To kick off the NewMusicShelf blog, I’ll be posting a four-part discussion on self-publication for composers.
Some Self-publishing Basics for Composers: Engraving
Because I’ve been involved in a fair number of discussions lately about publishing, and because it’s a subject near and dear to my heart, I thought I would briefly tackle the subject of engraving.
When I first started composing, I badly underestimated the value of good engraving. It frankly didn’t dawn on me that one would need to do any more than slap (well-thought-out, well-composed) notes on the page and hand it to a performer. Despite my poor (read: awful) engraving, I still managed quite a number of performances in undergrad (somewhere around 120-130), and was fortunately always on-hand for rehearsals to answer the myriad questions that arose because of my wildly unclear and messy scores.
Finally during my senior year, one of my professors started beating into my head that I needed to start creating presentable scores. We would spend more and more time during each lesson on it – him circling, X-ing, drawing arrows in red pen all over my scores and getting more exasperated with my ugly engraving; me sitting sullenly, frankly resenting that we weren’t spending time on the music itself, and feeling as though it were a horrible waste of time. And that’s exactly what it was – a horrible waste of time. We should have been spending the time discussing the music itself. Because I should have taken the time to clean up the collisions and cramped spacing.
It wasn’t until I moved to New York and started studying privately with a composer who had spent many years as a copyist that it started to dawn on me that this was an important part of the process. He explained in a manner that penetrated my young-composerly self-absorption that we would start the musical portion of my lessons (there was always a literary portion, as well) by cleaning up my engraving and teaching me proper techniques, and if the score was messy enough we wouldn’t make it to the musical discussion at all. Needless to say: at the rate I was paying for lessons, it was in my best interest to stop wasting everyone’s time and start putting effort into the visual elements of my scores. Consequently, my engraving skills have come to be rather good, and I’ve done a fair amount of freelance copy/engraving work. It’s become something of an (moderate) obsession.
For me, the central tenet of good engraving is clarity. A score should be easily readable, and should leave no question in the performer’s mind as to how any given note or passage should be played.
Once you get past the basics of notational practice, there aren’t a ton of hard-and-fast rules. Rather, you have to eyeball most things and nudge them until they look and feel right, and each engraver has his/her own personal approach to the craft. It can be a slow process to learn, but surprisingly quickly it comes to be second nature. Now, as I compose and enter sections of a score into Sibelius from my sketches, I clean up collisions and spacing issues on the fly so that I have less work to do when I’ve finished the piece. What once seemed like torture to me has become, in its own way, fun – and incredibly satisfying.
Now, don’t mistake me – I’m not saying that there aren’t any hard-and-fast rules – there certainly are, such as certain positioning rules (whether articulations / expression markings / technique markings / etc go above or below the staff in X,Y, or Z situation) and font rules (expressive markings are in italics, technical markings are normal). Fortunately, Siblelius and Finale default to a most of these standard practices; unfortunately, they also tend to run roughshod over an alarming number of them, so composers/engravers/copyists have to know their craft and not rely on the software to do their work for them.
But the things that make a score look really good are more subtle, and are testament to the engraver’s craft – the graceful arc of a slur, the way the notes “breathe” without being too tightly packed or too widely spaced, the precision of the placement notes and articulations. Those things that show that time and care were taken in the visual crafting of the score.
The subject is too vast (really) to go into in any real depth here, unfortunately. So:
How can a composer learn engraving techniques? I always recommend starting by comparing your scores to professionally published scores with similar instrumentation. By mimicking the layout and notational practices of professionally engraved scores in your own, a lot of your problems can be solved. But nothing really compares to talking to another composer whose engraving you think is well-done. Ask (nicely) if they’ll take a look at your score(s) and offer pointers on the engraving. Or find out what they would charge for you to take a lesson or two with them, and spend time correcting any engraving issues you may come across. Be an active part of the session – don’t sit back and expect the work to be done for you. Ask questions, point out areas where you aren’t sure if you’re clear enough, and ask for explanations for how they came to the conclusion that X was the solution to a particular issue.
Above all, your scores should speak for themselves. Too often (I’m speaking primarily of young composers, now – we’ve all been there) there is too much reliance on correcting problems in rehearsal. But we can’t always be there when a performer has a question or is confused by how we chose to notate a particular passage. And anyway: it’s a horrible, rude, completely inconsiderate and unprofessional waste of everyone’s time to wait until a piece is being rehearsed to check for errors in the score and parts. (Pet peeve much?)
We should expect of ourselves that our scores are as clear and unequivocal as possible. Our scores are our representatives in the world – they speak for us, and should speak for themselves. If they cannot speak for themselves, and instead rely on us to explain their inaccuracies and obfuscations, they aren’t worth a performer’s time.
Clearly, engraving is a particular hobby-horse of mine, and one I am very passionate about. In future, I hope to write about it with some regularity, and offer more specific engraving tips for those looking to create clean, clear scores.