Meet Composer/Pianist Ryan Cohan and Learn his Finale Tips

Ryan Cohan photo by Jennifer Chin

Ryan Cohan is a prolific composer, jazz pianist, educator and clinician (check out his impressive bio at Ryan’s recent projects include creating symphonic arrangements for Joe Locke’s Wish Upon A Star (released in January by Motéma Music) and production of Ryan’s fifth solo recording. Both projects relied heavily on Finale – as has all Ryan’s writing has for the past thirteen years.

I spoke with Ryan about some of these projects and his work with Finale.

Scott Yoho: Tell me a little about your participation in Joe Locke’s Wish Upon A Star.

Ryan Cohan: The project had its origins with a concert Joe invited me to play with his quartet and Lincoln’s Symphony Orchestra in 2008. The performance was very successful and a synergy developed between Joe’s group and LSO that eventually led to Wish Upon A Star. When the recording was being planned and additional arrangements were needed, I was working on my Guggenheim Fellowship focusing on orchestral writing, and the circumstances worked out for my being signed on to the project as an arranger along with UK composer/saxophonist Tim Garland.

Preparing the music for this date required a careful approach. Joe is a virtuosic vibraphonist with a distinct improvisational voice, so an important objective of my arrangements was to create compelling orchestral parts integrated with the jazz quartet that allowed him a fertile, open canvas to interpret and navigate with as much freedom as possible. 

SY: I understand your upcoming fifth solo album will feature an hour long suite for jazz septet. That sounds like a big undertaking. Can you tell me a little about the process and how Finale fit in?

RC: The suite and new CD, both entitled The River, were inspired by the musical and human experiences I encountered on an extended tour of Africa a few years ago. The piece was composed over seven months and scored for my septet comprising of two woodwinds (each doubling on tenor and soprano saxophones, flute, alto flute and bass clarinet), trumpet/flugelhorn, piano, acoustic bass, drums and percussion. The suite has eight movements connected by short, free improvisations by different members of the group that I imagine as a river linking eight scenes or vignettes depicting a single story. 

As I start to develop compositional ideas, I will write out a lead sheet in Finale so I can play the music with my group to hear what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes I’ll have a few versions of the tune sketched out to audition. As the composition takes shape, I will then create a score to orchestrate and arrange it in Finale. The River had some interesting notational considerations. Between the very detailed, composed sections there were these improvisation sections that, while free, needed some direction so the soloist could blow on a particular sound or theme and know how to setup the next section. These ‘sounds’ were often a cluster of notes rather than a part of a chord symbol, not necessarily in time or fitting in a time signature, and I had to figure out how to indicate them. Ultimately, Finale handled whatever I needed with ease. Once I started rehearsing the arrangement, having linked parts in Finale – keeping everything in sync – was invaluable as I edited the score. 

SY: Can you tell me a little about your history with Finale? Where and when you began using (what version)? What do you like about it?

RC: I first started using Finale in 1996 – I think the version I had then was Finale 97. What attracted me to it was its depth and customizability; I am very meticulous on how I want my scores and small group parts to appear. Transitioning to a notation program in the beginning was not an easy task for me as I had already done a great deal of writing and copying by hand and was used to the organic nature of working that way. As I adapted my pencil and paper style to notating at a computer, Finale became an invaluable tool for me – especially as the program became much easier and more intuitive to use over the years with each update. Now I can create a melody lead sheet very quickly or add/edit parts in a score at a rate many times faster than I could do by hand. Finale remains the only program of its type that I use and an integral part of my compositional process. 

SY: Have any Finale tips you can share? Perhaps something that made a big difference on one of the projects above?

RC: In general, I recommend learning and using metatools – Finale’s keyboard shortcuts. I have keystrokes setup for my regularly used expressions, articulations, formats, time signatures, clef changes, etc. and for the main tools I use so I can easily switch between them. Working this way is a more efficient way to navigate the program and keeps the focus on the music.

I found a couple shortcuts by accident that I used often working on Wish Upon A Star – one was the ability to highlight measures or notes with the selection tool and instantly transpose them up or down an octave by hitting 9 (up) or 8 (down). Also, moving a note diatonically by a step can be done instantly with 7 (up) and 6 (down). These were very useful for quickly adjusting the tessitura an instrument was playing in or moving an instrument from the melody to a 2nd or 3rd part. 

I’m always using option-click within a tool – for barline changes, creating repeats, adding measures and more. There are a lot of fast editing options there with one simple mouse or trackpad stroke. Another recent discovery I made related to editing is the ability to change articulations and expression markings already on the score with a single keystroke. This is done simply by selecting the marking you want to edit on the score/part and then double-tapping the assigned keystroke of the new marking to which it should change (example: changing a staccato articulation to an accent or a forte dynamic marking to mezzo-piano, etc.). 

All these shortcuts make a real difference in getting my scores down fast and looking right – particularly in a piece like The River that integrates different jazz staff styles with traditional and non-traditional notation elements. 

SY: What’s on the horizon?

RC: My new CD, The River, is scheduled for release on Motéma Music in July. In addition to the work supporting that recording, I am involved in a few other album projects in Chicago and New York that are coming out this spring. I am also developing a writing project that adapts some of the orchestral concepts I worked on recently to a smaller ensemble and looking to pursue more film scoring opportunities in the near future. More details will be available soon on my web site at

My thanks to Ryan for sharing his Finale experiences with us. Tell us what you’re working on by clicking on “Comments” below.

get the best from finale

Composing, arranging, and engraving tips delivered to your inbox.

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. By viewing or browsing our site, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. Read our Privacy Policy for more information.