My final Critical Review

College have received my submission for the March assessment and therefore, I am now adding the final version of my Critical Review to my blog here:



My Final Composition

Now that my final score and assessment portfolio has been received by college, I will now upload the final composition both as a sound file and as a pdf in the same way that I have done for all of my previous assignments.

Here is the pdf score:

And here is what it sounds like:

Leaving Wonderland

It’s a very strange thing to be typing. I knew that I would reach the final stretch at some point, but it’s been a very long time coming, and the amount of work that I have invested in this final year course has been immense.

My composition is now finished, printed and comb-bound. It looks amazing and I’m extremely proud of it. Having spent the last few mornings printing off my other assignments, I’ve been reminded of the journey that I have travelled, and at times found myself cringing at the quality of the music scores I have produced.

The journey is easily forgotten when you are the one travelling it. My partner observed the other day that it’s incredible how far I have come since the very start of my degree. And he’s right. The first year helped me formalise existing knowledge and start me moving towards the unknown. The second year continued nudging me along, steadily building my confidence and skills to get me writing for a small orchestra. And this final year has been all about jumping off the deep end; no formal coursework, no given deadlines. It has been totally up to me the entire direction I took, and this initially threw me into total panic because I didn’t know what to do.

I think I have witnessed in me not only a greater sense of perseverance and patience with my music, but I have learnt to follow an academic path that formalised certain aspects of my composing that to start with, I wasn’t happy about following. I simply wanted to write music. That was it. I didn’t want to have to learn Sibelius; it took way too much time and was far too fiddly. I didn’t want to have to plan my piece; I just wanted to write it.

I think most creative people do struggle to conform. But in my case, it was a question of changing the word in my head from conform to learn. After the first assignment, and the mini-breakdown and total lack of confidence I experienced at Assignment 2, I realised that I wasn’t being denied the opportunity to compose. Far from it; the course wanted to nurture my abilities and get me composing but in a structured way.

I’m glad I stuck at it. I’m glad that I worked through the moments of doubt and moments of utter crises of confidence. I’ve worked extremely hard, harder than I have since enrolling on this degree. Tutors warned me that final year courses were tough. They weren’t wrong. You’re set free to prove to your tutors, and more importantly, to yourself that you’ve reached the point where you can self-direct your learning, your project, your assignment deadlines. You can prove that you can manage the composition of a large, extended piece of music, and evidence the journey, the research, the influences, the highs, the lows.

The Critical Review was based around the topic of programme music, which inadvertently was the type of music I was writing, with elements of the story (my own words not those of Lewis Carroll) interspersed to add an extra dimension to the music score. Studying two very famous pieces by Vivaldi and Beethoven not only helped to broaden my understanding of the genre, but help me appreciate what has been achieved in music before, and what opportunities there are for conveying anything we want in music; there are no limits.

Aside from some final pieces of music that I want to listen to and record on my listening log, I am finished. I am leaving Wonderland with a huge sense of relief and an abundance of confidence in my compositional skills that I feared was forever going to be missing from my life.

Farewell, Alice – it’s been fun.


Give me some space

I have found a very useful short but sweet piece of guidance on a website this evening that has helped me understand some of the engraving setups within Sibelius that I can try to apply to my score.

The ideal distance between staves varies; this is based upon the number of staves, the page size and system size, and the number of systems on a page.

If one considers the braced Grand Staff, the ledger line on middle C is a staff line. The braced grand staff functions as a bridge between two different clefs, in turn moving the treble and bass clefs closer together and making middle C directly entered between the two. So there are two staff spaces between the clefs, the one staff space above, and the one staff space below middle C.

Sibelius measures this distance from outside the staff lines and calls it ‘2 spaces’.

You can change the vertical distance globally (yes – the entire score in one go!) for all staves by changing the vertical space. In Sibelius, you do this in Appearance>Engraving Rules>Staves>Layout.

If one considers the space between staves and how it corresponds to the distance between staff lines, this is a good way to visualise and appropriate distances. For orchestral scores, a good starting point for vertical staff spacing might be 8 ledger lines deep (Sibelius calls in 8 spaces, measured between the bottom and top staff lines of 2 adjacent staves).

You can also change the vertical space between groups of instruments in the same Engraving Rules as above, and you can increase the spacing even more if needs be in Extra Space vs Groups. For extra room above the strings group for tempo/rehearsal marks, change ‘Extra space above for system object positions’.

