Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The (better) art of notation

Tips on how to accurately reproduce your scores in Finale and Sibelius.

Today on The Electric Semiquaver, a noteworthy event: a posting on Finale and Sibelius that actually discusses NOTATION.

All joking aside, this is in fact news - almost all of my posts in the past have eschewed discussing notation directly, instead focusing on the craft of composition within notation software. This has been quite intentional on my part, since the main goal of this blog is to help those who compose in notation software write BETTER music, not just PRETTIER music.

However, as I often tell my students: "notation IS communication." It is impossible for me not to eventually cover the topic of notation, as the accurate representation of one's music is vitally important to the success or failure of a given work. Music that is notated accurately, cleanly, and effectively will ultimately receive a better performance then music that is notated sloppily and full of errors.

Of course, simply discussing how to notate your music more effectively in these programs would prove to be an endless discussion. I am not going to make any attempts to cover EVERYTHING that could be said in one post. Today, I am choosing to focus on ways to make your music look more like actual published music - not simply another generic "Finale" or "Sibelius" look-alike.

First off, before you begin using any of the tips listed below, I HIGHLY suggest that you acquire a copy of Gardner Read's Music Notation textbook. This book, old by today's standards, is still IMO the best text out their that discusses the accurate and CORRECT way to notate your music. Many little details, from the correct way to place a tie and beam angles, to advanced notation techniques, are discussed in this text. "But Ken - doesn't Finale and Sibelius do most of this for you?" No. While Finale and Sibelius do have decent default settings, truly taking advantage of these programs requires the composer to understand how to notate WITHOUT leaning on the software (this is especially important in the eventuality that the software notates something incorrectly - which happens far more often than we frankly want).

Ok then, on to the fun stuff - ways to make your score stand out:

1. Change the default type font. I cannot stress this enough - any score that uses Times New Roman as its font automatically looks cheap.

2. On the same topic, don't use "silly-looking" or difficult to read fonts either. Stick with clean type fonts (i.e. New Century Schoolbook, Garamond, Lucida, and Futura are all good examples).

3. Bold many of your score markings. This includes your instrument names, tempo markings, techniques, and score expressions. For those that you feel italics is more appropriate, try bold italics instead. Remember - your score and parts will be read from a distance. Bold type fonts will ensure that those markings are NOTICED.

4. It doesn't hurt to increase the font size of your tempo markings as well - 18 point is quite appropriate for a large ensemble score.

5. Increase your barline width by one one-hundredth of an inch (usually, taking it from .01 to .02). Default barlines are the same width as staff lines. If you look at any published score, you will notice that those barlines are most definitely not.

6. Play with your beam angles. Don't feel that you have to conform to any one approved style (i.e. French beams come to mind). There are several schools of thought in this area, so experimentation is encouraged. Just...don't go nuts. Also, as with barline thickness, you can also experiment with beam thickness.

7. Likewise, play with the thickness of your slurs. Make sure that your slurs and your ties look DIFFERENT.

This is not an all-inclusive list by any means, but it is a good place to start. The bottom line is that you want a score that doesn't look like a default score, and yet still conforms to good notational practice. When in doubt, ask yourself if it looks right or not. If it looks off, it probably is!

Finally, a note about my lack of recent posts: basically, I find myself in a bit of a pickle. I do wish to continue to provide regular posts to this blog, but unfortunately I find myself with less and less time to do so. To that end, I will be making one more post in a couple of weeks, but then afterwards will likely have to go back into hiatus until the summer when I can post with greater regularity. Thank you all for your patience and continued reading!

What about you? Do you have any notation tips that you would like to share? Feel free to post and share!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The New Year - Topic Suggestions?

Kenneth D. Froelich is still alive and kicking.

Happy 2010 everyone! I am currently wrapping up my brief "internet" vacation, and will return to "The Electric Semiquaver" in around two weeks. In the meantime, I would like to offer those of you reading an opportunity to suggest topics that you would like for me to discuss in an upcoming post. Please respond to this posting with your suggestions, and - assuming that I can figure out something useful to say on the topic - will be happy to discuss it!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Annie Gosfield: Student Advisor

This morning, I had the great pleasure of reading the following article by composer Annie Gosfield.

