An interview with librarian Paul Beck


Note: This week we’re publishing posts related to the 2018 Major Orchestra Librarians’ Association (MOLA) Conference, hosted by the Kansas City Symphony and held downtown Kansas City, Missouri from March 16-19, 2018. This post is an in-depth interview with librarian Paul Beck, former librarian at The Juilliard School, The Metropolitan Opera, the Mostly Mozart Festival, and other institutions.

When the music finally rolls off the printer and it’s time to take it to the orchestra, the copyist, engraver or composer has no better ally than the librarian. The librarian is a musician who is part of the orchestra, but he or she doesn’t play an instrument (or at least not when wearing their librarian hat; many librarians are, in fact performers as well). Rather, the librarian is responsible for making sure that the right music is in the right place at the right time — a task that encompasses everything from procuring the music, negotiating rental fees, communicating with composers and arrangers, editing, marking bowings, cuts, and transpositions, and a whole host of other duties that are essential to facilitating smooth rehearsals and performances.

More than once, I’ve been saved by the expert librarians that I’ve been fortunate to have worked with. On one occasion, I sent a set of parts to one of the largest orchestras in the US. Upon receiving the parts, the librarian inspected them and noticed some out-of-range notes on the low end of the English horn part. It turned out that I had sent an untransposed part! Imagine the problems if that part had made its way to the stand. Thanks to the librarian, it was our little secret and I was able to send over a new part.

Very early on in my career (22 years ago) I sent an orchestra a set parts for a piece I had composed. Not knowing any better, I had printed everything on loose-leaf, single sided paper. That orchestra’s librarian called me up and, kindly — and rightly — told me that she would not be able to give the music to the players in that state. Rather than making me reprint and bind everything, though (which, at the time, would have been a significant expense for me), the librarian painstakingly taped all the parts together and made it work.

One of the finest librarians I know is Paul Beck. An alumnus of the Manhattan School and the New World Symphony, Paul has had a distinguished career working at The Juilliard School, The Metropolitan Opera, the Mostly Mozart Festival, as well as many other institutions in addition to being the concert librarian for soprano Renée Fleming. I’ve known Paul for 20 years and, with my company NYC Music Services we’ve collaborated on hundreds of projects.

Paul Beck at the John Williams Orchestra Library at The Juilliard School

For the last seven of those years, Paul has been NYC Music Services’ librarian for Carnegie Hall’s Link Up project, a highly participatory program in which elementary school children learn to sing and play an instrument in the classroom and perform with a professional orchestra from their seats. This year, the the program will be implemented by more than 100 partner orchestras, serving over 400,000 students and teachers — and every single one of those 20 lb. boxes of music is processed through our shop, under Paul’s watchful eye.

Paul Beck and yours truly, working on Link Up

In light of all of this, and in anticipation of the 2018 Major Orchestra Librarians’ Association (MOLA) conference at which I’ll be presenting this weekend, I thought it would be fun and interesting to talk to Paul about his life and work, and to hear in his own words what it means to perform the essential function of the librarian in today’s musical world.


Q: Tell us about your background.

I grew up in suburban Milwaukee where I was recruited to try the bassoon in fifth grade. The South Milwaukee School District’s music program is excellent and is staffed by outstanding and devoted educators. For me, a musically curious and motivated student, it was a launchpad to explore not only the bassoon but orchestral repertoire. While in high school our local youth symphony offered further musical opportunities and an international tour to Scotland! My dad is also an accomplished guitarist with perfect pitch and there was always music in the house. These early influences gave me the confidence to continue in music.

In college I studied bassoon performance at the Manhattan School of Music earning a Bachelor of Music degree in 1998. During my time at MSM I worked in the performance library for my work-study job. There I took notice of the look and feel of printed music — especially different versions and editions. Working in the library I began to wonder, why is some music handwritten and some engraved? Why did the bass clef in a Novello publication look backwards? Why was there a handwritten version of Shostakovich 5th Symphony and an engraved version — after all, they are the same piece. I quickly concluded that engraving styles impact the performer either positively or negatively.

Excited and curious about my work in the Manhattan School of Music performance library, I knew that some aspect of music preparation was the right career path for me. This type of work takes a detailed mind where no detail is considered too small, but also a requires someone who enjoys working with a wide group of people within an organization.

My career has been truly varied, having experience with major and minor professional companies, schools and festivals. After a recent stint as acting principal librarian with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra I’ve become a project-based librarian and music prep specialist. I’ve also managed Renée Fleming’s concert library since 2010. This summer I will be filling in as librarian for the Santa Fe Opera.

