Not yet finished: learning with Sibelius

In a previous post, I talked about deciding to learn Avid’s Sibelius First, which is software for composing music. My goal wasn’t composition, but I’d read that I could scan sheet music and produce an audio file. I’d joined a choir and wanted to hear the tenor parts for the songs we sing.

This post is about challenges I ran into and reflections I’ve had about how I went about learning.

piano-523050_640Cha cheòl do dhuin’ a bhròn uil’ aithris.
(It’s no music to a man to recite all his woe.)

From a glance at the product site, I thought my choral problems were over. “Choose the note input method that’s most comfortable for you–play a MIDI instrument, transcribe audio, or scan sheet music.” I downloaded the software and launched into my own 30-day trial.

There’s more than one meaning for “trial.”

What I bumped into was my own misapprehension. After fiddling around with the menus and discovering that the reference manual is 437 pages long (not counting glossary, shortcuts, and index), I found that I couldn’t scan handwritten music (like the first piece I wanted to try), only printed music.

I also discovered that while I knew a few things about music (I can play guitar and on a piano can pick out melodies on the treble clef), the details of Sibelius First were a bit like the details of relational databases or organic chemistry: the individual words mostly made sense, but the combinations and contexts often left me stranded.

Chan e na léughar a ni foghliumte ach na chuimhn-ichear.
(It’s not what’s read but what’s remembers that makes one learned.)

Sibelius First comes with three tutorials whose printed guide is 87 pages long. Here’s what you find under “Start Here.”

Warning!

shield-69096_640However much you may dislike manuals, you must read the whole of this introduction in order to get started with the program.

You are then very strongly advised to work through at least the first three of the five tutorial products before embarking on any serious work of your own with Sibelius First. Sibelius First is easy to learn and mostly self-explanatory, but if you don’t work through these projects you will run a risk of never discovering some basic features, particularly if you are used to notation programs that work in different ways. By the time you have completed the projects — which will take you only a few hours — you will be able to input, edit, play back and print out straightforward music, and you’ll know how to get going on more complicated music too.

Actually, I stuck with the tutorial long enough to read the “7 main elements” of Project 1. They include opening a score, editing and inputting notes, selections (I think they mean “selecting”) and copying music, and “Flexi-time™ input.” Not a word about scanning.

I had no interest in opening a score, and doubted whether Sibelius could open a PDF of a printed score I had. I had some specific goals in mind, and the admonitory tone of the warning didn’t seem to offer much hope of reaching those goals without submitting to a period of initiation.

I don’t want to beat up on Sibelius. This is the crux of off-the-shelf software training: it homogenizes learners to such an extent that it abandons almost all context that’s meaningful to them.

So I refined my context: how do I scan music? It was at about this point I began printing selected chapters of that 437-page manual. Tracking down mentions of scanning, I came across “PhotoScore,” which seemed to be a kind of add-on needed to scan. Where was it? Why didn’t I see it?

I was better able to tackle these questions, in part I think because their scope was more limited. At worst, I’d have to discovered I was wrong — but I wasn’t. It’s been a while and I may have the sequence wrong, but I think I did the download wrong.

I assumed it was one big download with all the necessary parts. In retrospect, I had to go back to the download page two or three more times to pick up various packages I didn’t realize I needed.

music-429711_640This began a series of two-steps-forward, one-step-back incidents, such as:

  • Discovering I had to start PhotoScore from outside Sibelius.
  • Scanning my first page and not understanding the results.
  • Scanning a complete piece and figuring out how to edit
  • Moving the edited piece from PhotoScore to Sibelius
  • Discovering that I couldn’t hear any audio because I hadn’t downloaded the audio portion of Sibelius

It’s been close to six months now. I’ve produced audio files for at least 10 pieces, including eight that include separate parts for all four choir voices, along with nice clean scores in PDF. I even bought a numeric keypad to attach to my laptop (see footnote below for technical explanation). Most important, I’m more than satisfied with my investment of time and money.

And what about learning?

Beiridh am beag tric air a mhòr ainmig.
(The frequent little will overtake the infrequent large.)

Especially early on, I’d work trying to transcribe a piece.  I’d stop when I felt stumped, roam around in the manual, but very often would make guesses about what might work. Some of those guesses became more educated in time. So I was doing the typically messy learning by doing (and, yes, learning by failing).

Ironically, I continue to have very little interest in finishing the Sibelius tutorials. Some of that is just my annoyance at the tone of the warning; some is the sense that I may have taught myself a good portion of what I might have learned, and I’m several pieces of music to the good.

On the other hand, now that I’m more familiar with what *I* can produce, I might be more open to picking up something unexpected.

Which leads to another reflection: for me, in this circumstance, good enough is good enough. I’m not trying to make a living as a music composer or arranger; I’m just trying to learn my choir parts. I think there’s a message in that for those hoping to turn people in the workplace into All Learning, All the Time: most people don’t want to do anything all the time.

At the same time, my definition of “good enough” is changing; my standards have become higher. When I see in sheet music something tricky like a pick-up bar (one at the start of a piece that doesn’t have, say, the four beats that 4/4 time calls for), I want to get the Sibelius transcription to show it and the audio file to play it as written.

I’ve even managed to do things like take music written on two staffs, like this, and scan it…

chi mi 2 staff sample

…and then have Sibelius expand it so that each voice is on its own staff, like this:

chi mi 4 staff sample

That latter version takes more space, since the lyrics appear separately for each voice. Choir members like that; they can more easily focus on their own line, especially when not every voice is singing the same word for the same length.

That’s another lovely song, and one you might have heard. Here are the Rankins singing it:

And here are the lyrics in Gaelic and English.

I’ve become more curious about musical things; I understand more about notation, and I want to figure out how to get Sibelius (and thus the audio files) to do things like multiple repetitions of a chorus — especially because in a Gaelic song like Horo Gun Togainn air Hùgan Fhathast (link to a BBC audio file), with a three-line chorus interwoven with two-line verses.


My choir takes the summer off, and I’ve been working on a professional project (if you’re going to DevLearn at the end of September, I’ll see you there), but I need to reacquaint myself with Sibelius. I’ve got melodies to learn and tenor lines to master.

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