What It Takes To Be A 
Professional Music Copyist

What It Takes To Be A Professional Music Copyist

by Lee Monroe


    I am often amused to hear opinions of what it takes to be a music copyist, especially from someone who has never actually been one. To them, we just put notes on paper, draw dots, make easy money, and all that. Those of us who really do make a living at this know that it is more about page turns, accuracy, proofing, deadlines, and sleepless nights. In this article, I want to discuss the first, and some might say primary decision a person must make before becoming a music copyist.



    Before you decide on a career as a music copyist, you must understand the commitment you need to make. If you are unable or unwilling to completely obligate yourself, then you might as well forget it. Anyone in the business understands this or they do not survive. The music copying business at the highest level is very intense. There is an extremely low tolerance of mistakes (if any at all) and there is always competition. Iíd like to relate a story that sums up this idea of commitment and obligation.


    One Monday afternoon, I got a visit from a gentleman fresh out of college claiming to be a Finale (music notation software program) expert. I often get these kinds of calls or visits because of the success of our service; EMS is the largest copy service in this area. Since I am always looking for quality copyists, I will usually take the call or visit. I believe in being very frank in all my business dealings and I am generally not one to mince words. I want to know about this personís background and try to discern if they have any clue about what it takes to be a professional. If they show some sign of potential I usually make some offer to test their skills. This normally involves giving them a relatively simple score and giving them a very moderate deadline, then seeing what they can do. 

    This gentleman seemed very confident and so I proceeded to offer him a chance to prove his abilities. This is the point where I tell him about my policy regarding missed deadlines; "If you ever miss a deadline for me, donít expect any more work!" (That tends to get a rather wide-eyed response). I then offered up a very simple score for an 8 or 9 piece group and asked that he have it back to me by Friday. Remember this is Monday afternoon. He seemed to think of this as somewhat of a challenge but cautiously decided to accept. 

    Sensing that he did not quite understand the nature of our business, I said, "I gave this to one of my copyist this morning at 10am and got it back completed by 3pm." The fellow seemed totally dumbfounded. He had some question of the veracity of my statement and I assured him that it was the truth. With that I sent him on his way. 

    Tuesday morning I received a call from him. He had thought about what I had said and had decided that he was not cut out for the business.


    Some might say that I was too tough on this young man. My response will be that I saved us both a lot of time and money. I encourage Finale practitioners all the time. Every day I take phone calls from arrangers, orchestrators, composers, and fledgling copyists with Finale questions.

    The difference I make is when someone makes that decision to become a professional copyist. I know dozens of very competent Finale users that I would never use as music copyists. Not only are there different skills involved with being a copyist but above all the commitment must be unequivocal.

    I cannot accept excuses about why something doesnít get done.  IT MUST BE DONE! When I have a recording session in London with 40 or 50 musicians from the London Symphony Orchestra there ready to play, my client isnít interested in whether or not one of my copyists had the flu. This business has a very low tolerance of mistakes. I am not saying that I have never made one, but I will say that they are very difficult to recover from.


    Perhaps now when you meet a person who makes a living as a copyist, you will have a better understanding of what it takes; not necessarily from a technical point of view but how dedicated he/she is to the craft. I understand and I send kudos to all professional musical copyists.


Lee Monroe is the President of Express Music Services and has been a full time professional music copyist for 18 years.

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