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.