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Changing Notation Software

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I’ve been having the humbling experience of learning how to use a new notation program. It’s tough to go back to complete beginner status for one of your essential tools, but sometimes it needs to be done.

Some background to this change:

Back in the 1990s, there used to be a choice between the professional-quality Finale and a bunch of very cheap and rather limited packages for home use. I didn’t begin to consider getting Finale at that point – I was excruciatingly underpaid and really couldn’t afford it, and besides was perfectly comfortable writing scores by hand (as I done all through my university education back in the days when one also wrote essays using pens and pencils and things like that).

Into that world appeared the usefully mid-range Capella. It was encouragingly cheaper than Finale, and was more flexible than the bargain-bucket packages. You wouldn’t use it in its early versions to produce a professional publication, but you’d be perfectly happy producing parts to be played by professional musicians. It was reasonably easy to use once you’d found your way round it, and I have been using it since about 1998. I stopped getting upgrades after 2002, having had some frustrating experiences with backwards-compatibility (this becomes a bigger problem the more work you’ve produced of course), but picked up a couple of add-ons to make pdf files in about 2004.

So, I’ve found myself in a situation that is both very stable and increasingly unstable. When you use a package for eleven years, you get very very fluent. You figure out how to get everything set up to facilitate the way you use it, and your brain turns musical ideas into appropriate patterns of keystrokes without conscious intervention. The tool becomes largely transparent, and you become sufficiently familiar with its idiosyncrasies that even the work-arounds you’ve had to develop feel like second nature.

But over time, of course, the world has moved on, and what you can get out of a mid-price product from 7 years ago increasingly starts to look not entirely adequate. Sooner or later, you know that you’re going to need to up-date and get with the times.

Now, what has happened during the time I’ve been getting comfortably competent with Capella is that the world has acquired Sibelius. This is another professional-quality program, competing for Finale’s market and – in the UK – competing very successfully. Somewhere around the turn of the millennium, education institutions across the UK switched from Finale to Sibelius. This was not on grounds of price – they’re both expensive, but with useful discounts for educational use – nor on results – they both produce high-quality outputs. Rather, it was because Sibelius is easier to use for a beginner. (Not having gone beyond beginner status in either – yet – I’m not in a position to comment on ease of use for the expert, but I know professional musicians who use both, so I suspect comparability there.)

For the dedicated professional, ease of use is a consideration, but not necessarily the primary issue. If you are dedicated to what you do, you’re prepared to spend time learning how to use the tools that allow you to do it. But for educational institutions, ease of use translates directly to savings in staff time. If you can get equivalent results from your students for fewer teaching hours, you’d be silly not to make the switch.

So Sibelius has become pretty well established in the UK, and was therefore the obvious choice for when I needed to change over. The timing of the change was also influenced by my impending move into the freelance world. I figured it would be sensible to do this while I was (a) still eligible for the educational discount, (b) still had a decent salary (it’s not cheap, even with the discount), and (c) still working in an institution with lots of people who could help me if I got stuck.

And I have to say I’m quite impressed. There have been some of those moments of blinding rage that only arise through interactions with computers, but not many of them – and I am old enough to know that they’re merely a symptom of not having got your head in the right place yet, so I can muster some patience to live through them. But once you start to get a feel for the ways it goes about this, there is a certain consistency and logic to it that means finding your way round the comprehensive help files gets easier very quickly.

I’m only just emerging from the conscious incompetence to the conscious competence stage, but I’m getting good enough results already to feel confident the effort and trauma of changing is going to be worthwhile. I am looking forward however to the moment when I stop noticing the software and just get on with making music!

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