Adventures in Engraving

Adventures in Engraving

It was great to see earlier this week that Dan Visconti is as much of a font geek as I am. If nothing else, it’s always a relief to know that you’re not the only one who puts that much time and attention towards what you do. Music engraving in general tends to bring out such geekery, partially because of the nature of those who practice it, but also because of the power and freedom it provides. Dan’s musings, combined with the continuing drama of upheaval and uncertainty within both of the major notation software companies (Avid’s Sibelius and MakeMusic’s Finale), remind me both of how important it is for composers to have access to these tools, as well as of my own 20-year adventure with music engraving.

It was 19 or 20 years ago this summer (my memory is beginning to rust around the edges) that I was first introduced to digital music engraving. I had been asked by Art Montzka, the conductor of my hometown community orchestra, to write something for the ensemble—technically my first composition after having written many arrangements for big band—and he suggested that I enter the music into this new software he was learning, “Finale 3.1”. I was already used to the cramped fingers and long nights that went along with writing scores and parts out by hand, but the idea of being able to see my music printed in a professional manner was enough to pull me into this new world. I was curious and dubious at the same time, but once I saw the first pages printed out (in all of its Petrucci font goodness), I was hooked.

Of course, this first try at it was, shall we say, a bit time-consuming. Not only was I still learning the ropes of how the software worked, but I also wasn’t even using the software in the right way. Assuming that this was a wonderful way to create parts, I was writing the score out by hand and entering each part into a separate part file (Flute 1, mvt. 1, Flute 1, mvt. 2, etc.). This made sense to my pencil-to-paper mindset at the time and it wasn’t until later when I discovered the concept of creating a score file and extracting the parts from that one file; needless to say, this was a welcome discovery.

Over the next few years I became fluent (so I thought) at the engraving tool to the point that when I began my doctoral studies in 2001, I was pretty cocky about my notation skills. One day, as I was working on something (probably an art song), the computer lab proctor looked over my shoulder and began to school me on how clunky my notation was. At first, I ignored him—he was a recent DMA grad from the trumpet studio and I was a composer, of course, so what could I learn from him? Plenty, it turned out. Tim was a professional engraver when he wasn’t playing trumpet gigs, and after allowing me ample opportunity to demonstrate my cluelessness, he would look over my scores and give me loads of feedback as to the subtle details that I was missing. Over time, I discovered how to create and massage my own scores and templates with third-party fonts and newly found knowledge about music notation and engraving to the point that I was moonlighting as a professional engraver myself.

Now that I’m in the position of teaching others about good notation practices and engraving techniques, I’ve also become acutely aware of the necessity of learning these tools at an early age. There are still those who feel that handwritten manuscript is a viable option today, but they are mistaken; performers and conductors have become acclimated to engraved scores and parts over the past twenty years and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who will put up with anything other than clear, engraved performance materials. As Dan’s exquisite notation example demonstrates, it is now completely within any composer’s grasp to control the look and feel of their music to the nth degree and as more of us become fluent in truly professional engraving techniques, the more attention we can give towards the actual content of the music itself.

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13 thoughts on “Adventures in Engraving

  1. Danvisconti

    Thanks for sharing, Rob. Yes, every time I reach some kind of plateau in terms of notational skill, some new score or trusted colleague will school me in just how much I still have to learn! Be well, Dan

  2. Bill Sallak

    “There are still those who feel that handwritten manuscript is a viable option today, but they are mistaken; performers and conductors have become acclimated to engraved scores and parts over the past twenty years and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who will put up with anything other than clear, engraved performance materials.”

    Taking great exception, on several points…

    Engraving predates notation software. The notion that engraved performance materials are relatively new is ridiculous. Conflating the two is misleading.

    There are indeed still those who feel that handwritten manuscript is a viable option today; I am one of them, and I am far from alone. (I also appreciate engraved performance materials—anything that’s clear and well-made.) And I can’t help but think that George Crumb, Cornelius Cardew, Ben Johnston, Christopher Adler, Mark Applebaum, and others would agree that manuscript is not dead in the water. (Not to mention that their work destroys any notion that, as Mr. Deemer insinuates, computer engraving is the only “truly professional engraving technique.”) The overriding principle in all of this should be providing clean materials that adhere to basic engraving principles and that provide the performer with the largest amount of useful information in the most concise way possible. And even though notation software is powerful, I doubt that it could produce Cardew’s Treatise, Applebaum’s Taquinoid, etc.

