Archive for April, 2011

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:

HOW TO BE/GET FAST

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.

NEXT EPISODE:

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.

Somnambulant

Saturday, April 9th, 2011

When a commissioning body makes the decision to grant you a sum of money to write a piece of music, they take quite a risk. I don’t care who the composer is, it’s a risk. It’s an even greater leap of faith to do it with very little guideline or specifics, beyond instrumentation, given to the composer.

Such was the case with my latest commission from Bishop Ireton High School. The only specifics in the contract were regarding duration, instrumentation, some non-specific language about being challenging for the kids, and words that I translated to mean “artsy but not too weird”.

When writing a piece for commission, the biggest temptation is to produce something that’s bleeding with notes, scales, “flash”, etc. because, by-gum, you’re going to earn that money, one note at a time! There’s also the temptation to make it sound “band-y”; I’m not sure how best to describe that, but go listen to a couple of hours of band music and I think you’ll catch my drift. I’ve come to abhor the “vanilla” sound that band music can have, so I try to avoid that. Not having strings isn’t a problem, it’s an opportunity. Hindemith and Schoenberg found things to do with the band, so what would be my excuse for not doing the same?

In preparation, Randall Eyles, the wind ensemble director, graciously sent me a pile of CD’s to listen to, so I set aside an “immersion day” to get their ensemble sound in my ears, as well as the band sound. I abandoned that after about 15 minutes of listening, however, because I found that I could think more creatively with no outside influences.

When I have a pre-determined amount of time to write something, I try to set aside a proportional amount of it to think, then write; for example, if I have 4 months to write something, I take 3 to 3 1/2 to think about it, then 2 weeks to write. If it’s only a day, a day of writing it is! I had roughly 6 months with this piece, so I thought for 5, wrote for 1. My initial plan was to write a folk suite using some very engaging ancient tunes from the Ukraine. I had it pretty well thought out – 3 contrasting movements, kind of like the various English folk song suites. It was going to practically write itself. Another classic!

Approaching the deadline, writing was going well, ahead of schedule, but something didn’t feel right. I was working on the middle movement, based on a heart-wrenching tune titled “Suffering Mother Stood by the Cross”, and something clicked. I started thinking about my grandmother, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, and my recent visit to her nursing home before Thanksgiving. It was an oddly traumatic experience. I’d lost 3 of my grandparents in my early teens, but it had never really made much of an emotional impact on me; being a dopey teen, I had other things on my mind. My experiences with death throughout my life have always been odd; I’m very uncomfortable with death. I’ve never really been able to face it, and here it was, staring me in the face in the form of a person who didn’t even know who I was, despite the fact that she watched me grow from a little baby to a man in his mid-30’s. It was traumatic and disturbing on a profound level that I couldn’t fathom, much less articulate.

Pondering this, the tune of “Suffering Mother…” took a poignant twist. It became a depiction of that moment in time. I made the decision to scrap (save for later) what I had written up to that point, and make the entire piece a large one-movement work on this tune, but that didn’t sit entirely right either.

The trouble with working on existing material (other than the fact that it isn’t yours) is that you are confined to work within its boundaries, whatever they might be, for better or worse. I kept most of what I’d written, re-tooled around a melody I’d scribbled out based loosely on the original melody with some added wiggle-room. I added a motif of open 5ths in the marimba to begin the piece, which became a pivotal part of it in the end. The marimba is such a unique sound; here it was an odd combination of the incessant drum-beat of time, cold and uncaring, the tone empty and childlike at the same time.

I honestly don’t put a whole lot of my heart into most of my music, at least consciously, as I find composition to be a largely cold, intellectual exercise. In this case, however, it was very emotionally trying to finish the piece. I equate it to an emotional blood-letting. I remember remarking to my wife early on in the re-write, “writing this piece is taking me to a dark place”. I’d come downstairs for lunch and end up breaking into tears, the memory of the previous few measures of writing, or the narrative I was depicting, still fresh in my head.

Painful as it was, it needed to be done this way. It’s easy for me to put notes on the page, but digging deep into the dark, uncomfortable depths of my soul was something I hadn’t done, and it needed to be done to tell the story.

Q & A

Friday, April 1st, 2011

I’ve been working recently with the Wind Ensemble at Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria, VA. They will be performing a work they commissioned from me titled “Somnambulant”, with yours truly at the podium on April 16th at 7:30pm. I’ll write more about the piece itself later, but yesterday we had a brief question and answer session before rehearsal, which I thought I’d summarize here:

*********************

1. What’s the piece (Somnambulant) about?

Short answer – my grandmother, who is in the mid-to-late stages of Alzheimer’s. See program notes for specifics.

2. When writing a piece how do you come up with your material?

I start with a melody, or melodic fragment, harmony or rhythm and build from there as it grows organically. Sometimes it starts as one or the other, sometimes it’s a combination.

3. Is this the first school band you’ve written for?

The first high school band, yes. The 2nd school overall; the 1st was Oklahoma State University.

4. When did you know you wanted to be a musician for a living?

Somewhere between my senior year in high school and part way through my undergraduate degree. In high school, I was excited about the possibility of being able to do nothing but study music all day, every day, but I was unsure of whether or not it was possible to make a living at it. Eventually I came to the realization that as long as I worked hard and built good relationships, money would take care of itself.

5. What ensemble to you like to write for most?

Probably orchestra, otherwise I have no preference. I started out writing for trombone ensembles, because it was my instrument, which I still like to write for.

6. Of the pieces you’ve written, which is your favourite?

It’s a toss-up between “Eviler Elves”, for concert band, and “Symphonic Fantasy”, a 3-movement piece for orchestra.

7. How old were you when you wrote your first piece?

When I was about 6 or 7, I briefly (and unsuccessfully) studied piano, and one assignment was to write a piano piece called “the Circus”, although it was kind of silly, and wouldn’t really count as a “composition”, at least not to me. After that, probably about 16 or 17, I wrote a piece for trombone choir.

8. How do you deal with writer’s block?

I take a break, then come back to it later. I think of myself like a re-chargeable battery: once I’m spent, I need to take some time and let things re-charge. It works the same with writing words or music, at least for me.

9. Are there things you like to do besides music?

Yes. I like video games (like Fallout), leatherworking, HAM radio, things computer-related, plus many others (cooking, gardening, coffee, tea, archery). I like to be well-rounded.

10. What’s your ideal location for writing music?

In my home, in my office, or at my piano in my living room. There are times when I don’t get to choose my location, but when I can, I prefer to write at home.

11. Do you get ideas when you’re doing random things (like driving)? If so what do you do?

Yes, all the time. I try to keep the idea going (as much as safety allows), and trust that if it’s catchy enough and sticks with me, I’ll remember it long enough to be able to write it down.

12. Who are musicians you admire?

Too many to mention. Off the top of my head, Top 5 – Dmitri Shostakovich, Eugene Corporon, Joseph Alessi, Thom Yorke, Bernard Herrmann. (I think I said Lady Gaga, but I was just trying to be cute)