Vertical Justification
Staves will auto-justify automatically unless the value in Engraving Rules is set to 100%. I was a victim of this when I initially tried manually manipulating my stave positions and they kept snapping away from me!

Puff, R. (2013). Vertical Spacing Between Staves In A Score & Working at 100%. Available: Last accessed 05/12/2016

I hereby present (part 2)

Having now completed the composing required to reduce all sparse areas in my score, my attention now lies in getting the score layout sorted. As previously stated, this is the part of this process I cannot stand!

However, due diligence – and a strong desire to ensure that I don’t throw valuable marks away through ignorance or laziness – is pushing me to ensure I spend dedicated time going through my score layout to ensure I check and double check everything carefully. I fully intend this part of my work to take me at least 2 weeks.

The plan:
Therefore, to this end, I now have a checklist that I want to work through:
1) Determine and enter a performance direction for each section (such as Giocoso for the Mad Hatter) because greater clarity is required for performers to understand better the character that I am looking for throughout.
2) Make sure that the overall stave size is as close to 5.5mm, which is the recognised size for a conductor’s score. It looks too small currently.
3) Hide all empty staves – this will then give me a vastly reduced layout to work with and save the trees, too, although I am considerably scared of doing this given past experience of this throwing everything out.
4) Re-establish any page breaks that may have changed as a result of no’s 2 and 3 above.
5) Make sure spacing between staves and instrument groups are uniform throughout and look tidy without clashes.
6) Ensure all instrument labels, tempo and performance directions are changed back to traditional font (I had originally set them in the Papyrus font to go with my titles and section headings, but on reflection feel this needs changing.
7) Make sure that all RH page numbers are odd and the LH even.
8) Ensure that all dynamics look right, are applied to EVERY new entry, are bold, and sit directly beneath the note it applies to. Make sure all crescendos/diminuendo hairpins and dash lines are straight (many of them currently are most definitely not!)
9) Ensure that where dynamics were once centralised between two staves (piano/harp parts) and following the ‘hide empty staves’ manoeuver,  I must double-check to see if any instructions need to be moved to beneath a stave that has been reduced from the two staves to one.
10) Double-check the trombone part and ensure any high sections are put into the tenor clef.

The work:
Performance directions are now entered; each section has a unique character and feel. Some jostling around was needed to ensure this was positioned beneath the section name but above any metronome marking. I also double-checked the notation convention around the placing of the metronome marking and Elaine Gould’s book ‘Behind Bars’ has been a total godsend at informing and reminding me on lots of tiny details throughout my presentation work (referenced below).

Stave size. I hadn’t realised until this point that the overall stave size had reduced because I had increased it a while back. Unsure quite how or why it happened (had it drunk the potion or eaten that side of the mushroom I wonder?). Reasons aside, I highlighted the entire score and increased it back to 5.5mm initially. This pushed my page numbers up to nearly 130. I then nudged the sizing back a little to 5mm, which in my mind still looked big enough, and in the process, reduced the total page count to around 100. That was better.

The next task was hiding the empty staves. This went better than expected. I highlighted all pages except those on the very first page of the score and those on the first page of the second movement. My total page count shot through the roof along with my heart rate, but then I realised that my page breaks had all gone all over the place.

The start of Movement II now fell slap bang in between two pages; that needed sorting out for a start. Once this was done, I went through all other breaks to make sure they were still appropriate, and low and behold some weren’t, especially at the start of my second movement (which now appeared half way through a page).  These were all reset; yay. Which then pushed my page count up again slightly; not so yay. But I quickly then realised that the layout had clashes; staves were now far too close together.

This led me straight on to the next area I had on my list. I needed to ensure that distances between both individual staves and groups of instruments looked uniformly similar between pages. I didn’t want the staves to clash and overlap, but equally I didn’t want them to be miles apart either. It needed to look professional.

I did start to move the staves around myself, dragging them away from others to create more space.  However, it didn’t feel like a very organised way of doing it, and aside from being really labourious, I remembered that I had stumbled across something in the Layout tab; I could adjust these distances in the Engraving rules and it would apply to the entire score. There was a god.

I was now able to make sure that my staves did not justify until 100% of the page was full; before I changed this, it was set to 65% and this meant that when I tried to drag the various staves apart, after a certain point, they would snap to fill the page, thus creating huge distances between instruments. By upping the justification % to 100, this stopped this from happening.

