Interview by Jari Williamsson, January/February 2005

Steven is an Finale engraver, and has up until today won 10 Paul Revere awards for his engravings. He's also the author of the popular book on music notation "Music Engraving Today". Here he discusses matters related to his book and high-quality music notation using Finale. His own web site can be found at

What's your background?

I started arranging music as a college undergraduate and, at the suggestion of an arranger named Ed Lojeski, moved into writing original pieces for young singers a couple of years later (he said that's where the growth was, if I wanted to get published in the late 70s). I spent a couple of years as a high school choral director and went back to school for a masters, and had some of my originals picked up by Jensen Publications (since bought up by Hal Leonard) and by Studio P/R (since bought up by CPP-Belwin). When those four pieces sold over 30,000 copies in the following year, I began to spend a lot of time writing, but when the bottom suddenly dropped out of the market for originals after the 1982 recession, I wound up with a bunch of pieces in a box that weren't saleable.

A few years later, in 1987, Jim Kimmel (who had run Jensen's choral operation) and James Houston (who had sold Studio P/R to Columbia Pictures Publications for a tidy sum) both decided the tide was turning, and started up new publishing companies to sell originals to the school market. I was leaving a college job in west Texas (University of Texas-Permian Basin) and moving to a college in Philadelphia (Drexel University) and decided to start my own company and sell off the pieces I had accumulated. This brand new publication-quality notation program, Finale, seemed perfect--I could do all of the work myself and keep initial expenses low. Well, we all guessed wrong and I suddenly had several thousand dollars a year of expenses (including a 15-year business loan) with just several hundred dollars a year of income from music sales.

Looking to make enough to keep paying off the loan in 1991-92, I approached several established publishers offering my services as "an experienced engraver." I figured that I had a doctorate in music, was a published composer, and had typeset the music in my own catalogue--surely that made me an engraver. I found out otherwise with the first job I did for Oxford University Press (NY), where the chief music editor, Clifford Richter, took my first project and ripped it to shreds. It was so marked up, I thought he had dropped a glass of tomato juice on it. Anyway, under Clifford's not-very-gentle tutelage, I gradually got better and better at quality engraving, eventually winning 10 Paul Revere awards (given by the Music Publishers Association for best engraving of the year) from 1995-2003.

Can you give some example of remarks that was pointed out by the editor early on?

It's been awhile, but they fell into a few categories:

1) Precise placement of markings (i.e. mine were not precise enough)

2) Slurs--he was particular about the placement of slurs, the positioning of the tips and ends of the slurs vis-à-vis the noteheads, and especially the contour of the slur over system breaks. He hated the Finale defaults in these areas.

3) Note spacing, especially for choral music--he considered the spacing much too wide (eventually, I had to do custom allotment tables for the work I did for him) and particularly disliked the rhythmic distortion caused by music with lyrics.

4) The look of the tuplets--I remember having to manually reposition the number for virtually every tuplet in every piece (this was before you could drag the tuplet numbers horizontally, so I would do the tuplets without numbers and create the numbers as staff expressions to be placed manually).

Which are (in your opinion) the most common errors self-publishing composers seem to do?

They don't know the conventions, and re-invent music notation for each of their projects. Failing to understand rhythmic subdivisions within bars (writing monstrosities like a quarter-dotted quarter-eighth-quarter rather than quarter-quarter+tie+eighth-eighth-quarter in 4/4 time, for example) Or using terms that are simply confusing ("rallentando" in some places in a score and "ritard" in other parts—when both are used, performers end up thinking that the composer must intend the two to mean somewhat different things; it's best to use one or the other).

Do you believe the awards make it easier for you to get good jobs?

Awards make potential employers take your letters seriously; if a group of professionals think that you are doing national-caliber work, employers looking for someone to do their work well are always going to give you consideration for jobs.

How long have you used Finale?

I've used it since it first came out in fall, 1988. I bought v. 1.0 for $960 from a music company in Georgia that lost their contract with the Finale folks because they were discounting the program. I was running it on a spanking new Mac SE. I think it ran at 8 mhz.

How would you describe the evolution of Finale during these years?

