Peggy Still Johnson with Ghost Brothers of Darkland County music director T-Bone Burnett
Peggy Still Johnson is an accomplished performer (piano and vocal), composer, arranger, educator, and more. Reading the accomplishments on her website bio is alternately inspiring, humbling, and dizzying in its diversity. She’s performed in Vegas, written choral and instrumental pieces for the dedication of the Mormon Temple in Atlanta, and has been active in the film world as a composer, music supervisor, casting agent, and coach (including work as a piano coach on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button).
Simultaneously with all of the above, she launched three Peggy Still-branded music schools which she sold last year (and which continue to prosper). It’s at this point of her story where we began our interview.
Peggy: So we sold the business last year. Right around the same time, I got called to work on the Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, which was written by Stephen King, with music by John Mellencamp, and T-Bone Burnett as the music director. I was hired to create the scores by transcribing them off of audio files.
SY: So you did the transcription by listening to the recordings, and creating the notation in Finale. Then did you meet with T-Bone Burnett to see if he was satisfied with your work?
PSJ: I first worked very closely with John’s guitarist, Andy York. Andy has been the lead guitarist in John Mellencamp’s band for over 20 years. He’s the show’s music supervisor and did much of the arranging. Later we all worked together with T-Bone Burnett and with John Mellencamp. They would provide feedback and I would make the changes.
SY: The show sounds fascinating.
PSJ: One of the things that sets the show apart is that it reaches everyone. The vocalists are not singing with a heavy vibrato, they’re singing rock and roll style: It’s something that the average listener can relate to. It’s basically a gothic tale, kind of showing what happens when family issues are not resolved.
We had people coming to the show who were not normal theatre-type people. They were people who really liked Stephen King, and they were people who really liked John Mellencamp and people who were intrigued. I firmly believe that it will open up the doors to a wider audience for musicals.
And the music is so good. I mean, they spent more than ten years working on this show to get it to where it got to last year.
SY: And the show premiered in Atlanta?
PSJ: Yes. It was very, very successful last spring. And now, they are talking with producers about bringing the show to New York.
SY: Would that mean additional work for you or is that book pretty much done?
PSJ: I’m still working on the book. The band basically plays by ear, so they already know their parts, but we’re trying to get all those parts on score.
SY: Let’s talk about your tools. When did you first use Finale?
PSJ: It was when I was in college, probably, oh, many years ago.
SY: Do you remember what version it was?
PSJ: I don’t even remember what version it was. It wasn’t anything like this. It wasn’t near as user-friendly as it is now.
SY: You really wanted to put music on the printed page.
PSJ: I did. My handwriting is not the best, and I thought it would look better if I had it on some kind of format that would be easier to read. And if I made a mistake I didn’t like the idea of having to redo it all again. I converted to computers early on, and I didn’t like the idea of backtracking. If I wanted to change one note I didn’t want to feel like I had to redo the entire page.
SY: We take that for granted today.
PSJ: We do. And I didn’t like really using pencil, either, because it’s hard to see. So I really hooked on to Finale early on. And through the years I’d use it all the time for a variety of projects. Even if I wasn’t asked to create a score, sometimes I’d create one in Finale to have ready access to vocal parts, harmonies, and things like that.
When I worked with high schools on their musicals, I would do all the tracks. I’d get the scores and I would play them all, all the accompaniments. And then I would play all of the vocal parts, and then I would make tracks that help the kids to learn the music quickly, so that we could focus on the show. And the same thing goes with, you know – and I would do all the arranging, because sometimes it was just a couple instruments versus an entire orchestra.
So I would use Finale to do that, too.
I think the other thing that is real important to me, and you’ll see it on my bio, is that I’m very education-oriented. I’ve taught for 20 some odd years and I still teach. And I believe that technology and music education are a great fit. I think if you incorporate technology, you’ll be a better educator.
Some educators are afraid to embrace technology. They still really like the pen to the paper kind of thing, but they don’t realize the benefits they’re missing. Like in Ghost Brothers we change keys all the time. They would come back to me and say, “Let’s change the key.” And it would be just a couple of buttons and that was it. I didn’t have to sit there and redo everything. It was so much easier. I had so much more flexibility. I could change tempos. I could change meters, anything.
SY: Again, all those things we take for granted today.
PSJ: Yes. It just saves you a lot more time so you can just focus on working on the musical part of things.
I couldn’t have said it better myself! I’d like thank Peggy for taking the time to talk with us and for her continued support of Finale.
What projects are you doing with Finale? Let us know by clicking on “Comments” below.