Archive for May, 2011

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.