Interview by Jari Williamsson, January 2005

Darcy James Argue is a Canadian jazz composer/arranger now living in New York. He has been awarded the BMI Charlie Parker Composition Prize, among others. Here he discusses the techniques and tools he uses while composing in Finale.

What's your background?

I am a composer and arranger living in Brooklyn. I lead and write for an 18-piece ensemble called Secret Society, and I am a founding member of Pulse, a New York composers collective. I also participate in the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop, led by Jim McNeely and Michael Abene.

Before moving to New York, I studied with Bob Brookmeyer and Lee Hyla at New England Conservatory, where I received my M.Mus. My undergraduate work was done at McGill Univerity in Montreal, where I majored in jazz performance. I was born in Vancouver, British Columbia.

When did you first start using Finale?

I began using Finale 3.0 in the summer of 1994, on a 25 MHz Macintosh LCIII. I had just completed my first year of study at McGill, and after copying out several small arrangements by hand, I was sure there had to be a better way. So that summer, I went out and bought Finale and started dutifully making my way through the (three!) manuals. At that point, music notation software (including Finale) had a reputation as being incredibly cumbersome and difficult to learn, and I was one of only a handful of students in the entire Faculty of Music to use Finale. By the time I graduated from McGill in 1998, that number had skyrocketed.

How would you describe the evolution of Finale during this time? In what way has that evolution affected your work?

Well, clearly Finale has made tremendous strides in ease of use since v3.0. Many tasks that used to require tedious manual workarounds -- dealing with woodwind doubling, applying alternate notation to partial measures, mixing fonts in expressions, aligning dynamics and other expressions, adjusting tuplet brackets and beam angles, applying articulations en masse, adjusting staff spacing within scores -- have become greatly simplified, either through improvements in Finale itself or due to the contributions of third-party plugin authors.

To give one specific example, the new placement options for expressions introduced in Finale 2004 has significantly reduced the amount of time I need to spend tweaking the placement of expressions and other items in extracted parts -- sometimes by several hours if I'm processing a large number of parts.

As far as how it has affected my creative work, I'm honestly not sure. I think all composers like to think that their ideas aren't constrained by the tools they use -- that even if the notation that best expresses their ideas is difficult or cumbersome to realize in their software of choice, they will still choose what's ideal over what's easy. While I think that's a worthy objective, I also think that we simply can't help but be influenced by the tools we use in all sorts of subtle ways, and we may underestimate the extent to which our choice of software influences our notational choices.

That said, one of Finale's strengths has always been its tremendous flexibility. Even back in Finale 3.0, it was almost always possible to get the notation you wanted -- it might involve any number of kludges and workarounds and long hours of tedious hand-tweaking, but you could usually do it.

Which part of your work have got the most benifit from this increased ease of use? Are your scores looking better? Do you feel an inreased amount of creativity? Do you work faster? Or anything else?

I get better-looking engraving much more quickly, with more automation and much less fussing over details. I don't know about an increased amount of creativity, necessarily -- although I can think of one potential improvement to Finale that would make a big difference in that area, and that would be dynamically linked parts and score. I think if Finale did a good job of implementing this feature, I would be even more likely to undertake revisions. (I tend to make a lot of revisions, even to "completed" works, as it is, but anything that would help me avoid having to re-extract parts would be a tremendous boon.)

What kind of work do you do with Finale?

I use Finale to compose, arrange, orchestrate, create practice exercises and musical examples for teaching, and in my own music preparation business.

How do you use Finale as a composer tool?

Since I began using Finale before I began seriously composing, I can't imagine composing without Finale. I have used it since the beginning, and it is absolutely integral to my process -- so much so that I even when doing pre-compositional work, I often find myself even sketching out short ideas and motives in Finale, instead of jotting them down on manuscript paper. When I am torn as to what direction to pursue in a piece in progress, Finale makes it easy for me to try out multiple possibilities. I can revert to earlier versions of a piece, easily change the orchestration or re-order sections, and make revisions to existing material. I can keep a scrapbook of embryonic ideas that I can return to when I'm looking for ideas for a new piece. And of course, the quality and readability of the printed music is far beyond anything I could achieve by hand!

Do you have any particular system for organizing ideas/versions/revisions?

It's pretty rudimentary. I have a folder on my HD of drafts and sketches, and I number different versions of my works like software -- v1.0, 1.1, 1.2, etc.

Do you use the playback in Finale?

In the past, I have used the playback in Finale primarily as an audio proofread/note-check. Playback also helps me get a sense of the "flow" of a piece, and I will often find myself adjusting rhythms and extending certain sections after listening to Finale's playback. I have also used the playback function to design practice routines for myself -- writing out bass lines to improvise over, or to help me learn to play (and conduct) tricky rhythms and metric modulations accurately.

