MakeMusic
SmartMusic Finale Garritan MusicXML

Deke Sharon, Pitch Perfect, and Finale



Deke Video

Finale watchers alerted me to this video interview with Deke Sharon, the “musical force behind NBC’s ‘The Sing Off’ and both ‘Pitch Perfect’ films.” Among the highlights is a cleverly-edited sequence where he sings each part of an a cappella arrangement (seen in Finale 2014), and both the audio and the video have been multi-tracked.

Stick around for the end where Deke’s answer to a question – about how the a cappella landscape has changed in recent years – turns into an well-spoken plea that we all get off the sofa and sing with each other.

Finale and Transcription Work



Link to Frozen Clip

I have always assumed that top movies were translated into a handful of the most widely spoken languages.

I was surprised to learn that Frozen was translated into 41 different languages, 25 of which can be heard – in one song – in the video above.

Last month we met Danita Ng-Poss and Jason Poss, who are making music with Finale in Los Angeles, under a wide variety of job titles. When talking of music notation in L.A., most of us think first of composing, arranging, and music preparation, but these are just a few of the tasks in which Danita and Jason – and Finale – take part.

Today we’ll talk a little with Jason about his transcription work.

How does your freelance work with “Disney Character Voices International” differ from what goes on at the Disney Music Library?

JASON: DCVI is the part of Disney that oversees dubbing of all their products into foreign languages. That includes the many songs that are in their films, TV, shows, and even theme park attractions. Disney sends me songs, mostly from films and TV shows, and it’s my job to transcribe all the vocals: lead lines, backgrounds, everything, so there is a guide for foreign dubbing.

Why can’t they just use the original sheet music?

Often there isn’t complete, accurate sheet music from the production. Changes are often made in the recording session. Sometimes they’re ad-libbing in the studio. Then there can be edits to the picture which require chopping up the music, or at the final film mix they may decide that they don’t want the backgrounds, or the scene is too long so they chop a verse or shorten the chorus or even go back and rewrite and re-record sections.

After all that, if there was sheet music to begin with, it may be of no use at all to reference what’s actually happening on screen.

From my transcriptions I create vocal charts which match exactly what’s in the final edit of the film or TV show. Those charts are then sent to studios all over the world. Local translators translate the lyrics and local singers or character actors re-record the songs in the local language.

DCVI made a spectacular demonstration video of “Let It Go” from Frozen to illustrate what it is that we do. Each phrase of the song is dubbed in a different language, so there are 25 different languages in one song. The video shows how accurate the transcriptions must be because they are performed to match the same picture as the original English version. It also shows the great lengths to which Disney goes to find proper voice matching. The vocal performances are quite astounding.

I agree that the voice matching – across 25 languages – is extremely impressive: I hope you enjoy the video as much as I did.

Are you using Finale in ways that most people don’t immediately think about? We’d love to hear about it. Please share by clicking on “Comments” below.

Celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week with Free Coffee



Win a Starbucks Gift Card

The SmartMusic blog is celebrating National Teacher Appreciation Week by inviting readers to share stories of music educators who helped shape their lives. The first 50 people who do will receive a Starbucks gift card (and there are still gift cards remaining). In addition, one participant will win a SmartMusic educator package including a SmartMusic educator subscription, 5 student subscriptions, and a copy of Finale 2014.

Check out the details here, but hurry, because your entry must be posted before 3 p.m. eastern time on Friday, May 8, either as a comment on the SmartMusic blog, Twitter, or on our Facebook page.

Using Staff Sets in Finale



Click to view video

Working with larger scores? What if you could instantly view any subset of staves in your score, including non-adjacent staves? It’s easy with Staff Sets. But rather than read my long-winded description of Staff Sets, simply watch how it’s done in the short video above from Dal segno Music Services.

The captain of the Dal segno ship, Gary Gimmestad, is a former MakeMusic coworker, and a good friend. While the video isn’t new (it was created with Finale 2012) the tips described apply equally to Finale 2014, and the video serves as a fine introduction to Gary and Dal segno, both of which we plan to feature again in future blog posts.

Perhaps best of all is the Eisenhower-era theme music. Enjoy!

Spotlight on Danita Ng-Poss and Jason Poss



JasonConducting Crop2

Danita Ng-Poss and Jason Poss are versatile musicians working in Los Angeles, where they are active in music preparation, transcription, proofreading, arranging, composing, orchestration, and more.

