Archive for the ‘Music’ Category


Friday, February 17th, 2012

At the ripe old age of 37, I’m starting to feel like a “real” composer/arranger.  After 20 years of doing it for fun, and 10 in the service of “l’Oncle d’Sucre”, I’ve learnt a funny thing or 2 about my little corner of the musical macrocosm.

One is that a first reading of any chart, composition, whathaveyou is no more or less painful the 1st time as it is the 101st time it happens.  I equate it to standing trouser-less in front of 60-100 strangers doing a still-life sketch of your genitals, complete with commentary on size, shape and usefulness, which are then read aloud.

Initially, the feeling is borne of the usual dreads: the wrong notes, the missing repeat signs, anything that you might have forgotten or unintentionally omitted, a part in the wrong transposition, etc., all attributal to the common human failings like fatigue, boredom, drunkeness, etc.  Then are the arranger/orchestrator things, like voicings, colors, etc.; there are always at least a dozen things every arranger/composer would like to change, but that’s reigned in by something called a “deadline”.  The third level of “I feel like I want to puke” hell comes from the players, and the unavoidable element of human error.  Wrong notes in a first reading are an inevitability – we’re all human beings after all, and though conscientious players are good about owning up to it, mistakes stop a rehearsal and trigger that “oh geez, what did I do???” reflex in the arranger, sort of like a fight-or-flight response.  One wrong note breeds others, and all of a sudden 4 more hands shoot up, usually over things as wildly dissonant as minor 7ths (mercy me!).  It just sucks.

I’ve come to realize something that I imagine many composers must have realized in their day, and that is this: a “perfect” performance or rendition of your carefully-crafted work is a rarity; savour it when it happens, but don’t expect it.  Think about any tried-and true piece from the musical canon, something like Handel’s “Messiah”, or Pachelbel’s “Canon in D”.  Think about the “best” performance or recording you know of, out of how many?  Now think of any amateur assemblage of musicians’ rendition of the same, and magnify that by the number of venues and groups around the world throughout time.  I imagine performances ranging from good to hilariously bad to ugly and all points in between.  If your wish is to write music that has any mass appeal (which will result in commissions, sales, royalties and eventually FOOD), this is something you’re going to eventually become acquainted with.

Back when I was a burgeoning composer, I started out in that kind of “crazy perfectionist” mindset, where a missed note or crescendo, or playing out of tune was tantamount to a personal insult, the words “I COULDN’T HAVE MADE IT ANY BLOODY CLEARER YOU SMALL-MINDED IMBECI^%#!” emblazoned across my face.  Getting personally offended by a missed note or two, however, is a fastlane to insanity or other disquieting stress-related maladies, especially if they’re YOUR fault (which face it-I’m the composer, of course the notes are right).

The remedy came in further study, becoming clearer in my notation and compositional technique, and adopting a more laissez-faire attitude about performances. Over time I developed something of a defense mechanism against this, and it comes in the form of a certain degree of detatchment.  I wouldn’t call it “apathy”, but I come to a state of “fine-ness”. Barring a complete trainwreck, I’m usually fine with how it sounds.  Face it – to the last person from the NY Phil down to the pee-wee beginner string ensemble, everyone tries their best, and they take pride in what they create, just like I do.  Give it a chance.

5 Instant Ways to Improve Your Composition

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

Everyone wants to be a composer, but there’s so much to learn about music, and for someone who wants to write simple music, most of it might never be used; it all depends on what your “voice” needs. Take Philip Glass: his music is largely diatonic, largely simple in rhythm, but nobody would call it “low music”; that would be like looking at an Ansel Adams and complaining about how there’s not enough color. Most of the music we listen to is what could be classified as “diatonic”, or “chromatic”; I’d argue that 12-tone music is chromaticism to a certain degree, but there are almost no limits as to what you can create and still call “music”, and using the simplest tools and methods.

I’ve often said that the only prerequisite to being a composer is the desire or need to write music. Everything else can be learned through time. I’d contend that for every super-genius composer, there are probably at least a few that were equally effective composers through pure luck, although luck does improve with knowledge and practice. All of that said, here are some tips, mostly geared toward the beginner or enthusiast, to get you past some of the growing pains:

1. At first, don’t think, just write. Then edit.

Ever journey begins with a step. Strange as it may sound, some of your best ideas might come purely by accident, but you’ll never get there unless you write it down. Our brains work in mysterious ways. You’ll never write a masterpiece until you’ve got something on paper, and as with all things, practice makes perfect! You can always fix and edit, but you can’t do that until you get it “on paper”.

