About Me

My photo
Atlanta, GA, United States
When I suffered a lip injury that ended my career as a classical trombonist, I thought my life as a musician was finished, but I fell in love with music all over again when Santa gave me a guitar for Christmas in 2003. Even as I was struggling with my first chords, I was planning a new performance career. As a trombonist, I performed with the Heritage of America Band at Langley Air Force Base, the Ohio Light Opera, and in pick-up bands for touring acts that included Rosemary Clooney, George Burns, and the Manhattan Transfer. Reborn as a jazz guitarist, I sing and play my own solo arrangements of jazz classics, am half of the Godfrey and Guy duo, and hold the guitar chair in the Sentimental Journey Orchestra. I have been a freelance music copyist since 1995, served as Director of Music at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation from 2011 to 2017, and currently serve as Contemporary Band Director at the same congregation.

Friday, March 26, 2010

What the Bleep Is Music Engraving?

I have a weird day job. Sometimes people ask me what I do for money, which I suppose is a fair question after I’ve played for two hours to a nearly empty restaurant. When I tell them I’m a music engraver, I get quizzical looks, so I immediately launch into an explanation. Most occupations don’t need explaining. If I tell you I work at McBurger Doodle, you can probably guess how I spend my workday. If I tell you I’m a music engraver, you’ll probably look at me funny.

Think of music engraving as typesetting, only it’s music instead of a novel. If you look at some sheet music, you’ll see that the music is printed neatly, but it didn’t start out that way. Music is usually scribbled, or the composer is so bad at using the music notation program that it may as well be scribbled. The chicken scratch has to be transformed into printed music, and that’s where I come in.
Here’s how it works. The composer submits her manuscript to a publisher. If the publisher accepts the manuscript, they send it to me. My job is to take that manuscript and typeset the music into a professional looking score and parts. I typeset the music with a music notation program. Just as there are word processing programs for typing (Word), there are programs for notating music. The two main music notation programs are Finale and Sibelius. There is a debate about which program is better, which we don’t have to go into here. I’ll just say that I’ve been doing this for 15 years, and I use Finale. Anyway, just like a book typesetter, once I’ve sent my work back to the publisher, we go through a round or two of corrections. Eventually the music is published, and it goes out into the wide world to be performed by choirs, orchestras, bands, and chamber ensembles.

The work itself is extremely detail oriented. Fortunately, I’m an anal retentive kind of guy. My eye is drawn to the rare typo in a book. I revise my emails before pressing “send.” I used to sort my M&M’s by color, eating the brown ones first and finishing with the blue, but I don’t do that anymore. With music engraving, you have to match a very specific house style, which varies from publisher to publisher. This includes margins, text fonts, music fonts, line thickness, and many other details that all add up to give each publisher’s music a distinctive look. On top of that, there are the arcane rules of music notation. Writers have Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” or “The Chicago Manual of Style.” Music engravers have Gardner Read’s “Music Notation” or Ted Ross’“The Art of Music Engraving and Processing.”

This work isn’t for everyone, but I find it satisfying. It’s nice to be able to look at a pile of music and say, “I made that.” It also feels good to know that I’ve made a positive contribution to the world of music, and to the world in general. So far I’ve engraved nearly 1,300 pieces of music, including choral works, symphonies, concert band music, music for keyboard, hymns, chamber music, and an opera. If you are a school band director or a choir director, I can guarantee you’ve conducted something that I’ve engraved. It’s amazing to think of all the music that has been across my desk, waiting its turn to be engraved and then released into the world to be performed by choirs, bands, and orchestras.

So how did I find work as a music engraver? Persistence! I’m a freelancer. Some companies hire music engravers in house, while others hire freelancers like me. When I first began to look for work, I found a list of over 500 music publishers. I sent inquiries to 30 publishers every month. I was rejected often. Music publishers are reluctant to hire new engravers because it takes time for new engravers to develop templates that match their house style, and also because most wannabe music engravers don’t know what they’re doing. (Using Word doesn’t make me a typesetter any more than using Finale makes you a music engraver.) But I digress. Eventually I got my first freelance job with Santa Barbara Music Publications. They must have liked my work, because they’re still one of my steadiest clients. Over time I landed other clients, including the Neil A. Kjos Music CompanyEdward Collins Fund for American MusicShawnee PressOpera for the YoungAlliance Music Publications, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and a few composers, including Aldo Forte and Fred Adler.

In my heyday, I was working full time as a music engraver and pulling in a pretty good amount of moolah. These days I only engrave for a handful of clients, because I’m devoting the rest of my life to playing and singing. I engrave enough to make ends meet, and then I spend the rest of my day practicing, rehearsing, performing, or working on publicity and hustling for gigs.

It would have been safer to continue engraving full time, but once I started playing the guitar, I felt compelled to take another run at being a professional musician. This whole musical adventure is well worth the loss of income. The friends I’ve gained and the joy of performing again are worth more than any check I’ve ever received.


  1. Thank you for the interesting explanation of what a music engraver is.

  2. Actually, I think your kind modesty made you omit one thing: Please tell people that serious music engraving is really TIME CONSUMING work. A beautiful symphony score is not engraved in a couple of hours. Not even in a couple of days. Not even in a couple of... ;-)

  3. Thank you for a very informative and interesting description. I learned a lot.

    "This work isn’t for everyone, but I find it satisfying." - that describes my work too (database management).

  4. Thank you for explaining your work in terms that I can understand. As you said at the beginning, most people don't know what a music engraver does. After reading this version of what you do, now I know how you spend your days when you're not playing and singing!

  5. Hello! I myself am an aspiring music engraver. I'm more than proficient with finale. In fact, I have done a lot of work with my university along these lines, but I am looking to do this as a job. To give you an example of how I am with engraving, I took parts for a guitar concerto and made a full score out of them. I made over 100 pages, full orchestra plus guitar, in four days working in my spare time. I was hoping you had some advice for me as far as finding clients and such. I am only just starting out, and would appreciate anything you can tell me. If you contact me at hopelesshero19@gmail.com, I will send you a sample of my work.
    Thanks for your time! And thanks for the article!

  6. Hello, I am a musician and I have been working as a Music engraver,I have made many orchestra Scores. I am new in this country, so I was wondering if you could give me some advice to get a job in this specialty or finding some clientes. This is my mail, beatrizginesp16@gmail.com.
    Waiting for your answer,
    Thanx you for your time and Best Regards

  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.