Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Go with the "Flow"

Hello everyone! I hope you all have had a musically productive week (well, at least more productive than mine!).

Since last week's post, "The Big Picture," I have found myself preoccupied. You see, that post stirred up a great amount of discussion related to several topics that I didn't anticipate. These included discussions on view mode preference (of which I see I am in the minority based upon my poll), the use of "Staff Sets," and perhaps most surprisingly, a request from a Sibelius engineer as to what additional features could be implemented to help manage "complexity" with composing and arranging. Upon reflection, though, it seemed in my mind that these all related to a single issue - how we manage our own personal work flow.

A large reason I became preoccupied with this topic was because it became very clear though the discussion that there are many features in Sibelius that I simply am not taking advantage of - features that, after experimenting with them for a bit, clearly do assist the composer in one form or another. Many of these features seem focused in two categories - those that provide the user with an increase in speed, and those that help with the "management of complexity." Several, in fact, do both (Sibelius 6's new magnetic layout comes to mind - a godsend feature if I do say so myself).

It made me wonder whether or not I was consciously choosing not to use newer features - if there was a reason that I choose to stick to older, possibly less efficient approaches. For example, I look at features like Sibelius' "Ideas" and think to myself - "Wow! That is SO cool! I'll definitely use that in my next piece!" Yet, to this date I have not taken advantage of it. I can surely see how the feature would assist my creative process, but something prevents me from using it. Is it simply old habits? Or is it something deeper?

After much thought, I've come to the conclusion that I stick to my more old-fashioned approaches not out of laziness, ignorance, or some sense of loyalty to old practices, but rather, because they allow my work flow to match my own creative goals. My work flow has always been about trying to emulate the "pencil and paper" experience on the computer. My goals have never been about working faster or having the computer manage complex ideas for me. It has always been far more important for me to find a work flow that allows me to remain conscious of all tasks that I do, so that in the end writing on the computer was as personal an experience as writing by hand.

In some odd way I actually prefer a slower approach when working in Sibelius. Using the program in such a way forces me to focus on the individual pitches that I compose, rather than inadvertently allowing me to throw too many notes on the page at once (a technique that I affectionately refer to as "vomiting notes"). Additionally, viewing the score in "page view" rather than scroll view or panorama seems essential to my own creative process, since it allow me to see the WHOLE piece as it will look in the end - including empty measures, abbreviated instrument names, page numbers, margins - everything. This is, admittedly, a much slower process than using Panorama/Scroll view, or using Score Sets to see only the staves you need. However, for me, it fits my own compulsive need to see everything at all times.

Of course, there are several newer features that I do enjoy using with great regularity. As mentioned above, Sibelius' "magnetic layout" is, in my opinion, the greatest thing since sliced bread - especially for a composer like me that places dynamics and other markings as I write the notes! I also DO believe that the Ideas panel would fit me in the right situation - I simply haven't really sat down and tried to use it....yet. So, obviously I'm not against the idea of saving time - particularly when it involves something as tedious as fine tuning the score layout.

The fundamental question that I would like to ask everyone thus isn't how one approaches his or her own individualized work flow, but WHY one does. What reasons do you make the work flow choices you make? Is speed a priority? Efficiency? Organization? Or, like me, do you intentionally try to slow yourself down, so as to focus on individual notes? Please share your thoughts!


  1. I can relate to this as I used to work on a very old Toshiba laptop. Note entry was done via the thumbstick and keyboard. It was a rather slow process, and the built-in MIDI didn't sound that great, either. However, the rationale behind that was that it forced me to focus on each individual note—ensuring that they were actually worth being there—as well as forcing my imagination to substitute real instrument sounds for the General MIDI. Working this way, I was able to justify every note written, as well as audiating the instruments' sounds instead of relying on the computer.

    This is different now though, as Sibelius's latest sounds are quite good. I've found that printing out a few pages at a time with hidden whole rests makes the process of filling in the empty spaces quite fast while testing ideas at the piano.

  2. Thank you for another thought provoking blog!

    I heard a wonderful and probably highly exaggerated story about Australian academic Andrew Brown's observation of Steve Reich for his PhD on this very topic. Allegedly, Andrew told Steve that he would just observe him working in his studio and not say a thing. He watched Steve slowly put a bar of music into Finale from his handwritten notes, with the mouse, one note or rest at a time.

    At the end of a phrase, Steve started putting in a repetition, again one note at a time with the mouse. After putting in 4 or 5 phrases, each with the mouse, slowly and surely, Brown couldn't help himself. "Did you know you could just use the Mass Mover to copy and paste that phrase as many times as you like?", he asked. "Of course," said Steve, "but how would I then get a sense of time passing?".

    I don't know if this is true, but it's a lovely story nonetheless and one those of us who have gone from paper to computer all feel to some extent, I feel. By the way, I find when arranging the Ideas Hub is invaluable. I also find it's good when I'm working with students to store and develop ideas they are working on, and I also like using it as an educational tool, to offer young students a number of starting points for their own composition. I've published a series of such lessons for high school students through the Australian Music Centre. And recently shared a Sibelius file on my website where the opening ostinati for Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells are in the Ideas Hub, ready to be put back together (the student has to complete a structural analysis to do this)!

  3. I seem to be a different breed... I love it how the use of notation software speeds up things. Maybe this is because I did not write a lot music using paper and pencil in my life - when began to get into it, I was already equipped with Sibelius (version 1 for Windows, if I remember correctly). Same with word processing.

    My wife, for one, switched to the PC only after having written a huge amount of text by hand and by typewriter. After one year of typing in each and every senctence after having developed it by pencil, her handwritten notes became shorter and shorter. After five years it was only one word and a horizontal line, or so. Now she sits in front of her laptop and performs kind of "air pencil" movements, without a pencil. Looks like Khattak dance, very amusing.

    Rather than deliberately running in clogs I like to rely on a running shoe as good as it can get. If I want to run slower, in order e.g. to have a more conscious perception of the landscape, or to make more conscious and well-balanced moves, I try to do just that, rather than inventing handicaps.

    The imperative behind my workflow considerations could be put like that: after having found the basic compositorical idea without computer, but also without a pencil, just walking around or so, I want the notation software to

    1. allow to get the idea stored as fast as possible, as easy as possible, as less distracting from the music as possible.

    2. ease the elaboration of the basic musical ideas, i.e. arrangement, orchestration etc., I certainly do not shy away from using the acoustical MIDI feedback. Detection of mistakes, i.e. mistranslations from the mind to the score, but also, as the libraries and performance automation become better, checking if some orchestration sounds reasonable (keeping in mind what real players can do, of course)

    3. provide me with readable and cool looking sheets almost on the fly, so that I have to do only minor editing. Thumbs up for magnetic layout!

    4. provide me with a playback sounding good enough to be used as a first layout for, say, a theatre director. Or at least after substituting some solo voices by real performers. That said, it should also be possible to leave some voices played back by the notation software in a hybrid production, e.g. soft pitched percussions which are not so sensitive to being recorded against staying MIDI. Thumbs up for Sibelius Sounds Essential, and all thumbs up for ReWire integration in Sibelius 6, wow!