Unlike some composers, I haven't really gotten very sophisticated with the playback -- for instance, I rarely use the MIDI tool at all, and have never even considered exporting Finale's MIDI data to a proper sequencer. Until very recently I never used any kind of sample library. But I'm finding that many of my arranging/orchestration clients are increasingly demanding professional-sounding MIDI demos, so I have (somewhat reluctantly) began to dip my toe into that world. To that end, I recently acquired a copy of the Garritan Personal Orchestra sample library.

Do you think that it has reached a point where the ability to produce good-sounding demos has become cruical to getting arranging/orchestration jobs?

I think that's clearly where things are going. This is especially true if you're still making a name for yourself in the business. I don't think anyone insists on MIDI demos from Don Sebesky, but for the rest of us…

On the other hand, there are increasing numbers of composers, arrangers and orchestrators who welcome -- even depend on -- sequencers and sample libraries and the like to work out their ideas. It's an essential part of their tool set. I've never felt that way myself, but the technology is certainly there if people want to take advantage of it.

Which would the drawbacks/benifits of creating demos be?

From my perspective as an arranger, the worst drawback is that I have to devote a considerable amount of time to putting the MIDI demo together -- time that would be better spent actually arranging (since we are almost always on extremely tight deadlines). Demos also necessarily give the client a very misleading picture of the arrangement, since even the best demo can only ever be an extremely rough approximation of a live performance or recording. Also, there is a tendency for clients to want to needlessly tweak aspects of the arrangement just so that they can feel involved in the process.

Obviously, demos can help prevent situations where the arranger goes down a path that the client thinks is completely inappropriate, but these concerns can almost always be avoided so long as there is good communication between the client and arranger. And, demo or no demo, at a certain point the client will always have to take a leap of faith, putting his trust in the arranger's skills and musicality.

Do you send your work for publishers?

My original compositions are published by Really Good Music. I send them as camera-ready pages.

Which additional tools do you find useful when working in Finale?

One of the best things about Finale is that the power and flexibility of the plugin architecture has resulted in some truly astounding plugin suites. I find TGTools and Robert Patterson's plugins (including Copyists' Helper) absolutely indispensable.

Here are the plug-ins I find myself using most frequently:

Patterson Plugins
• Copyist's Helper
• Measure Numbers
• Patterson Beams

• Harmonics
• Tremolo
• Make Parenthesized Trill Notes
• Measure Widths
• Staff List Manager
• Align/Move
• Add Cue Notes
• Smart Distribution of Parts
• Harp Pedalling

Finale's built-in plugins
• Courtesy Accidentals
• Make Single Pitch (for drum cues)

How would you describe the look of your music? Do you tend to aim for a "typeset" look or a "hand-written" look?

I do both “typeset” and “hand-written” style scores. It depends on the situation, and, of course, the preferences of the client. I did adopt the Jazz Font quite early (I bought it directly from Rich Sigler long before it became bundled with Finale), and I spent a good deal of time designing a default file that follows the manuscript conventions Clinton Roemer lays out in The Art of Music Copying.

While I have used the Jazz Font for my own works for a number of years, I am now actually leaning towards switching to Maestro. The key factor for me was my acquisition of Bill Duncan's Chord Symbol, Enclosure, and Rehearsal fonts. These fonts have allowed me to preserve the "sight-readability" of a more handwritten look, while also taking advantage of the more professional appearance of the Maestro font.

I should add that the original FinaleTips site and Steven Powell's book Music Engraving Today were both extremely helpful to me in designing my current Maestro default file.

Which are the most important shortcuts you've discovered during the years?

• The ability to apply articulations to multiple notes/staves at once by holding down a metatool key while click-dragging. (Now I only wish we could do the same with note-attached expressions!)

• The ability to copy optimizations (including changes to group names and distances between staves) to multiple systems using TGTools Staff List Manager.

• Robert Patterson's Copyists Helper, which makes instrument name headers (for parts with woodwind doubling) and intelligent measure number positioning possible. Also his Patterson Beams. Invoking Patterson Beams is is the single best thing you can do to improve the quality of your Finale output.

• Bill Duncan's Chord Symbol fonts, which add support for compound chords.

For a composer/arranger starting with Finale "from scratch" today, what would your advice be?

Work through the tutorials and videos, then join the Finale list and start asking questions! It's a terrific resource.

Also, you absolutely must get a copy of Clinton Roemer's The Art of Music Copying and Steven Powell's Music Engraving Today. (Of course, the serious engraver will also get Ross and Read, etc.) Unfortunately, few composers and arrangers seem to appreciate how much of a difference well-prepared music makes to readability and the quality of the performances they get. They expect Finale to take care of everything for them. Obviously, it doesn't work like that. If composers and arrangers are going to be preparing their own parts, they have a responsibility to learn the basics of good music prep.

Which direction would you personally like Finale to take in the future?

As I said upthread, I would welcome dynamically integrated scores and parts. Some sort of style sheet support would be welcome as well. It would be great if we had the ability to make global adjustments to multiple documents by making changes to a template. I would also very much like to see Finale take better advantage of modern video cards to improve redraw performance.