Ep. 6: Setting a High Bar For Music Preparation and Engraving: Interview With Scoring Notes' Philip Rothman

Episode Description:

Today I’m talking to Philip Rothman, founder of NYC Music Services, and one of the world’s foremost experts in music preparation and music notation.  He is also co-host of the podcast Scoring Notes, which covers news and developments of all things related to music notation software.  Be sure to check out Notation Central, where Philip offers a treasure trove of free and paid resources for users of Finale, Sibelius, Dorico, or Musescore.

We talk about all the work that needs to happens after a composition is finished to prepare it for publication, the differences between music copying, music preparation, and music engraving, as well as how to get the most out of music notation software.  It’s an eye-opening conversation that sheds light into a corner of the music industry that doesn’t normally get a lot of attention.

Featured On This Episode:
Philip Rothman

Philip Rothman is the editor and principal contributor to Scoring Notes. Philip’s a Juilliard-trained composer and orchestrator with two decades of experience preparing quality materials for professional clients in the music industry. Philip’s music preparation firm, NYC Music Services, provides music services to professional clients and has worked on thousands of projects ranging from simple transpositions to large opera productions.

Episode Transcript:

*Episode transcripts are automatically generated and have NOT been proofread.*

Well, thank you for being here today. As somebody who uses Finale every single day of my life, this is sort of a fanboy moment, so I really appreciate you taking the time.

But for our listeners who may not be in so deep to notation software, could you just talk about NYC Music Services and all of the different things you’re involved with? Sure, I’m happy to do that, Garrett. And likewise, I may become a fanboy of yours because I’ve been enjoying the podcast episodes that you’ve been putting out so far and appreciate everything that you’re trying to do to educate people about selling sheet music, which, as we all know, is surely the way to fame and fortune. That’s right.

But, you know, look, it can be a living or at least part of one’s living, and I think that’s a good thing for people to know about and get ideas about. But yeah, with respect to NYC Music Services, it is something that I realized I needed to do to basically separate the composing aspect of what I do from the music preparation side. And I had seen that music copying, especially for those composers that don’t go the academic route, which a lot of people do, they often get their teaching degree, and that’s how they make a living as a composer, and then they can compose on the summers or whatever.

But some people, they were doing music copying, but only as a way to bridge the gap between composing gigs. And as soon as they got a composing gig, they might jettison their music copying clients. And I didn’t want my clients to feel like I was going to bail on them, you know, when I got the next major orchestral commission, whenever that may be.

And so in 2007, I made a decision to separate the music prep side from the composing side. And what it started out was basically music copying, taking people’s manuscript, whether they be actual handwritten manuscript or notation files or MIDI files, and converting them into nice, beautiful sheet music digitally using Finale, later Sibelius. And then later on, I realized that a lot of people didn’t actually have a way of taking it the last mile, which was the printing aspect.

And I started contracting with printing services that did that sort of thing. And then I was like, you know what? If I want to really have full control over this, I need to bring this in house. And I started getting equipment.

This was over time. It wasn’t all at once, but I started getting better printers, binding equipment, stapling equipment, high quality paper and all that stuff. And what happens now a lot is that people contact me just to do the printing aspect.

They’ve already done the music prep. Either somebody else has done it for them or they’ve done it themselves, but they need a set of orchestral parts to send for their latest commission. And so you can send files to me and say, I need this sent to the New York Philharmonic, let’s say, and strings printed at 98765 and two copies of the full score.

And oh, by the way, there’s a bad page turn that needs to be opened up in the second clarinet. If you take that to your local copy shop, they will just look at you and just stare at you and not know what that, what is 98765? You know, so there’s a shorthand there and I know what needs to be done. It’s also specialty paper.

As you know, Garrett, that we often use to print materials like that. And especially if you’re doing full scores, that’s done a certain way. And do we do it accordion bound? Do we do it staple bound, booklets, coil bound and all that stuff? And then as the business has progressed and needs have changed, I’ve started doing other things as well.

And I still have a hand in doing arrangements and orchestrations for film and television. And that’s something I had been doing for a while and still work on a few projects a year and really more and more have gotten into the publishing side of the business, not as a publisher per se, but what I would say is as a publishing agent. So say you’re a composer and you’re self-published, meaning you own your copyright, but you still need to find a way for the orchestra to acquire your music or to rent your music or to license it for a synchronization license, that sort of thing.

