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Pianist Sharon Su found errors in sheet music she loved. So, she fixed it.

Pianist Sharon Su
Diane Villadsen
Pianist Sharon Su

During a period of reflection on her time in music school, pianist Sharon Su not only realized that she had lost some of the excitement that came with playing her favorite pieces, but that she had also never played music by a woman composer. So, to energize her practice, she went looking for new music.

The search led her to a recording of Florence Price’s Fantasie Negre. No 1. by Samantha Ege, who holds a doctorate in musicology and is a leading scholar of Price's work. It was a transformative experience — though saying that she fell in love with the music may be putting it lightly.

“I felt, you know, that swelling in your chest, the goosebumps on your arms, all of those things that make music really speak to you,” she said. “And I hadn't really felt that way about music that was new to me for some time. And that was one thing that made me go, I have to learn that music.”

But when Su got the music she quickly realized something was amiss. While she sight-read the piece she noticed awkward movements in her hand, as it would shift up and down the keyboard in ways that didn’t feel natural.

Then she stumbled on what was clearly a mistake.

This is a big deal, both because mistakes in classical sheet music are rare and because musicians are taught not to question what’s on the page.

“When you get sheet music, you're kind of told to basically treat it like it's a religious text, like every note in it is holy,” said Su.

As she came across more awkward notes and phrasings, Su decided to tack from the expected deference to music and fix it all herself. This would be a solo project, and asking Ege was largely off the table — in professional music circles, asking someone else for their tailored copy of the music is like asking for the homework you didn’t do.

Getting an alternate commercially available version of this piece was similarly a non-option, because the publisher — G. Schirmer, Inc.— holds exclusive copyright over the Price catalog. Schirmer declined a request for an interview, but wrote to Su that updating the music is an ongoing process and that “it is not uncommon to discover varying degrees of errata when working with newly published materials, some for the first time.”

The publishing and editing process is laborious, a job unto itself. Ideally, a musician should not be spending time on cleanup duty. Still, Su entered into a world of musical forensics and pattern detection. Like any other kind of artist, composers have their own sort of musical vocabulary and are often influenced by the conventions of the time, so picking out an apparently wrong note would be like noticing an author using words and phrases that are outside of their norm. Eventually, she was able to look at the original manuscript for the piece, and use it as a cross reference with her copy.

But it’s not just love of the music that’s compelled Su to finish the project. She was also correcting what she considered a historical injustice.

Price, a Black woman born in Arkansas in 1887, was a prolific composer — a prodigy educated at the New England Conservatory, who would go on to write hundreds of works. Her First Symphony was the first symphony by a Black woman premiered by a major American orchestra, and she counted Margaret Bonds and Langston Hughes among her friends and collaborators. However, after she died, she faded into relative obscurity.

Then, in 2009, a chance discovery of her music led to a renewed interest in her art. Over the following decade or so, the name Florence Price appeared more and more on albums, playlists and concert programs.

However, this Florence Price renaissance gives an added weight to mistakes. Su’s fear is that as more people come to her music, coming across an error riddled piece of music or a funky-sounding recording will turn people off from Price in the future. Remember, errors are unusual, and the initial instinct is to not second guess the publisher.

“I was very afraid that if you don't know Florence's story, you might come away with these ideas that maybe she was not well-educated when she actually was, that she didn't have strong musical instincts or something,” Su explained. “So I kind of had a little bit of a sense of protectiveness.”

Su combed through the piece, deepening her relationship not just with Price and the music, but also with herself, learning to trust her own editorial instincts. It took her around six months to finish her corrections, and she found about 54 errors. She also wrote about her experience and the implications of errors in music for Van Magazine, and plans to make a recording of Fantasie Negre No. 1 later this year.

Copyright 2024 GBH

James Bennett II is a Digital Writer/Announcer for CRB and a reporter in the newsroom at GBH.