2. Get out of Root position

I’ve noticed that a lot of new composers write with very perfunctory harmony because they must feel safe in root position, or something. If you change up your bass notes, you’ll suddenly discover new harmonies. For example, if you’re in the key of C major, and you play a G7 chord, and accidentally hit a Db, guess what – you’ve just discovered the “tri-tone substitution”! Move that bass-line around.

3. Discover 7th & diminished chords

These are 2 of my favourite flavours of chords, because they can do anything. They’re like the Swiss Army Knives of music. Get to know the different varieties of major and minor 7ths, and fully and half-diminished chords. Move to and from, or just stay on them. See how they feel.

4. Learn to develop thematic material

First, get a melody or fragment. Try repeating it. Now vary it slightly. Rinse, lather, repeat. You can easily write a piece using one melodic fragment (See Beethoven’s 5th Symphony – the WHOLE piece – as a classic example of this). Development is simply playing around with a melody or harmony. Repetition is not boring as long as you change it up once in a while.

5. Ask a composer about writing, an ESTABLISHED composer.

Most composers who are serious about the craft love to talk about it, because it helps us talk out our method, and it helps the process evolve. Also, we live in an age of e-mail, Facebook, what-have-you. Everyone is everywhere, so fire off a quick e-mail. Be polite and ask concise questions. It never hurts to ask. Just be aware that the more successful a composer, the less time they have.

Finale Tips – Those Pesky Grace Notes

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

So I’ve talked about philosphy.  Now how about a nugget of real practical knowledge?  If you’ve ever written or copied something with grace notes, chances are likely that you’ve come across this: (click image for larger view)

When I copy or write, I like to do it with as little “farting around” as possible; I try to avoid moving every tiny little thing in the most minute way possible as much as I can.  As I said before, any time you can save on little things gets you to the finish line that much faster.  These grace notes are the biggest pain in the behind.  You’ll spend an hour fixing them on your flute parts, then you redraw the screen or extract parts, and BAM, right back to where you started.  Plus, no matter how anal-retentive you get, there’s always 1 or 2 that are doin’ their own thing, and that looks sloppy.

SO what to do?  Here it is:  In Finale 2010 (or anything after 2009), under “Document”, then “Document Options…” on the left hand side, select “Music Spacing”.  When you do, un-check the box that says Avoid Collision Of “Ledger Lines”.  Make sure under “Grace Note Spacing” (middle of the same page) it’s set to “Automatic”, and set the “Minimum Distance Between” to at least 12.  Re-draw or update layout.  That’s it.

A couple of caveats…  I posted this on the Codamusic forum and actually got alot of flak over it.  The argument was that ledger lines colliding was potentially disatrous, and given the choice of a quick fix and adjusting manually, the forum member(s) would have rather adjusted every single one manually and not had any ledger line collisions.  Okay, fine, but if that were the case, maybe your notes are a little crowded anyway; the notes CAN be too close together without the ledger lines touching, and I think that looks far worse.

As long as your notes aren’t cramped to begin with, you shouldn’t have any problems.  And again, time is money; I just can’t see the wisdom in wasting that time when there’s an easy fix available to you.  Enjoy!

The Composer Next Door

Thursday, June 9th, 2011

A few nights ago I attended the yearly meeting of the Homeowner’s Association in my neighborhood. It’s not called that, but that’s in essence what it is. I’m not sure how many places outside the real estate hotbeds like Northern Virginia and well, CALIFORNIA, have HOA’s, but they seem to serve a dubious purpose, that is, for a modest fee, to make sure everyone’s home values stay nice and high, re-sale values stay nice and high, property taxes stay nice and high, and to keep the riff-raff from buying houses in the neighborhood (whatever that means). This is despite the fact that anyone with steady employment and any aspirations of starting a family or settling down isn’t concerned with that, but this is Northern Virginia, where most of the tenants stay for 3 years, do their stint for the government, contribute nothing to the community, and leave. Either that, or they do their stint, fall in love with the lush greenery of Virginia and the generally apathetic people, then settle down, contributing nothing to their communities.