Well, I will perform those services and I have a handful of really terrific composers that I work with that I perform those services for in addition to the printing and all of that. And yet they are their own publisher, which means they retain all of their performance royalties, ASCAP, BMI, that sort of thing. And so the orchestras and other entities deal with me as if I were their publisher for all intents and purposes.

So that’s something that has been taking up a lot of my time over the past few years that accelerated over the pandemic and really has persisted. I’m curious along the way, was there something that grabbed your interest about music preparation? Was it the technology? Was it the collaboration? Because like you said, for most people, it’s sort of a step on the ladder. I mean, you don’t see a lot of people who go to Juilliard to become a composer and then decide, you know what, I’m going to go buy a printing shop.

Right. Yeah, that’s true. It’s a good question.

And speaking of Juilliard, because that is where I got my master’s, they actually asked me for the first time to come to one of their fall practicums and talk specifically about this part of the industry because it is something, as you said, is not often discussed or taught. What led me to it? I don’t know. I mean, it’s a combination of just interest in the technology.

I’ve always been interested in tech. And yet, for some reason, I don’t really consider myself like a tech head, but it’s something that I always know that I want to stay current. And the other aspect of it is that I just have a real interest in the way music appears visually.


I don’t know when I started having that interest or taking a notice into that, but I guess it’s just something that developed over time. I don’t think of myself as particularly artistic. In fact, I’m a terrible artist and I can’t draw anything really to save my life.

But I think I have a pretty good eye for design or at least the way things should align and assemble and be composed, not in the musical sense, but literally composing different visual elements on the page. Before we get in too deep, let’s kind of get our terminology straight. And I know there’s some overlap, but what’s the difference between, say, music copying, music preparation, and music engraving? You know, we use these terms somewhat interchangeably.

I would say music preparation probably is the overall phrase that we would use for things like taking someone’s manuscript and turning it into nicely notated music. I’ve been for many years going to the conference of the Association of Performance Librarians, formerly known as Major Orchestra Librarians Association, MOLA. And what they do is music preparation as well.


They prepare music to get it on the stands, as one of my good friends Nicole Jordan says, to the right person in the right place at the right time. Music preparation can also entail the orchestration or the arranging side of things that’s not directly composing. But again, what do you need to do to get this song that might have already been written for one set of forces and either chop it up or rearrange it or get it into a form that is going to be for the intended purpose, whatever that may be.


So that’s music preparation. And then, you know, we talk about music copying. I mean, it is kind of what it sounds like.


It is literally copying the music, typically copying from the full score to a set of parts and making sure that the parts are extracted. And that’s a term that we use sometimes as well. Typically that is in the commercial side of things or what we would consider more one-off uses.


Not always. I mean, obviously Broadway music, that music perpetuates on and on and on, but it’s usually done kind of in that sort of context. The engraving side really has, at least historically, has referred to the published side of things.


And it’s there where you might obsess a little bit more about the thickness of the slur, the width of the bar line and the font choices and all these other things. And that term comes literally from engraved music where they would take lead plates and you can see those videos. You’ve probably seen the Henley video that makes its way around all the time.


And they are literally engraved in reverse onto lead plates, the music. And it’s kind of set in, I was going to say set in stone, but it’s set in lead. And it’s permanent, you know, as opposed to music copying, which like I said, in just a second ago, Broadway, notoriously, there are always changes.


There are always revisions. The music changes all the time. Now in the digital age, all these things converge and we use the same tools for all these things.


So the terms are a little anachronistic, but they persist and they can often be useful shorthands to refer to one side of the industry or the other. So the focus of this episode is what it takes to get your music ready for publication. And I would expect a lot of our listeners have at least experience with writing something in notation software and putting it in front of a group.


You know, maybe they’re a teacher and they’re writing for their own choir or a private student or something like that. Is there a difference between how music should look, as you said, in these sort of one-off situations versus, okay, this is going to be published, so I need to do X, Y, Z differently? Clarity is paramount, first and foremost. And the main differences that you see, whether it is something that is a one-off or something I should say that is subject to change and something that is intended to be mass produced and engraved, is typically the way the music is laid out.