    I certainly don’t want to wholly decry notation software; I use it myself, when the situation is right. And I certainly appreciate Mr. Deemer’s discussion of the importance of basic notational principles (whatever means are used to apply them). It is absolutely possible to produce acceptable, professional, beautiful work with software, and with manuscript. Either method takes time and practice; there is no plug-and-play answer to creating beautiful scores and parts.

    I would rather have well-executed engraved materials in front of me than have poor manuscript. I would also rather have well-executed manuscript in front of me than have poor engraving. All four possibilities exist, and throwing manuscript under the bus is not going to improve the overall situation.

  3. Anthony Donofrio

    I feel that you are mistaken in your opinion on hand-written performance materials. There are many instances where creating something by hand is much easier and clearer than creating something by Sibelius or Finale or the like. This can be especially true for scores that employ some type of non-traditional notation, especially graphic notation, which can be maddeningly difficult to create with software, yet quite simple by hand.

    It also seems that you are suggesting that in order for something to be “clear”, it must be made on the computer. Anyone who has glanced at Black Angels knows this is not the case. Your point that students should become aware of correct engraving techniques is 100% accurate. However, one does not need a computer to engrave. What one needs is to be sure that whatever means they use to communicate their music to the performer(s), it is done clearly. Sibelius and Finale do not own a monopoly on clarity. Your sentence should read: “…you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who will put up with anything other than clear performance materials.”

  4. Sean Newhouse

    What I would chip in about fonts is that the default notehead font on many new scores I see is simply too small. I’m guessing that this may result from silly defaults in notation programs, and what I call the “white space fetish” – the idea that a score looks beautiful if there’s lots of space between staves. Well, it may look beautiful, but for a conductor it makes life so much harder when a score is much taller than it needs to be, with small noteheads/staves. I’d always prefer a score in the style of old Breitkopf with big fat noteheads and staves crowded together, as it just makes it easier to digest a big chunk of the score at once. I think with proper engraving, the vast majority of scores need be no larger than about 9×12.

    Regarding the handwritten vs. computer-engraved debate, I think the industry standard should be the latter. Is it possible to create a truly readable handwritten score? Yes, of course – but can most people do it? No – and as a conductor, I don’t want to have to spend a second longer than necessary deciphering the basic pitch/rhythmic content etc. in a new piece (or any piece, really). There are never enough hours in the day as it is to learn all the music I want to learn!

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  6. Rob Deemer

    Huh…I really didn’t think I had written anything that was controversial on Friday, but between the moderate amount of pushback I see here and ArtsJournal’s headline from this morning (“Don’t Even Try That Handwritten Manuscript Thing With Modern Musicians; Engraving’s Where It’s At“), I realize that I may have after all.


    First off, let’s get something straight – this post had to do with traditional notation, not graphic scores – I’d be the first to tell someone not to use either Finale or Sibelius on their own to create non-traditional performance materials…depending on the style, either a notation system in conjunction with a graphics program like Illustrator or (if we’re talking graphic scores that forgo the “notes on a staff” paradigm altogether) any tool, be it visceral or digital, that will allow for the visual representation of the score.

    Once we have that issue off the table, I would reiterate my initial statement: traditional notation should be engraved, not handwritten, because that’s what conductors and performers have grown to expect. Are there exceptions? Of course there are, but from my experience I have seen zero evidence that handwritten scores are still acceptable. What I have seen is scores returned or vociferous complaints made against handwritten scores/parts sent from professional publishing houses – to the point that the works in question were almost not performed.

    I very much appreciate gorgeous handwritten manuscript – those who can do it well are to be lauded. But as performers and conductors have become used to the clarity of well-engraved notation, as well as the other advantages that notation software provides (editing scores & parts, quick transposition, and digital mockup recordings for starters), it is irresponsible to suggest that handwritten traditional notation is a viable option today.

    Which brings me to the more important point – it is also irresponsible for music schools not to include basic notation skills in their students’ training today. As with other digital advances such as photography, it has become extremely easy for anyone to use notation software with little-to-no understanding on what to do other than to bring up a notation template file, enter in notes, print it off, and use it in their professional endeavors. This could be fixed with a few weeks of training in a theory course – not just how to enter in notes, but how to know what good notation looks like and how to emulate it.

