One of the pieces I’m working on this summer is called Entrance- it’s for flute, alto flute, violin, viola and piano. A nice combination, with a really attractive balance of unity and diversity in timbre.Early in the process of composing, I realized that a lot of the music would have be notated spatially – in other words, instead of using time signatures and rhythms, I would have to use a pretty complex system of cross-cueing among the players.

I took a crack at notating it in Finale. The results were just okay; the process was painfully slow. I tried it in Sibelius, and had the same problem.

So I’ve pulled out my straight-edge, my heavy-duty eraser, a stack of pencils and electric sharpener, and I’m writing large chunks of the piece out by hand. The results are beautiful, and going fairly quickly.

Talk about a trip down memory lane – I started using notation software in 1990 and I haven’t looked back. It’s amazing to re-experience all of the advantages and disadvantages of working by hand. Surrounded by all of these tools, I’m remembering other tools I no longer have, or maybe I still have them but they’re buried so deep in some attic box somewhere, I don’t want to bother digging them out. They’re gone and unlamented. Tools like:

  • Electric eraser – I remember it looked something like a Norelco shaver, with an enormous power cord and an eraser nub that would spin mistakes right off the page.
  • Flexible plastic slur drawer – I don’t think that’s what it was actually called, but that’s what I bought it for: a 12-inch straight-edge you could bend to any shape. Great concept, but the slurs always came out looking really lumpy.
  • White-out – I used to have several bottles on hand – great for shaving a millimeter or two off the end of the staff when a system’s measures didn’t exactly add up to 7 inches.
  • Correction tape – white tape in all different sizes, great for covering up hunks of staff lines in cutaway scores.
    Staff tape – didn’t use it much, but it was nice to have in more experimental scores.
  • .5, .7, .9 millimeter Pentel pencils — .9 for beams, .5 for text, .7 for everything else.
  • Purple “non-reproducing” pencils – for creating a grid so all of your vertical beats would line up. Of course, they were only non-reproducing if you didn’t press down too hard.

Advantages of hand notation? Complete flexibility. Whatever I want on the page, I can put there. The big disadvantage is not so much the time it takes, because I enjoy spending time on my music. The hardest thing is making revisions – no delete button to turn to when you want to cut a few measures.

But I’m actually surprised at what an easy time I’m having to this point. It’s all coming back to me – how to give the ties a nice arc, how to angle the hairpin dynamics, how to stack up chords and accidentals – it’s like tying shoelaces, which, by the way, I only do once every few years. I can’t imagine, though, what notating by hand would be like for someone who was raised on notation software. Where does one learn the rules these days? Why would anyone want to practice a craft like this? Wouldn’t the early stages feel pointlessly frustrating?

But I’m glad I’m doing it now, because I know it’s right for this piece. I love technology, but I try to make a point of keeping a master-servant relationship with it: I make sure it does what I want, rather than bending what I want to fit what it does.

I still can’t seem to resist the urge to hit SAVE each time I finish a page, though.

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