III. Defensive Composing Strategies
Composers are not keen to abandon Finale (or their specific MEPS) on account of this impressive list of potential pitfalls. Yet, as the program threatens their effectiveness and originality, users (beginners in particular) would likely welcome a number of strategies to prevent any major adverse effects.
Developing a reasonably detailed awareness of the issues, as discovered and explained by previous users, should be the primary step. The second step is to remain on the lookout, constantly questioning decisions the computer makes automatically. Users should also constantly monitor their own decision process, assessing to what degree they are making compromises.
After becoming conscious of the compromises, users should take the time to achieve their original goal, to literally fight the program or to take the time to manually implement all of the steps required by their concept. In this, they can take heart from their teachers’ accounts of processes that took weeks and months of work to complete, for a mere minute of music. They need to remember that the composition process is generally time-consuming, that certain passages may suddenly require an unexpected amount of work to complete, and that composing must be approached with patience. At the same time, if the computer proves to be too much of an impediment, users should be prepared to move on to different software, or, if necessary for a given project, to move away from the computer altogether.
This is more easily done when the composer is proficient at composing with more than one tool. Staying on the lookout for other (both newer and older) tools and processes, keeps the composer’s brain flexible, ready to migrate and to adopt new tools. Even if a given tool doesn’t prove useful at the time, it might introduce the composer to a set of approaches that will form the basis of a program that will become useful. At any given point, a composer should be integrating MEPS amid other composing processes. This will help spread the risk of dependency and error. One of the students I interviewed describes using a variety of approaches when composing a piece:
"I generally start at the piano, which is where I work through ideas, especially harmonic ideas. After a certain point I need to get away from the piano to get a more developed perspective on the piece. I might do some sketches on paper (which can be very specific or very abstract) or walk around and think about the piece (for some reason, walking is important). At a certain point I have an array of ideas substantial enough to go to the computer and start inputting things in, though the computer often comes into play earlier, especially if I am in a hurry. In fact, the ideal process I just described hardly ever happens just like that, and in practice there’s a lot of jumping back and forth between different parts of the process."
He acknowledges being occasionally tempted to take certain shortcuts because the alternative would go against the grain of the program. When that happens, he writes, “I step back and sketch things on paper.”
Composers should be clear about their goals. If playback from their MEPS is their final stage, and they intend to produce music that is fully synthesized, then they are entitled to ignore all the conventions that performers require; they can ignore all issues of playability and legibility. If, however, a live performance is the end product, the use of MEPS playback must be viewed critically and each part constantly analyzed from the point of view of a live performer. To help with this, composers should meet with a performer ahead of the first rehearsal, to ensure that each individual part is performable.
Teachers have implemented different ways of forcing their students to avoid the pitfalls associated with the cut and paste function. Some forbid its use entirely, demanding that, if students truly believe they want the same exact material to recur, they actually go through the process of re-inputting it into the computer. Most often, teachers contend, students will take this opportunity to make variations, which will benefit the piece. Other instructors allow its use but urge students to keep track of the copied material and to treat it as a temporary textural placeholder that eventually needs to be reexamined and most likely changed.
If composers expose themselves to all kinds of music, listening to new pieces and looking at scores, they will naturally discover processes and vocabulary that they may want to include in their own work. Such an exposure can highlight issues with their current process and bring it to their awareness.
According to students I interviewed, professors may caution their undergraduates against certain pitfalls, occasionally requesting that students wean themselves, at least temporarily, from their computer, and switch to writing their scores by hand. One of my student interviewees described his experience as follows:
"Teachers … will say that [composing with Finale] is something that should be done only when one is an accomplished master (as all composition teachers fancy themselves) and has the critical apparatus in place to supercede the limitations of notational programs. So teachers tend to frown on undergrads doing it, but since becoming a graduate student I’ve never had a teacher who had a problem with my doing it."
In fact, according to the teachers I interviewed, there is usually no need to address this issue with their students after the first couple of years.