How To Become a Copyist
Of his work as a Copyist, Robert Nowak says, “When I explain my end of the business I tell people that I’m responsible for bringing music from your head onto the music stand of the violinist on stage with the orchestra or the performer on stage. You have the Composer/Songwriter and that person will write a song and then an accompaniment with it (piano vocals). Let’s think of a Broadway show. That piano vocal part goes to an Arranger who takes that music and says, ‘Well that’s real nice, but we want to turn that into a tango for part of the show.’ They change it a little bit and give it to the Orchestrator, who says, ‘We’re going to orchestrate this for a symphony orchestra, a big band or a little band.’ The Orchestrator does that work, takes it and gives it to the Copyist and says, ‘I need parts for everybody who’s playing it.’ That’s what the Copyist does—prepares those parts, binds it and gives it to the Conductor and [Sound] Engineer. Sometimes these things run into the many, many pages.
The essence of it all is to extract parts for individuals players in a group. The way it’s done has changed over the years. It’s mostly done on computer today with notation programs Sibelius and Finale. Sometimes you have to reduce a score in to just a piano part, piano vocal or piano Conductor part. There are many variables and different people use them—not just musicians. The things you copy are sometimes used by Directors, Recording Engineers, and Sound Engineers in theaters and on TV shows. It helps them see where they are, where the cues are for a particular lighting shot and all that sort of stuff.
The first line of work tends to be working for Orchestrators or Arrangers, but it truly does run the gamut. Everybody gets into the act sooner or later, including the actual Composers. That’s something I do a lot these days. Composers, individual musicians, bands, big bands, orchestras, artists, vocalists, performers and Publishers: all of those people will sometimes come to you directly.” He adds, “Some people specialize more than others. As computer notation programs have become more readily available and more user-friendly, more individuals are using those programs themselves and preparing their own music. It doesn’t mean it’s well-prepared, but they are doing it. So a lot of people produce their own work.”
Nowak began his career as a musician before apprenticing with a Copyist and building his own practice. He says, “I started learning piano, then I learned to play bass. Then I went to music school. I worked as a performer in the jazz, pop and classical fields. I apprenticed with a music prep person, a professional Arranger and Copyist. I started working on regional theater and happened to be fortunate enough that they brought in some pre-Broadway shows, so I had an early start on how those shows are written. I moved to New York and really jumped into the industry. I was fortunate to work on many, many projects with some of the best Orchestrators out there.” When it comes to career advancement, Copyists at the top of their game are working with big names, earning more money and gaining more prestige.
Either you’re a Copyist or you’re a Supervisor Copyist—or if you’re working for a large corporation like Disney you might have a corporate title like Head of Music Supervision,” Nowak says. “Much of the advancement has to do with the individual. You build your own reputation; you’re either able to deliver the goods or you’re not. If you’re able to do it, people will call you and use you more. It has to do more with your own ability to self-motivate, as opposed to other people recognizing that you can do this. Like so many parts of the music business, it’s very individual. People hire you and if they like you, that can go a long way. If you’re good at something and have a sour personality, chances are fewer people are going to want to be around you. You can be less good at something, have a terrific personality and still get the job—people might take you over the other person.”
Education & Training
“I would say learn an instrument and more specifically, learn and practice reading music. You have to read. So many kids don’t read music; they pick up an instrument and teach themselves. But you have to read. Concentrate on that. Whether you sing or play an instrument. I’d also recommend learning to read and play piano. Learn your clefs. There are clefs that go beyond treble and bass clef. Sing, even if you’re playing an instrument. Pick up that paper and try to sing.”
Nowak says he learned music preparation when “I apprenticed, but I also went to college. I would highly recommend going to college, to a music school. You’re going to have exposure to much more music and many different kinds of music, just by virtue of all the students you’re working with and the players that are around. It’s going to be at a higher level than high school. The higher level prepares you better for the level of work you’re going to be doing; when you’re doing this professionally you’re working with some of the top people in the business so you have to know what you’re doing.”
