Getting the most from Sibelius: part 3

In this series of blog posts I’m looking at a tool which millions of music students and professionals use every day: Sibelius.

I’m going to show you how to get the best results from Sibelius when using it for your degree work by looking at where Sibelius’s default settings don’t always produce the best results, and what changes we can make to improve the clarity and presentation of our scores. I will also be mentioning a lot of time-saving keyboard shortcuts, which once memorised will dramatically improve your Sibelius workflow.

I’m generally going to be referring to Sibelius 8, the most recent version, as it’s what most new users will encounter. I will sometimes mention previous versions, when there is a substantial different in functionality, so if you’re using Sibelius 6 or 7 you should still be able to apply most of this content.

In the first two posts I covered the basics of the programme and some tips for working with small ensemble scores.

In this third post I’ll be moving on to music for large ensembles and orchestras, and using Sibelius to extract parts for players. I’ll be covering some advanced techniques and Sibelius-specific workarounds: if you’re new to Sibelius I’d recommend starting with one of the earlier posts.

I planned to include some contemporary scoring practices as well in this post, but ended up with far too much information for a single article. Instead I’m going to continue this series with several posts focusing on advanced techniques for non-standard notation.

Part 3: Music for Large Ensembles

Staff Layout
In this first example we can see the first page of a piece for string orchestra. The first and second violins are divided into three, and the violas and cellos are divided into two.

We can reflect the structure of the ensemble in the layout of the score. This makes the score easier to read or conduct from. As in the last blog post we’ll adjust the barlines to reflect the ensemble: grab the top or bottom of a barline, and drag it so that it covers only one section of the orchestra. Now extend the remaining single-staff barlines until each section is clearly shown, following the example below.

I’ve added sub-brackets to the stave, to show the part groupings on the left as well as in the barlines. These can be added through the right-click menu (Other -> Bracket or Brace -> Sub-Bracket) and dragged to fit. In older versions of Sibelius these are invisible when you create them, and you need to turn on Show Hidden Objects to find them.

I’ve also edited the staff names: rather than three identical “Violin 1” parts, we now have only the middle one, marked “div. a 3”, meaning “divided into three parts”. To remove the outer two names, simply select them and press “delete”. This process is more complicated for the viola and cello – to ensure the instrument name is centred consistently between the two lines you need to create them as an instrument with two staves. Piano is the simplest option, but for this score I used ‘Strings – Reduction’ as this will play back with a string sound. Then simply delete the brace and change the clefs and staff names to represent your chosen instrument. You can also use the ‘change instrument’ tool here.

The names must be edited twice, once for the first-page full instrument names, and again for the abbreviated names on all subsequent pages. (These practices can of course be applied to any grouping of instruments, not just strings!)

System Layout
In this section of the piece there is music in the violin and later viola parts, but the rest of the ensemble is tacet until the end of the passage and their parts are mostly empty. This is a waste of space, and adds unnecessary pages to the score.

It is common practice to hide the parts of the ensemble that aren’t playing. To do this in Sibelius select the empty staves (or the whole passage) and press the “hide empty staves button” which is in the centre of the “layout” tab.

We can see that the music is now much more effectively spaced across two, rather than three pages:

In this example I’ve left the third violin 2 stave visible in the first system and the second viola in the second system, despite them being empty. Changing the number of staves per section might imply to the conductor that the parts are no longer divided in three, unless explained clearly in the score, and in this case there is nothing to be gained from removing more staves. Use your judgement in questions of layout – will I save space by doing this? Will I make the score easier or harder to read?

Parts
While studying music academically, for example with the OCA, you won’t often be required to produce parts for the peices you write. If you want to take the next step however and actually write music for real musicians to play to a real audience, you’ll need to produce parts for the players to read. The quality of these parts and how well they represent your piece often directly correlates to how well your music will be played!

For this reason and others it’s really important that parts are accurate and easy to read. Here is a basic guide to how to produce good sets of parts in Sibelius, and some common pitfalls to avoid.

To view a part click on the little “+” button at the top right of the score window. This gives you a list of all of the instruments in the piece. With very simple pieces Sibelius sometimes produces perfectly usable parts with the push of a button, though with more complex music it often needs a little help.

You may want to create a part for a group of instruments, for example the three Violin 1 lines in the string orchestra piece above. To do this go to the ‘parts’ tab and select ‘new part’ on the left and add the instruments you want. This part will now appear in the drop-down list with the others. You can also delete and edit parts in this tab.

The example below is an unedited clarinet part Sibelius has generated from a complex ensemble score. As we can see it has some problems. The biggest issues are the collisions between objects, most notably between the third and fourth systems.


We need to make more space for these objects: we have two ways to do this – reduce the amount of music on the page or make the font smaller. In this case we’re going to reduce the amount of music, as to reduce the font size, especially for complicated music like this, can make it difficult to read. Remember – players may be sat a good couple of feet from their music, so it needs to be legible at a distance!

In the next example I’ve selected about three-quarters of the music on the page. As this is the first page of the part the player will need time to turn the page (assuming the part is bound), so I’ve selected only until bar 48 to give the player some rests in which to turn.

Press ctrl-alt-shift-M to make your selection into a page.

As we can see the collisions are now all fixed. I’ve made three other changes as well:

  1. Changed the key of the piece from “C major” (the default) to “Open Key/Atonal”. As this is very clearly a non-tonal piece the D-major key signature is inappropriate. If you’re using transposing instruments in a piece without a key signature be sure to select ‘Open Key/Atonal’ or your parts will generate with key signatures.(NB. if you’re writing a piece with no key, be sure to indicate in the score whether it’s transposing or concert pitch. Concert pitch is the standard for orchestras and contemporary music groups in the UK)
  2. Added a ‘Clarinet in Bb’ indication to the first bar. As this is a part for a doubling player we need to indicate which instrument to begin on (though this is also implied by ‘Clarinet in Bb’ being first in the list of instruments at the top of the part)
  3. Added a ‘V.S.’ to the final bar. This tells the player they will need to play in the bar after the turn.

It almost goes without saying, but you should ALWAYS proof read your parts before printing them or sending them off. Mistakes can be embarrassing, but much worse than that they can seriously eat into rehearsal time, the composer’s most valuable resource, so it’s worth putting in the time beforehand to get them right.

As I mentioned above, I also planned to write about some advanced techniques in this blog post, but as it’s getting rather long I’m going to defer those to future articles.

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