While many composers are asked this question on a regular basis, I found Ms. Gosfield's highly articulate and overall atypical response to be quite refreshing. This article should be required reading for all student composers out there.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Indecision Making

Ways to use Sibelius and Finale to aid in the composition decision-making process.

Allow me to share a little secret with you: I hate making decisions. More specifically, I hate the nervous energy, the anxiety and, the often overwhelming pressure that accompanies decision-making. However, I thoroughly enjoy having MADE a decision. There is a tremendous amount of satisfaction that comes from having finally decided what to do and/or how to proceed in a given situation - especially if it turns out to be the "right" one (although even the "wrong" decision can sometimes lead to serendipitous results!).

So, it is ironic that I find myself a composer, which at its most basic level is an art comprised completely out of decision making. These decisions occur at all levels of the composition process: Do I compose for a string quartet or a saxophone quartet? Do I start fast, slow, or somewhere in-between? Will my first note be a B, a B-flat, or any of the other ten notes available to me (assuming I've chosen to use a well-tempered tuning system)? So. Much. Pressure!

The above examples, though, are somewhat superficial when compared to the big decisions that a composer must inevitably face when in the depths of the creative process. The big question that I am eluding to here is, quite simply: "What happens next?" This is a question that we all wrestle with frequently when composing. We write a section of music, and then find ourselves stuck trying to figure out where the music should go in the next section. Should the music change? Should it repeat? Should it extend what has already happened? Should it introduce a new idea? These are all questions that we all might have when reaching this moment of compositional indecision.

In actuality, we really only have two concrete choices to make as composers when we get to this point:

1. Do I develop what I currently have?, or
2. Do I contrast what I have with something different?

This fundamental dichotomy - to continue or to change - is the basis upon which all other decisions stem from. For example, if one were to continue onward with a new section that functions as a continuation of the previous section, then further decisions need to be as to what developmental techniques and processes should be used. Conversely, if one were to change up the music with a contrasting idea, then additional decisions need to then be made as to what changes need to be made to ensure ENOUGH contrast is established. It is important to note that both of these paths begin with the original idea, and that even if one chooses to contrast their original idea with something new, that new idea should still be linked to the original as a RESPONSE to it.

Both Finale and Sibelius offer the composer a unique tool in dealing with this decision making process: the ability to "audition" several different approaches before choosing which path to take. Using playback, one can compose several different "paths" for the music to take, and then audition each one in turn. While I often caution students to not overuse playback, using it as a way to hear multiple variations of an idea can be quite useful when trying to make a concrete decision. The danger here is that if one listens to the SAME idea too many times, it is possible to convince yourself that this is the only path for the music - all other ideas will begin to sound incorrect, even if they are in fact better choices. Avoid this by listening to all possibilities equally until a decision has been made.

Sibelius offers a second tool here that can greatly aid in the decision making process - the "Ideas" panel. I mentioned a while back that I had yet to use this tool, but always believed that it could be very useful given the right circumstances. Having now incorporated it into my work flow, I now firmly stand by that belief. It is all too often that I will create a musical idea or motive without knowing exactly where this idea will fit. By placing these musical fragments into the ideas panel, I can now streamline my decision process by referring to the ideas panel whenever these key decisions arrive.

Either of the aforementioned decision paths - to continue or to change - can be assisted through this tool. Assuming that I would at some point want to continue with my existing idea through development, I will always ensure that the ideas panel contains my original musical motive as a reference point (a practice which I recently began and now do with every piece that I write). This can be especially useful if my music has developed to the point where the original motive is almost unrecognizable. Having a convenient location to reference this motive is incredibly useful, and serves as a reminder for me as to where all of this music originally stemmed from. Likewise, assuming I will eventually want to contrast my current music with something new, I will also ensure that my ideas panel contains additional motives and concepts that I came up with in the early sketching stages of the piece. Using the ideas panel in this way has the added benefit that all of these ideas can be auditioned within the panel itself before bringing them directly into the music.

