Member to Member: Clean It Up!

...or it's time your music library came out of the closet

Volume CVI, No. 4April, 2006

Judy Kahn

Okay, so you admit that you store your music wherever you can find the space to stash it. And you claim to know where it is. But every time you look for a piece, it takes you an hour or so, and then maybe some of the parts are missing. It’s like looking for those vacation photos that never found their way into an album.

It’s time to stop kidding yourself and get serious. These are not vacation photos — they are part of your livelihood. First, organizing now will save you time in the long run, and secondly, you might find some pieces you forgot you owned or had written. And if you are a composer or arranger, you are the person best qualified to archive your music. Your music is your life’s work. Respect it and yourself by treating it with the care it deserves. Life has enough challenges — this is one area you can do something about and minimize the stress. Knowing you can easily put your hands on any piece of music you might need on short notice — and that all the parts will be there — will put your mind at rest.


To have your music stored in an accessible and organized system with an overview of what you have and what is missing. A simple system that enables you to pull a piece of music for a gig in minutes. And a way for you to log in parts after a gig so that if one is missing, you can track it down before it is too late to remember who might have it, or what other piece it might be folded up with. And, if you are ambitious, to compile a printed catalogue of your library.


Is there a deadline by which you need to find all the parts for a piece you’re to perform? Or are you fed up with not being able to find something easily? Is the music in the respective “books” in no particular order? Are pieces formerly taped together in danger of becoming separated? Are you unsure if you have all the parts to some pieces — could someone have inadvertently walked off with a part after the last gig?


If there’s no particular deadline, make yourself one — a realistic one. Then “back-schedule” from that date. For example, choose a date six months away. Try to assess how long it will take you to do the organizing. Now divide the time by the number of weeks between now and the deadline. That’s how much time you need to put aside a week to meet your deadline. If you don’t feel you can achieve that goal, either move the deadline (if you can), or seek some professional help to get the project done on time.

The suggestions below come from experience. I recently organized 50 years of music — from trio to big band and string orchestra arrangements — for singer Jackie Cain (of Jackie & Roy). Jackie and her late husband Roy Kral were so busy working that they could never dedicate time to organization — sound familiar?

Here is an example of a “back schedule”:

  • You want or need your library to be in good order in six months (26 weeks).
  • For each part of each piece of music you should allot 15 minutes (if fairly dispersed in folders, shelves and files or comprising numerous parts) or 5 to 10 minutes (if in better order, and simpler instrumentation). The rule of thumb is that every time you touch and move a piece of paper (in this case, each music part) on its way to its final destination counts as 5 minutes. The more parts there are and the more dispersed they are, the more times they will need to be touched on their way.

The greater the amount of time you can dedicate to any one session, the fewer the number of hours you’ll need to spend overall.

If not now, when? You know it needs to be done — you just aren’t yet sure how to tackle it.


Your hypothetical library is as follows:

In Better Order:
You have 20 pieces for solo instrument and piano = 20 x 2 parts x 5 min = 200 minutes.

In Moderately Better Order:
You have 10 pieces for quartet = 10 x 4 parts x 10 min = 400 minutes.

In Poor Order (all over the place):

You have 20 pieces for small ensemble (10 parts)= 20 x 10 parts x 15 min = 3,000 minutes.

You have 15 pieces for big band (16 parts + score) = 15 x 17 x 15 min = 3,825 minutes.

The total estimated time needed to put the whole library in order is 7,425 minutes or about 124 hours.

Divide 124 hours by the number of weeks (26), and you find that you should spend about 5 hours a week on this project to get it done by your deadline.

Like any daunting task, it needs to be broken down into bite-sized, manageable pieces. Each “bite” can take place at a different time, in as small an increment as you can spare the time for. If you can dedicate only an hour a week, do it. But adjust your deadline to accommodate projected reality. Think strategically about the big picture and how much time you’ll be saving yourself in the long run.

1. Locate all the music you’ve tucked into cartons, carry bags, folders, drawers, shelves, envelopes and suitcases. If it’s already divided by instrumentation, then only spread out one section at a time (and adjust the estimated time of the project by half!).

