My journey through music notation
My journey into music notation is a long and fascinating one. It starts all the way back around the turn of the millennium when, as a young cellist, I was practicing from a certain edition from a certain publisher whom I will keep unnamed. I was deeply dissatisfied with the quality of that score’s notation, and I felt it was actively hindering my progress as a cellist.
At the time, my father, a guitarist and Suzuki method teacher, was using music notation software to compose small pieces and arrangements for his students. He used Encore 4 and, later, Finale 97. Back then, the number 97 meant “version from the year 1997”, just to avoid you getting confused by the current version being 27 and thus not coming from the future. He gently introduced me to Finale and, by version 2001, I was able to produce my first acceptable-looking scores.
Anyone who has used Finale knows how little it does automatically for the user, and yet how, still today, it is the most flexible and boundless software of all those available. I studied it so hard that I even held a conference in 2006 teaching a class of guitar professors how to make the best use of it. Back then, the landmark of an amateurishly made score in Finale was the dangling system in the last page. This was one of the subjects I covered.
Around 2008 I started to look at Sibelius as a possible alternative to the frustrations Finale was giving to me. I purchased a cross-grade license to Sibelius 5 (the blue box, a tear down my cheek…) and, honestly, I never looked back until, well — now. Stay tuned for news on this front!
When, in 2011, I finally began to practice music notation as a profession, I wrote to countless music publishers around, most of whom did not reply. I also contacted that publisher who, so many years before, had made my student’s life miserable. My scores were just so much better than theirs, so it came as a surprise when the person responsible for that publishing house replied to my engraving examples saying that my level was not high enough. Very well, I said, I will keep practicing until I get good enough! For the records, I wrote this man two more times since then, and while in the last one he couldn’t say my level wasn’t good enough, he still refused to give me a chance to work for them. No problem, every closed door opens a different one somewhere else!
Luckily, already by 2015 my activity as a musical typesetter and score designer was going quite well, and I didn’t have time for much more. Then, in 2018, something happened that changed my way of working for the better: I bought a 12.9-inches iPad Pro with the Apple Pencil. Until then, my proofreading had been done either directly on the computer screen, or by printing the music on paper and then correcting with a red pencil or stylus. Being able to zoom to impossible levels and mark up with the digital pencil every single detail, immediately doubled the quality of my scores, something everyone from customers to colleagues noticed. Of course, do not think that having an iPad will improve your notation, it doesn’t work that way. You need to know what to look and aim for, and this is what this announcement is about.
Where is the music engraving business today?
As a music engraver, I have been very lucky as I have (almost) always found customers who were in a financial position to pay for my services which, while not expensive in itself, are akin to having an employee on your payroll. This includes the interstellar luck of still being able to work as personal copyist for a composer, a profession that, if not totally extinct, is becoming very rare. I recall what French composer Henri Dutilleux (1916–2013) said about this:
“I would be lost without my copyist”.
Now imagine a composer, who needs to practice piano, counterpoint, harmony, compose their pieces, and then also learn a software, copy all their music and take care of how it looks. What do you think will be the result? I tell you: their music will forcefully lose in quality, since the time needed to learn the software will be taken from the amount previously dedicated to honing one’s compositional technique.
Until, let’s say, 20 years ago, composers were paid well enough for their creations that they could a) live from it and b) pay a professional engraver to take care of making their music be the most beautiful ever. This had several advantages, besides the obviously economical ones, one being the close relationship developing between the composer and the copyist. After some time spent together, the composer could be sure that the copyist knew their music as well as their own pockets, saving a considerable amount of time. Of course this still happens today, but the number of composers with this luck—or luxury, or both—can be counted on the fingers of one hand, trust me.
For the majority of composers, this is history as they now have to develop an impeccable technique, develop an original style that may emerge among the crowd, produce a lot more than before to compensate for the rough halving of fees, and, finally, engrave their work.
Wait—you may say—I understand that they no longer have the means to supporting an engraver, but publishers still care about the quality of their engravings, don’t they? You know, those big names, Bärenreiter, Universal Edition, Schott, Henle, Peters, Breitkopf … if the composer’s music is good, they will take care of it, right?
