How to Earn A Black Belt in Finale

How to Earn A Black Belt in Finale

by Jim Roberts, US Army Band

Express Music Services, (the production arm of Express Music Publishing), has recently had the good fortune to be very busy with several projects occurring simultaneously. Along with our good fortune comes the headaches of deadlines and obstacles that ensure it will be a last minute push to get the project done and on time to make that mad dash to the Fed Ex box. While preparing for this week’s issue of Staff Notes, I came across an article written by Jim Roberts that appeared on our Copyist Discussion page last June. Jim detailed for us the chronological events of a project he had worked on that were all together hauntingly familiar. I think many of you will appreciate Jim’s story, however I might suggest an antacid prior to reading it!


Fellow copyist you don’t have to spend very long in the music prep business before you can trade with fellow copyists a tale like the following:


A major US symphony hired 3 copyists to help prepare a televised pops concert. They ran into a deadline crunch and asked if I’d like to help out. With big bucks promised I naturally said “Yeah!” The assignment: Put a 155 bar, full-pops- orchestra-vocal-backup on stands by Sunday morning, 10 AM.  


Thursday: I agree to do the job. They tell me the score will arrive by Fed Ex from Atlanta the next day around noon. Great news, that gives me an easy 36 hours to do the job. I lay the supply of good strong coffee, kiss the wife goodbye until Sunday afternoon and brace myself for the long haul. 

Friday, noon: No score. It will now arrive around 6 PM. Trying to be slightly productive while waiting, I ask the arranger what the instrumentation is so I can make a template to pour the notes into. He tells me “he’ll get back to me on that.” This is the first warning that maybe something’s not quite right here.


Friday, 6 PM: No score. It will now arrive at 8 AM Saturday. Assuming this to be true, it will leave about 24 hours to pull off the job. Like the Grasshopper snatching the pebble from the Master’s hand, if I can snatch this assignment from the talons of procrastination and incompetence, I may consider myself a Finale Black Belt.


Saturday, 8 AM: No score. It will now arrive by Fed Ex at noon.

Saturday, Noon: There is still no score, although they have sent a fax of the first 50 bars of the arrangement. Being on 8 ½ x 11 reduction of a huge score this is practically unreadable. The symphony library has tried to help out by enlarging the faxed pages. Now I have a VERY LARGE unreadable fax score to work with. Time remaining until downbeat: 20 hours. 


Saturday, 1 PM: I am finally working on the score. It is an absolute, unequivocal piece of trash written by an arranger with only the most rudimentary knowledge or orchestration and standard notation practice. The question “How could an amateur like that get a plum assignment like this? “ is asked many times and never satisfactorily answered. I press on. 


Sunday, 7 AM: After working through the night (and playing a wedding reception from 6-9) the assignment is finished. That is, only the first 50 bars are finished. I zip up to the symphony library to deliver the goods. They Xerox everything and rehearsal begins. The true hard copy of what I’ve just spent 12 hours deciphering arrives; the rest of the score is promised to me “sometime that day”. Not believing a word of it, I go home and take a nap.


Sunday, 7 PM: The arranger calls and wants to know if there is a Kinko’s nearby so he can send off the remaining pages. I tell him there is; he promises to fax everything as soon as we hang up, the true hard score to arrive the next morning. The new deadline is set for 8 PM Monday night, the dress rehearsal.


Sunday, 9 PM: No fax.

Sunday, 11 PM: No fax.

Monday, 1 AM: No fax. I start to make corrections, which are many, on the material I’ve already done. The writer has the most annoying habit of notating accidentals that are already in the key signature, even if it’s just an occasional natural sign. This causes me to second-guess myself in the alto clef, slowing things down considerably. 


Monday, 3 AM: All correct and no more to work on. And so to bed. Dress rehearsal is 15 hours away.

Monday, 8 AM: The second fax arrives! However it is as unreadable as the first fax and only has an additional 50 bars. The chart is still about 50 bars short of being finished. I begin to work apace. 


Monday, Noon: The arranger arrives in town carrying the remainder of the hard copy score. With rehearsal just 8 hours away, I still have to input 50 bars of music, extract layout and clean up 34 parts.  Fortunately, this arranger knows nothing of dynamics, slurs, articulations or any other score expression so it’s strictly a note-entering job.  One of the other copyists (who have al been busy on other tunes for the show) arrives at my place and sets up his computer. We begin inputting feverishly.


Monday, 4 PM: Remarkably, the inputting is finished. We begin extracting and cleaning up.

Monday, 4:20 PM: The symphony librarian calls, “Can we at least have a set of sting parts and rhythm parts ready by 6pm?” When it rains, it pours. We say, “Of course” and carry on.


Monday, 6 PM: My wife drives the string/rhythm parts up to the symphony library. We actually managed to get the remainder of the parts looking readable, if not pretty, and delivered by 7 PM. Rehearsal is one hour away, but we still have to Xerox and tape parts. We burn rubber out to the concert hall garage at 7:50 PM for a drive to the dress rehearsal venue. Like some bad Billy Jack movie, we arrive just asthe downbeat is given to the rhythm and stings (of course this piece had to be scheduled first on the rehearsal!) The other parts are passed around while the music plays. 


I earned my Black Belt in Finale, and a couple of sheckles besides. I drive slowly into the sunset, the sound of misspelled minor 7b5 wafting in the breeze. I sigh, peaceful and content with the knowledge that through our efforts the cause of Shlocky, Badly Written Vocal Backup Charts will be advanced just that much further.


Jim Roberts

Jim Roberts is a member of the US Army Band stationed in Fort Myer, Va.,  playing guitar & bass, as well as being a professional music copyist.  Jim teaches Jazz bass and Music Notation at Shenandoah University in Winchester, VA., about 75 miles west of Washington, D.C.

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