Meet the Musician: WNO Librarian Shelley Friedman

Photography by Danielle Cho

Where are you from originally?

I was born in West Lafayette, Indiana, but grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs. 

Where did you complete your studies? Do you play a musical instrument?

My Liberal Arts degree is from Sarah Lawrence College, where I studied piano and cello. I loved both instruments, but was not professional performer material.

What made you decide to become a music librarian?

An internship at the Orchestra of St. Luke's (NY) gave me my first exposure to orchestra library work, something I barely knew existed. I received excellent guidance from my supervisor, Ron Merlino, and from the librarians of the New York Philharmonic, Lawrence Tarlow and John Perkel, who became my mentors. The OSL players were very tolerant of my inexperience, I learned a lot, and I found that the work suited me, so I just kept doing it. There are no real academic courses of study for orchestra librarians, so most of us sort of fall into it and learn by doing it.

Inside the WNO Orchestra Library at the Kennedy Center

What are your duties as the Washington National Opera librarian?

One of my responsibilities at the Washington National Opera is procuring music for all of our productions and concerts. This can mean pulling off the shelf, in the library, material that we already own and have used before, purchasing music that's in the public domain, or renting it from a publisher if it's still under copyright. I then prepare every part for every musician in the orchestra by marking bowings given to me by the principal string players, cuts provided by directors and conductors, and improving the materials in a variety of different ways. That could involve making poor quality print easier to read, fixing page turns, and repairing aging parts. Sometimes I proofread entire operas, checking every note, dynamic, and articulation in every orchestra part against the full score and correcting any errors I find. I play the part of copyist  on occasion, producing new material using music manuscripting software. I'm also responsible for maintaining and cataloging WNO's collections of scores, excerpts, and libretti. If you watch closely, you may see me putting the full score on the conductor's stand in the pit a few minutes before curtain, and collecting all the orchestra parts after the performance.

What is the audition process like to become an orchestra librarian?

The audition process varies from place to place, but usually involves a timed, written component as well as an interview. The written part may test the candidate’s technical knowledge, including the ability to translate musical terms from German, French, and Italian, identify the keys of transposing instruments, define instrument ranges, name the composers of a list of works, identify which larger works certain excerpts are drawn from, or match unusual instruments with the operas in which they appear. 

A candidate might be asked which publisher represents a particular composer or work, about the process of obtaining material for copyrighted works, and about which crucial information needs to be considered during the music preparation process (edition, errata, cuts, transpositions). They will certainly be asked to transfer bowings and other markings from one string part to another, to transpose passages of music into different keys and clefs, and to provide a sample of hand-written or computer engraved music. There is also usually at least one interview with the organization's staff and/or the orchestra committee which provides a chance to assess the candidate's interpersonal skills, work philosophy, ability to prioritize competing demands, and think on his feet.

What has been your most challenging library project yet for the Washington National Opera?

Every opera has its idiosyncrasies, but newly commissioned works definitely top the list. Philip Glass's Appomattox was a fascinating and challenging piece. Sometimes older but less-performed operas can present unexpected problems, depending on which edition is used - Bizet's Pearl Fishers comes to mind.  

Are some instrumental parts more difficult to work on than others? (For example, clarinet vs viola)

That's a great question! String parts are definitely more labor intensive than others because I copy bowings by hand into every book (this is what makes all the string players in a section move their bows in the same direction at the same time). The parts for transposing instruments such as clarinets, French horns, and trumpets can be challenging, especially in music of Wagner and Richard Strauss, because they change keys so frequently. If you're proofreading or checking a pitch, you really need to know what key you're in at any given spot!

Do you have any fun facts that people might not know about being an orchestra librarian?

While a handful of orchestra librarians have library science degrees, that's not a prerequisite for the job. We are all trained musicians, and that's ultimately our most important qualification. Also, most of us love office supplies, and are very particular about our pens, pencils, and erasers! 

Who is your favorite composer?

Brahms, even though he didn't write any operas.

What are you most looking forward to this season?

Don Carlo! I'm preparing a new set for our upcoming production, and it's a mammoth project, but I do love this opera - it's so packed with great music!

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time away from the Kennedy Center?

I foster cats for the SPCA of Northern Virginia, cook and garden a little, read as much as I can, and enjoy traveling when time and budget allow.