They’ve worked on video games including Assassin’s Creed and World of Warcraft, feature films like The Two Towers and Return of the King, studio recordings with diverse artists (from Mary J. Blige to Toby Keith, Lady Gaga to Tony Bennett) and have experienced the unique world of live TV on shows like Dancing with the Stars, The Emmy Awards, and the Academy Awards.

I enjoyed speaking with them at length about live TV, Finale, and other aspects of their music careers:

You two have been credited for many different jobs, from music transcription to composition. Does the size of the project dictate whether you wear multiple hats or become more specialized?

DANITA: There is a difference in specialization between big and small jobs. It often has to do with the amount of work required. On a big film or a large concert, there is so much music and so many individual tasks that no one person can handle it all. For example, I’ll get hired as copyist and/or librarian on a show, and that will be a full-time job for the duration of the project.

There will still be a need for a proofreader, so the project will hire someone to do only that. In the case of a large project it won’t be just us. There will be other copyists, proofreaders, people who print and tape the music, and other jobs. Then you need someone to be the point of contact for the client, to supervise the whole operation, and make sure everyone’s invoices are submitted properly so they can get paid.

On a smaller project Jason and I might be the only people dealing with all of the music prep. We can split the copying work and then proofread each other. We might also do all the printing and librarian tasks at the rehearsals or recordings. If it’s our own gig, we’ll bring in additional people as needed.

JASON: I also work as an arranger and orchestrator, so I may not be able to assist with the other parts of preparing music. At some points on a project I may be writing new charts or sorting out on the phone what needs to be done on a particular cue. At the session I may be conducting, or I might be in the booth listening as a score reader providing quality control.

You both met while attending Berklee. How did you end up in L.A.? Were you both planning on a career in Hollywood all along?

JASON: I never planned on going to Hollywood or working in the film, TV, or videogame industries. I played jazz vibraphone and percussion and just wanted to make a living as a gigging musician. I didn’t think that serious musicians did film work. Ah, the naiveté of youth!

DANITA: I got an internship at a studio that did TV commercial work in New York and eventually I was hired full time. My boss was pitching for a worldwide TV commercial and needed more options to show the ad agency. He offered me the chance to write a few tracks really just to fill out their pitch.

I went home and told Jason that we were going to write the tracks together. They were for vocals and percussion. I love writing for vocals and Jason’s a percussionist. We presented our three tracks and they were all received very well by the ad agency.

JASON: They actually loved the tracks and we won this big account for Danita’s boss. Our first real writing gig ended up being a worldwide TV ad campaign for Crest Toothpaste. I think it played on six continents during primetime on major networks. What were the odds of that?

DANITA: I took the music we wrote and submitted it as an application for a BMI fellowship. When our music was chosen Mike Post invited us to do a fellowship with him in Los Angeles for about six weeks. At the end of the fellowship Mike sat us down and told us that he thought we had the potential to make a living in the film and TV business, but we were on the wrong coast. We needed to save up our money and move to L.A.

JASON: He told us that before moving we should save enough money to live in Los Angeles for a year without working. He said that was how long it would take before anybody would be willing to hire us. That was some of the best advice we ever got.

Back in New York I got a call from an orchestrator-copyist friend saying he was being offered a job to work for Howard Shore. He couldn’t do it and wanted to know if I was interested. I said I was, so he recommended me and I ended up working on the Lord of the Rings films. It was because of that job that we were able to save enough money to move to Los Angeles.

How does working in live TV differ from other types of work you’ve done? How is the music prep different for a live show?

JASON: What makes live TV different from other work is the “live” element. It’s a bit of a cross between a live performance and a studio recording. Like a concert performance, everything has to happen in real-time and it has to go off without a hitch. However, you also have all the recording and broadcast logistics that go along with television. It’s not just about the music. There are plenty of other elements in live TV that are at least as important as the music.

DANITA: Keep in mind that the conditions on a live show may not always be ideal. The musicians may be in the dark and reading from a little stand light, or there may be glare from bright lights. They usually don’t get to see the music before rehearsal, and there is often very little rehearsal time – sometimes just one quick run-through. Plus they have the pressure of doing this live on air in front of ten million people or more.

These factors make clarity and readability of the printed music very important. We can’t go back and do another take. As a result, we’ve developed a particular style of copying which focuses on making everything big and bold. The music needs to jump off the page and be easily readable in almost any circumstance.

JASON:As an arranger or orchestrator, I need to make sure that things work the first time without need for explanation. The lack of rehearsal means that there isn’t time to tweak things.

You also have to be aware of how to make things work within a show’s setting. If the show has a small ensemble, how do you make it sound big? Can we be subtle or will the live audience and other noise of the show just drown it out?