If it’s a session chart or a commercial piece of music, you might be generous with the music spacing. You might leave a lot of blank space in the part so that people can literally handwrite changes in. Or if the song is of a regular form, you know, every eight bars, you might take pains to make sure that the start of every phrase begins at the start of a new system so that those rehearsal letters all line up and you can just jump around or we need to cut, you know, hey, guys, we need to cut from letter B to letter D or we need to cut measures 17 to 33, whatever it is.


And just, oh, okay, there it is. I can see it. I understand the form.


When we’re talking about publication and, you know, again, using that term engraving, you might be concerned with costs and also how many pages are you going to take up when you prepare music in that way? If you’re printing at scale and say you need to print 100 copies or 1,000 copies or whatever it is, every page or I should say every four pages if you’re printing a booklet, if you can sneak something off of that fifth page and get it all into four pages, you’ve saved yourself an entire double-wide, you know, folio sheet of music over time. That’s going to add up in terms of cost. So, yeah, those considerations come into play.


There’s no one hard and fast rule, but again, there are a few basic things that always need to be there. Obviously, all the notes need to be correct and all the global markings need to be there. Everything needs to have all the rehearsal marks.


I’ve seen sometimes people apply global elements as staff text, and so only the flute part has the tempo changes, but nobody else had them. So that’s kind of a novice mistake that people make with notation software. So, yeah, those would be the things that I would at least start to consider when you’re preparing music for publication.


Is it different if your publication is going to be digital only? If you’re not concerned about saving an extra page because it’s going to be a PDF anyway? Yeah. Or maybe this is the bigger issue. You’re not in control of how it’s printed or what it’s printed on.


Yeah, that is something that we do have to think about more and more. In fact, that was just literally moments before we started speaking corresponding with a conductor who is going to prepare all the charts for a big symphonic production on his iPad. And these are 11 by 17 tabloid charts, but he likes it, even though he doesn’t need to necessarily know what every single note is.


He needs to kind of have the broad strokes of the piece, know where the big changes are. This is fairly straightforward music. And so he just needs to know when to put a cue in and all that sort of thing.


But a lot of players, especially chamber music, certainly a lot of popular music, they do everything on iPads. So that is why page size kind of comes into play. Like there are sometimes these formats that are 10 by 13 or larger.


I’m talking about 10 inches by 13 inches. And the staff size is like 6.8 millimeters. Okay.


Just on the edge of being readable if it’s printed at a hundred percent and put on the stand. But then you have to shrink that down to an iPad, which is maybe only about an eight by 10 viewable size. That’s getting pretty small.


So what I have found, it just so happens that nine by 12 is a pretty good size for printing a lot of music, whether or not it’s going to be paper or it’s going to be digital. And the reason for that is nine by 12, you can still get enough music on the page. So you’re not turning the page every couple of bars.


And yet at the same time, when it’s put on the stand, it’s readable. It’s the standard size. It has been for a long time for published music.


You know, if you go to the store, if these still exist, if these music stores and you get a piano vocal book, it will be in the nine by 12 size. And then if you want to put that on an iPad, basically what you need to do is just crop the margins because you really don’t need all those. I mean, obviously if you’re printing on paper, you do need at minimum half an inch or more all around the page, just so you have some space to put your fingers to turn the page and make sure that the ink doesn’t go off the page.


But on an iPad, you don’t need that. So you can crop that effectively down to the size of the iPad without reducing the staff size at all. And then with respect to page turns, you know, it’s still good to try to put them in logical places because you just never know.


Technology is not infallible. You could potentially need a paper copy and then you do need to turn the page. So I still try to put them in at least on the odd pages.


But you’re right. Sometimes it’s less of a consideration people turning with their Bluetooth pedal or what have you. And it’s less of a concern.


When you are fiddling with the page sizes and adjusting margins, are you doing that in notation software or are you exporting it and doing it in some other way? Usually I’m exporting it and doing it in Acrobat basically because there are other PDF tools that you can use, but Acrobat is the best and it’s the most expensive. And so, you know, sometimes you do get what you pay for. You have a whole lot of options.


You can do a whole lot of things in Acrobat and that’s what I use. Is there anything else besides Acrobat that you use regularly to prepare music? You know, you’ve got your notation software and then you’ve got that to handle the PDF side. Is there any other programs we should be aware of? Well, so I guess I should clarify.


