Finale Spotlight on writer, editor, and composer Jonathan Feist

Jonathan Feist is a writer, editor, and composer who works by day as the managing editor of Berklee Press and as a Finale instructor at the Berklee College of Music’s online school, Jonathan is co-author of Essential Songwriter and The Berklee Practice Method Teacher’s Guide, and editor of Finale: An Easy Guide to Music Notation (all three Berklee Press titles), as well as the editor of more than a hundred other books and courses about music, technology, culture, and business.

Perhaps most impressive, however, is that Jonathan has a three-digit Finale serial number, which means he began his Finale adventure very early on. In fact, he’d seen beta versions of Finale before its initial release in September 1988.

I recently e-mailed Jonathan to ask him about his experience with Finale. Since I knew that Jonathan also leads writing seminars and is a frequent blogger, I shouldn’t have been surprised when his response read like a ready-to-publish manuscript, but I was, delightfully so. It appears below:

My introduction to Finale was in the late 1980s, when I was studying composition at New England Conservatory, and the fledgling computer library there had a beta version of the new software. When I first saw Finale, it was pretty much love at first sight. My first composition teacher, the late Arthur Cunningham, had beautiful penmanship, and a penchant for vellum and French curves. I, on the other hand, leaned more toward French fries, and had difficulty drawing a straight line even with a plastic triangle. Neat notation for me was difficult, and it was an obstacle between my creative ideas and their manifestation in performance.

I had messy handwriting, but I could type like a madman, and seeing this new sort of word processor for notation greatly bridged the gap I was feeling between my ideas and my ability to communicate to others. Instead of torturous weeks copying parts, even then I was able to prepare them in a few hours, or less. And best of all, I could easily change my mind about the music. In the old days, before most current Berklee students were born, inserting a few measures in the middle of a composition could be such a horrendous operation that we wouldn’t bother. Finale made improvements to the music like these so easy that there was no longer a need to hesitate.

Eventually, I landed a job working for Berklee Press, the book publishing division of Berklee College of Music, where my job is to help the faculty here turn their ideas into books about music. Some authors still prefer to handwrite notation, and part of what we do is render their own messy handwriting into publication-quality notation.

In 2002, Berklee opened up its online music school, for which I was also an editor. I created a Finale class for it called “Music Notation with Finale,” and I’ve been teaching about four semesters per year ever since. We spend twelve weeks going through the software.

Students start at all different levels; most are beginners, but some have experience. I go deep, but from a music-first perspective, rather than a product-first one. So, the first week, they learn everything they need to know about how to write a melody in Finale. And I bully them about things like controlling how many measures are on each system, and other finer points. The first six weeks cover essential notation techniques, and by the end of it, they can create a large ensemble score with orchestra and chorus, if they so choose.

Then the second half of the course, I focus more on a lot of the secret Finale ninja techniques, like working with templates, drum notation, exporting notation as graphic files, and other more strategic dimensions of being a notation guru. These are the things that I show to people who have used Finale for years, and they gasp and say, “I never knew Finale could do that!” Often, Finale’s been able to do it for decades. But there’s just so much to learn about the software.

My students learn both about Finale and also about notation. It’s particularly popular with music directors and school music teachers, but I’ve had students who play in rock bands or in world-class symphony orchestras, or who own recording studios. A few have gone on to become professional engravers. 

I also continue to write music, and particularly songs, and just released an album with producer/guitarist Nik “A” called Fantasy Monologue, which makes an excellent holiday gift!

Many contemporary songwriters seem to bypass notation altogether, but I still find it extremely useful, in part, because Finale makes it so easy and fast. It is a few mouse clicks to change a note, transpose a part, or alter a lyric, and it is easy to e-mail it, archive it, or even listen to it. While we were making this album, I’d write a solo, and send it to my violinist in Germany. She’d complain that it was too low, so click, click, click, and she’d have a version transposed up an octave, and as professionally rendered as published sheet music.

Music notation is deep. People haven’t counted up how long they’ve been reading notation and becoming accustomed to its countless nuances, and learning Finale serves as a reminder to this. But it is an incredibly powerful tool for helping articulate our complex creative ideas. 

I’d like to thank Jonathan for his great response. If you’re interested in his Finale course, the next session begins January 10th, and more details appear here.

Do you go all the way back to Finale 1.0? Have you taken an online class at Berklee? Please share your experiences on these or any other topics by clicking on “Comments” below.

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