Episode 10: Tools of the trade – Composing
Synopsis: Part one of a two-part series about the tools of the trade. In this episode, I’ll talk about composition tools.
Episode 10: Tools of the Trade – Composing
Hello and welcome to Tonal Diversions. I’m your host, Lori Archer Sutherland, and this is my journey as a multifaceted musician. I’m a composer, clarinetist and more who is navigating the world of is classical music, and I’d love to share my adventures with you.
I thought I’d do a two-part episode on tools of the trade. These are some of the things I use for composing and clarinet playing, and the first episode will focus on my composition tools.
Back to Basics
My most basic tool is a staff paper notebook, a pencil, and a good eraser. Sometimes paper and pencil really are truly the best tools for the job. I really like this for jotting quick musical notes or for jotting notes about what I’m writing. This can be great for sketching out ideas, especially trying out several versions of those ideas. Things like, “Do I want that measure to be a half note and two 8th notes or three quarter notes?” I can more easily keep track of these slight variations on paper than I can electronically.
Writing out several options for a melody is something that I’ve started doing more as a result of the composition class I took. I’d kind of done it in the past, but not to this extent, where I actually actively keep all these slight variations so that I can go back through and decide which one really is the best one, and I can remember what things I’ve tried. I like that all these versions then exist, and I can take time to mull over which one I like the best.
I do eventually switch over and use digital tools, partly because when I go to actually prepare a piece so that I can sell the sheet music, I need things to look professional.
First up is Finale. I have been using Finale since college, which at this point was decades ago. There’s still a lot I don’t know how to do on Finale, and honestly, I feel like almost every project I do on there I have to learn something new. Which is good because it keeps me learning the software and finding out these different things that you can do with it. That said, I am rather fluent just because I’ve used it for so long. Even if I don’t know everything about it, I can set things up quickly. I can input notes quickly. I’m just used to it.
I believe Finale was the first major player in notation software, at least software that was available to people who weren’t directly involved in publishing. There’s still a lot to like about this program, partly because it has been around so long and a lot of people still use it. So it’s a nice program to have, even if you don’t have the most up-to-date version, just because so many other people use this software.
Next up is Staff Pad. So one of the main reasons I wanted a tablet, and specifically in my case, I wanted a Surface Pro, is for this software. It’s amazing. Using the tablet’s pen, you can write music directly into the software, and it turns into printed music. Like I said, it’s amazing. I think this is something a lot of us have wanted for a very long time, and it’s so cool that it’s finally here.
There are still limitations to it, and it doesn’t always like my handwriting. There are times I have to try to input a measure three, four, six times, and it just can be frustrating sometimes. But adjusting the display size does help with that. For the most part, playback is decent and editing is fairly easy. I like some of the features with editing, about moving notes to a different pitch and stuff like that, and some of that is just super easy and pretty intuitive.
Now they’ve added more audio features, but honestly, I haven’t tried them out, so I don’t know how they work. It’s not part of what I do when I compose, and maybe someday I’ll play around with some of those features just so I know what they do.
One thing you should know is that this is not engraving software. You don’t have much control over how the printout looks. I mean, it works well enough for testing out ideas and for getting first run through for a piece or something like that. And for that, it’s very legible and it’s good. I personally wouldn’t actually publish anything using the program. I import into Finale or Dorico first and make it look more professional. But for sharing things with friends and informal groups? Oh, it works just fine.
There is a way to link up a score between several users devices, but I haven’t gotten to use it because I’m pretty much the only one in my immediate circle who uses the software. And there was a catch in that you couldn’t have StaffPad, plus the – I can’t remember if it’s called the Reader – on the same device, and so it meant that I couldn’t have the same experience as someone else using it. It’s hard to explain, but it just wasn’t working for me. And if you’re someone who composes who also is performing, then the set up might not work for you unless they’ve changed it. I went back and forth with their customer service for a little bit and basically told them, hey, as someone who might actually need to play the thing that I’m writing with a group, it would be nice if I could have the same reading experience as other people.
I highly recommend this program. I’ve done so much more composing since I bought this. I love that it gives me so much flexibility to write away from my physical, acoustic piano.
Finally, we’ll talk about Dorico. This is the newest direct competitor to Finale and Sibelius. It’s very promising as it’s built from the ground up with new ideas on how notation software should work. I am planning an eventual series on my experiences with learning Dorico, I just haven’t quite gotten there yet.
I haven’t used this a ton yet, but I have liked quite a few things about it. I do have to remember it’s not Finale, and there are things that aren’t going to work like I expect them to. That doesn’t make them bad. It just is different. If you’ve used any other notation software for any length of time, there will be a learning curve just because it doesn’t work like you expect it to. And that learning curve is going to be different from someone who’s just starting with notation software and Dorico is the first thing that they’ve started to use. I imagine if they start using Dorico for a long time and then would try to use Finale, they would be just as flummoxed as I am going in the opposite direction.
Pianos and More
Then there’s the piano, the keyboard, and piano apps.
There are times I still love to just hammer things out on my acoustic piano. You have all the octavves you need, you have the physical keys, and it’s just nice to just bang it out on the piano sometimes. But there are other times where I either need to keep the sound down or I just want to work in a different spot. And that’s where the keyboard and the piano apps come in.
Piano Time Pro
The first app is Piano Time Pro. On my Surface Pro, I have Piano Time Pro, and it’s a pretty good app for what I need it to do. I really appreciate that it will allow for chords to be played on the piano. There are a few piano apps out there where it’s just one note at a time, and there’s actually some little digital keyboards that, yeah, are just one note at a time, which doesn’t really help a composer. I like that there’s an option to record, and I have used that a few times as I’ve noodled around with different melodies or harmonies.
And even better, I can plug my midi keyboard into the Surface, interface it with this app, and have more realistic piano keys instead of trying to play piano on a computer screen. Which, if you’ve tried that, it’s a little different.
Mini Piano Lite
If I’m out and about and I only have my phone, I’ve used Mini Piano Lite. And I haven’t used it much. It does what I’ve needed it to do. It’s handy to check pitches or chords or something, so it works. But it’s not something I use a lot.
AKAI LPK 25 Midi Keyboard
I mentioned my midi keyboard and that is an AKAI LPK 25. This has been a great tool for me. It’s small, it’s just two octaves of physical keys, and those keys are not even close to full size piano keys. But it has still works well for me. You can adjust the octave up and down with a separate button, so you do get a full range. It’s just that physically you’re only limited to two octaves.
I love using it for note entry in my notation software because that really speeds things up. While there are a few times I wish I’d had more octaves so I didn’t have to switch via the buttons in the middle of a phrase, it’s compact size and easy portability far outweighs the need for more physical keys.
I also use a voice recorder app. I’ve been known to sing or into the native Google voice recorder on my phone and it works okay for quick ideas until I can use other tools to further flesh them out or solidify them.
And this isn’t specifically a composition tool but just a general tool I use for music and that’s my Zoom H2N digital recorder. I’ve really liked the Zoom products for everyday recording. It’s what I used to record this podcast and various concerts and performances that I’ve done. The battery life is great and the capacity that I have with the 16 GB SD card has been plenty for what I’ve needed it for. I can record an entire classical concert with no worries about the battery or the capacity.
To Be Continued
That concludes part one My compositional tools please stay tuned for the next part which I’ll cover some of the things I use in my clarinet playing.
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A selection of my music on YouTube
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Microsoft Surface Pro 6 (Amazon affiliate, but Costco often has good bundles for sale)
AKAI LPK-25 midi keyboard (Amazon affiliate)
Zoom H2N recorder (Amazon affiliate)