Finale Tips – Copyism #1: Get Fast

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

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

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

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)

Orchestration – A short primer

March 27th, 2011

The study of writing for orchestra is one of my passions. It’s something of a personal journey of discovery, so I don’t think I’ll be giving away any secrets by talking about it. I have my own bag of tricks, just like anyone, and after 10 years with TUSAB and copying for Jim Kessler, I still pick up new things every day. I could talk for days just about writing for strings or brass alone, but there’s too much to cover. I imagine it’s why orchestration books are so thick.

I have some basic rules that I follow, and continually revise. Everything else is details.

1. You must know the instruments.

With all instruments, you must learn the basics, like what they’re called in various languages, what clefs they read, what their transpositions are, what their possible and PRACTICAL ranges are (many people forget this), and most importantly, what they do, or how they function within their particular ensemble. Form follows function, and understanding the function is paramount.

2. Orchestration goes hand in hand with composition.

The sound of the instrument being written for usually determines the character of the composition, and/or vice versa. Some pieces are written to be somewhat universal, with no instrumentation in mind, or for the possibility of infinite combinations, like the works of Giovanni Gabrieli. Most others are written to be played by one combination of instruments, and only one, with little or no variation.

3. Don’t make the instruments do things they can’t or shouldn’t do.

Young composers tend to want to push limits in music, which is fine. Trying to get a ‘cello to play a Bb below the staff, however, is neither clever, nor smart. If you want to do that, the better way is to physically change/improve the instruments, or come up with a new one.

4. Write for what you have, not what you WISH you had.

It sounds obvious, but is done so often that I feel it needs mentioning. Band music sounds lousy when played by an orchestra, but people still try to do it. A harp isn’t a piano, and vice versa.

5. Study scores.

If you want to write a book, the assumption (or the hope) is that you’d probably be well-read. It’s the same with music. Practicing writing is vital, but so is score study. Writing music, I feel, is related to drawing as well; good music has as much of a look to it as it has a sound. Come to recognize writing that has withstood the tests of time by how it appears on a page and its relationship to how it sounds. Over time, you’ll learn what will always make them sound good, and with trial and error what will NEVER sound good. Which scores to study are a matter of debate. Maybe I’ll get into some of those in the next post.

My “Kids” Audition

January 1st, 2011

Poring through my Google hits, I found one that read “Kids From Wisconsin, is it hard to get in?” or something to that effect. The short answer is “no, not as long as you win the audition”. It brought to mind my own particular experience with that organization, and my getting in (didn’t make it the 1st time). They really apply to a lot of situations, so I thought it might be worth sharing. So, HERE GOES.

When I auditioned my first time, I was a junior in high school, I had just made it into the Wisconsin Honors Jazz band, though it was a good month or 2 before the camp. I was a pretty good sight-reader, had good high chops, good sense of time. I wasn’t much of an improviser, which is still true to this day. I never spent the time on it, plus I don’t think I “get it” when it comes to taking solos. I tend to believe that some people are set up that way, and some, like me, are not. Ah well. I practiced my tail off on the HJ material, and I practically had it memorized. I guess TIP #1 will be PRACTICE YOUR TAIL OFF. No amount of raw talent will ever replace 10, 100, 1000 hours in a practice room.

So, “the Kids” were accepting applications, as they did every year. The first step was to fill out an application and make an audition tape. I had a great deal of help from my high school band director, Ken Petersen, himself a successful Dixieland trombone player. TIP #2 GET HELP (FROM SOMEONE WHO KNOWS WHAT THEY’RE DOING). He knew the kind of playing I’d be in for, so he guided me in my choice(s) of repertoire, the requirements of which I don’t exactly remember, possibly 2 contrasting pieces and some scales. Maybe 1 standard tune, like “Sunny Side of the Street” (played through “vanilla”, then with some VERY slight “jazzy ornaments”) and then a bebop etude from a David Baker book, which was the audition material for the Honors Jazz. Nothing fancy, just showed what I could do, in tune, in time and in tone. So I guess, TIP #3 PICK APPROPRIATE LITERATURE. I also had to send a full-length picture of myself; it was, after all, a show troupe, and while looks aren’t everything, certainly, they were a factor in the audition process in this case. Which leads me to TIP #4 UNDERSTAND THAT THERE MAY BE FACTORS THAT WILL DETERMINE THE OUTCOME OF THE AUDITION THAT HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH YOU. I could talk about that one for days. All I’ll say is that they held auditions whether there were spots open or not; if your tape was good, they wanted to hear you anyway in case they DID have an opening at some point in the future. So, #4b SOMETIMES “NOT WINNING” ISN’T NECESSARILY “LOSING”.

