Interview with Composer, Pianist, Producer, and Educator Ryan Cohan

Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get started with music and what made you want to become a composer? And how would you describe your musical style?

I am a composer, pianist, producer, recording artist and educator based in Chicago. I lead a few different groups playing my original music, from a trio to an eleven-piece jazz chamber ensemble, and I have released six albums on multiple record labels. I’ve been very fortunate to work with and learn from many extraordinary musicians and luminary artists over my career in a variety of musical genres including jazz, classical, film and world music on stages and in studios locally and internationally. My body of work ranges from solo piano pieces to arrangements for symphony orchestra.

I grew up in a musical household. My mom was an immensely talented classical pianist, played guitar, sang and was a music teacher, and my grandmother played a little bit of piano and organ. Music was always a part of my home. Although I initially learned to read music at the piano when I was very young, my first formal training began on violin when I was nine. I studied for a few years and was beginning to play well, but I was more interested in baseball at the time than practicing violin. Shortly after that, I became very interested in music technology and playing keyboards. 

My musical tastes started with fusion, R&B and rock music, but as I got more seriously into the music and understanding its origins, my studies quickly shifted focus to jazz and then back further to classical music. By my sophomore year of high schooI, I was practicing piano several hours a day. When I was fifteen, my mom took me to a triple- bill concert of trios led by Ahmad Jamal, McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea, and hearing these musical heroes of mine play one after the other was a transformative experience. I was in awe of the freedom, power and depth of their distinctive musical voices and compositions and realized – at that moment – that I wanted a life in music.

In high school, I was fortunate to study music theory with a teacher whose passion for Bach was infectious. He had us studying chorales and inventions and writing our own on a regular basis – I still have a notebook filled with them somewhere. He was also one of the first instructors I had that meaningfully illuminated the parallels between classical music and jazz.

The chance to study closely with the great jazz pianist Larry Novak led me to the DePaul University School of Music. During the four years I worked with Larry, he introduced me to many advanced harmonic and technical approaches to playing and improvising. One of the ways I practiced mastering the materials he gave me was to write tunes based on them. Not only did this help me from a performance perspective, but my composing skills sharpened from the amount of music I produced.

Another mentor I met at DePaul was arranger, conductor and producer Cliff Colnot. One of the most valuable skills I learned from Cliff was music notation and the importance of clearly articulating and communicating musical ideas on the page when working with any ensemble. The musical standards Cliff demanded were extremely high and exacting, and his guidance also contributed to my developing a more expansive writing concept.

While I didn’t study composition formally in school, all the work I did transcribing the jazz masters and their tunes for the benefit of my playing was developing my compositional ability. I naturally gravitated towards expressing myself through my own compositions as writing music was always joyful. Early on, I saw improvisation as spontaneous composition, so playing jazz and being a composer went hand-in-hand for me.

As far as describing my own musical style, my work today draws from a deep pool of musical influences across jazz, world music styles from Africa, Latin America and the Middle East and Western classical music. I see it all as one music. What brings the potentially disparate musical features together is the storytelling of the writing and the emotional content behind it. That was my approach in creating my latest album,Originations. Scored for an eleven-piece chamber ensemble (my jazz septet plus string quartet), the music synthesizes Arabic rhythms and maqam-infused melodies, Jewish folk harmonies, other world musical themes, impressionistic colors and improvisation. It’s all driven and brought into focus through the work’s narrative which was inspired by my travels and reconnection with my Semitic roots.

Your most recent album Originations was created primarily in Finale – how was Finale integrated into your writing process?

Finale was integral to the writing process of Originations from its initial ideas to producing the final full score. The fifty-minute piece ended up being a single work consisting of six compositions that can also stand individually. When I began composing, I often recorded myself improvising at my piano or keyboard into my DAW (Digital Performer). I then listened back for motifs I liked and jotted them down in Finale. 

During this initial process, I was sketching melodic cells, grooves, voicings, phrases, etc. Sometimes complete musical statements were intact, but often I was mining fragments of ideas not knowing how they would come together. I gave in to the process and trusted a cohesive statement would ultimately take shape. All of these musical bits went into Finale as single-staff or grand-staff files organized in folders relating to the same thematic idea or creation date. 

As a focused work eventually began to emerge, I filled out the compositional and orchestrational details across the horns, rhythm section and string quartet. Doing so was made way easier by being able to copy/paste from what I already had documented. Then, of course, all the parts were polished and generated in Finale as the final steps. I still have unused tunes and musical bits from that process that will likely be useful in future works.

When working on your latest album, were you collaborating with other musicians, or writing all of the music solo?

I wrote all the music in Originations myself. How the piece was performed, however, was a collaborative process. Frequently, I’ll have an idea of how I want an individual or ensemble phrase to sound and will ask my players for their input on the best way to articulate it or to suggest an alternative based on what I’m after. Considering the long history I have with the members of my ensemble, it is common for me to have a particular player’s sound in mind when I compose. This is especially true on the improvised sections of my music. Many times those sections are first brought in as sketches so I can figure out how to optimally suit the musician improvising on them. Later, those parts are notated accordingly. There is a great deal of underlying trust in this process on both sides. These ensemble members always elevate my music. This is true not just from their playing but from their open and generous spirits with which they bring my music to life in the best way possible.

How has the way you use Finale changed over the years?

