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Old Dog, New Trick

I am a fairly  “old school” writer. Whether writing lead sheets or full scores, lyrics or music, I still work with paper and pencil. It’s intuitive. I can see a lot of measures (or words) at one time. I can scribble and make notes to myself. It feels organic to me. And – I’m fast. I can capture the essence of a song on a sketch pad faster than I can turn the computer on and boot software.

That said – when it comes to doing the “finished” versions of my work, it all ends up in a computer at some point. I’ve been finalizing and storing my lyrics in MS Word for, well, almost forever. And my neatly finished hand-written scores for publication have all been typeset by the various music publishers I work with.

But recently – and much to my own surprise – I purchased one of the two big music typesetting programs. Though several publishers have gently suggested for years I learn Finale, I have resisted, and for three reasons. 1) I see this software as a copyist’s tool, not a composer’s tool; 2)Every publisher has their own way of typesetting, and no writer can master all the variations;  and, 3) It ain’t the writer’s job to typeset the music for the publisher.

(Publishers really should beware writers mastering the art of typesetting. Before long, the writers may begin to ask, “What is it exactly that I need the publisher for?”)

Okay – so before you cast me as a hopeless misanthrope (I am not hopeless.) – allow me to offer a little personal history. I was actually a very early adopter of Finale. Or, at least I tried to be. I purchased the program in 1988, when it was brand-spanking new. I paid $1,000 for it! I (That’s in 1988 dollars, mind you.) I figured the software would pay for itself in saved copyist charges in less than a few months. But – the program was so astoundingly slow and tedious, it was fairly well worthless. I quickly went back to pencil and paper, and didn’t look back for a very, very long time.

(More history – I bought MOTU’s Professional Composer prior to Finale, and it was a colossal waste of money, too.)

But computers have come a long way since 1988. And computer screens have finally gotten large enough to see most of an orchestral score page. (My new 27″ i-Mac is a far cry the tiny Mac SE with the 9″ screen.) Plus, I am increasingly trying to digitize my world – saving space and paper.

S0, I finally jumped in and began working with Sibelius.

But everybody in Nashville works on Finale. Why Sibelius?

I’m sure some who know me well might say I chose Sibelius just to be ornery. It’s true that I have a tendency to zig when others zag. But, in this case, it was a matter of ease and simplicity. Every person I asked familiar with both programs recommended Sibelius, no hesitation. (Even the most brilliant Finale experts I know all curse the program on a regular basis.) Since my point was not become a typesetter on behalf of the publishers, I chose the program that better suited me as a working composer/arranger/orchestrator. I chose Sibelius.

I’ve been learning the program gradually over the past couple months, on my own and with the help of a knowledgeable friend. (Thanks, Dave.) I have light years to go. But it’s gratifying to see the massive pile of paper lead sheets disappear, replaced with beautifully neat digital versions that can be printed in any key. And I’ve turned in a handful of relatively simple writing jobs done on Sibelius. This past week, I took a few days and entered an absolutely monstrous chart from many years past, just as a learning exercise. (150 bars of jazz waltz harmonic craziness for big band, strings and vocals.)

So, while I still begin with paper and pencil (because I still believe the computer is a copyist’s tool), out of self-defense and self-preservation, this old dog is learning a new trick.

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