    It’s a pipe dream to expect every music student to know how to create suitable engraving (at least for now), but there’s no reason why composition programs shouldn’t have a required course in notesetting and engraving. A colleague just responded to my post over the weekend complaining that a major job of theirs was thrown into disarray because they had to fire their copyist and create their parts themselves for a professional orchestra – something that they had not been trained to do. As Sean mentions above, it is the industry standard and if composition education is to be truly responsible for their students, it must ensure that this important aspect of a composer’s training is covered.

  7. Tim Rutherford-Johnson

    “it is irresponsible to suggest that handwritten traditional notation is a viable option today”

    Rob, with all respect this is a careless statement, easily refuted. I can think of dozens of major composers, published by major international publishing houses, whose scores are licensed (as performing materials) as facsimiles of handwritten materials. Digitally-set scores may appear later down the line, but that’s not always the case. (cf Luigi Nono, for one.)

    I think it’s also possible (and dangerous) to get fixated on the “computers=good” trope. I have some of those handwritten scores to hand right now, and they couldn’t be clearer. Typesetting them into standardised fonts, formats and spacing would distort their present look and feel – and when ever you distort the look/feel of a notation, you distort its meaning.

  8. Ryan Reynolds

    It seems like many of the comments here are accusing Rob of saying that you can’t make handwritten manuscripts clear. A quick reread of the article and his comment down here will demonstrate that anyone challenging him about whether or not it’s possible is ignoring the point of the article and is twisting words so that they have a platform to brag about their “old school” beliefs and such.

    The argument here is one of practicality. We’re not talking about Mozart, Brahms, or even the current masters that are writing as we speak. What Rob continually comes back to is students – and students, unlike many of the composers mentioned in the comments here, don’t have the luxury of people willing to perform their music no matter what it looks like.

    And when we talk about students, we’re talking about music that 100% of the time is going to CHANGE. As a musician who commissions and performs about 10 works a year (many of which are by students), I can say that if any one of the those composers turned in handwritten parts, it would complicate the process of the commission. There are always revisions to be made: new notes, wrong notes, reorchestration, transposition, etc. Say a composer needs to add five more measures of transitional material for balance – instead of having to rewrite entire handwritten scores and parts, it’s simply a matter of input and type with computers, a far more convenient process.

    Now many of you could come back and argue, well, composers these days have it too easy – there’s nothing convenient about it and the student should feel the blood and sweat of their mistakes and go back and rewrite is all note by note, do it the old-fashioned real way. But there’s another end to that: the musicians for whom this music is being written for don’t want to wait another week for a relatively small rewrite, and nor should they with the tools available to the composer.

    Which brings us back to practicality. Computer notation is not just more practical for the composer, but for musicians too. For students, it’s invaluable, and as Rob says “irresponsible” to not teach them engraving skills on the computer.

    It’s also irresponsible to yourselves by insisting handwritten manuscripts are as viable as computer printed. Many students, without realizing the error in this, will walk into a music store and browse, and when they see a score that’s handwritten, they don’t think “Gee wiz, this is the way music should be.” They think “Man, this must suck so bad that no one even felt like putting it into a computer.” You can insist on old, outdated – though admittedly beautiful and personal – ways of engraving, or you can accept that there are more practical ways of doing this and that the rest of the world has caught on.

    I’m a performing musician; I’ll take a computer manuscript any day over something handwritten, no matter how clear it is. I’m an interactive commissioner; I want to interact with the composer and not have to wait a week to see the result of that interaction. I’m not the only one; you might want to think about getting on board.

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  10. Colin Holter

    Just sticking my head in to point out that clarity is, of course, not the only criterion when it comes to notation. Although I’ve used Finale for years and have no plans to stop, I recognize that there are as many composer-performer relationships as there are composers and performers – and that some of those relationships are enriched by particular unclarities of notation. For instance: I have a strong suspicion that I’ve engraved some of the music Bill Sallak has played; I’d bet that the difference between his rendition of one of these manuscripts would differ from his rendition of an engraved version in ways that go beyond difficulties of legibility and affect his interpretation of the piece.

  11. Bill Sallak

    It’s a real pleasure to be part of such a fertile discussion. I hesitate to reply only because of the ouroboros-like tendency for comment threads to deteriorate into tit-for-tat squabbling. Not that that’s happened in this post—quite the contrary—but it’s a steep and slippery slope that few enjoy going down.

    And, an apology: I really should be referring to “Dr. Deemer” instead of “Mr. Deemer.” Whether or not offense was taken, I’m sorry.