Anyway, the HOA’s threaten legal action if you put up the wrong kind of fence or don’t keep your lawn and home in decent shape, “decent shape” being a purely subjective standard, apparently. In my view, however, they succeed in serving 2 important purposes: 1) giving the neighborhood busybody something to do, and 2) giving them people to lord over. Also, they make sure large patches of ground known as “common areas” get their grass cut in the summer, or at least try to get it cut.

Luckily, the HOA I was forced to join, or I should say “not given the choice of opting out of” is a pretty ineffectual one. The dues are low in comparison to others, but they also do comparatively little. Housing prices are what the real estate market says they will be, property taxes are what the county says they will be, and riff-raff seem to be buying nice houses and trashing them EVERYWHERE, including in our neighborhood, but even more so in the “rich”, or “rich looking” subdivisions.

I don’t usually attend these meetings, where your name is your house number, for the same reason I have iffy feelings about MOLA (despite the otherwise fine work they do): it’s a gathering of people for the purpose of agreeing on standards that does nothing but disagree on standards. These HOA meetings eventually devolve into a screaming match between who is or isn’t perceived to be complying with the ill-conceived and out-dated by-laws, mostly fuelled by 1 or 2 people. I usually end up walking out once the shouting begins.

As I sat there, looking around the room, there were all types of people. Some old, lots of middle-aged, a few younger ones. As I looked around, I wondered to myself if anyone had a clue about what I did, or what the others in the room did. Would anyone care that a composer (I’d say “famous”, but I’m not quite there yet) was sitting in their midst? Who knows. For all I knew, there was a rocket scientist or CIA person sitting among us; it is Northern Virginia after all. I wondered what people in Gabriel Faure’s neighborhood must have thought, maybe “hey, there’s that old guy. Doesn’t he play piano or something?”. I live in a town that has a surprising number of musicians, and I run into them, or hear of them every so often, which always strikes me as bizarre. If I was driving by their house, I’d just assume that they were Joe Sixpack.

I remember being in Sausalito once while on tour, and having some friends tell me they were in line at a coffee place behind Stone Phillips – that’s right – THE Stone Phillips. I couldn’t for the life of me picture who that was or what he looked like, since I’m assuming “Stone” is a male name (no, I don’t watch TV). I thought it was funny how in Sausalito, this guy was just someone’s neighbor. I’m guessing in Hollywood it’s like that too. Maybe you win 5 Emmy’s and a Golden Globe, but to someone else you just might be the redneck neighbor, or “that guy, you know, the nice young couple that has those pretty bushes in their front yard, who occasionally leaves the house wearing a tux (?)”.

It’s a small, large world.

Finale Tips – Copyism #4 & 5: Reliable, Smart

Thursday, June 9th, 2011

In previous entries I talked about the nuts and bolts of copying/engraving: fast, neat, and accurate. As it is with most things, however, getting the job done involves more than simply doing the work; it involves those weird things that have nothing directly to do with the job itself, but everything to do with whether or not you’ll get that call. Getting the gig is only the 1st step; getting called back is the next.

Get Smart

First, I want to talk about being “smart”. What does it mean? The obvious answer is knowing your subject matter. You can never know everything about anything, but you can always strive to know as much as you can. For example, I don’t have as great a handle on jazz as I’d like, but I constantly strive to be better, and in the end I’m probably better with it than I give myself credit for. I make a constant study of all aspects of music, and I take lessons from whatever job I do. Every day, every gig is a learning experience, and I do mean EVERY – even the “bad” ones. Often times I learn more from the bad ones than the good.

Apart from the music, being “smart” deals more with the business aspect of what we do, like not needing to be told something more than once. The old adage is that there’s no such thing as a dumb question, however, having to have an answer repeated could qualify. Gauge whether or not asking will avert a disaster, because someone would happily repeat an answer before having something fall apart on a session because something wasn’t clear.

Being smart also means using a certain intuition. When you work with people long enough, you learn how they work, and how other people work. I once got a hand-scribbled mess from one of the arrangers I work with, who was pressed for time and in the middle of juggling a dozen other things. It was for a specialized ensemble I know very well. He gave me a few simple instructions, and then eventually said “you know what to do” (trust!). In copying it, there was a clef error; given the voicing of the rest of it, it was clearly the wrong clef. Was it worth calling about? No, not with something obvious like that; I know what he MEANT. Plus, I was making the reference score for the video booth, so it would be fixed anyway. It’s not uncommon for a copyist to be cross-trained as a composer or arranger, so we’re often relied upon to proof it as we go. I see nothing wrong with fixing the odd note here or there; I just make a list and confirm it afterwards so the changes can be made to the final score if needed. If you make the composer/arranger look good, they’ll call you again.