While none of these tools will replace the composer's responsibility to actually make the decision, being able to audition these ideas through both playback and the ideas panel allows for the composer to possibly make a more educated decision - especially when combined with good compositional technique and a good ear! In the end, it is the composer's duty to ensure that several possible outcomes have been considered at each key point in the music before a proper decision has been made. A decision doesn't need to be rushed, and while a little "analysis paralysis" might occur as a result of too much consideration, making a quick and hasty decision is a far worse possibility. These compositional decisions are what will inevitably separate a good piece of music from a great one, even if at times they can seem agonizingly difficult.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Wishes

Today is Thanksgiving (at least here in the United States), so I thought it might be appropriate to send my thanks out to all of you who have supported this blog! As you may have noticed, I have been a bit delinquent in posting this month. Do not worry - I am still here, and do intend to continue posting with regularity! Look for two new posts in early December.

In the meantime, have a great holiday and Tofurky!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

FAT musings

A few random thoughts on composing and editing while waiting at the Fresno Air Terminal (FAT).

As a composer, I seem to spend quite a bit of time at the airport. Not traveling, necessarily - but rather sitting and waiting to travel. Ironically, I will be spending more time today at the Fresno Air Terminal (which bears the unfortunate abbreviation of F-A-T) then I will on my actual flight up to Portland.

Of course, with all of this spare time waiting, it would seem like a great time to crack open the computer and compose a little bit, right? Unfortunately, as a composer who likes to have a very specific set up when working, the end result is that my ability to compose (at least in Sibelius) isn't very portable. I have my laptop, yes - but I don't have my keyboard controller (nor do I own one that is truly portable), and - oddly enough - my laptop isn't the computer that I use to compose on anyways. I know - strange. But, that is what I am comfortable using, and I am not about to change that any time soon.

This is why I bring a print out of anything that I am working with me when I travel. Composing on the computer may be my main compositional approach, but when I am on the road I like to work on my music the old fashioned way, with pencil in one hand and a big "fat" red pen in the other. The music that I write during this time ends up getting sketched into the blank measures that are at the end of the score, often resulting with many bizarre scribbles, scratch outs, and pictures that might be more like hieroglyphics than music notation. Additionally, editing seems like a much less painful process for me during this time, and as a result the red pen ends up getting quite a bit of use as notes are changed, stripped out, added in, and transformed. Upon returning home, I often will find myself with an inordinate amount of new material, as well as edited material, all to translate and incorporate into my digitized score.

The strange truth is that by doing this, I believe that my music becomes all the better for having gone through this process. Looking at the printed music on paper, editing what I have with a nice RED pen, and writing new music by hand - even for just a brief period of time - all seem to help me gain a new perspective on my music that I wouldn't have had if I had composed it out in its entirety on the computer. It could be as simple as the temporary change of venue, but I honestly believe that by forcing myself to look at my music using different methods, I end up creating a better piece.

I often muse to myself that I should bring my music "on the road" with me more often - even if it is a simple road trip to the California coast. The truth is that I really do enjoy these brief periods where I look at my music in a more "traditional" light. The change of perspective isn't just helpful - it is needed. It serves as a "reality check" of sorts for me, to ensure that my music hasn't become some sort of computerized monstrosity.

For those of you reading, I might suggest that you find your own way to allow yourselves these brief "computer" vacations - where you break out the pen and pencil yourself and work on your score free from the trappings that these programs can occasionally thrust you into. This is especially so if you find yourself like me, trapped in one specific location and unable to compose anywhere but your own personal workstation. Occasionally allowing yourself these moments may translate into a unique new idea for your composition, a new perspective that simply wasn't evident before, or complete new music that you wouldn't have come up with any other way.

So, if you'll excuse me, I am going to break out my printed score now and sit at the airport bar for a while - red pen in one hand, and a nice black coffee in the other. How romantic.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Hell Mouth

It isn't often that we have an opportunity to read the inner thoughts and musings of an internationally recognized top-tier composer. John Adams' new blog, "Hell Mouth," does just that:

This blog is a must-read, if only because it allows us a chance to further understand Mr. Adams' unique perspective of the world. I have enjoyed reading each and everyone of his posts, and invite all of you to do the same!