You mentioned that some music for the Academy Awards show is pre-recorded, but the live orchestra still has to be prepared to play these cues “just in case.”

DANITA: The way the Oscars have been done for the last several years, the orchestra is actually a few blocks away at Capitol Studios in the Capitol Records building. They perform live from there and the sound is piped back into the Dolby Theater. It’s similar to the way pit orchestras on Broadway have been moved out of the pit.

The orchestra pre-records everything on the show – even the cues that they will be playing live. During the show, the pre-recorded music is cued up and ready to be played back just in case something goes wrong with the feed or communication between Capitol and the Dolby. That way you don’t have “dead air” if music director doesn’t hear the cue from the director or the sound doesn’t make it back to the theater.

However, there are also cues which the orchestra records that are meant to be used as recordings during the show. The orchestra still has the music on the stand, ready to play, at the time the recording is played. That’s just in case something goes wrong with the playback of the recording. It’s rare, but even in the 21st Century there is still the possibility of a computer crash or a bad cable or something unknown. If they hit play and it doesn’t work, the director can always call out “Music, go live!” and the orchestra can play the cue. I can remember at least one time in my ten years on Dancing with the Stars when a computer crashed right as a cue was supposed to be played back. The director immediately shouted “Go live! Go live!” into music director Harold Wheeler’s headphones. Harold was able to cue the band and nobody watching the show on TV or in the studio audience ever knew that anything had gone wrong.

DanitaLibrary1 Crop

What do you each like about Finale? What would you like to see improved?

DANITA: I like that Finale allows us to tweak the fine details of the notation. In our template we’ve altered the notehead sizes, the spacing widths, default fonts, all kinds of things to make it look just the way we want. Lots of those changes came from what we’ve learned working with experienced copyists in Hollywood who started out as hand copyists. They have a very different approach to thinking about notation.

JASON: When they’d say, “I don’t like this default. I would never do it that way when working by hand,” we listen to what they would like to do and then see if we can bend Finale to follow that standard. It may involve digging into some rather arcane parts of the program, but there is almost always a way to get what you want. I don’t think any other desktop notation program has quite that unique power.

DANITA: However, it can sometimes be tricky to figure out exactly where to go to make those tiny, low-level changes. It often requires shifting your thinking to Finale’s way of viewing notation. Some musicians don’t want to do that, so those things can be hard for them.

JASON: Finale is a very deep program, but some parts could still use a bit of improvement to make it more intuitive. That’s the challenge with any feature-rich software. You have to balance all those features with accessibility. I think most people don’t understand the complexity of achieving that balance.

DANITA: Finale has gotten much easier to use in the last five years or so. I still work with a lot of former hand copyists, and I notice that they don’t fight with it as much as ten years ago. I see it too. It’s much easier to look at the screen and understand where to click or what to do to get the desired results.

Have any Finale tips you’d like to share?

DANITA: Learn the keyboard shortcuts and metatools for different functions you use repeatedly in Finale. Program your own if you can, and use a macro program to automate things you do often. Avoiding all that mousing around in menus will save you a lot of time when you are repeating the same action over 100 times.

JASON: Build a template. Have all your favorite expressions, lines, fonts, and formatting specified in your template so you don’t have to load or alter them each time. Then use your basic template to create a specific template for each project.

Have any advice for musicians who’d like to do similar work?

JASON: Don’t expect that a notation program will teach you how to notate. That’s a bit like relying on a word processor to teach you spelling, grammar, and punctuation.  You can write a lot of things that sound correct, but you’ll never know the difference between, “Look ahead in the road!” and “Look! A head in the road!”

DANITA: Notating music on paper is an art form, as one of my composer friends puts it. The music on paper must have some sort of musical sense when you look at it. That way, a player can quickly make music from what is put in front of them. They play differently when the music is copied well.

JASON: Yes! It needs to look like it sounds. It takes years of doing this work before you really start to understand what that means to a musician reading it.

DANITA: Many musicians think that all you have to do is to hit “Print” from a sequencer or notation program and the work is complete. We know that’s not the case.  Sadly, I see a lot of bad copying work out there because people don’t understand all that goes into properly creating a good part or score.

Respect the art and take the time to learn how to do it well. Then hire a proofreader. Eventually everyone makes errors, so proofreading is like insurance. Nobody wants to pay for it, but it’s far less than the cost of something going wrong. It’s very important make sure everything is ship-shape before it reaches the stand. It’s your reputation on that page!

Have a question about live TV or Finale work in Hollywood? See an error our proofreader missed?  Please let us know by clicking on “Comments” below.