Finale has gone through two big bursts of improvement, first in the early-to-mid 1990s, when Nightingale came out, featuring, among other things, note-attached slurs, which Finale did not have at the time; and again from 2001 to the present, when Sibelius came out with a streamlined interface and a variety of showy playback features. Having real competitors has forced Finale to come up with better features, and particularly with more automated features. I often got jobs in the mid-1990s because I never accepted Finale's limitations; other engravers would tell publishers, "Finale can't do that," but when the publishers sent the piece to me to fix, I always found work-arounds. Today, many of the things I used to work around can be done quickly and easily via plug-ins.

What's the background to your book (Music Engraving Today: The art and practice of digital notesetting)?

I started working on the book around 1994; I was coming up for tenure and Drexel is a "publish or perish" kind of university. I had done a variety of articles on stuff like "Using synthesizers in choral performance" and "Recording your choir," but I had no idea how much more work is involved in a book than in a ten page article. The editors at Oxford accepted it for publication, but when I still hadn't finished it four years later there was a problem: Clifford and Susan Brailove, who ran the music department at Oxford, were leaving Oxford to start their own publishing company (Brichtmark Music). They were interested in taking my book with them and publishing it, and since I really wanted Clifford's input on the book, which was about half done, I agreed to the change in publisher.

What’s the book’s purpose?

The purpose of the book is simple: to teach interested composers, arrangers and beginning engravers the things that a top-flight engraver has to be able to do. Sometimes, it's learning the "rules" of notation; often, it's developing an engraver's eye for layout. I try, in the book, to examine the conventions of each genre (Keyboard, Choral, Band, Orchestra, Book examples, Copyist) and make their varying requirements clear. My hope is that the book will function as both a "how-to" textbook (which seems to be happening, as it's been used by several universities as the basis for courses), and as a reference book when an engraver can't remember some specific rule.

Do you think anybody could learn to get an "engraver's eye"?

Yes, I do. To a large extent, it's like playing scales: practice hard enough and most people can do them. But it won't happen without practice.

Can using a notation application such as Finale be an obstacle when it comes to develop a good eye for layout?

Absolutely. Users assume that the makers of the software have designed it to provide perfect output. But that simply isn't possible; the default output of any notation program is nothing but a starting point for an engraved piece.

What kinds of music engraving do you do?

I've done a bit of everything: works for full orchestra, works for concert band, piano music, a lot of choral octavos, some songs, lots of examples for music books, and some complete books (both typesetting and notesetting).

Which of these are the most demanding jobs, in your opinion? Why?

They all have their own problems. Choral music is tough to do well, since the text underlay presents such a big stumbling block (I find it's best to turn off the "avoid collision of lyrics" feature in Finale, since it distorts the music's rhythm so much). Generally, I have to respace both the text and the music in every single measure of most choral works that I engrave.

On the other hand, keyboard music, with lots of divisi on each staff, and dense markings can be a nightmare. Large orchestral pieces, especially if they're cut-away scores, present all kinds of issues (not to mention the problem of extracting and cleaning up all of the parts). And avant-garde music, where one often has to create new symbols or layer events in ways the program doesn't want to layer them, can take great chunks out of the day.

Would you follow the same engraving guidelines for parts as for a score? If not, where are the differences?

The positioning of the elements on the page of the parts will be the same as for the score, but there are always significant adjustments to be made when parts are extracted:

--If the score is in C, the part(s) may need to be transposed. Anytime Finale transposes a piece, the engraver must check it over carefully, as there will often be odd enharmonics created, particularly on notes with accidentals.

--Obviously, since the size of the notes is different (scores range from 55%-70% [Finale] reduction, while parts are usually 85% reduction) the music will lay out differently on the parts than on the score.

--The parts must include proper page turns.

--Parts often require cues, which would not typically be included on the instrument line in the score.

Do you use Finale in different ways for avant-garde music than for more traditional music? For example, do you tend to manually space everything in avant-garde music?

I tend to manually space a lot even in traditional music. It's fair to say that avant-garde music usually requires even more manual spacing.

All roads lead to the shape designer in Finale when I'm engraving avant-garde music; whether it's a symbol that doesn't exist in any music font or an idiosyncratic time signature, you have to learn to use the shape designer to solve problems.

Which additional tools do you use when working in Finale?

Very few, as the current plug-ins are filling the problem areas for me. I particularly like Robert Patterson's plug-ins (Beam over Barlines and Patterson Beams), and find Tobias Giesen's "Easy tremolos" to be a nice time-saver.