I passed the 1st round, and I got the invite to come down to Milwaukee and do a live audition. I was nervous as heck. I did a perfunctory warm-up, and then I was called in. I basically just played my audition tape material. The “band” coach (now Director), Mark Dorn pulled out the thicker-than I’d ever seen Trombone 1 show book and pulled out a chart or 2 and had me sightread. I read, and I threw in my “lead trombonist” stylings in a couple of spots, met with a terse “just play the ink”. TIP #5 DON’T GET FANCY. Sometimes, this case having been one of them, they just want to see if you can play the part. Most of the time, that’s all it’s about. Anyway, after that was done, the rest of the previous-year’s band came in and I was put in the hot seat with a female trumpet player who was also auditioning (who did end up getting in) and we read through a couple of their band features; some of the “singer-dancers” filtered in to spectate as well. It was pretty cool; I’d never heard a band play that tight and together. It was a small 13-piece band, and there was a really solid player on every part, so for me it was actually a little nerve-wracking. I did my best, which at the time was “ok”, but I was definitely a fish out of water. I got the “we’ll let you know” on the way out, which every musician knows to mean “better luck next time”, or possibly something more crude. I took it as a “go home and practice some more, kid, then come back”.

TIP #6 IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED, TRY AGAIN (WITH A BETTER PLAN). So, I dusted myself off, went to Honors Jazz camp, which was mind-blowing. Played my butt off everywhere else I could, came back the next year and tried again. This time, it was old hat; I’d grown up, I was more of a solid player, I had seen the audition material already. I held down my part and did my best to make it sound like I belonged in the band. After we finished playing, the Director, COL Mark Azzolina came down and said I played great (I forget what exactly he said), and then gave me an uncharacteristic ‘high-five’. I got the same “we’ll let you know” but the bass trombonist caught me on my way out, and said “oh yeah, you’re in.”

Tone-deaf kids & Cash Cows

December 2nd, 2010

What do those 2 things have in common? Christmas, that’s what. It’s the most wonderful time of the year, isn’t it? Aside from all the crabby people and horrible traffic, yes, it certainly is.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not the biggest fan of Christmas. It’s too commercial. I’m not really a fan of most holidays, actually; they seem more like exercises in mass mind control than anything else. Really, think about it for a second. Valentine’s Day – buy candy, do “romantic things”. Easter – buy candy, hide eggs. 4th of July – blow things up. Halloween – costumes & candy. Thanksgiving – eat turkey. Christmas – buy stuff. New Years – get drunk, kiss someone, at MIDNIGHT. And the cycle repeats…

One nice thing about Christmas is that it is awash in music. One of my personal favourites is “Some Children See Him” by Alfred Burt, performed by Andy Williams. If you want a cash-cow, write a Christmas song; that sucker will be played every year throughout the end of time, even if it’s a steaming pile of manure. Just tune in to any radio station around Christmas time and you’ll see what I mean.

Of course, most of the best Christmas music, arguably, has already been written. Even Rob Mathes’ “William the Angel” (which is a good song in its own right) has “Angels We Have Heard on High” as sort of a basis to it. Then there are ones that have been cannibalized, bastardized, out-right STOLEN. Just slap an R&B rhythm figure behind it, and boom! You’ve just “written” a new tune. I was staying at a hotel at the Midwest Band & Orchestra Clinic last year, and the lobby music was this compilation of old Christmas classics that some “genius” had taken random 2-bar phrases of and looped, over and over. Yes, how clever. It’s like hearing “and they lived happily ever… happily ever… happily ever…” and so on. If I ever find the guy who did it, I’m going to punch him. Really hard. (figuratively, of course)

And, inevitably, it will be sung by a gaggle of kids, only a small percentage of which, statistically, will be able to carry a tune. We have, around these parts, a very generous radio station which plays performances by local groups starting the day after Thanksgiving. Some of the performers are bona fide diamonds in the rough; a majority of them are gaggles of kindergarten-ers with their own particular brand of, how shall I put it, “sprechstimme”. I would be dishonest if I said that kids used to be better singers, but that small percentage seems to have shrunken somewhat. And the more tone-deaf, the more endearing.