2. Clear a surface to work on, and spread everything out. It can be a coffee or dining table or the floor — just someplace you are comfortable working and won’t be disturbed. If you can leave the project “in process” there, fine. If not (let’s be a bit more realistic, apartment-dwellers!), then plan to keep the sorting you’ve already done in order while you pile things back into a corner of a room, into a closet or back on a shelf. You will need to label the piles (and the piles upon piles — try piling them at right angles to each other so it’s easy to find the separations), so that you’ll be able to pick up where you left off. Obviously, the less time you need to tuck things away in between work sessions, the more time you can dedicate to getting the job done.

3. Decide on categories that make sense to you: solo with piano accompaniment, solo with large group accompaniment, duos, quartets, chamber music, sextet, big band, etc. Or maybe you have all your parts separated in “books” by instrument (piano, bass, drums, sax) — in that case, see below.

4. Start dividing up what you have into those broader categories. Feel free to change or adjust the categories as you need to — this is your system, so you shouldn’t feel that any decision is “engraved in stone.”

5. Once the categories are sorted, then start to alphabetize. For example, for a violin/viola/cello trio, the parts should be combined, then alphabetized by composer. For “books” of jazz arrangements, you should alphabetize by tune title. Otherwise, do it by how you will need to retrieve the pieces. Make a separate pile for pieces missing parts, hoping they’ll show up later; clip a note to the parts stating what’s missing, and make a master “missing” list later in case you come across single parts, and to clue you that you’ll need to copy out or find the missing part if you intend to perform that piece again.

6. Next, start putting the music together, keeping the pieces separated according to like instrumentation.

7. Where you should plan to keep the music is dependent on how often you need to access it and how much of it needs to remain accessible. Some can go back into a bin in the closet, but a good portion of it should remain somewhere in the area you use as your studio. Regardless of where it ends up living, it should be visible.

8. What to use? I recommend clear plastic drawers or bins, through which you can see the contents. (The famous chef James Beard once said that he never used opaque plastic to store leftovers, only clear glass — because if you can’t see it, you forget it’s there.) The drawers can be used singly or stacked, out in a room or in a closet.

a. Drawers are made in sizes that can accommodate oversized scores and classical music lying flat (bring your largest arrangement to the store with you to make sure you purchase the right size envelopes and drawers; measurements alone don’t always tell the whole story).

b. Available at K-Mart, Staples, and many other stores, some come with casters enabling you to roll them around when necessary, and have drawers of different depths. Let the bulk of your library sections dictate which drawers would work better.

c. Large stick-on labels should be attached to the front of each drawer, with the contents clearly marked: e.g., (SOLOS: A-M), (TRIO ARRANGEMENTS, Piano/Violin/Cello). These can be handwritten or printed out from your computer, and changed as needed.

9. How the music is organized within these drawers depends on how detailed you need to be. Oversized manila envelopes (12 by 15.5) seem to fit most larger-sized pieces. There are even larger envelopes if you have arrangements with orchestra parts. One envelope per piece, each envelope marked as simply as possible with the information you’ll need to know on retrieval. If there are any parts missing, it should be noted on the envelope. Place the pieces in each drawer in alphabetical order. The fewer kinds of music in a drawer, the easier they will be to retrieve (think about this when choosing the depth of the drawers you purchase).

The only other supplies you’ll need are some paper clips to keep things together while “in process” and for keeping multiples of parts together, and thin-point markers to write out labels and mark envelopes.

The more your library is already in order, the simpler the task. The more complicated the instrumentation, the number of pieces and the current storage arrangement, the longer it will take.

Don’t forget that putting your library in order is an investment in yourself and in your career. Its value may be only a teeny percentage of the worth of your instruments today, but your music library is still a valuable asset that should be treated as such. Especially if it contains original compositions and arrangements.

This life is not a dress rehearsal — every day is a performance. So make the commitment now to have your music as ready as you are for your next gig!

Judy Kahn, owner of “De-Stress That Mess,” has been a professional organizer (businesses as well as homes) for over 30 years. A member of Local 802, she is a classical flute and piccolo player married to a jazz saxophonist/composer/arranger. She combines both her careers to freelance as a music librarian, actually getting a thrill from creating order where none existed. Judy works with personal libraries as well as small- and medium-sized performing ensembles — hands-on, sleeves rolled up, side-by-side. Call (973) 763-3713 or send an e-mail to for more information, or to request a brochure.