Experience & Skills
Essential skills for a Copyist, according to Nowak, include “organization and neatness. In developing these skills, read, read, read. Be able to read music, and I’d add to that, write [music]. Computers are all over (and that includes notation), however, you don’t really understand the function of music till you really write it. Everybody’s accustomed to reading for an instrument, then someone asks you to write it down and it looks like chicken scratch. What writing will do is give you a sense of organization and proportion, spacing, and how long a note takes. It will allow you to sort of understand the basic fundamentals of it so you know what you’re doing. Plus, later on in life if you get to some of the more demanding aspects like doing a recording session and you have to change the music—if somebody, the Arranger or Orchestrator makes a change or there are wrong notes—you don’t have time to go back to your computer and print something out. You have to write it out on the page.”
“The best personality for this are folks who are calm, who can take direction, who are open to ideas and new ways of doing things, who are able to sublimate their egos,” Nowak states. “Because you’re working for other people: other writers, Composers, and musicians. This is not about you; it’s about something else. If you are too self-centered, you’ll have problems.
One important aspect of your personality in this is being able to accommodate change because one day we need to get this done, then two hours later they change it and we have to do something else. The other thing is the ability to deal with instability because unless you’re working in one of these [music prep] offices, chances are you do not have the 9-5 [hours]. People have difficulty handling that.”
“The industry is changing as we speak,” Nowak says. “There are [music preparation] offices that still exist; many have fallen by the wayside. The ones at which you could work are few and far between. Most are located in the big media centers: New York and Los Angeles, maybe some in Nashville. There’s a big office in Seattle [that] has been doing movie scores. Since the computer notation programs have become so ubiquitous, those offices have sort of devolved into collecting independent workers who work from home. Much of the work is independent.
You work one day, then not the next. One day you work till six, the other till nine. I won’t even get into overnights. If you need stability and a regular schedule this probably is not for you.”
“I would say if you’re in one of the major media areas like New York or LA, go to one of the music preparation offices. You’d look it up or call the musicians’ union to see who prepares what. In LA, some of the studios like Disney have their own preparation departments. Just go and talk to the people; they’ll set you straight. Chances are you won’t be able to walk right in and get a job, but they could point you in the right direction and you never know. The tradition in music copying is to take newcomers on gladly. Those folks would then be working in the office according to their own ability. The pay rate would be similar. It’s not a straight hourly rate; it’s based on the number of pages you produce. It’s fair because if you’re starting and you work slower you don’t produce as much, so you don’t earn as much. People who are experienced and produce more, earn more. Today with computer notation some things are a little different, but I think the music preparation offices have some sort of accommodation for that sort of thing.
If you’re not in a media center, start with your friends who are involved in music in one way or another to see if they need any help with a project. Maybe you have a friend in a band who has written a song and the band wants to play it. You could offer to create the parts. Or orchestras—that’s an outlet as well. Go to the Orchestra Librarian and see what opportunities might be there for you. These things change from day to day so you never know. The other way is many areas still have jazz bands, big bands that work on their own. They just get together for fun sometimes, and they might need something.”
Nowak says, “There are standard rates, but they change depending on the project. For example, there might be a standard rate for working on a film score and a different rate for a Broadway show, symphony orchestra, and live performance. Since there’s so much independent work today, there are more people sitting at home doing it themselves and working on their computers. I’d say the best bet for learning what to charge is talking to people who have done what you want to do. Some people might charge $5 for a page of music; some might charge $15. It really varies wildly. In terms of an annual salary, if you’re very careful about how you take care of your own money, you could probably earn anywhere from as little as a couple thousand dollars a year up to $70,000 to $80,000 a year or more. Of course, that wouldn’t be someone just out of school. If you get into supervisory work it could get even higher than that.”
Unions, Groups & Associations
“The biggest probably is the Major Orchestra Librarians’ Association, MOLA for short,” Nowak says. “They create and hold to various standards for music preparation, printing, types of paper, that sort of thing. Chances are you won’t belong to it right away when you’re starting out, but it’s a good place to see what pros expect.