I also reset the distance between all the staves and between the instrument groups within the Engraving rules, which helped to make the score look more ‘uniform’ and saved some work. However, there was still a lot of manual manhandling to do to get distances between parts looking tidy. For example, where maybe two parts within a group needed to be spaced out a little further than the engraving rules allowed, I then wanted to make sure that the other staves within that group looked similar. And so commenced a lot of ‘fiddling’. A LOT.

I did ‘consider’ making further changes to some of the pages which now had only a small number of staves on them as a result of the  empty staves being hidden, but I quickly realised that if I changed things further to try fill these pages up, it caused even more issues further on through the manuscript. I was happy to compromised on this, with having the odd page that wasn’t fully occupied for the sake of maintaining the level of integrity I now had within the score; it also saved my sanity and another load of unravelling later.

Page numbers. Given that I had a cover page and a title page prefacing my music in Sibelius, I had no idea that they might have been pushing my page numbers along and effectively making the rest of my score page numbers wrong. It wasn’t until I looked through the regulations for preparing orchestral music that I realised that my RH pages were odd numbers and my LH pages even. I spent ages trying to figure out a way of stopping this from happening but to no avail. The only way I could see this from resolving was to remove the cover and title pages.
Thus, this is what I have ended up doing and these have now been created in Word and will be submitted as a separate document to the score itself.

Scrutinising the dynamics for what must be the 4th or 5th time was a painful, slow process. I decided to take this task a page at a time; I couldn’t bare going backwards and forwards through the score taking it an instrument at a time. By taking it a page at a time, I was able to make sure I checked through everything I needed to and be safe in the knowledge that I had covered all areas before moving to the next page along.

Hiding the empty staves was a very good idea, despite the fear and dread it caused me initially. However, where I previously had empty bars within my piano and harp staves, these were then hidden and thus, double staves suddenly reduced to single ones. Which was great. Except my beautiful dynamics that were positioned perfectly between these double staves were now floating above the stave; all needed to be repositioned beneath, as per the notation convention of applying all dynamics beneath an orchestral instrument’s stave. Very annoying. Very frustrating. Very time-consuming. But important to correct. And, of course, this exercise did mean that spacing needed to be adjusted to accommodate the re-positioning of dynamics, and so further re-spacing of staves was needed.

Trombone. High trombone to be precise. This was relatively straightforward and I went through and adjusted the clef from bass to tenor where required. I had forgotten to change it back to the bass clef in a couple of places, so I was glad of the various double-checks which have become a frequent exercise!

I can now definitely confirm with absolute certainty that I hate editing and tidying up my scores. With a passion. And if I can learn and apply some fabulous shortcuts prior to scoring something within Sibelius next time, I will. For sure. Or I will go bald and the Mad Hatter will look calm and serene in comparison.

Gould, E (2011). Behind Bars. London: Faber Music. Whole book.

Guidance please

I was chatting online to a friend last night who happens to be a fellow musician clued up when it comes to orchestral music. He recommended some guidelines that I should cast my eyes through as I start work on the second round of my presentation work on the score. Once again, serendipity struck; his recommendation couldn’t have come more perfectly timed.

‘Music Preparation Guidelines for Orchestral Music’ by the Major Orchestra Libraries Association (MOLA) – link below

Admittedly, I expected an informative yet slightly onerous, lengthy document to have to wade through; 8 pages later and I had read through the entire thing and only had a handful of new things brought to my attention. Perfect!

Of note were the following things that I feel I should remember:
* The score cover:
– must consist prominently the title of the work and the name of the composer (plus details of any arranger and publisher)

* The title page (second to the cover):
– must include a full instrumentation list which identifies any doubling, keys of transposing instruments, all percussion instruments and the total number of percussionists.
– must detail any special equipment, special instructions of ‘prepared instruments’ or other uncommon instruments, and any special staging instructions.
– must include the full title of the work, the movement titles in their proper order, the approximate duration for each movement and the total duration for the work (I need guidance on this; will ask my tutor)