Chord Symbols in Finale



Sometimes when collaborating with others (or cleaning up my older charts) I’ll run across a file where the chord suffixes are a jumble of different fonts:

Chords3 700

Today, I’d like to share a few easy tips to help avoid this in your scores.

Tip #1: Enter the Right Chords the Easiest Way

While Finale’s Chord tool is designed to intelligently guess your chord suffix when you type it in, there’s an easier and faster way to enter chord symbols in Finale than typing things like “Em(maj7).” Type the root of the chord, followed by a colon, then the number of the suffix you want.

Don’t know the number associated with the suffix you want? Neither do I.

So instead, type the number zero (0) to pick from a list of suffixes.

To recap: Type E (or whatever the root is), press the colon key, then type the number zero. Your entire chord now shows “E:0”. Press Enter.

The Chord Suffix Selection dialog box appears, which displays every chord in your document’s library:

Chord Suffixes 4

Simply double-click the suffix you want to use. But before you do, note the number associated with the suffix. If you use this suffix often, you can save time by typing root, colon, and that number.

While admittedly “root:0” isn’t 100% intuitive, it’s fast, easy, and ensures you don’t accidently mix and match chord suffix fonts.

Tip #2: Before Creating a Suffix from Scratch, Edit an Existing One

Sometimes you may need a chord suffix that differs from those in your existing document. Rather than creating a new suffix from scratch, I suggest copying an existing suffix and editing it. This is easy to do, but can be tricky to find. I enter the similar suffix first. Next, right-click on it and choose Edit Chord Definition. Click Select next to “Suffix,” then click the Duplicate button.

Doing this can help to set up your new suffix correctly, using the same fonts from your other chords.

Tip #3: Globally Change Suffix Fonts

Curious how to fix the file above? You could delete each incorrect chord and add new ones with the correct suffix (as described above), or:

  1. Select the Chord Tool.
  2. Click Chord > Change Chord Suffix Fonts. The Change Chord Suffix Fonts dialog box appears.
  3. Under Search For, choose the old (incorrect) font, and under Replace With, choose the font you want to use.

Change Suffix 5

4. Click OK and watch your chords automatically change to your chosen font:

Chords3b 700

I hope this helps. Please let us know how chords are working for you in Finale by clicking on “Comments” below.

Spotlight on “Whiplash” Composer Justin Hurwitz



Justin_700b

A recent Finale blog post listed several Academy Award-nominated films in which Finale played a role. Each year I create a similar list by querying friends at popular music preparation companies. Because of my informal data gathering process, some movies fly under my radar (especially if their budgets don’t allow for a high-profile music prep house). This year, Whiplash was one such film.

Whiplash, of course, was a “sleeper” film, made with a relatively small budget, yet garnering five Oscar nominations and three wins, for Actor in a Supporting Role (J.K. Simmons), Film Editing, and Sound Mixing.

I recently had the good fortune to connect with Justin Hurwitz, composer of the Whiplash score.

I’ve read that you and writer/director Damien Chazelle were Harvard classmates, and collaborated on Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. How did you become involved in Whiplash, and how did you and Damien communicate during its creation?

Ever since Damien wrote the script for Whiplash in 2011, I knew that I would eventually score it, but it took a couple of years before I actually started working on it. First, Damien made a short version of the film, which didn’t have any original music, just the titular Hank Levy piece, “Whiplash.” Once the feature version secured financing, I started working as the movie ramped up towards production.

In the original script, all of the jazz pieces throughout the story were standards — pieces Damien played as a high school jazz drummer. My job would be to write the score, i.e. the dramatic underscore, not unlike a composer does for a typical movie. But a little over a month before the jazz had to be pre-recorded, the producers determined that they couldn’t afford any licenses beyond “Whiplash” and “Caravan,” so all of the other jazz had to be original. It was a scramble to get all of the original jazz charts written and arranged. Damien sent me classic recordings to listen to as models for some of the charts.

When I’m composing or orchestrating, we’re communicating constantly by email. I do all of my composing on a real piano, and send piano demos as mp3 attachments. He’ll either say “no” or he’ll give a note. We work back and forth, back and forth, until he’s happy with something at the compositional level. Then, when I’m orchestrating, I send him the mp3s that come out of Finale, and it’s the same process of back-and-forth emails. We both kind of live in our Gmail inboxes.

“When I Wake,” the 30s jazz recording Andrew identifies while on a date in a pizza parlor, is actually a piece you created to evoke that era. Was this decision driven by the fact that licensing a classic tune would have been too expensive?

