Composing & Arranging

I was 15 when I started my professional music career. We had just moved our crazy, Italian family from New Jersey — the land of big hair, sarcasm, and amazing cannoli — to Connecticut where my dad (a former singer/songwriter turned “responsible” business professional) was being promoted to VP of a stock brokerage firm.

I asked my parents, “Can I work at G.Fox at the Danbury Mall with my girlfriends? I will learn how to work a cash register and make $3.03 an hour!” I was excited.

My parents looked at me like I had a squirrel on my head.

They shook their heads… no.

“Stacey, you have a gift in music. If you want to work before college, you’re going to have to do something in music for your job.”

Totally NOT the answer most kids get, right?

I had been taking piano lessons since I was 10, writing songs since before then, and knew all the words to Karen Carpenter, Rush, Barbra Streisand, and much to the chagrin of everybody, Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights”.

(“Mom, what is this song about? I don’t get it!”)

I performed in any talent show at school, and sat most nights at the piano practicing the songs, from classical to pop, that inspired or were assigned to me. I had just spent my summer at the illustrious “Center for Creative Youth” at Wesleyan University in Connecticut with some of the best professors and professionals in the music field, honing my craft in the arts.

They were right: I did have a gift.

My mind dreamed up places I could play: Our church, as an accompanist — my community theatre for the musicals — as a teacher of young, interested students.

I can’t remember if my dad brought it up or I did but the question came, “What about our country club?”

Before you think I was raised with a silver spoon in my mouth, let me assure you with clear images of a gold Riviera in my head, that I wasn’t. I watched my dad climb the corporate ladder, and my mom run the house and hold part time jobs in the office at our school. I remember the tense arguments behind closed doors and when we lost the house when the market, and my dad’s job, had crashed in the late 70’s.

What I had was a sense of “I can do anything.” Despite all the whacky stuff that I was raised in that I won’t go into because I spent enough years in therapy for all that — I was also sent this message: “Anything is possible and you can do anything, Stacey.”

So, I got dressed up and my dad drove me to the country club where I talked to Tom, the manager, and found out that the pianist had quit two weeks ago. Tom needed a new pianist starting this weekend. He would pay me $50 for 2 ½ hours of playing so, I basically was making $20 an hour in 1985, doing what I loved in a beautiful setting with really rich people who drank expensive drinks.

It was awesome.

Tipsy people talk to you at the piano and don’t really think, “Hey. Maybe she’s busy reading music right now so, I’ll wait.” Nope. They just lean on your piano with their really expensive whiskey and start telling you stories and asking you questions.

So, I learned how to listen to people and talk while I played. They asked for songs I didn’t know, but I was a great sight-reader and would pull out these compilation books to play new/old songs, on the spot. Totally honed skills I had no idea would benefit me for my entire career.

I was able to, with my money, go to one of the most esteemed vocal teachers in Connecticut, Lucibelle Anderson, and study Bel Canto method with her since my dad, who always paid for my piano lessons, absolutely refused to pay for my vocal lessons so they were on me.

He told me, “You’ll never make money as a singer. You’ll always make money as a pianist.”

He was wrong by the way – and he was right: I made money as a singer – a lot of it, for sure.  But most the time, I got the gig over the singer because I could accompany myself on the piano. I was a built-in, two-for-one special. I could run rehearsals, warm up other vocalists, and pinch-hit for the uber-talented pianist who was a no-show.

I became invaluable.

Those following years were spent as a short stint as a music comp and theory major until I just had so much work that I left school. Performing live and in the studio, recording songs that I had written or with different artists and, after I married at the tender age of 20 to my sax-playing/singer husband, Rocky Robbins, (PERFECT name for a sax player, right?)

I ended up traveling all over the US performing music at spiritual conferences, being hired by companies for their amazing corporate events, and working with major artists on their projects, in addition to teaching, leading workshops, special choirs, and CD projects for kids.

People were booking their wedding dates around our availability and I had 40 students on my wait list after teaching 60 students a week.

It was crazy.

I had no time to cash the checks that would sit in a pile on my desk in the living room.

I definitely wasn’t the most amazing musician in the world — I was just one of those who was good at what I did and had the business mind and savvy to carry it all out.

I was one of those on-time, on-task, get the job done really well, no matter how much chaos was in my life — and trust me, there was a lot — kind of people. I did it with a lot of heart and my life was balls-to-the wall music for 80 hours a week.

At some point? I resented it.

Hated it, even.

Dreaded it.

I fell out of love with music.

And everything changed…


(Stacey’s story continues here in part 2)


Photo by Paola Chaaya on Unsplash

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“I’m not very technical!”