The musicians’ union is important for work, especially in the centers like LA and New York because the union provides rates for the different types of music preparation that go on. If you’re in the union, you might be able to join another organization affiliated with it called the Recording Musicians Association, RMA for short. They have guidelines on music preparation and have chapters in LA and New York, maybe Nashville as well.”
- “Learn an instrument. Ideally, if you don’t know what to choose, learn piano. That means learning how to read as well. That’s an important thing.
- Become literate in the language you want to speak. That means you want to speak the language of music—and it is a language. You have to know the verbs and nouns, phrases and sentences. That’s what music is. That doesn’t happen overnight.
- Stick with it. It won’t happen all at once. Allow yourself time to stay with the program.
- Ask questions. So many people are afraid to ask about things they want to know about. They’ll go online and read something and think they know it all. But always ask questions; you’ll learn so much from that.”
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Become literate in the language of music.” He adds, “I was looking over my career and one thing that struck me was the amount of great people I’ve worked with in the business: the legendary Orchestrators like Sid Ramin, Jonathan Tunick, Don Walker, Hans Spialek, and Robert Russell Bennett. Historically these people provided the groundwork for all of this. I worked on the original Into the Woods with Sondheim and performers from George Burns to Luther Vandross and Maria Schneider to David Sanborn. I wouldn’t be working for William Perry if I didn’t have that experience that led up to it. You don’t know where your path is going to lead but if you don’t keep working and improving, you’re not going to get to a point where you can make that leap.
There are two things I do with kids who come up to me and ask [for work] and number one is I tell them to find something other than music. My rationale is if they can overcome my discouragement that means they have a chance of making it. If I tell them, ‘No, you’re not going to make a lot of money and it’s irregular,’ they walk away and look for something else. But if you overcome that and are still interested, I’ll bend over backward and help you any way I can—but I don’t tell them that! If they keep fighting and fighting, I take them under my wing and it has worked for both of us.
All in all, the opportunities in terms of learning come through your schooling and education. Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Sing. Keep open to new things. You don’t know when the opportunity is going to be there, but you have to be prepared when it shows up. That’s what all the preparation is about. You’ll turn around one day, you do one thing and bingo! Somebody recognizes it and says, ‘Can you do this?’ It happened to me, in a number of ways. You don’t know where paths are going to lead and if you’re not open to these things they’ll pass you by or you won’t recognize the opportunity. When it comes down to it, I don’t know if it’s different than any other area of life: sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. You just keep going. Keep picking yourself up.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“They’re not literate. Those people are out there who think they can do it all, but they don’t know the language. So many people make the mistake of thinking they know it all, but they’re either too arrogant or too afraid to ask and to pursue this. [Ask] what am I dong wrong? What am I doing right? A big ego coming in is the biggest mistake.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“How does it work? What does it mean to be a Music Copyist?
This is especially important because with computer notation programs, the temptation is to think the computer does it all for you; you press the button and it’s all done. It’s easy to fall into that because yeah, you can print out some music and it looks readable and many people will be able to get through it. But it doesn’t always work that way on a professional level. There’s more to it, so ask what’s involved. There are many folks—when they learn what has to be done, the good, bad and the ugly (there are many aspects of this that aren’t particularly glamorous)— they don’t want to do it. If they had known that ahead of time, maybe they’d have pursued something else. So ask what’s involved.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“The ability to grow.”
Robert Nowak is the head of Robert Nowak & Associates, a New York-based music preparation and creative services firm. He is a Copyist, Sibelius Artist, Arranger, Composer, Orchestrator and Conductor with over thirty years’ worth of experience. He currently works with Composer William Perry, who is especially noted for composing and performing over 200 short film scores, as well as scoring the PBS series The Silent Years. Over the course of his career, Nowak has arranged and orchestrated music for Pat Metheny and Placido Domingo, Jr., prepared music for David Sanborn, Maria Schnieder, Luther Vandross, Liza Minnelli, Melinda Wagner, Wynton Marsalis and Burt Bacharach. He served as guest Conductor for Natalie Cole’s It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over tour, and has worked on an impressive array of Broadway shows, including Les Misérables, Cats, The Who’s Tommy, Into the Woods, Phantom of the Opera, and Smokey Joe’s Café.