There is another factor to consider, and I may get some flak over this: it’s important to remember the importance of the bottom line. It is known throughout the industry that copyists can sink a project with extra costs. Music productions have limited budgets, so cutting costs wherever possible is always on the mind of “Captain Crunch”. This is, of course, not solely the copyists fault; an arranger who needs to make changes at the behest of a fickle or flighty director, conductor, board, etc. can have a direct effect on the total on that invoice. While it’s an inevitability, it’s a good idea to at least be sensitive to these things. Being flexible enough to work with people is absolutely crucial. By all means, make sure you get paid what your services are worth, but recognize that anything you can do to make someone else’s life a little easier can go a long way to ensuring future employment.

Here are some words of wisdom I heard once from Ed Neumeister, paraphrased:

1. Keep your mouth shut, your ears open
2. Play/work your ass off
3. Don’t be a (f-word) drag

The first 2 are obvious. You can’t learn much if you’re doing all the talking, and nothing replaces hard work. An overabundance of natural talent is a gift, but it doesn’t replace anything.

Not being a drag is a finer science. Think about the people you can’t stand working with, or people who do little things that annoy you. Now put those into a stressful environment and little things get magnified by about 100. Strive to be even-tempered. Get the drama out of your life. Be the person everyone wants to work with. That carries almost equal weight to ability. People will always hire someone they can get along with before someone who can play circles around everyone but is a pain in the neck.


The first rule of reliability is something I’ve heard others call “musician early”. Never be late. Never, never, never be late. Early is on time, on time is late, and late is FIRED. Although in the music world, “fired” is the same as “not getting called back”. It’s a little less dramatic, but just as meaningful.

I read alot of books about Special Forces of various services and areas of conflict. I just find them interesting reading, mostly because they talk about extreme physical stress, and pushing your body and mind to their limits. I also occasionally read field manuals and other bits of military trivia. One of the bits that has stuck with me was in the description of the Army Rangers, “100% reliable”. Think about that: can anyone of us truly say that we are 100% reliable? About anything? In their motto, they pledge to accomplish the mission lest they be the lone survivor; THAT’s dedication. Get it done – at any cost.

Of course, we’re talking about music here, not capturing airfields, but the message can be applied. I strive to be 100% reliable. I want people to know that no matter what, they can trust me to get the job done. “Late” doesn’t exist in my vocabulary. Once, in the middle of an all-nighter at the Kennedy Center, copying a huge dance number that was being copied as it was being written, one score page at a time, several hours before the 1st rehearsal, I came down with food poisoning. It was by far one of the worst things I’ve ever experienced. Eyewitnesses can attest to the fact that I was hurling my guts out all night long (copy a page, puke, copy, puke, etc.). I was miserable and sick as a dog, but I still got my parts done, on-time. I felt like a sack of manure the next day, but I did it, and I can bet you that people took notice (well, a guy barfing his guts out is hard to ignore).

Thus concludeth the lesson.

Finale Tips – Copyism #3: Accuracy

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

In previous entries I talked about speed and neatness. To recap: why prioritize those, and why in that order? Obviously they’re equally important, but in my experience, in a crunch, it’s likely going to be most important that 1) something is on the stand, so that rehearsal time isn’t wasted, next that it’s 2) neat enough so that it’s easy to read, and thus easier to pick out little mis-steps, should they occur.

Next comes accuracy: taking adequate steps beforehand and during so that it’s not necessary to have to go back and fix anything. Fixing mistakes during a 1st run-through rehearsal is a drag for everyone involved. It takes up valuable time, makes the arranger/composer look bad, hurting his/her chances of repeat hirings, and makes YOU look bad, hurting your chances of repeat work.

I’ve listed this 3rd by priority, but of any of the items on the list, this is the one that really causes me to lose sleep. I’m not a hyper-perfectionist, but I absolutely hate doing a bad job on something. It just sucks. Try as you might , little mistakes can and do happen, and I’m certainly not the only one. I’ve played show books in pits or pickup bands for well-established acts, and I’ve seen little errors here or there; it makes me feel a little more human, but anything I can do to keep even smallest boo-boo’s to a minimum, I’ll do in a heartbeat.