When working for an established publisher with a particular house style, how do you work? Do you get any help from the publisher adapting their house style? Does your book cover how to emulate house styles?

When you're working for a customer, you just have to remember the old dictum: "the customer is always right." I may think that what they want will set music engraving back 500 years, but they are paying the bills and my job is to satisfy them. (I find it's almost always possible to do that and still maintain a high artistic level of work, even if they don't care about many of the nuances that I'm including in their final output.)

Some publishers are good about providing guidelines to their house style (Hal Leonard, for example, provided Finale templates for me to work from for their band works--which ensured a consistent style). For others, it's best to look at some of their published works before starting to work on their projects. Each house style is different, so all I say in the book is to use the guidelines I provide as a starting point and understand that you will have to make changes for each individual publisher.

Generally speaking, what would categorize a good engraving?

Good engraving has several features:

1) It is unambiguous--there's never any question about what marking applies to which note.

2) It is as tight as possible without having "crashes": the more information easily readable for the eye, the better. There cannot be "crashes" (objects bumping into each other on the page), but most people can only read so many inches (or centimeters, if you prefer) ahead, and the more information you can put in those inches, the quicker the performers will learn the piece.

3) The rhythm of the music is crystal clear. Notes are beamed in a way that makes rhythmic subdivisions easy to read and understand. Notes are proportionally spaced, so quarter notes always take more horizontal space than eighth notes, and tuplets are evenly spaced, and so forth. (I'm working on Vaughan Williams' "Five Tudor Portraits" with my college chorus right now, and twice in the rehearsal I had to stop after musicians misread a rhythm where two quarter notes were spaced more closely together than the eighth notes elsewhere in the measure--those rehearsal stoppages were the fault of the engraver, not of the student-musicians; we expect to take more time on notes that take up more horizontal space on the page than on notes that are more closely spaced.)

4) Conventions are followed. Words are hyphenated according to the dictionary hyphenation. Slurs are used appropriately for each instrument (slurs mean different things to different instruments). Instrument order is correct in the score (different for band than for orchestra).

Regarding collisions/crashes: I've noticed that many traditional old engravings of scores (let's say 100 years ago) from the major European houses did put dynamic markings on the staves from time to time. Is that a collision in your opinion? If so, do you know if there was a reason why they did this?

Dynamics are the one element on the page that can overlap the staff lines. The reasons are practical: they are bold enough to be read easily even if they are in the staff, and sometimes there just isn't room to get everything necessary around the staff (particularly in choral music, where there are lyrics between the staves). You'll notice in those older European editions that the engraving is exceptionally tight, both horizontally and vertically.

What would be your advices to Finale users who want to remove the "Finale look" from their scores?

Don't compromise the quality of your work, and don't accept the notion that the program will automatically do things right. An example: earlier today I was working with a singer who was doing "O had I Jubal's Lyre" (Handel), using the Hal Leonard "Oratorio Anthology." It was obvious that the book had been done using Finale. Every time the phrase "Mi-riam's tune-ful..." came up, the "riam" appeared under the first of two 16th notes that were slurred together. Finale had dutifully created a big chunk of extra horizontal space to make sure that the lyric didn't collide with anything following (although the next note didn't have a syllable of its own) and distorted the visual rhythm of the measure badly. It should have been adjusted manually by the engraver, as it was as good as an announcement that the work had been done in Finale and not by a plate engraver.

Another Finale giveaway occurs with stem length on divisi passages—the "shortened stems" setting, which should be used in divisi passages, only affects quarter notes and half notes. Flagged notes retain their original length, so if a passage includes both eighth and quarter notes--hardly an unusual occurrence--the flagged notes will be much longer than the others. It's distracting, and never occurs in plate engraved music.

No notation program provides publishable output without intervention, and the engraver has to look at every element on the page and ask if it really looks like the output of a reputable music publisher (i.e. Henle, Barenreiter, Peters, etc.).

In what direction would you like Finale to move in the future?

Well, I wish they would fix some of the longstanding flaws in the program's output (like the items above). I understand that they want to add whiz-bang new features to grab users away from that "other" notation program, but it would be nice if I didn't have to respace every single measure of every choral work I engrave. They ought to have more graceful ways to space lyrics without distorting the rhythm, and the stem length issue is inexplicable to me--the program's behavior has been wrong for 15 years and it's never been addressed.... Still, it's a lot better than pen and paper.