Renée Fleming and Paul Beck

Q: What was your first awareness of the role of a librarian? How did you choose to pursue it as a career?

As a kid I attended performances by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Fascinated with the printed concert program, including the foreign language terms and opus numbers, I studied the orchestra personnel roster. Near the bottom of the roster I noticed a position called Principal Librarian.

Seeing this title among the musicians made me wonder why a librarian was listed among orchestra musicians. Then I wondered, what did the librarian do for the organization beyond the obvious? After all, I thought a librarian was a learned serious person who stocks books in a quiet place called a public library. Then I finally met Patrick McGinn, the MSO’s Principal Librarian (then and now) while in college. He has remained a key figure in my professional life. It was my honor to fill in for Patrick as acting principal librarian for MSO for a portion of 2017.

Shortly before graduating from the Manhattan School of Music, I contacted Lawrence Tarlow (the long-serving principal librarian for the New York Philharmonic). My cold call to Mr. Tarlow resulted in a fancy lunch over which a more complete picture of this profession unfolded in a way that only Larry could narrate. Quickly he became my librarian mentor and a source of wisdom, baseball anecdotes and good humor which continues to this day.

There are few training programs for hopeful orchestra librarians. I was lucky enough to train as an orchestra library Fellow with the New World Symphony where my career as an orchestra librarian began. The New World Symphony program offers a unique training laboratory under librarian Martha Levine’s tutelage. The Fellow experiences a complete symphonic season including a subscription series, pops and touring.

Profession, career, and education

Q: What does a librarian do?

In a nutshell, the librarian’s task is to get the right music in the right place at the right time.

You may wonder what defines the “right music”. Much research is done by the librarian far in advance. The first step is to confirm the edition and version of each piece on the program. It’s best when the music is already in the library (we call this “take it off the shelf”), but if protected by copyright it needs to be rented from a publisher. In certain cases a custom version must be created such as a suite or transposition.

Knowledge of copyright law is essential, as the librarian will be the primary contact with publishers when protected works are programmed. Proofreading is often necessary to avoid wasted time in rehearsals finding corrections.

String bowings are an important part of a librarian’s daily life, as the library staff will prompt the conductor or principal strings to review or originate the bowings in advance. Then they are marked in pencil to all parts which saves time in rehearsal.

The librarians also shuttle the music folders well in advance of any rehearsal or concert as well as handling conductors scores during performances. This is often the most visible yet uncomplicated task we face!

Q: How does the librarian interact with publishers? Composers? Instrumentalists? Conductors? Others?

Each of these constituents you mention have different priorities when they interact with the library. Broad interpersonal skills are prerequisites for a successful career. I define these skills as the ability to form musically trusting relationships quickly with everyone who needs the library.

Publishers: Librarians are the copyright expert in any organization and liaise with publishers. The most uncomplicated transaction is the simple rental of a copyright work (small rights). It’s more complicated when there is a world premiere, last minute program change, or grand rights (stage works). We cultivate trusting relationships with rental agents as this allows us to “pull the rabbit out of the hat”.

Composers: Supporting a new composition is one of the most exciting projects we undertake. Frequent changes from the composer are transmitted to the performers and often under time pressed circumstances. The guidance that a librarian can offer a less experienced composer/copyist is valuable. Aspects of layout and readability are paramount.

Instrumentalists: Players depend on the library for accurately prepared parts available well in advance of rehearsals and concerts. Librarians are expected to research mistakes in the music and troubleshoot anything which is difficult to decipher. We need to also provide workable parts for transposing instruments. A librarian has done an excellent job when the parts are simply a tool that does not hinder a performer. There are also instrumentalists with who make special requests such as enlarged music or special transpositions. These requests are accommodated on a case by case basis.

Conductors: The best relationships between conductors and librarians are interdependent and less hierarchical. The conductor is on the hot seat in front of the orchestra and must trust that his or her requests have been carried out via the parts. The librarians also depend on the conductor to guide the music preparation process (edition, editing and bowing). If either the conductor or librarian is sloppy, the product is compromised. An experienced librarian will anticipate what the conductor will request.

Paul Beck with conductor David Robertson (Photo: Chris Lee)

Q: What is the role of a 21st-century librarian? How has the profession changed?

In today’s era, librarians straddle analog and digital methods. Skills are required in each.