Yeah, exactly. The producers and music supervisor did an amazing job stretching the tiny budget they had. It just made more sense for this piece, and others, to be originals.

I think in the script it was an Artie Shaw tune playing on the radio. When I was composing things for Damien on the piano, I was writing to that era (late ‘30s) but also thinking about the scene. The scene is Andrew and Nicole’s first date, so even though the music is diegetic, it had to underscore the characters starting to fall for each other.

Can you share some specifics of how you made your jazz arrangements evoke certain eras?

A lot of it is about textures, and voicings, and other little things like choices of mutes. The most old-fashioned arrangement I did was “No Two Words” that plays at the end of the scene between Fletcher and Andrew in the bar. The lead trumpet part is full of shakes. The other trumpets and trombones use straight mutes, and I notated a bunch of scoops for the trombones. I love to write notes in the score to the players, like “sweet old time vibrato” in the clarinet parts. Then a producer, Nicholas Britell, ran some custom filters on the track to give it that crackly vinyl sound.

The “Overture” was really fun to chart. I took the tune which I had originally written for Fletcher to play at the piano, and arranged it in the style of a wild ‘60s-era Buddy Rich piece. It was all about the textures and voicings. Saxes running around in unison or wailing dissonantly on high notes a step apart. The crunch of the trombone voicings. The piano and electric bass in unison at times, when they aren’t comping. This piece has solo sections, and I always love being able to slash a bunch of bars to let a player go nuts.

There’s one scene where we hear Fletcher play, and it’s a departure: a quiet piano tune in a small combo. In it we recognize music heard throughout the film. Can you talk about that theme and how you went about manipulating it?

I first composed that tune as Fletcher’s song, and as you say, it was meant to be unlike the rest of the jazz in the movie. It’s tender, designed to betray Fletcher’s vulnerability. We planned for that to be the only time that tune appears in the movie, but then Damien and I started finding other places to use it. There was a scene that ended up getting cut where we see Fletcher at home, eating dinner alone, putting on a record, and getting teary eyed while he sits on the couch and listens to the music. We thought it would be a cute idea for that record to be an old fashioned big band arrangement of that same tune. Ultimately, that scene got cut, but I think it’s on the DVD.

Next, Damien suggested that I use the same tune to score the scene where Andrew meets with the lawyer and gets dismissed from Shaffer Conservatory (known as “Dismissed” on the soundtrack album). Damien wanted the score here to be poignant and introspective. I played around with a lot of ways to twist that melody, and found that moving it from minor to major, ironically, made it sadder in a way.

So that was the first use of that tune in the score (dramatic underscore). From there, I kept finding more modalities where it could slip into other score cues. The tune ended up finding its way into almost every cue. The score pretty much exclusively follows Andrew’s perspective, and helps us feel what Andrew’s feeling, so I liked the idea that each cue could also have a little bit of Fletcher in it.

The last use of that tune was the “Overture,” which plays at the beginning of the movie when Andrew walks through the city, and then again during the end credits. The plan originally was to use a plaintive arrangement of the tune, in the vein of the “Dismissed” cue, but then one of the film’s producers, Jason Reitman, asked if it could be fun and jazzy. Damien suggested that I arrange it in the style of something the Buddy Rich Big Band would play. I put it back in a minor key, and made it sexy, brash, and a bit Latin, really leaning on the ninths.

IMDB credits Dominik Hauser with musical preparation on Whiplash. Where did he take over?

There wasn’t enough money in the music budget for a full-fledged copyist, so I did most of the copying work for the score session. I was extracting and formatting the parts, using Finale of course, and handing Dominik PDFs to proofread and prepare for the recording session. He did a terrific job, and also saved the day by calculating the BPM of a click track when all of us were too dumb to figure out the math.

Do you use Linked Parts?

I do. It’s a great feature. Just the other day, I was recording background vocals, and used the Linked Parts feature to pull the SATB staves out of a score, and into one document.

How does Finale fit into your workflow – do you, for example, sketch on paper or in a DAW?

I don’t use a sequencer or sketch paper. I compose on the piano, and show everything to Damien either by emailing piano demos, or playing for him in person. Once he loves something at the compositional level, I orchestrate in Finale. I’m really old school and don’t use a MIDI keyboard. I input everything by hand (mouse), with my real piano by my side to hear a voicing or countermelody.

Whiplash didn’t require orchestration per se, but the other movies Damien and I have done, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, and the movie we are currently working on, La La Land, are very orchestration-intensive. I don’t hand off any sketches, so I use Finale to get us from the piano demo to the final orchestral charts.

