putting musical pieces together in my head during a walk.

Typically i drive to the grocery store despite it being walkable distance. Mainly this is because i go to the grocery whilst on the way home from work and/or i don’t want to have to carry around 3-4 grocery bags for the walking trek between home and the store if i’m buying a lot of supplies.

Sometime last week, i decided to walk instead of drive to the store. The main reason was that i was in the throes of trying to figure out how to arrange Hermiston’s ballad, which is My Immortal by Evanescence.  I didn’t know the tune before it was brought up, so i had to listen to it a few times to get a feel for what the tune was about.  I put the whole framework into the computer, but i was dissatisfied with it for some reason; the pacing felt weird, or the climax felt weird, or something else entirely that i couldn’t identify.

I played the original tune a couple of times, then played my version.  Then i had both of them fixed up in my head pretty well so i didn’t need to physically play either back anymore, and i started pacing my living room, running both versions in my head, experimenting in my head with different variants of my own arrangement to see if i could figure it out.  I think at one point i stood up on my chair and looked down from “higher up”, as it were. It was the first time i had ever really done that; i’m not sure why it was a part of my thinking process.

At some point i realized that i should get something to eat/plan out the whole dinner thing.  How to make the ballad work was still in my brain and i knew that if i drove i would have to lose some of that focus, so that’s why i decided to walk.

Along the walk i ended up running into a friend of mine who lives close by named Gavin. He’s originally from San Francisco and basically works as his own construction company. He’s also a fairly talented guitarist who back in his heyday recorded a punk version of the entire musical “West Side Story” that developed a small cult fan base. He was out walking his two dogs.  We exchanged pleasantries and a couple of brief stories of our recent travel, and then went our own separate ways, and i went back to running music in my head while i walked.

I stopped thinking about the music briefly while i was actually in the store trying to figure out what my dinner plan was.  I think i ended up defaulting the salad bar which i’ve been doing usually these days, but i also bought some ground beef for cooking the next day.  My time in the actual grocery store was maybe ten minutes max, and then i started walking home.

The kind of focus i had during the walk and being in that particular creation space is an incredibly exhilarating and zen-like sort of feeling. My brain felt like it was working out some very intricate and fine details, fragments and pieces of this larger puzzle that i was slowly putting together in a way that would hopefully make the music sparkle.

Somewhere in the middle of the walk on the way home, i figured out how to make it work (take the chorus out of the middle, swap it with the B section that currently resided at the end, move these four measures to there instead).  I ran it through my head several more times before i got home. Once home, i put the groceries away, then immediately went to put the changes i made in my head into the Finale score so i could play it back and see if i liked the pacing and the general new intent.

And yeah. It was much, much better.

cascading percussion notation problems and solutions

the initial problem: the drumline at tulane this coming year is pretty small (8 people), so the show is being written where each member plays multiple roles. To start, everyone is in percussion pods that are out on the field. At some point, they switch to traditional battery instruments of 3 snares, four bass drums, one cymbal. After that, half of those shed their drums to put on ethnic drums/timbales, then they move back to their pods, then they end on battery instruments again.

the challenge is how to write the parts in the full band score that make it easy to distribute the parts. Typically a marching percussion score consists of pit vs. battery where pit is one person per staff but battery is one section per staff. Since the percussionists are only playing as a battery for two sections of the show, having a single staff dedicated to bass drums makes no sense since it will contain a lot of empty measures and make it so that players have to shuffle between different parts to figure out what they’re playing when &c.

solution: each player gets their own individual staff, more like a pit score. The times in which they’re playing traditional battery, duplicate all of the parts on each staff.

resultant problem: to help with overall design for the color guard designer, the dance team choreogrpher, and the cheersquad, plus to aid with memorization and visualization of parts and tempos for the members, all of the parts need to actually sound like what’s going to happen on the field. Because of the roles being played, some players need to have assigned to them two different percussion channels for the sounds to be accurate (one for marching percussion and one for general percussion). This falls outside of my normal percussion notation paradigm of only needing two layers to deal with stems up vs. stems down; playback and notation together would require at least three if not all four layers that are available in Finale, and i’m limited in how i can configure layers 1 and 2 because they’re already being used by the wind instruments (and i can’t therefore manipulate global stem direction, treatment of ties, &c without mucking up how they appear elsewhere in the score).

Additionally, in the battery sections there are three staves that have the same snare part and four staves that have the same bass drum part. This is unnecessary duplication of MIDI output which will a) affect balance of the final MIDI output and b) cause dropped notes when the full ensemble is playing because of MIDI’s limitations, but i can’t just mute a particular person’s track or even a particular layer of a track because that layer may have unique parts in other parts in the show.


First, i created a single percussion map that encompassed all of the instrument sounds and notation for those sounds that i needed to use in the score:

I applied that map to every individual percussion staff in the score. Placement on the staff and notehead type of each individual sound is defined by the map, so use of a MIDI controller is necessary to ensure that the correct map path is used. (In other words, mouse-clicking a note on E4 could mean either bass drum 2, snare, snare rim shot, snare crossshot, drum set tom 1, cymbal player crash, cymbal player hi hat, or cymbal player slide choke, and determining which is a pain. Playing the correct “map” note on the keyboard will place the note on E4 but also ensure that it’s mapped to the correct sound.)

Once all of the parts are placed in the score, I muted all of the percussion staves. I created a new stave, called “playback”, and had the first layer assigned to the marching percussion channel and the second layer assigned to the general MIDI percussion channel. I copied a single version of all of the necessary parts into that playback staff and then made that playback staff invisible in the final score.

The playback staff doesn’t look pretty, but it’s not supposed to. FOr some of the more layered sections i might try to separate some of it into a spare layer just for the purposes of easier debugging, particularly if there are ever any changes that are made to the score that i will then need to change in playback.

originally posted on darkblog resonate.