Until recently, my initial compositional sketching was done by hand on manuscript paper. I still love the organic nature and feel of lead on paper. Nothing gets between musical idea and notating it. I would take those handwritten sketches and later flesh them out in Finale. As a composer, my priority has always been to stay in the creative flow and not let technology interfere with the process of realizing musical impulses. 

It has taken a while for me to get to this point, but I now compose directly into Finale. Doing so has become a fluid process for me, and the power and flexibility Finale’s tools provide allow me to work faster and more precisely than I can with pencil and paper. To keep up with my current writing and bandleading demands, this workflow has become indispensable.

Another way of using Finale that has changed for me is my expanded use of customized key switches, templates and plug-ins. I also rely on Keyboard Maestro and Metagrid to trigger frequently used macros.

What tips and tricks do you have for speeding up your workflow?

First, I would emphasize the value of setting up Finale for the way you work. This includes personalizing your various libraries – expressions, chords, articulations, smart shapes, etc. and getting their appearance on the page formatted clearly. It also consists of saving your customized score/parts layouts as default files in templates or for use with the Setup Wizard. This all requires a time investment up front, but once these adjustments are in place, it becomes possible to work consistently more quickly, effectively and – most importantly – creatively. When it’s time to sit down and write, the program should be working for you and not the other way around.

Using customized keystrokes/metatools in Finale has been essential for my getting into a rhythm with the program. I use keystrokes for changing tools, placing all kinds of score elements and managing staff styles to name a few. I have Finale’s Main Tools assigned to function keys that I can also trigger using my trackball and trackpad which is extra handy.

I utilize Keyboard Maestro and Metagrid to create and trigger additional Finale functions and menu items that are not otherwise available as assignable keystrokes or metatools. When used together, these third-party apps are powerful tools that can streamline tedious multi-step notational moves by making them executable as a single keystroke or other trigger.

For example, I created Keyboard Maestro macros to notate rhythm hits with rests that I wanted to all appear on a part at a particular pitch location without ledger lines, sized to 75%, all stems up and in a different layer. Now, all I have to do is notate the phrase with ANY pitches in Layer 1, hit a single keystroke and it will instantly lay out as I needed. Edit Filter and Clear Items are menus I constantly use with Keyboard Maestro. I have key commands programmed to Filter or Clear individual items such as chords, articulations, expressions, notes, smart shapes, etc. I can hit a keystroke and ONLY those specified items will be selected and affected. I don’t have to open the Edit Filter each time and check off what score elements I want or don’t want to change.

There are many plug-ins that I use with Finale that are free or available for a small fee that are super useful. TG Tools Align Dynamics is one I am always using that I trigger via Keyboard Maestro. I just highlight the part or section needing to be adjusted, and it aligns all the dynamics and smart shapes in one keystroke. The numerous plug-ins available from JW, TG Tools, Patterson and JW Lua add huge workflow enhancements to Finale. Other favorites of mine are TG Tools Easy Tremolos and Easy Harmonics, JW Copy Part Layout, JW Rhythm Copy and Patterson Trills, to name a few.

Metagrid (iPad app) enables the creation of customizable layouts of touchscreen buttons. Having these visual triggers is very helpful since I can’t remember all the keystrokes I have programmed in Finale or Keyboard Maestro.

Have any new features in Finale v27 caught your attention?

First and foremost for me is stability, and v27 is working solidly on my system. The ability to now search for symbols using filters and categories is really great. My templates are in the process of being updated with SMuFL fonts, and I am looking forward to the ability to change fonts and exchange files with others more seamlessly. I was also happy to see the Jazz Font received a substantial update in v27.2. Its appearance, clarity and character sets have been greatly improved.

Are there any lesser-known features (regardless of version) that you highly recommend Finale users learn how to use?

One that I only discovered a few years ago is the ability to highlight full or partial measures and then instantly copy that selection by option-clicking the target measures. This was a revelation to me, and now I can’t imagine working without it. Used in conjunction with the Edit Filter, it’s powerful – especially with partial measures since you can click anywhere on the target measure and it inserts ONLY the selected copy material without disrupting the rest of that measure.

Triggering the Explode Music dialog by hitting 2 is always very useful for distributing a chord to multiple instruments in a score or for removing all but the top or bottom notes of a selected part or chord.

Hitting the dash key (-) while mouse-clicking places the last used score expression in the score or part. Among other situations, I find this useful when jumping around a score to input recurring tempo markings or metric modulations.

Lastly, selecting a score expression’s click-handle and then hitting Shift-Up (or Down) Arrow duplicates that expression in the staff above (or below). I find this quite useful when working with large scores.

Any upcoming projects you’d like to mention?

For those in the Chicago area, I will be performing several dates this summer at some great venues and festivals in the city with my trio and quartet and as a sideman with some fantastic artists. Itinerary specifics available at

Future projects in the works include further developing a set of original big band music I wrote and conducted as part of a European festival residency I recently completed and more performing and recording with my jazz chamber ensemble for which I have been writing new music.

Currently, I am writing nonet arrangements for an ambitious double-album project of Duke Ellington’s music being recorded by a wonderful jazz vocalist. This project has not been officially announced yet, but more information will be posted soon on my website.

Where can we learn more about you and your music?

You can visit to check out my latest album Originations in detail. That address also links to my above-mentioned main site where you can learn more about my career, performance dates, recordings and upcoming projects.

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