1. Know thyself

I heard a great quote while watching an Army instructional video once: “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast”. When you’re in a stressful situation, your body pumps adrenaline to ensure that you’re functioning in overdrive, or close to 100%. I would say “110%”, but that’s impossible, I don’t care what any NFL coach or deodorant ad says. When you’re “adrenalized”, your body and all its functions will seem to speed up, so you must learn to relax yourself, and let that adrenaline do the work for you. You have to find or know the point at which you can work at your fastest, and then slow yourself down to the point about 5-10% below that; that’s your “sweet spot”. The idea is to get the same results as going as fast as you can, only without the stress, so you’ll decrease the likelihood of mistakes.

2. Check, re-check, and re-check again

Proof-reading your own work is absolutely vital. Always check your work unless you absolutely can’t. The only time I’ve ever had skip checking it over is when I’ve had absolutely no time, but it’s very rare. Even if you’re in a rush, going page by page, it just takes a second to do a quick visual scan, then you can take a fine-toothed comb to it later, time permitting. If you have time and resources to do so, enlist a friend to help. Fresh eyes always catch little things you wouldn’t have thought of.

3. Don’t trust your eyes – use midi playback

I resisted using midi playback for the longest time because my composer/arranger-brain was saying “midi gives you a false sense of orchestral color”, but it’s extremely helpful with catching little mistakes. My recommendation is to mute any un-pitched percussion (since the playback will be kind of weird anyway) check full tutti sections. After that, time permitting, isolate sections (eg. strings only, winds only, etc.) and check those. Play with the tempi as well: take it a little faster than indicated to save time, slow it down in notey passages to check notes in a run.

4. Now that you’ve got the notes, check the other stuff

You can never do enough note-checking, but there comes a point of diminishing returns. In those situations, it’s alarmingly easy to miss other equally important things, like dynamics and articulations, especially when you’ve spent majority of your time down in the weeds with the notes. Even the briefest glance can catch the funniest little things. For example, the other day I had printed a full set of parts to pdf only to realize I had misspelled the title “HAPPY BRITHDAY”. Sheesh, what a rookie mistake. It happens, but I caught it!

Finale Tips – Copyism #2: Get Neat

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

In my previous entry, I mentioned fastness, which is largely a product of practice, repetition, trial and error. Today I’ll be musing on NEATNESS, which mostly comes in the form of preparation, and also… trial and error.

What do I mean by “neat”? I tend to think of neatness hand in hand with “cleanliness”, or unencumbered-ness. Boy, is that actually a word? I don’t think so. Non-cluttered may be a way to put it, too. Bland? That’s a decent place to start.

Lots of good copyists have a “signature” style, but they are defined by shades of bland subtlety. I’d say mine certainly is. An odd, cryptic rule of thumb I heard from an old timer concerning writing as well as copying was “make it look/sound like someone else did it”. In other words, make it vanilla and interchangeable, as if someone fed a hand-written score into a computer and it spit out a generic representation of it: nice, sterile, neat and clean. It’s natural to want to make your copy-work one of personal artistic expression, but that must be resisted at all times; all you are doing is creating a no-BS roadmap that any person would find clear and easy to follow. Your job as a copyist is to faithfully render a composer or arranger’s notes (especially if they’re your OWN!) in a way that will be useful to an instrumentalist or conductor.

Here are some common mistakes:

-using cutesy fonts for titles, lyrics, or other text
-using odd sizings, either too small or too big
-using too many different fonts
-odd placement of expressions or other text (like rehearsal numbers)
-too much or too little space between staves
-uneven spacing of staves
-redundant information

I’ve made 2 copies of the same page of some quick fictitous music for you to compare:

“Ding-a-Ling” – Good
“Ding-a-Ling” – Bad

I got a little ridiculous with the fonts to illustrate that point. Using as few fonts as possible gives a visual cohesiveness to it, like writing it all in the same language. Font choices for text, lyrics and chords are tough ones to make. I recommend talking with vocalists and getting feedback for lyric fonts, and trial an error.