What was your first introduction to Finale?

At Harvard, our professors didn’t let us use any notation software. We had to write and orchestrate everything by hand. This is partly because Harvard is old-fashioned and stuffy, but my professors did have a point. Orchestrating by hand helps you connect with the music in a different way. You think more horizontally. You think about countermelody and counterpoint differently.

Later in college, one of my classmates tipped me off to this thing called Finale and it blew my mind how fast and simple it made everything. I haven’t written by hand in years, but I’m glad I have that background, because it definitely influences how I think about orchestration.

Have a Finale tip you can share?

In the Simple Entry menu, I like to change the keyboard shortcuts. I don’t like having to hit two buttons, like command+something. When possible, I’d rather just hit a letter or a number. A lot of keys on the keyboard either aren’t assigned as shortcuts, or are assigned to commands I rarely use, so I like to change stuff around so that the functions I use most often have the simplest shortcuts.

What do you like about Finale?

I love how realistic the playback sounds. Because I don’t use a sequencer, and because I show the orchestrations to Damien in Finale, it’s really important that what comes out of Finale sounds good. It’s not just the samples, but the way the notes are shaped to sound like they’re being played by humans. A sustained wind note, for example, has beautiful shape in Finale. It will grow and decay just right. A lot of times you don’t want to have to put a hairpin in the score, because it’s not called for; you just want the subtle shape that a human would naturally give to it, and Finale does that just right.

Also, the balance of the orchestra is spot on. The ensemble sounds like it’s in a real space, and the instruments blend together well. Sometimes we have to have people put my orchestrations into a sequencer, and it takes lots of finessing to get stuff sounding as human as it does in Finale. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard Damien say, “Make it sound more like the Finale version.”

Obviously, there’s a lot to love about Finale in terms of how powerful and flexible it is from a notational standpoint, but for me, the playback quality is particularly important.

What are you working on now? What’s next?

I’m working on Damien’s next film, La La Land, a song and dance musical which we’re making for Lionsgate. I’m composing and orchestrating the songs and score. The movie shoots in the fall, so I’m working on the pre-recorded musical numbers. There are a bunch of songs and a couple of fantasy ballets, and there will be a fair amount of dramatic underscore after the movie has shot. It’s all lush, romantic, 90-piece orchestra – so I’m in orchestration heaven these days.

Thanks again to Justin for sharing his time.

Have you experienced “Whiplash” yet? Share your reaction with us by clicking on “Comments” below.

Finale Spotlight on Composer Venus Rey Jr.



VRJ PHOTO Crop

Like many readers of the Finale blog, I am keenly aware of the challenges and joys involved in juggling a professional, musical, and family life. Often when trying to schedule my seven-piece rock band, I ask myself why I couldn’t have been content with a power trio.

While at the NAMM music industry trade show this January, I met Venus Rey Jr., who is a lawyer, published author, and university lecturer on such varied fields as philosophy and art; he also writes for – and records – full orchestra and choir (check out this YouTube excerpt with 150 performers). Both humbled and intrigued as to how one person could actually accomplish all this, I was delighted when he agreed to be interviewed.

Scott Yoho: Is such a diverse career more common in Mexico than it is in the states? If not, how did this come about?

Venus Rey Jr: I think this diversity is uncommon not only in Mexico, but everywhere else. I was lucky to grow up in a home where culture and art were very important. My father was a conductor. He studied at Columbia University in New York, and he began to give me music lessons when I was six. I remember he had lots of records and scores so, when I was a child, I had the chance to hear all those records from great composers and performers, and at the same time I could read in the scores the music I was listening to. I think this opened my ears.

I discovered how Beethoven, Wagner or Brahms, for example, wrote their music, orchestrated their works, managed the orchestra, combined instruments and gave color to the sound. I learned music in the old manner: up to the end of the 19th century, musicians used to learn music at home from their fathers who were themselves musicians who learned music from their fathers. It was an art transmitted from fathers to sons. This is exactly how I became a musician.

On the other hand, my love for literature was transmitted to me from my mother. She has always been an avid reader. I remember her reading all the time. My home was full of books so, following my mother’s example, I had the chance to read and, from an early stage, I started writing.

When I was 18, I had to choose what to study in the university. I chose law and I became a lawyer. I didn’t choose music because I felt at that time that I was already a musician. After law I continued my studies and enrolled in the philosophy program, where I earned a master’s degree. I was so involved at that time in the academic life that I began assisting some of my professors. Finally I became a lecturer myself. I have published several papers on constitutional law and philosophy of law.

