The Human Photocopier

The Master of the Royal Chapel of  Britain reported that certain monies had to be paid for “teaching ye children to write and accompts, & teaching ym to play on ye [organ] and to composer.”  Of course, that was back in 1717 but the fact of the matter remains that copying has been a highly regarded musical profession for hundreds of years.

But what exactly does a copyist do, and why is a copyist important … especially in this day and age when plugging into a computer and playing a few notes will yield a written score for those who feel the need for one.

A copyist a person who makes copies of handwritten documents.  A music copyist is a person who makes copies of music for composers.  In other words, a copyist is (for lack of a better description) is a sentient photocopier.

So why do we still need music copyists if computers and computer software can spit out sheet music at the click of a button?  Because no matter how good a computer program may be, it still doesn’t have the ability to add the important nuances and directions that are of vital importance to conductors and musicians alike.

What exactly does that mean?  It means that a professionally and well-prepared manuscript from a copyist will have clear rehearsal letters to allow for quick references during rehearsal, well-placed page turns to ensure that there is minimal break with the flow of the music during rehearsals and live performances, and easily understood notation.  A computer program (no matter how efficient or advanced) doesn’t have the capabilities of providing those oftentimes overlooked yet vital parts of creating a score.

And therein lies the difference between a computer program and a living, breathing musician who is also a copyist.

If you’re interested in becoming a copyist in the music industry, there are a few things you need to put in place before you contact composers and songwriters.  First off, you have to be music literate.  While it’s preferable to have a music degree or diploma to prove musical literacy, it’s not mandatory.  A well-educated musician who is self-taught can become fluent in the language of music.   This means you have to know and understand music theory and notational conventions, and you must have a solid understanding of orchestras (including instrument ranges and instrumental transpositions).

However, along with being music literate, you must also be computer literate especially when it comes to musical notation software (unless you do everything by hand).  And thirdly, you must absolutely have exceptional aural skills if you are going to transcribe music from audio to hard copy?

Above and beyond the mortar-and-bricks requirements are the skills needed to be a successful entrepreneur.

1. Are you able to work independently for long hours?
2. Are you able to work with a tight deadline?
3. Are you able to work up 16 hour days without having the product suffer?
4. Do you have proofreading abilities that are above reproach?

If you can honestly answer yes to those four questions and you have the requisite music and computer literacy coupled with exceptional aural skills, then you could be one of the few people who should becoming a music copyist.

The equipment a music copyist needs are a mid-range to upper-end computer, high-resolution monitor, laser printer, MIDI keyboard controller (for fast note entry), a computer desk that is comfortable and can accommodate the computer equipment, and a very comfortable office chair that will still feel comfortable after hours of sitting behind the desk.

Now that you know what you need to know and own to become a competent music copyist, it’s time to unveil the financial compensation that can be expected.  If you are a competent music copyist, it’s not uncommon to earn between $25,000 and $50,000 (or more) per year just as a music copyist.  Being a member of the AFM guarantees that you’ll be paid scale per page of music per type of project from scores needed for live performances, studio recordings, and more.

Yes, it may be a low-visibility job and no one will ever chase you down the street, begging for your autograph, but it’s the sort of job that allows music copyists to earn a good living — even if all they do is work as a music copyist.  As the adage goes:  Nice work if you can get it.

Elyse Bruce


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