Well … yes, and no, and I am in no position to share what I know about those publishers, nor I am willing to express my general opinion on the direction some of them are walking. I can only tell you that most of them want the composer to already provide the engraving file to the best of their abilities, and will not accept something that requires too much work. Then, if the composer is lucky, the publisher will take great care of the output, investing the necessary amount of time and money to make it the best score it can be. In most cases, though, it will not be so, and this makes me sad because I grew up looking in awe at certain publishers’ engravings. Now I have to cover my eyes not to see how low those same publishers (or, well, their managers) have accepted to go.
Modern software has come a long way recently in making the scores look better than before, but they are in no way going to replace human judgement anytime soon. Consider that many publishers still use old versions of Sibelius or Finale because they would rather not transition to the subscription system of the first or to buy the updates of the second, and you will understand why the overall quality of distributed music is falling. There is even a new service where the composer pays a monthly fee, sends their score in and, if accepted, gets their music printed and distributed, receiving a cut on every sale.
So, you see, the business is changing, and yet, overall quality around is plummeting to the ground. That’s why I had to do something.
How to get around this?
Some years ago I started to collaborate with a composer from Australia, who, of course, didn’t have a pool of money from where to fish to pay my engraving services. He had already input the music in Sibelius and just needed a beauty treatment, something that would make the performers happy about what they were playing. We therefore introduced a budgeting system so that he would state what he was comfortable to invest in this work at present, and then I would need to achieve the maximum possible with that budget. It was a thrilling experience because it obliged me to think about my priorities, about what had to be taken care of, and what could be left for a future revision. Indeed, after the first performance, he came back and decided to invest a bit more to make the score look even more professional, with the last chunk of work left out for when the piece would have eventually been published.
Some publishers and composers nowadays —especially from Anglo-Saxon countries—ask you a quote and that is something I am not particularly fond of, since every score is different and has different priorities. I have my means of calculating more or less what it takes to make a score look beautiful, but usually, my quotes end up on the high side and somebody else has already undercut that offer. I hope you see that this is not the best way to get the best result, rather just the best way to spend the least amount possible.
Proofreading for a better future!
So, where were we?
Composers have no money to invest, and publishers often aren’t concerned about the result because they think those desperate musicians will just play from whatever they put on their stands. In the end, we all lose … and yet, I would rather not surrender.
That is why I decided to offer a new service to composers, arrangers, teachers, and all musicians who create scores for their work, or even just for their leisure. It’s called MUSIC NOTATION PROOFREADING, and it will be available starting today. But how will it work?
- The composer/arranger will send me a PDF of the music they have already typeset in their software of choice.
- They will describe to me what they are eagerly awaiting to achieve.
- We will, together, discuss a budget or a level of details that they would be comfortable with.
- I will then move to my iPad and mark up their PDF with all kind of details that, I think, would improve their score. I would make several copies of it, annotating on each of them different kind of suggested improvements.
- Finally, I will send the annotated PDF(s) back to them and, at this point, they will be free to go on and improve their score in total autonomy.
Of course, if the composer/arranger thinks that I should take their engraving file and improve it myself, that kind of service is still available as it has always been, no change in there. If they’d rather organise a lesson or two on the software they used to create their score, perhaps with screen-sharing, that will also be possible.
In the end, I am at your and your music’s service!
Why do I think this is a great opportunity? Because it’s pedagogical, because you will learn something, and I will learn alongside you how to best help you achieve your musical goals. In the end, we will all win here, and your music will look so good that everyone will want to play it.
How to try this?
This is all nice, right? But what if you do not know if this service is for you? Can you try it? Of course, you can. If you have a Facebook account, go to this link where the announcement post is stored, and comment saying that you would like to try the service. I have reserved this for the first 10 people who will comment, so do not wait too long!
If you don’t have Facebook, please comment here under this article. I will see what I can do. After the trial period, you will be able to reserve your spot by using the contact form of the website here (click the Contact button in the top right of the menu bar).
So, that’s the end of today’s announcement, I hope you enjoyed my personal reading of the current standing of the music notation business, and my personal take on how to enhance it.
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Thank you so much for reading through here, and please let me know what you think of this, and if you have any request or suggestion, go ahead and leave it in the comments below.
Until the next one …