Steven M. Alper and Finale History

Visual Index for Print 3 700

Do you recognize the document above? This version of Finale’s Visual Index was found in the Quick Reference guide that came with Finale 3.0, with a copyright date of 1992. Today we’ll meet with its creator, Steven M. Alper, and learn a little about Finale history.

What was your introduction to Finale?

In the late 1980s I was always casting around for some way to get my music (original compositions, orchestrations, or arrangements – whatever) onto the paper more easily, quickly, and accurately. Convinced the computer was going to help, I accepted my first Mac (along with a dot matrix printer and a 20 Megabyte hard drive and software) as payment for the first show I ever copied. I had read about what software was available and decided to go with HB Engraver, which was at the high end.

On this particular show, all of the parts had been orchestrated except for the piano-conductor’s, who was reading from lead sheets. The easiest way, it seemed, to get his part notated was to have him play it into a sequencer and use software to transcribe that information. In those days, that wasn’t so easy. While HB Engraver could notate a file from MIDI data (and I believe this was before there was a Standard MIDI file  spec, or at least before it was generally accepted), recording functions were not built in. The only software that could output a file that HB Engraver could interpret was something called (I think) MIDI Painter, which could record MIDI from an external keyboard and also play back sequences you created by painting on a “musical canvas .” Quite cumbersome, but it worked after a fashion.

A couple of years later, I was music director for the off-Broadway revival of Godspell. Once we had run for a while, a guy named David Pogue started coming in to sub on the second keyboard chair. David and I hit it off and spent a lot of time in wide-ranging discussion. One topic that came up fairly frequently was notation software. David was a big proponent – oh, let’s say he was an evangelist — for a new program called Finale. It sounded interesting to me, but not enough to make me want to switch from HB Engraver.

We went around and around on this, and David was fairly relentless. He sensed victory when I finally asked, “If I buy this, will you help me find work using it?” At the time, Finale was available only at the full list price of $1000, which was a lot when I was taking home a little less than $300 a week as a big, hot shot music director.

The next day I visited David at home for an intro to the program. He spent about a half-hour demonstrating some of the basics of the different input methods and then jokingly showed how to shove about 140 measures onto a single staff. Then he told me that he was sending me to work with Jule Styne (if you have to Google that name, you should hang your head in shame). “What, are you crazy!?” I asked for at least a week. And sometime shortly after that I was working with Jule Styne, using Finale.

David was moving on to other things and started off-loading to me some of his clients for whom he did computer guru-type things as well as Finale work. And this ultimately brought me in to the Broadway copy shops.

You created some classic  Finale tutorial files. Can you remind me of your history with Coda?

I don’t know how it came about, but David was going to do that massive and brilliant revision of the Finale manual for version 3, splitting the original dense material into three volumes: a set-up and tutorial volume, a standard reference to the tools and what they did, and a kind of reverse of that which looked at what you might want to achieve musically and explained how to accomplish that. (Finale’s manuals have continued to utilize variations on David’s idea.) He brought me in to help with screenshots and to write and create the tutorial examples and The Visual Index.

David described what he wanted each tutorial example to illustrate and I whipped up some musical things to his specs. The biggest challenge was The Visual Index. David had this idea that there would be a piece of music that in two pages should demonstrate almost everything that Finale could do, with callouts telling the reader where to look in the manual for an explanation of that particular element. I remember little of the writing process, but there are two things I can tell you about this piece.

First, the production department needed the finished piece at a time well before the software was due to be completed. This meant that I was to create a piece of music that used types of notation that the version of the software I was using was not yet able to do. So I took it as far as I could in Finale, then exported it as an EPS file, which I opened in Adobe Illustrator and finished manually.

The other piece of trivia about The Visual Index is that I originally wrote a very different set of lyrics than what appeared in the final version. The people at Coda thought mine too irreverent and David came up with the pseudo-art song lyric that has appeared ever since. Here are mine:



By the way, while The Visual Index may be my most famous composition, some of the tutorial examples have been used in ways I never imagined. “Tin Dance” has been performed on several occasions and was recorded for use in a documentary (about what, I can’t recall).

When Finale 3.0 was released, it was notoriously and stultifyingly slow. I did a parody of the tool bar, which featured things like a Mass Mover truck that had crashed out of the side of the toolbar and was tumbling away (the “Instrument of Destruction” tool). Some other notable tools included the “Get-That-Stupid-Expression-Off-Your-Face” tool, the “MIDIternity” tool, the “Peek-a-Boo Ossiu” tool, and “Zippy has his temperature taken” tool.

I shared my parody with David who did something I never would have: he forwarded it to the Finale engineers who, according to him, got a great kick out of it. (Here’s what we reclaimed of the parody when we tried to open the ancient Canvas file.) I also have to say that 3.2, which came out very soon after the 3.0 release, was downright spritely.

What do you like about Finale?

I like: the ability to lock things down (when you remember to) to keep things from moving around; key-assignable tools, articulations, and expressions; multiple input methods; plug-ins; and I like the fact that 99% of the time anything I need to do I can eventually find a way to do.

The two biggest plusses about Finale: the beauty of the results after care and effort; and the fact that it’s what I know. I’ve been using it since the beginning, and while there have been a few major paradigm changes, it’s always become familiar relatively quickly. When I had to use Sibelius, I literally burst into tears of frustration because it was so alien. There is very little the two programs have in common except the end goal. (However, once I achieved some level of competence, I stopped bashing the program which I admit has its merits, and I see the Finale engineers striving for parity in the areas in which Sibelius excels.)

What would you change?

Kill the bugs. I wish: Finale was smarter about collision avoidance; that, when you’ve set up inside-outside margins, the Page Layout tool would recognize when you’ve inserted a page and not give you two right-hand pages in a row; that the Lyrics tool was smarter, didn’t suffer from so many problems especially after many revisions, and didn’t slow things down so much; that the Chord tool was more intelligent and that font changes didn’t require so much tinkering; that some of the Smart Shapes were smarter; that the measure numbering tool could place measure numbers below on single-staff parts, but above on multi-stave parts; that many of the things available as plug-ins were built in. I wish it wasn’t so hard to find the things you know are in the program but you can’t find because you haven’t used them in a while.

I really wish MakeMusic would purchase Sibelius from Avid, create a direct importer/converter of .sib files, and grab everything of value and incorporate it into Finale.

Have a Finale tip youd like to share?

Learn the plug-ins. If it had been around longer and hadn’t taken me so long to find, Jari Williamson’s “Copy Part Layout” alone would have shaved years of man hours. Same for Robert Patterson’s “Copy Page Titles.” And then there’s Tobias Giesen’s TGTools, which was (and still is) a huge toolkit of time saving devices. After seeing my complaints about dealing with page number placement and some other special notation that were required at the time, Robert Patterson created the “Copyist’s Helper” plug-ins, which did some extraordinary things that seemed nearly miraculous at the time.

What are you working on now?

Aside from my own writing and arranging projects, I am the supervising music copyist for Amazing Grace, which I was with when it tried out in Chicago last fall and is opening on Broadway in July.

This post came about when a reader of the Finale blog asked if we could provide a piece about the preparation of parts for a Broadway show. I put out a few feelers to folks-in-the-know who could provide some insight and Steven was kind enough to reply. My special thanks go out to Steven for this and an upcoming post in which he shares some of his experience in copying music for Broadway.

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