If somebody has already prepared something in notation software and I need to quickly edit, like for some reason I need to edit the title or add a page or something like that. But for a lot of other tasks, I actually use software that I helped develop. I commissioned them from my good friend Abraham Lee and I should say in one of the cases co-commissioned them with the late Robert Puff, a very respected, notable colleague in the field.


He and I jointly co-commissioned the PDF Music Binder, which is like a Swiss Army knife of setting up music for the specific thing that I just mentioned a second ago, which is bookletized printing. And it can also do accordion style printing. But there’s a suite of apps that I offer on Notation Central.


You can download them for free. You can pay a little bit of money to help support them. I do occasionally need to update them either to add new features or to just keep them current.


With the operating systems, we had to do that. I think it was last year. And so we have four of them up there.


It’s PDF Batch Scale, which again does what it says. It can very quickly scale a bunch of PDFs up or down a size, whether it’s letter to concert size or vice versa. PDF Batch Booklet, which bookletizes the music.


PDF Batch Stitch, which stitches them together, makes basically one combined PDF out of many PDFs. And the cool little thing that it can do, I mean, you can do this in Acrobat or a lot of other software. One thing that it does automatically or there’s an option to do it automatically is just add a blank page for all the PDFs that have an odd number of pages.


And what that means is that the start of every new song or every new movement will start on the right page always, which is really helpful because that way you’re not printing one song on the reverse of another. So if you need to quickly swap one out, that’s helpful very much in music theater context and other contexts where maybe a particular song or two is changing. And then the final one, like I said, is PDF Music Binder, which kind of combines the elements of all those things, resizing, bookletizing, printing multiple copies.


And I use that all the time. When people ask me how to present their music, my kind of go-to response is, well, you need to look at what published music in your niche looks like. And I was looking at the Scoring Notes website before we spoke, and you have those blog posts about the old handwritten scores that you took in and you recreated in notation software.


So I guess, what’s the best approach for looking at something that’s printed and not knowing how it was done and trying to copy something? You know, if you find a piece of music and you really like the sizing or you really like the line thickness or those sorts of details, how do you kind of figure out how to recreate that and draw elements from that in your own music? I think you kind of answered your own question there. I mean, basically, you look at it and you just take it step by step. Okay, if you like the font, what’s the font that’s being used? How is the music laid out? How is each entrance of the music presented? How do they separate voices out? How do they deal with all these different situations that we come across in music? And it just, it only comes from looking at just a boatload of different types of music and encountering situations, some of which may be the same situation for which there were different solutions.


That’s one thing. Or just different situations that you have to learn about. And then it’s like, okay, well, what did they do? What is the optimal thing? And sometimes it’s better to invent your own than copy what was done because not everybody knows everything.


It’s like, just because something was done one way, is it the best way? Like, for instance, bar numbering. If you look at some old editions, there’s no bar numbers anywhere. There are rehearsal marks.


There are rehearsal letters. There are no bar numbers. They didn’t need them.


You know, the form was regular. Here was the exposition. Here’s the development.


Here’s the recapitulation. Good old sonata leg reform. We kind of know where everything is.


Not to mention, there was also a technical reason is that it’s very tedious to number bars. Not to mention, what if you miscount? It was only basically a human that had to go through the parts like 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45. 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52.


Okay, what if you get one off? And then now you have incorrectly numbered an entire part. And it’s like, now I’ve got to go and either re-engrave it, literally, you know, very tediously, undo what you did, or erase it if you’re hand copying it, or cross it out, or all that. So there was a reason not to commit to ink the bar numbers.


The only time that we saw it, or one of the few times we saw it, was in commercial music where it was really important that you needed to know exactly what bar 58 was or what bar 62 was. But that information is very useful because it saves time on the stand regardless of what type of music you’re doing. So now, almost without fail, I shouldn’t say in all cases, but in many cases, even when I’m preparing concert music, I will number every bar in the score because why not? You know, I can do it with a click of a mouse in the software.


Boom, there it is. So that’s an example of a way that I would not try to replicate the way it was done in older score because the needs were different, the technology was different. So, you know, maybe that’s a roundabout way of answering the question.