The Road, the Gear

October 5th, 2010

(originally written Sep. 22nd)

Hey Superfans. I’m blogging somewhat from “The Road”, which for some reason has lost a smidgen of its former allure for me. I don’t know, I guess having a steady job, being on my own schedule, sleeping in my own bed and eating my own food for a number of years has cured me of it. Still, I get to see new places, eat new foods, drink local brews. Plus, it gives me some stuff to write about! (I’ll talk about opening beer bottles without a bottle-opener later on)

First, some bits of gear review. If I’m going to be out for at least 5 days, and/or have charts in the queue, I’ll almost always bring a computer with me, unless I know for certain that there will be a music lab where I’m going. Example, I went to the Lawrence University in Appleton, WI in 2006, and I was able to use their more-than-adequate computing facility in their College of Fine Arts, and got lots of work done. As is the usually the case anywhere else I’d go, I have to schlepp my own gear. Here’s what I brought this time:

1) LAPTOP (make/model unimportant) – since we’re fully into the 21st century, or as I like to call it “the monumental disappointment”, every-freaking body has a laptop, and why shouldn’t they? They’re so handy. Mine is govt.-issued, so its bigger, outdated, and free (but not technically “mine”); it also has all of the pertinent files for this “mission”. You can get a PC cheaper, but the Mac’s have neat bells n’ whistles, so take your pick. Hotels and various venues seem to be going the wireless internet route, so that capability is kind of a must.

2) MOUSE – seems like a superfluous thing, but personally, I absolutely have to have a mouse, and it has to be a full-sized mouse. Doing Finale work with a trackpad is like scrubbing a gymnasium floor with a toothbrush.

3) MIDI CONTROLLER – this trip is the maiden voyage for my newly acquired KORG NANOKey, an ultra-portable midi controller. KORG makes a few other NANO- components, for what I can only assume must be location-driven DJ-types, or DSP composers, which I don’t do. This one is OK; keys can be a little stiff, but it’s better that pecking keys using *cringe* Simple Entry. The best thing about this keyboard by far is that it’s super-slim, and packs very easily into a backpack, which I like especially for plane rides, where space is a premium (I prefer to pack light). It is, however, no match for my stationary 61-key at home.

4) Various cables, USB “flash” drives, Ethernet crossover cable. You never know when you’ll need them, or if they’d come in handy. I was able to print from the hotel printer only because I had a flash drive.

If I were doing a “remote” gig that required a small keyboard, where I could get there by car, I’d go with the Oxygen 8 that has served me so well these many years. Now if only they’d come up with a 64-bit driver… (grumble) I’d also bring an standard USB qwerty keyboard that has a 10-key number pad. I might invest in a USB 10-key pad someday.

Piano music… for trombones.

September 14th, 2010

I made a pledge to myself once: “I will never transcribe or arrange anything for trombones, ever again”.

Ok, hang on… let me explain. Trombone players are a desperate lot, and I’m a trombone player, so trust me, I’m not just saying that to be a jerk. We beg, borrow and steal from everyone. Bassoons, Cellists, Horn players, Flute players, clarinet players, oboe players… piano players.

Ugh… So what’s an instrument family to do? The only sane & safe answer seems to be to write original music for trombone. It’s not as bad as one would think; a good professional trombonist can cover about 4 solid octaves and all dynamic levels, and can create lots of tone colors. And thank the maker, trombone players are a very open-minded and receptive lot (especially if you happen to write good music). BUT, occasionally you have a request for something crazy, and who are you to turn it down? Besides, if anyone asked me how I felt about doing a chart on , I’d be immediately ecstatic, no matter what it was (God, please let it require kazoos). Oh, the exotic life of an arranger.