PDF scans often supplant paper practice parts these days. Computer engraving is a useful skill, but there are still cases where a simple handwritten patch is faster and looks more seamless. In-house production of scores and parts has become much easier for us, however the question remains: are librarians quasi-publishers, or does this responsibility start further down this pipeline? There isn’t consensus within the profession about this, but the profession has certainly changed because of it.

The craft of being an orchestra librarian has expanded into a much more finely-tuned and networked endeavor because of the Major Orchestra Librarians’ Association (MOLA). It was founded in 1983 and has grown to include members from many continents who share resources and best practices through an annual conference.

Q: What was it like working at the Met? Any stories that illustrate the vital role of librarians? What’s unique about working in opera?

The Met is a fascinating and complicated opera city. The entire company is united toward one goal: to put on the best show possible. Some of the brightest minds work at the Met and I’ll always be grateful for the experience I gained there over nine seasons (2002-2011). The Met presents around 20 operas, a symphonic series and opera galas each season, so it’s incredibly busy. It’s also a complicated workplace with over 20 unions represented in the house. Competing departmental priorities for funding and influence also add to the complexity behind the scenes.

A few stressful but amusing things happened while I worked as a full-time assistant librarian at the Met.

So, one, or sometimes two librarians are present for any Met performance. One night during an intermission of Gounod’s Faust, a call came to the library that the organ pedals weren’t working. After a valiant attempt to fix them failed I was asked to play the music usually covered by the pedals on the keyboard while the organist played the melody. What a shock and surprise that a librarian would be making such a booming sound during a Met performance!

Another time a flute player left their part for Shostakovich’s The Nose at home and there was no backup copy. I found myself in a taxi entering the player’s West Side apartment to grab the part and then deliver it in the pit during the middle of Act I. The world of opera is dramatic in all corners of the opera house!

As far as the practical matters of working as a librarian in an opera house, one must remember that the orchestra is not the only focus, which is contrary to what we are taught as instrumentalists. Vocal scores must be prepared long before the orchestra parts as the singers need them but also all the technical staff. Frequent off-stage performers (banda) are often an exciting part of the staging. Librarians in a theater must remain aware of their location and needs of these bande.

When there’s a cast change, a cut may be added or opened and the library is the clearinghouse for this information. And then there may be transposed arias required! In summary working, as part of an opera theater, changes are frequent and to be expected.

Q: You have a particular passion for education. Tell us how you feel about educating the next generation of musicians.

The knowledge we acquire as professionals is meant to be shared with the younger generation. One of my great joys at Juilliard, where I worked as principal orchestra librarian for total of eight years (1999-2002 and 2011-2016), was collaborating with student composers. The Juilliard Orchestra performs a concert of their music in addition to several other readings throughout the year. The composers consulted with me in advance and I offered feedback about the look and feel of their materials. Many student composers never had their parts and scores subjected this type of scrutiny. Most were so grateful for feedback about layout and readability, as their teachers focus more on content.

In 2013 I was asked to serve as the librarian for the newly formed National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America (NYO-USA) which is sponsored by the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall. There is an intensive residency and tour each year. Alongside the NYO staff we developed a thriving apprenticeship program which currently consists of a librarian, orchestra manager, composer and conductor. These apprenticeships are a great career introduction to non-performing opportunities in music.

Nhyta Taguchi working with Paul Beck during the NYO-USA tour to China in 2015 (Photo: Chris Lee)

Q: Who are some of your mentors?

Mentoring can happen at any time between any two people regardless of age or status. The best mentoring happens outside of a stated mentoring relationship. There are people in my life who are mentors to me and they don’t even know it!

A significant mentor in my life has been Lawrence Tarlow, principal librarian for the New York Philharmonic. Larry created an environment over the last twenty years where I could be myself and ask questions, both serious and playful and receive a candid response.

I also learned a lot from the late Richard Horowitz who was the long-serving principal timpanist of the Met. He was a serious hand copyist and generally detail-oriented person. This jack-of-all-trades also fashioned batons for famous maestros and would write teeny inscriptions on them. Dick taught everyone around him lessons about precision and craftsmanship.

Q: What are some things you’d like to pursue in the future?

I love foreign languages and would like to spend more time learning German, Italian, Korean, Spanish and others! It’s fun to know four or five words in every language and greet someone in their native tongue. Traveling more would also be fantastic as I’d love to visit South America (especially Peru) and Asia (Taiwan and Japan) for extended periods of time.