SY: You began composing in elementary school. What where your earliest inspirations?

VRJ: I think my first and greatest inspiration was the music and life of Beethoven. I got to know his symphonies and his piano sonatas very well because I had the scores. I think there are two levels of music hearing: with and without knowing thoroughly what exactly happens in the score. Of course if you are a musician, you have a better idea of what is going on in the music you are listening to. But even if you are a musician, if you know and understand the score, the aesthetic experience of listening is deeper and stronger. I had the fortune of being able to read music from a very early age; and being able to read music allowed me to write as well. Of course those compositions were naive, but somehow you have to start, and so I did.

SY: What were the circumstances around the recording of Misa Guadalupana (a symphonic Mass written for orchestra, choir and soprano soloist) made in Rome last May?

VRJ: I have a friend in Mexico who is half Italian and grew up in Italy. There she had a friend who became a conductor and music teacher. There is a small town near Rome called Fara in Sabina. They have a chamber orchestra there, a very good orchestra. My friend introduced me to this Italian conductor and I showed him some of my work. Maestro Francesco Lupi is the conductor of this orchestra. He told me that he was interested in performing Misa Guadalupana. In order to accomplish this, it was necessary to increase the number of musicians. So this orchestra joined forces with members of the Santa Croce Orchestra in Rome. Finally, four choirs joined us and we had a force of 70 instrumentalists and 80 singers.

Mtro. Lupi was supported by the city of Fara in Sabina and somehow he managed to get the support of the Italian Senate, which is a great honor. Having the Senate support, I asked the Mexican Embassy at the Holy See for further support. Everything worked out and so Misa Guadalupana was performed in two concerts: the first one at the Abbey of Santa Maria di Farfa, Fara in Sabina, May 25th, and the second one at the Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome, May 30th. Santa Maria di Farfa is one of the best-preserved medieval abbeys in Italy. San Pietro in Vincoli is a magnificent basilica next to the Roman Coliseum, and is the home of “Moses”, the great sculpture by Michelangelo.

SY: You’ve recorded four CDs of sacred music for symphony orchestra, choir and soloist. Especially given your diverse interests, what is it that draws you to this particular form of expression again and again?

VRJ: Among the various genres of classical music I believe sacred music is the one that allows you to reach higher means of expression. Although I am a believer, I must confess that I am not a very religious person. I write sacred music because I think this is the “king genre” in music, even above opera. It is not that I think there is less value in other genres. Of course if you listen to a Verdi opera, you immediately sense you are before a great work of art. Let’s think about La traviata. After all, it is a work that has to do with erotic love, jealousy, envy and human passions; these elements make La traviata one of the most loved opera of all times.

What I am trying to highlight is that there is a difference between making music for entertainment – on one hand – and making music for God, on the other hand. It does not have to do with the intrinsic value of music, after all there are examples of poorly written sacred music and sublime music intended to entertain. But, the bottom line is that with sacred music you are in the realm of spirituality. In this sense I believe the sacred genre allows you to reach higher levels of expression.

SY: On more than one occasion you have had success submitting your scores to the Mexican Congress asking for governmental funds to record and perform. Many readers would be fascinated to learn more about that process.

VRJ: Art is a very serious matter in Mexico. I could say that there is an obligation for every Mexican State (we have 31 States) to support and sustain a symphony orchestra. Since the falling of the Soviet Bloc, we have been receiving musicians and artists from Eastern Europe. It has been a great contribution for our orchestras. Every year the Federal Congress assigns a budget for art and culture, and this is how orchestras are kept and artists are paid. But the Congress is also interested in supporting the Mexican artists and every year launches a call to accomplish this purpose. Of course it is not easy to obtain this support.

In 2012 I presented a project to the Congress and had the chance to explain it to the members of the Art & Culture Committee. I’ve been writing music since I was young and the members of the Committee were aware of that. In fact some of them knew some of my work well. Even though my music speaks for itself, I must say I have been very lucky because my work has been supported by the Congress since 2013.

Gathering so many musicians and singers, soloist, conductors, recording engineers, etc., and hiring a venue to perform… well this is very expensive. It could not be done without the support of the government. But money is never enough so additionally I have searched for private support; fortunately I have been able to get it.

SY: What was your first introduction to Finale?