    Colin, I’d love to know what music you’ve engraved—what I can say right now is that the vast majority of performance materials I receive are of excellent quality, so please accept a blanket, probability-based, but sincere “thank you.”

    I’m glad for the clarification about non-traditional notation and its place in this discussion; that’s something that wasn’t made clear in Dr. Deemer’s initial post. It only addresses some of the music by the composers I mentioned—here’s a page from Mark Applebaum’s Straitjacket that is easily comparable to Dan Visconti’s “augmented traditional notation” example that Dr. Deemer mentioned in the main post earlier. The Johnston string quartets, with their extended systems of accidentals etc.; or Feldman’s late chamber works, with their simultaneous and seemingly-contradictory time signatures; or, I reiterate, the works of Crumb; are similarly comparable to the Visconti example. It may very well be easier to do some of this on a computer, but the notion that propagating high-quality manuscript is “irresponsible” doesn’t pass a smell test—unless Dr. Deemer would like to describe the specific moral shortcoming(s) that he attributes to these composers.

    By claiming that manuscript—even high-quality manuscript—is, without qualification, unprofessional and “irresponsible” (synonyms: reckless, untrustworthy, capricious), Dr. Deemer sets far too high a bar for his own argument. Better to simply advocate for composers at all career stages to make professional-quality performance materials, period.

  12. Anthony Donofrio

    A few points to make:

    1. You are posting in a forum about new music, and you are using very broad and general terms such as music, notation, performance materials, piece, etc. To speak in these terms, but then come back and say that you didn’t mean graphic or “non-traditional” notation, is having it both ways. If you meant to exclude these types of notation, you should have stated so in your original post.

    2. Positing a view that computer notation is the only acceptable (a term you use quite often) way has dire consequences to the exact point you’re trying to make, which is the education of students. Here are three:
    1. Emphasizing computer notation does not develop the skills of writing by hand, which affects drafts and sketches which are critical to the composing process.
    2. This encourages composition at the computer, along with relying on the computer to perform basic operations, such as transposition (which was listed as an advantage), inversion, retrograde, and other material-generating skills. Being able to clearly write music at the piano while working on a composition opens the doors of creativity, which again, is what we want our students to have.
    3. Because I feel it is very much still “on the table”, this discourages any type of notation that is not traditional. In today’s day and age, we are seeing many pieces employing different types of notation, and to discourage non-traditional methods is hindering the educational process.

    Yes, I agree that composition programs should have courses (plural) in notation and software. If you were to lead a charge to require all programs to add this to their curriculum, I would walk beside you and support you every step of the way, but only if this includes proper manuscript skills.

    3. I don’t think it’s practical to suggest that 1. A “few weeks in a theory course” can fix “little to no understanding” of notation software, and 2. Theory teachers simply have a few extra weeks of time just lying around at their disposal. As you know, most undergraduate theory curriculums run on a four-semester sequence. This leaves about 10-13 weeks in semester 4 to cover 20th-century techniques. To add, as you suggest, 3 weeks of notation software instruction will cripple any chance of students grasping this extremely important information (the 20th-century techniques). I can assure that we do not have the time to simply insert 3 additional weeks of material into our already overstuffed curriculums.

    As for Mr. Reynolds, no one is bragging about “old school beliefs”. I don’t think someone advocating for graphic notation is “old school”. Furthermore, your assumption that students will discount a piece of music because it is hand-written is absurd. What’s even more absurd is the way you think they will discount it by thinking “Man, this must suck so bad that no one even felt like putting it into a computer.” If we follow your logic, this means that everything by Crumb, Cage, the first 2 Carter quartets, and original prints of Feldman (who I’ll return to later) “must suck”. This suggestion is blatantly disrespectful to the composers mentioned, composers who still use hand-written manuscripts, and, most importantly, any serious music student.

    Deemer’s point is that we need to teach students how to make clear performance materials. This is 100% true. I would go further and say that not enough has been done to teach this skill to our young composers. However, suggesting that writing by hand is no longer acceptable, viable, or practical is wrong. I’ll leave you with this: The late chamber scores of Morton Feldman, scores such as For Philip Guston, String Quartet 2, and Crippled Symmetry, are all in traditional notation. They are not aleatoric, graphic, or indeterminate. Yet, if you were to write in this style, you would be hard-pressed to convince someone that writing it out by hand is less practical than doing it by computer. Thanks for hearing me out.

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