Professionally I’d like to re-engrave opera arias to replace lousy old editions and create workable banda parts for Italian operas. And I’d love to learn Dorico!

Music preparation

Q: What are some common pitfalls that you see in music preparation? How can they be avoided?

The most common problem I see is a lack of empathetic attention to detail. Music prep professionals must always think like musicians and empathize with whomever will be performing from the part. Would a courtesy accidental help or distract? Does the harmony affect the spelling of the note? Should a pencil marking be a little bigger for a bass player who may stand farther away from the music? Is there a big solo that a player may want a “heads up” about?

Librarians speak of “marking bowings” almost as a chance to turn off the mind, but it is also a great chance to spot other problems such as wrong notes or rhythms. A career in music prep will be very musically rewarding when approached this way.

It may sound elementary, but everyone must double- and triple-check their work, regardless of experience.

Keeping up with technology, especially scanning equipment, is important. Take the time to become familiar with your scanner and its features. For instance 300 DPI may be just fine for a practice part but a printing master for publication may need a higher resolution such as 400 or 600 DPI.

Q: Any general advice that you can offer from a librarian’s perspective?

To me, collaboration is key. It’s tempting to work all alone but music preparation doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Each project is always on the road to someone else. Ask for a colleague to proof read your work or serve as a sounding board for an idea. Maybe someone else has a trick they use to solve a common problem. Maybe a colleague in another department would benefit from something you’ve discovered in the library.

Study of foreign languages (especially Italian, German and French) pays dividends. So often, we encounter abbreviations or terms marked in foreign languages. With a bit of knowledge many of these can be figured out contextually. Music history and music theory also are useful and add depth and value to your music prep work.

Q: Are they any composers/works/editions that you consider to be particularly fine examples of music engraving?

While at the Met, I found the Mozart opera editions published by Breitkopf & Härtel to be works of engraving beauty. Don Giovanni is a good example. The spacing reflects the sound of the music and the editions are very accurate. The cues are intuitive.

Larry Tarlow often says that a computer doesn’t make an inherently great copyist, only a neater one. It’s important to create the warmth of these old editions in your computer-generated editions while following the rules of engraving. Many of us refer to Elaine Gould’s book Behind Bars which is a 676-page definitive guide to music notation.


Q: What notation software programs do you use? Tell us about some situations in which using notation software has helped. What about other software (Acrobat, Photoshop, etc.)?

As a librarian at the Met, it was a requirement to learn Finale due to all the transpositions and inserts needed. It was important that the four librarians use the same platform.

While first learning Finale in 2000 I took lessons from you — an incredibly generous and talented teacher!

Acrobat Pro is a useful tool in the type of music prep I do. Recently I was asked to create print-ready parts for a suite of chorus numbers from Lucia di Lammermoor. Working from scans of the complete opera I was able to re-order the necessary pages, alter harmonies, fix page turn problems and add measure numbers. This was all done with a combination of Acrobat Pro and Microsoft Paint.

Another complicated project using Acrobat Pro was a new version of Bernstein’s Candide. Starting with vectored files I used Acrobat Pro to add and remove selections from the show, renumber the parts and adjust notes and rhythms.

Q: What about situations where it’s still important to have manual skills?

Post-It Labeling and Cover-up tape is very useful for adding a patch or correction to a part, especially when there is no photocopier or scanner nearby. It also can be quite elegant to match the surrounding engraving. With practice one can develop beautiful hand music manuscript. Sometimes I will also hand-write a measure or two to fix a page turn which can take less time than re-engraving on a computer.

Q: Have you worked with any electronic display systems or apps? Do you foresee a future in which orchestras perform from digital screens? How would the librarian’s role be involved?

The current system of using paper music with pencil markings has been around for a very long time. Paper music is relatively convenient and can be easily transported without extra technology.

That being said, a persuasive case for large ensemble digital music stands could be made. Markings and corrections could be added swiftly and uniformly, and it would be much easier to control the exposure of the images.

Eventually I imagine this technology will take hold. Librarians will still be responsible for uploading accurate music — that will never change. But the library may be responsible for upkeep and troubleshooting of these devices which will certainly be a departure from our current paper and pencil model!


  1. Peter Roos

    Very interesting, thanks for posting.

  2. Abraham Lee

    One of the most insightful articles I’ve ever read! Straight from the front lines, this is an absolute treat. It really puts music prep into perspective that everyone in the industry should know about. Thank you both for putting this article together!

  3. Philip Rothman

    I’m glad you enjoyed it!

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