That’s a really great point. It helps kind of filter out differences you see between scores and you wonder, like, well, why is it one way in this score and a different way in another? Do you have a process for editing scores? I’m always surprised with my own music that I’ve spent so much time with, you know, and then I go and I put it online and then I find a misspelled word or missing accidental or something and it’s like, how did I miss this? You know, I’ve looked at this so many times. Do you have a process or a system you go through for checking that sort of stuff? You’re always going to find something is the bottom line.


Even if you’ve gone through something a thousand times, it’s just, it’s inevitable, I’m afraid. And the process differs, I have to say, depending on, it depends on a few things. It depends on time.


It depends on budget. It depends on the use, quite frankly. So it’s just kind of an informal equation, basically.


How important is this music in terms of, you know, every note being right? And often that comes down to, we talked about publication earlier. Are there going to be hundreds or thousands of copies of this generated where you don’t want to perpetuate, you know, one error in hundreds or thousands of copies? So you want to take the time up front to get it right. You have the time, there’s not an urgent deadline, and you can really go through a strict editorial process of looking at every single element, checking the score against the parts, the parts against the score, looking for different things, you know, making one pass just for the notes, another one just for layout, another one just for other elements, what have you.


And so that, you might go through quite a process. You know, you really have to be practical about it. You can’t be dogmatic about applying the same process to every situation.


It’s just, it doesn’t work. Well, I can’t have you on the podcast without talking about music notation software. So let’s kind of shift gears a little bit.


Let’s start with this. How do you choose the notation program that’s right for you? And this should probably be a separate episode, I guess, but, you know, in five minutes, how do you choose everything? No, I mean, actually, it’s very easy. My wonderful co-host, David McDonald, and I, when we have this conversation on scoring notes, David’s advice, which I agree with, is try them all.


They’re all, they all have free versions. MuseScore is free. And then Finale, Dorico, Sibelius, and whatever other ones are out there, they all have free trial versions that you can use the software fully featured.


Usually it’s for a certain amount of time, 30 days, something like that. So I would say if you have some time to go through it, and like you said, try to recreate that piece of music that you like, that you admire, that you want to see how you can do, but it really depends on how you’re, you know, how do you work? How does your mind work? Where do you expect things to be in the software? You know, we talk about things are intuitive or non-intuitive. Everybody’s idea of what that means is different.


So one person, you might find Finale really well suited to the way you like to think and the way you organize music. Finale and Sibelius organized the lines. Everything that looks like a line is in a lines category, whether it’s a slur, whether it’s a hairpin, whether it’s an octave line.


And so visually, you might be really oriented that way and that might really work for you. Dorico organized these things very differently and it organizes everything that is a dynamic, whether it’s a hairpin or whether it’s a text dynamic like PPP or FF into a dynamics category. It puts the octave lines in the same category as the clefs.


You may think that’s crazy or that may make perfect sense to you and you may think, I really like this. So, you know, see what you like and they all more or less can get to the same end result. How they get there might be very different, but, you know, these are all very, very well-developed programs that are maintained by very competent and talented individuals in all respects.


And so, you know, I would say the answer to that is try them all out and see which one you like. Do you ever find yourself hopping from one software to another on the same project like is there something that’s easier to do in Finale than Dorico and so you do that part in Finale and then switch it over to Dorico and then switch that part over to Sibelius or is being proficient in all three more a matter of compatibility? You know, if you have a client that has to only use one then you obviously have to know how to use that program. Yeah.


It will most often be the latter. Basically, if, certainly if I have to deliver the files a certain way because the client needs to work on them afterwards, I will probably have to keep it in that software but sometimes we have discretion. We can use whatever software we like to suit the project and sometimes it depends on the particular type of notation being used and what our templates look like.


Have we done a similar project recently that I could hey, you know, this is very similar to X piece. I can reuse this template or reuse this process and that will save us time and or money and or get a better result. You know, sometimes people will come to me and they don’t even know the first thing about music notation software and they don’t care.


They just want it to look good and so we have complete discretion as to what to use and sometimes it may just depend on who is available to help me and what their software of choice is. So again, one of those things where not so much a hard and fast rule and I should say even there are cases where the client uses one software but I can just, I know I can get better results because of the type of music or it didn’t matter. Like they set it up so poorly in their notation software file that to try to redo it in that same software platform it would just be easier to bring it over to some other software platform.


