ll get a set of parts from a composer in at Juilliard that you can tell that they have just looked at every single detail. Every page turn is worked out, the size is perfect, they’ve asked about our page sizes in the library, what we’re going to print. And you can tell that they’ve actually gone through each page of every part and there’s nothing to do but print it. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does it’s such a pleasure.

Other times, there’s a real back and forth. If the font is too small on the page, it’s not going to be a good reading. Everyone’s going to be unhappy. You can only tell the composer so many times this is too small, and eventually we’ll just put it out and see what happens. It’s not a great experience for the players, because they’re straining to see, or there’s a gigantic margin or something. So sometimes I think at a certain point you just let it go and let it be a learning experience.

Q: We all learn from our mistakes, but at the same time, if that’s something that it sounds like a communication aspect, where the ones that are the better communicators are proactive and asking questions, I’m sure you’re always able and willing to be available and help anyone, because it’s going to make your life easier. Would you say the ones that are prepared better generally have better performances and better rehearsals?

Yes. I do also see see composers — and this is actually my philosophy too — I think if you have questions, it’s always great just to ask the player. I do it all the time. I have a whole roster of musicians, one for each instrument, that I will just ask them, and I know they’re not going to make fun of me. I just have a library question. Maybe it’s a transposition thing, maybe it’s just a layout thing. That’s always my go-to. Just ask the player.

So for composers, go ask your friends — look, you’re at Juilliard — you have so many people you can ask and they will be honest with you.


Q: That’s a real luxury because you’re around them all the time, as opposed to maybe someone who’s out and not in that environment on a day-to-day basis. So to take advantage of that is really key. The good thing is now that people are connected in other ways, there are resources that are available — and we’ll be sure to include a link on the blog — we have a whole blog post about the correct staff size and page size and all that. It’s just borne from experience and practicality, and what goes wrong. That’s really great information to have. Is there anything else that you think that someone listening to our discussion would want to know, either about getting into the profession of being a music librarian, or working with one that would make their work better as a composer or as a music preparer?

MOLA does have that the program on their web site where you can work with a MOLA librarian.

Q: A mentorship program. Who are some of your mentors?

I have so many, every step of the way. In Aspen it was definitely Joy Fabos from Portland, but in New Orleans it was Cro Duplantier who helped me get started. There’s Karen Schnackenberg. I learned from her blog and along the way. Larry Tarlow, Robert Sutherland, of course, right across the street — how lucky can I get!

Q: That’s great. So you would say that would be a resource for aspiring librarians?

Yes. I have gotten cold calls before from people that I don’t know where they are in the country. They just want to talk to me about being a librarian and I do the best I can; how they can start and people they could talk to. But you can start by going to your home orchestra and just talking to their librarian, and maybe they need help. Maybe you can start there, because I think that’s where many librarians started.

Q: So it’s something that is more often learned by talking to other people, apprenticeships and that sort of thing, when you discover it and you enjoy it.

I love it.

Q: That’s great. Well, Lisa, I’m so appreciative that you took a little bit of time to talk to me, and talk to the blog viewers and people watching, and also for helping out with this major project that we’re working on. So we’ll let you get back to work, and hopefully we’ll talk again sometime soon.

Great, thanks!

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