A Tech Problem?

It’s the cry of many, including many teachers I work with.   Luckily, I’m pretty good with technology and have usually embraced it early on.

Overwhelming Options

But today,  there are so many options available for creating music using software.  You can use an app on your phone, your tablet, a PC or Mac.  Plus there are various kinds of software with different approaches.  Which one is right for you?

The Power Of Teaching With Customized Music

As a music teacher, I find it impossible to not put on my composer or arranger hat.  There are so many pieces that my students would love to play if they could just understand the notation.  I have even created an alternate system of notation called Musicolor Notation™ that relies on colors and direct labelling to ease the learning curve of reading music.  But, once we’re using the standard notation, I still need to make alterations quite often.  For this, I find it faster (and more legible) if I use some software to produce the printed sheet.  It also has the benefit of being replicable for more students and teachers.

I have spent thousands if not hundreds of thousands of hours sitting in front of my screen to create music with so many kinds of software over the years.

Which Is Right For You?

So in this article, I’d like to clarify the kinds of music creation software and hopefully guide you to the one that is right for you.

When people talk about creating music using a computer, it can mean a few different things: composing music or producing music, or both. In this article, I’m going to give you an overview of the types of software used in creating music. There’s another category of software for editing sound and music, but I’ll leave that for another article.

The Three Mindsets of Music Creation Software

There are two mindsets of using software to help in the creation of music:

1) Producer mindset, in that you are capturing recorded music – a song or demo for perfecting or even as a final mix.

2) Composer’s mindset, where you are capturing written notation – sketching out ideas on electronic score paper and then printing out sheet music to try out with live musicians.

3) DJ mindset, where you are combining pre-made selections, samples or bits of music to create a final seamless soundtrack.  This has only become possible with the arrival of super-powerful and affordable computers and hard drives.  Beat-matching (aka tempo matching) is what this software is all about and enables a DJ to smoothly combine two songs even at different tempos or keys.  This is more of a subset of the Producer mindset.

The worlds have started to merge and collide with faster computers. The difference is in their original design and can affect your workflow.

Composer’s Mindset

One has a composer’s mindset, starting with notes on a page, ideas written down, phrases manipulated by inversion, transposition, etc. This is more like a word processor for a composer, getting the ideas down in written notation. The software for this began as a way to quickly output easily affordable high quality sheet music. It is called music engraving or notation software and began in the 1980’s when personal computers started to arrive. Before this, only major music publishers could afford to print sheet music using mechanical and plate engraving and then moving to lithographic printing presses.

As modern computers have begun to get faster with larger hard drives, some of these software packages are now able to record high quality scores using sampled instruments. As a result you can easily start a composition, hear it back with samples and even output to a full high resolution mix. Today there are a few options in this camp.

Modern Engraving/Notation Software and Apps

  • Finale – It’s robust, deep, and professional, but expensive
  • Finale Notepad – I found this one fun, but limited
  • MuseScore – Open source and completely free – looks promising
  • Sibelius – It’s more user friendly than Finale (in my humble opinion) and similarly pricey, but it’s the one I use most
  • Noteflight – This one is accessible online through your web browser! It’s great and allows you to share compositions online and even host your entire studio. I bought it for all my students.
  • PreSonus Notion – This looks super cool and is featured in an Apple commercial. It will take some time for me to really learn this, but I do have it on my iPad now.
  • Dorico – this is new software created by the team who originally developed Sibelius, now working for Steinberg, the people who make Cubase (see below).

Producer’s Mindset

The other mindset is from the producer’s view, recording music without much thought about the written notation. It’s all about capturing the sounds and editing and thinking along the lines of a music producer or even a movie director/editor. It’s all happening “in the mix.”

Music Sequencing

Back in the day, 1980’s, there was music sequencing software, and it all began with Atari home computers. Basically, it was a way of composing music by programming a sequence of notes and chords to play via electronic instruments that were connected via MIDI. The music sequencer was a big part of early electronic music and all rap and hip/hop. It was available as software computer programs and then dedicated sequencer machines.

AtariEarly Atari home computer with a midi keyboard setup. Image from Wikipedia

Over time, the sequencer was able to not only control instruments, but also record digital audio along with the sequence of notes. Today, the sequencer is now part of a full digital audio workstation (DAW) and these are both available as computer software programs you install as well as dedicated machines with sequencing and recording abilities built right in.

A peculiar thing I noticed was that so many of these software companies originate from a small area of Germany. When I was a guest speaker at a film festival in Frankfurt, I asked my hosts: “why is all this software and why are all the great composers (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, etc.) from Germany?”

