How to get from blank paper to finished chart

This article shares some of the sketches I used when composing the jazz ensemble work There's a New Dog In Town. You'll see how I got it started, and several stages throughout the process leading up to entry in Finale.

The final score and recording are at bottom.

STEP 1 — Gather thoughts
This programmatic piece is the third movement of a suite. I had to consider how it related to the prior two movements. This particular work is inspired by the introduction of the steam locomotive in the mid 1800’s.

The notes in the top half of the page show me honing the attitude of the piece with descriptors like muscular, macho, and mechanical. “Move over, junior” is the first-person sentiment of the steam locomotive as it replaces the canal boat as long-distance transportation king.

The brainstorm on the bottom half of the page shows potential ways to reflect this sentiment. I didn’t use the accelerando, but I certainly kept drummer John Bonham in mind.

The take-away: By thinking through what this chart needs to say in advance, it helped me focus in right away.


STEP 2 — initial leadsheet
I was able to come up with the groove almost instantly (thanks to pre-hearing a Led Zeppelin vibe in step 1). But I couldn’t find an interesting melody. On a whim I decided to ad-lib a bravado-laden lyric from the steam engine’s perspective. This led me right to the melody. And I’m positive I would not have come up with this particular melody through my usual channels on the keyboard and saxophone.

Please note the cross-outs, edits, suggested alternatives, and paranthetical chord changes.

Also note that the parts of the melody are slightly different in the final version.

Take-away: Use any means necessary to generate material, even if it’s a silly lyric that will never actually be performed and that you wouldn’t dare share with anyone on your email list.


STEP 3 — 1-line staff

I can't overstate how helpful these one-line sketches are for me when I compose, arrange, and transcribe.

Using them keeps me in big-picture mode, and allows me to begin shaping a chart without getting bogged down in small details like melodic note choice, voicings, etc.

Note that the actual orchestration at letter B is different from what I had indicated on this early sketch.

Take-away: Learn to recognize the types of things you spin your wheels over (i.e. waste time deliberating), and figure out ways to avoid them as much as possible. Life’s too short, and you can always make the next chart perfect…



STEP 4 — Grand staff

This is the first page of my grand-staff sketch.
Here’s where I really begin to notate the music.

. measure 9:  I’ve marked in a trombone figure, but haven’t labored over the voicing yet.
. orchestration notes like “tenors and bari, strong.”
. rhythm section figures (m.9-10, 13-14) + 16th-note lead-in at top.
. the final version is slightly different than what this sketch suggests.

Take-away:  A grand-staff is a great way to notate just about all of the music while still enabling you to see the big picture—and move things around as your thoughts evolve and clarify.




STEP 5 — more of grand staff

. There are scribbles and erasures (m.21-23).
. “Brass -> see p.2-A” tells me that I notated this brass passage on a separate piece of paper.
. m.21, bass clef:  AA,TT,B reminds me of pitch distribution in saxes.
. m.31-32, bass clef:  that figure did not make it into final version.
. m. 39-40, treble clef:  mark to “copy B5-6.”  There is nothing wrong with cut-and-paste in the right places.

Take-away: Your sketch can be a little messy—as long as you can decipher what you've written. Also, allow things to change in the final version.


p.s. I logged 11.5 hours to get from conception to complete grand-staff sketch. This is longer than my average, but every project is a little different.

STEP 6 — Computer (Finale) entry

Layout the score in Finale:

  • correct number of measures
  • rehearsal letters / numbers
  • repeats, meter, key changes as needed

Enter as many notes as I can. Use the playback to help me find places that don't work. Continue editing as needed.

STEP 7 — clean up final parts & score

Here's the final score.

Even after all of the sketching you see above, I still had four drafts within Finale before reaching this final version.

This isn't always the case, but this particular piece required a lot of massaging until I could figure out how to notate what I was imagining.

Here's the Finale playback:

p.s. The total time I logged for this piece was 27 hours on 10 different work days. As mentioned above, this was longer than it usually takes me, but there were some elements of this project that required me to do some research, trial and error in order to get right.


STEP 8 — test the pudding...

The most important step is to put your music in front of human musicians. Always record the sight-reading session. There is a LOT to be learned from this process.

This is Zeropoint, my local monthly reading band sight-reading New Dog. I'm the sax player to the left, so I asked a friend to record this on her phone.

The only thing I wanted to change after this read-through was some of the octave choices in the flute part in the middle. Otherwise, the extra hours of work were worth it to me.

p.s. If something did not sound the way you wanted it to, ask the players about it. Perhaps they'll tell you that a figure is awkward, or that they just messed up.

p.p.s. That's a good band, yes?

Posted on April 14, 2017 .