So, anyway… I’m working on a chart currently that is a transcription of a famous piano piece for, arguably, 4 of the best trombone players in the world. If it were for anyone else, it might be annoying, but I’m ecstatic. If it were any other piece, it would be a bit less of a pain, but I like a challenge, always and everywhere. So on to business!

It’s tricky figuring out how to approach something like this. Lucky for me, I played trombone professionally for a number of years before becoming a chairborne-qualified Finale Ranger, so I know some tricks. Note to Junior orchestrators: KNOW THY INSTRUMENTS. The most well written music can still sound like garbage if poorly orchestrated.

Back to it… The way I see it, there are 2 ways I could go about skinning this cat:

1) Go literal
2) Go liberal

Some pieces seem like they were written to be played by everything and everybody. Bach chorales, hymn tunes. Easy! Virtuoso piano music? Not so much. It may not always be possible, or practical to represent every single pitch of every single octave. In fact, if it’s a piano piece for any winds, unless you’ve got a full orchestra at your disposal, it just ain’t gonna happen. Most ensembles have enough instruments to cover a pretty good span of octaves, but wind instruments in particular have limits as to where things stop sounding normal.

So it’s time to “go liberal”. It’s the point in my chart-writing where I say “f#@! this, it’s my chart now!” I don’t want to suggest that re-writing is the 1st answer, or that radically changing a piece is the only way to go, or that it really makes it “my piece”. There are instances, however, where an orchestration or arrangement is nearly re-writing the piece; examples that come to mind are: the orchestration of Satie’s “Gymnopedies” by Debussy, Stokowski’s Bach “Prelude & Fugue in D-minor”. With others, it’s either a necessity or an open ivitation to be a little free with the interpretation, Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” for example. Other pieces seem to say “this is exactly how you’re going to orchestrate it, like pretty much any piano piece by Debussy.

What about trombones and kazoos…

Up With People… with guns.

September 14th, 2010

You know that it’s time to re-examine your life when the description of the thing-you’re-currently-doing includes “It’s like Up With People… only *fill in blank*”. Seriously, what could possibly go in that that would make it a good thing?

Right after high school, I was in a touring group called “the Kids From Wisconsin”, which (if you aren’t from Wisconsin) is a show troupe of singers & dancers and a small 13-piece band that performed broadway numbers, assorted vaudeville, and top 40’s tunes. It was a tiny bit cornball, very flashy, but very well run, and one of the formative experiences in my life, both as a person and musician. I learned most of the music battlefield lessons in that group, which serve me well to this day. Anyway, I’d heard people describe the show as “well… it’s kinda like Up With People”. Both groups have clips on YouTube, oddly enough, so anyone can check it out. Having never heard them before, I saw a clip of them and I had to grimacingly agree. Sure, it’s the same, maybe if it was run by the USO, which the “Kids” director and creator had actually done in the 50’s. Up until my YouTub-ing I hadn’t heard a performance or otherwise from Up With People, and I’d venture a guess that most people haven’t either, but for some odd Kafka-esque (or Orwellian, take your pick) reason, everyone seems to immediately know, without any further explanation, what “It’s like Up With People…” means.

Anyway, I’m currently on/off the road with the Army’s touring pageant-outreach show, Spirit of America. It is comprised of the various elite Army ceremonial units of the Washington DC area I may have mentioned in a previous post. Fifes and drums, the Army Drill team (my personal favourite) and of course, the US Army Band, “Pershing’s Own”. It’s a 2-act show with a historical drama/musical which gives the TUSAB arrangers a chance to play film composer for a bit, before the “cool stuff” in the 2nd act, performances by the above mentioned ceremonial groups. I overheard a colleague describe it to someone they knew as “Up With People, only with guns.”

Let’s see… singing, check. Positive messages or imagery… mm.., sure, check. Guns? Oh yeah. Lotsa guns. Simulated gunfire of all types in the battle “recreations”, and then the vertigo-inducing drill team gun-juggling. All that cool GI Joe stuff.

Up with People… with guns. Indeed.