Is Music Preparation Part of Your Required Curriculum for College?

I recently heard from my old friend and colleague Sean McMahon.  He and I go way back; we worked together on more than a few hectic feature film score schedules back in the day.  Sean is currently on the faculty at Berkelee College of Music in Boston, and wanted to get my perspective on music preparation at the college level. I thought I would share our correspondence here.

Sean: I’m looking at ways we can help our students with their music preparation skills. What are your thoughts on music prep for college students?

Robert: In my experience, composition, arranging, or orchestration is usually the focus of most music majors who are required to take college level courses in music preparation. For these students, music preparation is nearly always perceived as a lower priority: a sidebar; it’s simply a required course; not a real focus.

However, this perception is a mistake, since music notation is the conduit through which orchestral music (whether for the concert hall or the recording stage) flows, so improving your skills in this area could improve your chance of success in the music business if you are a composer, arranger or orchestrator.

It’s a fact

If you are a young, unknown composer scoring for the concert hall, you will have extremely limited rehearsal time before any performance, and if you are  composing, arranging or orchestrating film or game scores, you will have even *less* rehearsal time. All that to say, a well prepared score and parts can go a long way towards enabling professional level musicians to lock onto your music quickly. Clear and concise music notation with good page layouts will help the musicians do their job, giving the composer, arranger or orchestrator a better performance, more expediently. In a nutshell: sight-readability of your music notation is absolutely crucial.

Sean: What are the most common mistakes you see in scores and parts?

Robert: Here are some general dos and don’ts that may help:

Simplify

1) Vertical Placement:  Lining up similar types of text and line objects so that they appear consistently along the same vertical baseline will allow the musicians to quickly  and subconsciously process each object’s information.  For instance, it makes sense for tempo text, tempo changes and metronome marks to all share the same vertical baseline since they are all tempo related objects. Unless there is something preventing you from doing so (like ledger lines in a part, for instance) techniques like “arco” or “con sord.” should appear along the same vertical plane wherever possible. The musician shouldn’t have to search for anything.

Additionally, font, size and attributes should remain consistent throughout the piece and parts for specific text object types so that a particular font, size and attribute is associated with a specific type of instruction (e.g. like a dynamic).

While we are on the subject of text, I highly recommend that all music majors  become immersed in orchestral music terminology. Memorize as many Italian (French, German) music terms and their definitions as you can, and make sure you can spell them correctly, whether they are English or non-English terms!  🙄 If you wish to create a non-standard term in a language you don’t really speak to describe a technique or feel, take the time to research your source, so you aren’t being insulting or amateurish.

Consistency is paramount. Wherever possible, keep all playing techniques consistently in the same language. For instance, it’s amateurish to type “con sord.” in one section of the score and then “with mute” in another.  The score is a musical story – like any story, typically, it is told in one language, unless it is for a special purpose, e.g. a diglot weave.

If you are copying or engraving someone else’s work, you should leave all terms as they are, but quietly correct any spelling errors. 

2) Visual Clutter: Avoid verbose notations that serve no real unique purpose, but rather, simply add graphical interest. I like to use the example of cancelled key signatures. The cancellation is obvious: the music to the right of the barline is going to be in *this* new key (unless the music is polytonal or atonal).

If the score is atonal, or a commercial film or video game score, it’s a good candidate to have no visible key signature(s).

The new key signature by itself provides all the information needed. For effective sight-reading, the musician only needs to subconsciously process what is up next. The tonality of the previous key center is already history by the downbeat of the new key.

If you are matching music from an older edition, of course, you will want to match the source.

3) Don’t count 100% on the automation tools for layout which the software notation programs provide. You want the best page turns. Sometimes the music notation software actually provides that automatically. I’ve found that the software music spacing tools are a very good starting point, but if you find that you are getting page breaks after two or three systems because there happens to be a multi-measure rest at that location,  you’ll want to intervene with your engraver’s eye to avoid nonsensical page break points.

4) Make sure that overly-tight note spacing (or forced locked systems) are not causing notes or their accidentals or flags to collide with each other in either score or parts. Usually, the best approach is to let the music notation software note-spacing tools work for you rather than trying to override with individual manual tweaks until you have been doing page layouts awhile. Pro level music notation programs all have a way of expanding or contracting the note spacing (punctuation) on a bar by bar basis. (e.g. note spacing does not have to be a global proposition.) The spacing ratio between notes of different durations should always appear consistent which the automated note spacing of the notation programs will help you achieve.

Tools for the job

Be expert with the software tools you are using for music notation. The reality of working as a composer, arranger or orchestrator in this day and age is, you are going to need to be well acquainted with the tools currently in use. For notation, this means you should be an expert in at least one of the major Pro level notation software programs (Finale, Sibelius, Dorico) and it will serve you to at least have a working knowledge of the others currently in professional use.

You should also be fully capable of transferring a music notation file from one music notation program to another via MusicXML. And, finally, there are dozens of extremely useful plugins that can save you time and make your work more consistent and to standard. Learn to use these plugins and take advantage of them in your workflow.

And, while we are on the topic of workflow, if you run into a task that is labor intensive, take note. If you end up having to do the same task more than once during a project, ask yourself if it might be a good candidate for automation. Take a few minutes to research whether there is an existing Plugin that can automate this task for you. Or maybe you could program a Finalescript or a 3rd party macro program for this series of steps in just a few minutes. Because once you do, congratulations; you’re now making more money per hour whenever these particular tasks are required. Oh, yeah…  and you’ll be able to meet those previously impossible deadlines, too!

Learn from others

Sean: Is there any secret sauce you can impart?

Robert: Absolutely. Aside from just generally knowing that a passion for the best music notation quality will translate into work in the real world, one of the most important things is to study music preparation examples by the very best engravers and copyists out there; in the same way you probably are already studying the scores of your favorite films, games or classical music and of your favorite composers. Look at the best examples you can find for both commercial music copying and music engraving for publication.

Don’t get hung up on a particular style. Look carefully at as many of the very best examples you can find, from old handwritten commercial scores and music autography to more modern typeset examples from Broadway or Film, and examples from publishers; in particular, Henle and Bärenreiter to see how the best plate engravings look, for example, and how these publishers evolved their style once computer typesetting became the norm. As you begin to incorporate what you like visually into your own work, something imperceptible begins to happen. Your music not only looks better on the page; it is becoming easier to read.

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