* The music should:
– have the name of each instrument listed in full to the left of the system on the first page, with abbreviations listed on subsequent pages.
– all instructions for tempi and dynamics should be in conventional language (English, Italian, German or French).
– all tempo indications should appear above the top staff and above the 1st violin line.
– each bar should be numbered, beginning a new with each movement (I need guidance on this; will ask my tutor)
– the placement of bar numbers should be consistent throughout, with rehearsal numbers/letters corresponding to landmarks in the music and used in conjunction with bar numbers.
– the RH page numbers of the score must be odd, the LH even (I need guidance on this as I currently have the opposite; will ask my tutor)

* The parts:
– Clefs and key signatures must appear at the beginning of each line.
– Parts for transposing instruments must be written in the proper key (I need guidance on this; will ask my tutor)
Harp pedalling should be left to the performer
– Timpani part should not be included in the percussion part
– Percussion parts can be in score form or individual instrumental parts and should be notated on staff from high to low, according to relative pitch.
– Care should be taken with use of abbreviation 8va and 8va basso; avoid if possible.

All very valid and useful points to note and as indicated, there are a couple of areas that I want further advice from my tutor and as such, have raised with her for clarity. Hopefully, she can come back to me promptly so that I can continue progressing through this laborious phase in order that I can put this score ‘to bed’ and commence revision work on my Critical Review.

Unknown. (2006). Music Preperation Guidelines for Orchestral Music. Available: Last accessed 04/12/2016.

Seasoning the pot

Another week has moved on and Wonderland is fast becoming my second home.

However, after 2 weeks of very careful and considered work, I think I have finally addressed all the new compositional elements that were needed. I was almost there at Assignment 6, so close, yet there were still some areas that were ‘sparse’. Never has one word conjured up so much dread!

Thus, seasoning the pot, adding the right flavours, have been my modus operandi. I’ve proved to myself that not only is listening my best guide to what is right with my composition and what is not, but I have also realised that when I am in the right frame of mind, I can now instinctively ‘hear’ what is missing. This is a skill that I have seen develop as I have gained more confidence with my orchestration and arranging skills. I’ve not had to try to get any of my new lines written; they have all made themselves known and come forward at the right time.

Admittedly, I have not had a full symphony orchestra to ‘play’ with, but nonetheless, this group of chamber orchestral instruments has at times been challenging to engage with, and I am still surprised and proud in equal measure at what I have achieved.

I cannot provide a definitive list of all the changes, additions and deletions as there have been too many; some large, some small. I have addressed all parts of my tutor’s formative feedback, though, that is to say:

* Sparseness has been reduced considerably throughout
* I have doubled more lines at the octave, within the woodwind, brass and string sections to give a richer texture
* I have ensured the high trombone sections have been written in the tenor clef
* The fast, chromatic trumpet section was reassigned to the woodwind, with their original fast off-beat section being placed with just one instrument (the oboe from recollection)
* Parts that previously had repetitive lines or notes have been modified
* I have tried to vary the texture where there was previously long held notes, but I make no apology for adding a couple of long notes here and there!
* I have created very quick contrasts of dynamic in the Falling section (forte to piano every other bar), which works really well. I also sped up the section at ‘S’ where the Queen of Hearts demands ‘Off with their heads!’. This moves from 85bpm straight to 180! I pull it back within 6 bars to 80bpm but it certainly adds to the drama.
* I have added some specific second time only instrumentation at bar 585 in the recapitulation section. I’ve not tried this before and it took some working out to get right, but I now get 3 additional lines playing during the repeat, which is great.

All I know is that I now feel, truly, that I’m there. As an artist, the biggest challenge quite often is knowing when to stop. That time I believe is now. If my assessors feel that I’ve omitted things or there are still sparse areas then so be it, but to me, this feels right. I don’t want to overstay my welcome in Wonderland. It’s a great place to be, don’t get me wrong, but there has to come a time when enough truly is enough.

I am waiting for guidance from my tutor on the total running length. I am now at 20 minutes 39 seconds, which is just over half a minute longer than the original brief. If this is too much, I will have to return to the drawing board and remove something, or speed some areas up to pull the time back in. Let’s hope this is acceptable, though, as everything feels right and I don’t relish having to change anything further.
05.12.16: My tutor has now confirmed to me in an email: ‘that’s fine – I’m sure the assessors will be happy to give you a little leeway.’

My next course of action is back to editing. As more things were added and the odd thing removed, it has understandably moved my layout around. I don’t approach this second round of ‘presentation’ work with much enthusiasm in all honesty but the necessary evil must be dealt with as I realise how important it is for my score to look, as well as sound, as good as it can be.