(They surmised that it could be the language. German is so precise with so many ways to say very specific things – much more than other languages! If language is the operating system of the mind, then maybe we should all learn German?)

Top DAWs on the market now

  • Logic Pro X (Apple) – It used to be called Emagic Logic and this is the one I use and love – Here’s a recent project I created for a theater production using Logic.
  • Cubase (Steinberg) – I started on this in the 90s and it remains a leading DAW
  • MOTU Digital Performer – It is very popular and has great features, but I was already on LogicPro
  • GarageBand – This is free from Apple and it’s amazing that you can use it on an iPhone!
  • Reason – There are many fans of this, but I’m not a fan of the interface
  • Pro Tools – This one started as a sound editing package and now has sequencing

Fun fact: I started college at NYU in 1983 and attended the first ever MIDI conference sponsored by Yamaha. They were showing off a hot new item, the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer with full MIDI capabilities!

yamaha-dx7-iifd-396611The groundbreaking Yamaha DX7

The modern DAW (digital audio workstation) even has the ability to notate sheet music. However, because of the mindset/paradigm of this software interface, it is not an ideal solution for creating sheet music. It can be a great way to record high quality backing tracks for your students to practice along with at home or make recordings as part of your songwriting class.


DJ Software

Most DJ software will not allow you to export music notation.  But, you can create some really cool sounding stuff.

  • Ableton Live – this really blurs the line between linear and non-linear composing.  You can actually do both, but it’s definitely built from a non-linear DJ perspective.  You can do things with this that are impossible to notate – and that’s the point.  It’s like a sonic blender that makes it all work.
  • ACID – old school software started in 1998 by Sonic Foundry, then merged into Sony.  Now has been sold to Magix.  I never liked the interface so didn’t really do much with it.
  • Fruity Loops is now FL2 – it’s a full on DAW now, but started as DJ software.
  • Traktor  – From Native Instruments – there’s a more performance oriented one called Maschine too – amazing stuff!  Expensive but super reliable.
  • DJPro – an iPhone/iPad DJ software that connects to your Spotify account – not really for composing at all – but loads of fun
  • iMaschine 2 My son has spent hours creating tracks on this iPhone app. It is amazing and only $6.


My Workflow

Depending on the project will depend on what I use.

For working with live musicians, I will usually use Sibelius to create notation and perhaps export rough idea audio files as MP3s.  For film, television, advertising and theater, I can use either LogicPro, or a combination of Sibelius to LogicPro.  With things that require more non-linear thinking, Ableton Live is amazing.  If you are doing sound design, you can just do it in Q-Lab, software designed for theater and live sound design.

As a teacher, I find it super powerful to be able to fire up Sibelius and write out a quick simplified notation for my students. Sometimes, just removing a note from a chord or making a left hand part a single bass note instead of a chord enables the student to make it through and retain all the enthusiasm and excitement music should have!

Which software do you use?

Please share in the comments below.


Photo by timothy muza on Unsplash

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Music theory is a passion of mine. As a composer as well as a music teacher, I realise that teaching music theory provides the building blocks of a more complete musician. Put simply, “knowledge is power.”

So it was with great interest that I have noticed that the ABRSM (The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music), who lead the way in music examinations in the world, was having a major overhaul in the way they test music theory, starting from January 2018.

Why the change? What will be different? Are there any resources to help with the change?

Why the change

A need to modernise their exams and react to feedback from teachers and students has brought on these recent changes. Looking at the new specimen papers, you get a feeling that the tests are less ambiguous than in times past.


The changes will only affect grades 1-5 at the moment. The rhythm-writing in early grades is being replaced. This used to provide a nice little introduction to the basics of composing but I would imagine that the quality of preparation for this question would have varied greatly from teacher to teacher depending on their own skills or imagination. At the grade 4, there used to be the option of the word-setting question. That has now been axed as well as the option of writing a complete melody at grade 5. How will students cope with the transition into grade 6-8 where composing is a large portion of the assessment? I think that step will be harder for candidates from now on. I have long thought that, although the exams for grade 6-8 are excellent, the resources and support material for these higher grades are appalling and desperately need revamping by the ABRSM. But that’s a subject of another blog.

Gone are the SATB open and short score converting question which was extremely time-consuming. I really like the use of multiple choice questions for the meaning of performance directions. Generally, the exam looks a lot more inviting, modern, clean which is very welcome.


At the start of 2019, the old exams papers for 2018 will be posted as a preparation booklet but that is quite some time away. In the meantime, the ABRSM has published on their website two sets of sample exam papers as a free download.

I really like a free quiz page that you can share with students to give them practice with the new multiple choice question. That will continue to be a very useful resource do-doubt.

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