There is some matter of debate over all aspects of “what goes on the page” and what doesn’t. For instance, I don’t put numbers on every measure, but many high-class copy shops will. Some publishers put measure numbers over the staff, I put them under, and under multi-measure rests. None of these ways is wrong; It’s really a matter of personal taste.

I also don’t re-space individual staves, even if it looks like they need it. Uniformity is essential with stave spacing. The eye has enough to do with focusing on little notes, and it doesn’t need to do any extra fine-tuning. The fewer tension headaches the better.

Here is what I use to get my “signature look”:

Maestro – general Music font
(noteheads, stems, dynamics, articulations, etc.)
JazzText – Multi-measure rest #’s
TimesLyrics – Titles, Credits, lyrics
Arial Narrow – chord symbols, Text expressions
ChordSuf – Chord Suffixes (looks almost exactly like Arial Narrow)

I might mix it up with the text fonts, but if I do, I use generic “everyday” fonts. I might also use 1 font for the title, and 1 for everything else. Keep it as simple as possible. Try something, and if it doesn’t work, try something else.

I think the best way to go about it is to look at published parts, hand-copied music, or whatever you can get your hands on. Look at it critically. What do you like? What is distracting? What looks good? What looks jive-assed? What catches your eye? Does anything jump out? Actually, if nothing catches your eye besides the neatness, that should tell you something as well. Don’t be afraid to ask other people, too, especially copyists. Keep in mind that everyone’s got an opinion, and the person you ultimately need to please is the client.

So, to recap:

1. Go for a bland, B-flat appearance
2. Use fonts that are neat & trim
3. Use as few fonts as possible
4. Go for even, consistent spacing
5. Look at music, emulate what you like, discard what you don’t

Lessons learned: Stay Involved

Sunday, May 1st, 2011

I just finished a harrowing 15-ish hours, and I’m dog-tired, but while physically exhausted, I’m actually thinking clearly, so I thought I should jot this down before relaxation washes away the memory of it.

I was up all night writing another piece for the WMPA. I enjoy writing for the group, and I never pass on the opportunity to write for orchestra. For some reason, however, I always end up filling up my lead-time with other things to do, things that have to be done fairly quickly. Ugh, time management…

I was writing yet another overture; no special instructions or crazy stuff, just a couple of minutes of music. Through combination of a surprisingly busy schedule, some bad timing, and – face it – just plain laziness, I basically left it until the last minute. While writing under these circumstances isn’t usually hard for me, this time it proved especially difficult. I sat down at the computer yesterday at about 2:00pm and finished at about 5:00 this morning. Feeling like a sack of jello, I laid down for a few hours before processing the parts. I’d been wracking my brain trying to think of what made it so difficult, or FEEL so difficult is probably more like it, and I think I hit upon something we all should think about as composers.

I’ve been playing in a community orchestra for the past couple of years. It’s a far cry from my days of “show up, sightread Mahler 1, here’s your check+travel”, but it keeps the horn on my face. I’d taken about a month off recently to conduct the premiere of my latest ouevre “Somnambulant”, so while I had my composer hat on for most of the time, I’d also had a substantial break from the horn.

Going through school, I spent more time practicing and performing than I did at the keyboard or writing-desk, even though I was a composition student. There was always the immediate, visceral pleasure of creating sound and “making music”, but I eventually came to recognize that the physical connection of performing music, and the subsequent creation of those mental pathways, was how I seemed to learn to compose. Early on, I was encouraged to write for my own instrument, and in retrospect, it makes a lot of sense when you take into account the fact that you can only really articulate your thoughts as well as you are familiar with the syntax. In other words, you can only speak as well (or specifically, I’d say) as your vocabulary and command of the language allows. The better my trombone playing was, the more facile my writing would be, so the theory went.

My writing of this piece had become a purely technical process, which is odd for me. I tend to write with the most comfort when it resembles a more reflex-driven process, in much the same way that I see notes and shaped on a page of printed music and my body reacts in all the miniscule ways to produce it on the trombone – the perfected balance of body and mind. I feel as though taking so much time away from my primary instrument has led to the atrophy of certain capabilities, or that I’ve become divorced from the vital process of performing to help fuel creativity. Maybe it’s just that they aren’t as automatic.

Ach, maybe what I really need is some REST. Everything’s harder when you’re fatigued. The proof, as they say, will be in the pudding, and in the end it may turn out to be more successful than my very self-critical sensibilities predict. Whatever the case, it certainly won’t hurt to get the horn back on the face.