So what I’m hearing is it’s more about your comfort and your workflow than it is necessarily the tools within the program itself. Yeah. Again, it comes down to what works for me may work, may not work for somebody else or vice versa.


So this is sort of a deep philosophical question but how would you define a power user of one of these programs because you hear that term thrown around and I do think you see in a lot of tech music you see a lot of features that are sort of geared towards educational use or amateur use but then you have kind of this separate tier of like power users that are churning out in your case literally hundreds of pounds of music a week to be printed and shipped. How do you think of that difference that distinction between somebody that’s using it professionally regularly versus somebody who’s maybe it’s just something that they’re doing for fun? You know, I mean, it’s just a label. It’s often a shorthand that may or may not be meaningful.


There are some self-described power users that have never touched certain areas of the software or don’t know all about the third-party tools or the plugins that can make their lives easier and the results better. There are some people that maybe wouldn’t consider themselves power users but then you look at the results that they get and they’re really quite good. I think it really is more about wanting to improve from the previous project that you did.


Maybe that would be the answer. Like, if you’re a power user, then you just don’t want to do the same thing every time unless there’s a really good reason for it. I mean, obviously, you don’t want to be doing the same thing differently every time because that doesn’t save you any time in the end either.


What I’m talking about is iterating so that how can I get better? And if you’re doing that, eventually, you will discover the tools that I’m talking about. It’s not like you just wake up and say, I’m going to download all the plugins and all the stuff and now I’m a power user. No.


You have to learn how to use them. You have to think about how you’re going to use them. And so, I would say, if you are curious about these things and you want to spend the time understanding at a deeper level how these things are structured and these are really sophisticated programs, then I would even say whether or not you get the best results, you’re a power user because you have taken an interest in that part of it and eventually, you will get better results.


I found that with my workflow and the way that my brain works, there’s sort of the creative part at the beginning where I’m coming up with the ideas and sketching things out and figuring out what I want to do with the piece and then it always settles into sort of the execution phase or what I call the boring part. It’s like, well, now, I’ve come up with all the ideas but I have to get them physically into the software now and I have to get them looking correctly. Is there an order of operations that makes things go smoother when you’re using one of these programs? Like, is it better to do all your note input first and then go add the slurs and the articulations later or is it really, again, just about your workflow and the way your brain processes information? Yeah, I think it’s the latter.


It used to be the former. It used to be that’s the way I did things where I just did all the notes because that was one part of the software, especially Finale, which was so tool-based and these things were very strictly separated. You know, notes were notes and we did that in the speedy entry and then there was articulations and then you had the smart shape tool and then you had the expressions and all that sort of stuff.


So it really forced you to segment your work like that. Now it’s less so because you can bop around at different things and certainly in Sibelius and Dorico. You know, Dorico kind of forces you into a certain way of working as well which I actually take issue with a little bit the way they have very strictly separated the modes and they have loosened some of those restrictions in later versions I think because they wanted to force you into you’re only doing writing in write mode and then once you’re finished writing every last note you go into engrave mode and that’s where you play around with the settings and spacing and casting off and then you go to print.


Well, the fact of the matter is almost all of us there are some edits that are a quote unquote a write edit w-r-i-t-e and some that are an engrave edit okay but when we’re editing notes somebody, a proofreader might say oh, you need to fix that f-sharp it needs to be a g and you need to fix that collision because the note is colliding with the marking well, I don’t really care which is which I just need to be able to make those changes so sometimes strictly separating into those different modes can be a hang up I think what the Dorico folks were trying to do when they were separating out the modes was to kind of say okay, don’t get so hung up with tweaking every last thing when you’re still in the writing process it can be very easy to write a few notes and then like play around with the spacing and you know tweak the position of the marking and all that and then that takes you out of the creative process so instead I would say worry about that stuff later the other thing that will help you and David talks about this all the time is try to make sure that the settings in your software are as good as possible the default settings so that you actually don’t have to spend a lot of time tweaking things later like if you know that you’re always bumping up the size of a particular type of text well then go into the settings in Finale it’s the category designer in Sibelius it’s the text styles and just bump it up so that it’s always that default size that will save you a lot of time and it’s all those settings Dorico has a ton of engraving options and layout options and notation options the goal is that you have to do as little manual tweaking as possible and that is kind of where you want to get to so that you can use the software to your advantage and make it work for you and not the other way around.