VRJ: Before using Finale, I used to compose my music by making a sequence with Performer. I’m talking about the early 90’s. Mark of the Unicorn also had software for scores: Professional Composer. I started using this software, but it was so odd and limited that I really hated it. The first time we performed Misa Guadalupana (May, 2000) I needed to put all the music on paper: the score for the conductor and every single part for every musician. Because we didn’t have much time I realized that I was not going to be able to learn how to use a new software program and make the score all by myself.

Someone suggested that I hire an editor. I did not hire one editor, but three; I was really running out of time. When they gave me the printed score it looked so neat, clear and beautiful. They told me they used Finale and I realized I had to get this software and learn how to use it. It is the only software I have ever used to write and edit my own scores. Someone told me about Sibelius, but I didn’t try it because I was –and still am– very satisfied with Finale.

SY: What are you working on now?

VRJ: I just finished a couple of weeks ago a full symphony with choir. It is called The 5th of May Symphony. It is really a big work scored for two flutes, alto flute, piccolo flute, two oboes, English horn, E flat clarinet, two B flat clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, five horns, four trumpets, three trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, tubular bells, gong, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, piano, harp, mixed choir, soprano soloist and strings. It has five movements and its duration is around 70 minutes. It will be premiere this year on May 5th.

I must say it was written using only Finale. No other software was used to create this score. When I started using Finale, I used to compose this way: first I made a sequence with the Performer software; then I converted this sequence into enigma MIDI file; finally I imported this MIDI file into Finale and edited the score. This was slow and dull.

What I do now is better and faster. I play the piano looking for ideas. If I like an idea I record it with my phone, so I have an audio file in case I forget the idea. And then I write directly in Finale using a 49-key keyboard. As I write the tracks, new ideas come to my mind, new melodies and counterpoint. And that is why I love Finale: because I see and hear everything, and this allows me to have total control over my music.

Right now I’m working on a piece for orchestra and chorus. This year is the 70th anniversary of the German surrender in WWII. This historical event is the subject of my new work. This piece will be a memorial for the victims of this war. It will be sung in different languages, those of the countries at war: English, German, Russian, French, Italian, etc., and, of course, there will be lines in Yiddish. The premiere of this work will be in Mexico City, during the summer.

How can you help but be inspired by the idea of one man recording 150 musicians playing his music thousands of miles from his home? Sometimes I need to set my sights a little higher.

But first I have to finish my taxes.

Photo Credit: Jorge Espinosa

Alexandre Desplat on his Imitation Game Score



Are you done thinking about the Academy Awards until next year?

I thought I was until a coworker shared this fantastic podcast, from Song Exploder, featuring Alexandre Desplat. In it the composer describes the orchestration of the main theme from his Oscar and Golden Globe-nominated “The Imitation Game” score, both in terms of orchestration as well as the emotional responses he sought to invoke.

Check out Episode #29 here.

I often find inspiration from hearing music creators describe their work; perhaps you do as well. Song Exploder is described as “a podcast where musicians take apart their songs, and piece by piece, tell the story of how they were made.”  This is clearly an intriguing project worth checking out.

I hope you enjoy it.

Finale and the 2015 Academy Awards



Hollywood Crop 715

While I’m not as passionate about watching professional sports on TV as some of my friends, I always enjoy a good contest. Sometimes I wonder, however, about the investment we make in our state team, when few members of that team or its management are from our state.

That said, I don’t have any problem feeling a personal connection whenever I see the names of Finale users appear in the credits at the movie theater, and I always root for their films to win at the Academy Awards. Next Sunday I’ll have many opportunities to cheer.

While my research methods are not comprehensive, here are some of the films, nominated for multiple awards, in which Finale was used:  The Grand Budapest Hotel (9 nominations), The Imitation Game (8), American Sniper (6), Interstellar (5), Into the Woods (4), and Unbroken (3).  (To tell the truth, I’m a big Wes Anderson fan, and would cheer for The Grand Budapest Hotel even if Alexandre Desplat’s fine score had been prepared on grocery bags with a purple crayon.)

Other nominated films in which Finale played a role include: Big Hero 6, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Nightcrawler, Maleficent, X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Gone Girl and The Lego Movie.

Do you enjoy prognosticating the Academy’s picks? I’ll give a free Finale T-shirt to whoever does the best job of predicting the winners of the following eight categories: Best Picture, Actor in a Leading Role, Actress in a Leading Role, Actor in a Supporting Role, Actress in a Supporting Role, Animated Feature Film, Music: Original Score and Music: Original Song.

To play, submit your list of winners as a comment to this post before midnight (Mountain Time) on 2/21/2015 (limit one entry per person, please). Good luck!

Photo Credit: Juan Camilo Bernal / Shutterstock.com