Finale Tips – Copyism #1: Get Fast

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

Now that I’ve got a break in the writing routine, it’s time for some Finale Tips, from a copyist perspective. Maybe I’ll turn this into a series if I can stay motivated enough.

My experience in the realm of Finale/copywork has been more of the remote-controlled, off-site copyist. I’ve done projects and sent the parts in pdf format (thank God for the pdf file) from my house in Northern Virginia to the Czech Republic and lots of places in between. The majority of the time I’ll never even see the client face-to-face, so the bulk of what I’ll be talking about consists of doing it at a terminal, then e-mailing it to an orchestra librarian, or some other entity that deals with the music-prep portion of the transaction. You might set up your shop to do it all (binding, taping… ugh), but I prefer to work with a separate music prep person, because most symphony libraries will have their own shop, and their own preferences.

I also feel the need to mention that while I’m concentrating on Finale, alot of what I’m saying applies across the board, to whatever you use.

To start with, if you want to be a good copyist (in my humble opinion), you need to be:

1. fast
2. neat
3. accurate
4. reliable
5. smart

Today I’ll getting down in the weeds about #1:


First of all, how fast is “fast”? It’s a tough question to answer, because it depends on many factors. “Overnight” is usually a good starting point, though I’ve had to turn more than a few things around within an hour. There are also a lot of “yeah-but’s”; for example, you can be extra speedy, but if your client is wasting half of their rehearsal fixing notes, that’s unacceptable. If it’s obvious to everyone that it’s crunch time, they might be a little more understanding if you just knocked out parts for a 300-bar full-orchestral score in 3 hours and you missed a note here or there (hey, 1 or 2 out of 100,000 ain’t bad); still, you hate to try anyone’s patience. And I hate to say “speed first, accuracy later” but alot of the time, as long as there’s something on the stands and nobody’s wasting precious (expensive) rehearsal time waiting for music, everyone’s happy because they can always fix boo-boo’s later. If it’s going to get played once, on live TV, obviously accuracy is more important.

1. Learn your method

Like most things, notating/copying music is a set of learned physical motions, regardless of what you use. Practice makes perfect, so get used to using your program. Take pages of music in your spare time and just practice copying. I recommend hand-written stuff for Finale users because it’s far easier to scribble out certain things by hand than it is to put them in Finale. Get it to the point where tasks become almost automatic, or to a point where you don’t have to think too hard to do it.

2. Make/Use your own templates

Templates are basically Jello-molds for music. You’d think that ideally, you have a template for every conceivable instrumentation possible, but this isn’t always practical. I have 4 or 5 that I do 99% of my work on. Have separate templates for Scores and Parts, or whatever suits your particular needs. If you only do big-band music, set one up for that, but do 1 for score, 1 for parts ONLY. My advice would be to over-do it with the number of staves initially, because deleting is always faster than farting around with adding them later, setting transposition, clefs, staff name, etc. Build some flexibility into them as well. For a parts-only template, spend the time setting up the part extraction routine so it’s practically automated. Every so often, come back to them and change/improve as necessary (I just cleaned up a couple of my own).

3. Libraries/Fonts

When setting up your template, set up libraries that you’re comfortable with, and that you can use quickly. Get them how you like them, positions & alignments, and export them so you have them in 1 place; this way you can use them in other templates. This goes along with neat-ness as well. I get the best bang for my buck with my chord libraries; they’re nothing fancy, but I can enter them in by typing the suffix right in, and if the chord isn’t in the library, it’s easy to create a new one. That is also partly due to the FONT. The only font I use for chord suffixes is part of the Bill Duncan font series. Go buy it, it’s totally worth it. A good font will pay for itself in the time it saves.

4. Prioritize data entry

What goes in first? What’s most/least important? What’s going to suck up time? For my money, the priority is notes, dynamics then articulations, hairpins & slurs, text. Notes are obviously the most important. While dynamics might take a hair longer than articulations, they’re more important – also dynamics might not show up as much, so do 1 then the other in that order. Hairpins, slurs and text take the most time (I think) plus they might be expendable; if the arranger is in a rush, they might not be there anyway.

5. Learn to see patterns

I guess this could also fall under “smart”. I’m an arranger by day, which comes in very handy as a copyist. If I know my transpositions, and I can see that the Flute line is basically the clarinet line up the octave, I’ve just saved myself precious time. A time-conscientious arranger or orchestrator will shorthand things like this with my favourite score marking “COL”, but it might not always be the case; you might be transposing a published chart, who knows? If you can learn to see it, all the better.

6. Hot-keys

Hot-keys are just functions that you assign to keys on your (qwerty) keyboard. For example, I have a hot-key set up for most of the common articulations I’d need to use, the basic 9 or 10 like staccato, tenuto, rinsforzando (“accent”) and marcato, fermata, cesura, breath mark, etc. Huge time-savers.


I’ll get into making music look “neat”, which will involve some discussion about personal style, font choices, formatting, and more!

I, Conductor

Sunday, April 17th, 2011

Last night I had my public conducting debut. I’ve had the conducting bug for a long time, but neither the time nor relative motivation to pursue it seriously. Recently, however, I’ve been coming to the realization that the composer/arranger would do well to be able to include the baton in his toolbox along with the other assorted goodies, so there’s no time like the present.

For it being my first time, I made it pretty easy on myself, actually. At one time I had probed the YouTube(s) for helpful hints for a beginning/aspiring conductor, and after sifting through the good, the bad, the ugly, and all of the wonderful archival footage of Maestro Herbert von Karajan, I found a great video short featuring Larry Livingston, prof. of conducting at USC. He states, in a nutshell, that to conduct, you needed 3 things:

1. Conviction
2. Absolute Knowledge of the score
3. to “Be” the Music

In this case, I was granted the opportunity to conduct the world premiere of a piece I was commissioned to write by Bishop Ireton High School. It was a biographical/programmatical piece, so I knew it absolutely, and I could most definitely embody, or “be” the music. I wanted the performance to go well, as a composer seeks to be understood through music, so I’d say that counts as conviction. Still, a conductor is the sum of their parts, so I drew upon my years of playing under Eugene Corporon, Craig Kirchoff, Anshel Brusilov, David Baldwin, and observing the officers at TUSAB, and my fellow students through my studies like Jason Lim and Scott Terrell, and I gave it my best shot.

The whole of the experience left me with some interesting thoughts to ponder. It was odd for me to come in and work with another person’s group. It was hardest getting up the courage to correct mistakes or things that were a little off-kilter; I liken it to coming over to someone’s house and taking it upon yourself to discipline their children in front of them, although I’m sure Mr. Eyles hardly would have seen it that way. That’s something I’ll have to work on.

I feel like I relied on the score a little too much, even though I hardly looked at it, and knew every last note of it. I suppose it was more of a mental crutch than anything. I also wanted to make sure I didn’t confuse anyone when I started “just conducting the music”, because I’m keenly aware of the phsychological stability that metered barlines seem to offer, especially to younger musicians. I would have hated it if everyone got lost because I couldn’t throw a good downbeat on my own freaking piece.

From a purely conducting technique standpoint, the performance itself was quite the eye-opener. I’d taken a lesson with Anthony Maiello (I’ll be calling you soon, Maestro) and he’d recommended getting a small pocket-video recorder, mine being the Zoom Q3, so I’ve been recording myself diligently every chance I’ve been able to get for podium time. I don’t know why I didn’t do more of it through school (laziness, I guess) because it’s incredibly instructive. We, myself and the B.I. Wind Ensemble, did a run-through about an hour and a half before they were to go on (after the Navy Band) and it felt GREAT. I watched the footage of it later with my wife, and there were a few moments where even SHE said “ah, I see who you were channeling there”. Yes, I felt I had a few brief “Karajan-esque” moments in the run-through. I did my “eye-brows” at the right people, had some brilliant hand gestures, did the whole “squeezing music out of the depths of the earth – eyes closed” thing. Awesome. NONE of that was there in the actual performance, of course – none of it. The performance itself, however, was electric. My conducting was off a tiny bit, but it was true music-making. The “spirit” of the piece was there, making the invisible energy vibrate in that indescribably warm and beautiful way. There were moments of spontaneous clarity, little subtle changes in the tempo – brief pauses where the music could relax just that little extra bit, and the band was right with me the whole time, step by step, as if in perfect sync. It was truly magical. I really had to grit my teeth in the last few bars to keep the tears back. The stick-waving might not have been stellar, but the performance was more than I could have ever hoped for.

I’m guessing this is how conductors are born.