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April 2006: On Being a Musical — and Music Nib — Luddite

Extra Fine Points Index  ]

BY DON FLUCKINGER • Music nibs are a hot — or at least fascinating — trend in the fountain pen hobby. But what the heck do you do with them?

You write and transcribe music, that’s what. Musicians who weren’t raised on Sony PlayStation and Nintendo games often see today’s music-writing and transcribing software as a complex Rubik’s cube — and if you get that reference, you know exactly what I’m talking about — that needs solving and actually saps the creative inspiration part right out of writing music.

Music nibs are a hot — or at least fascinating — trend in the fountain pen hobby. But what the heck do you do with them? Extra Fine Points

Who has time to pick out the exact right note when composing a melody, and figure out whether it belongs to a triplet set or a dotted eighth-note pair, when you have to remember how to navigate through a rat’s nest of menus and buttons to get there? By the time you’ve looked up stuff in the software’s help file, if you’re like me, it’s starting to feel too much like work. The musical pursuit was supposed to get you away from the hunched-over-the-computer-monitor thing, remember?

Enter fountain pens with music nibs. Musicians use them for the same reason writers journal with their fountain pens: to get away from the word processor and its efficiency features, grammar-checker haranguing one’s every keystroke, and “helpbots” that make annoyingly distracting beeps and honks while you’re trying to come up with the ideal action verb to put everything in perfect context.

The technology disease strikes keyboard players most acutely: Not only must we wrestle with composition software, but we get to hook all our instruments together via MIDI and learn to program them to talk to each other—and to our laptops. On top of that, we need to learn how to program and tweak “patches,” or synthesized, sampled, sterile digital effects.

That’s if we want to, that is. I’ve decided not to become a technologist and technician and instead just play the damn keyboards. I refuse to spend perfectly good practice time messing with computer screens and programming manuals. It’s not that I can’t; I could learn this stuff, but it just feels too much like my day job … the exact thing my musical pursuit (and the fountain pens) are supposed to be getting me away from.

To this end, I gravitate to analog keyboards like Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer 200As, and Hammond organs. “Low tech or no tech” is my motto.

This month, I received an email from reader Don Patton that, unbeknownst to him, raises the meta-discussion of why some people use fountain pens in an era when most people write with ballpoints if they use pens at all, which is happening less and less. The short answer: Because technology does so much — and is sometimes so hard to learn — that it saps the creativity right out of a person.

A little explanation: I not only collect fountain pens — and use them — but I also pretend to be a musician with vague ambitions that include writing music and eventually fronting a jazz-rock-blues band. I know Patton’s issues. They are the same ones I deal with, and, more credibly, the same ones my sixty-something, full-time tenor-sax-playing jazz teacher faces.

Here’s Patton’s email. The numbers [in brackets] following the relevant points are keyed to the list below:

Since being forced to take early retirement, I have fallen under the spell of an evil doctor who fronts a combo, needed a guitar player, and wanted someone who could arrange, write music. After looking into several computer programs, I decided those are not for me at this time.[1] Some of the pros I spoke to were not very complimentary of them either![2]

Have you found any specific types or sizes of staff paper these nibs will or will not work on, or any type of paper(s) that are either really usable or just deplorable?[3]

… The dayum combo is making matters worse by suggesting that even though the computer would do a neater job, they’d rather have mine.[4] There must be a conspiracy somewhere in all of this.[5]

Here’s what I have to say:

  1. My jazz teacher and I have realized that these music writing and transcribing applications are a necessary evil for any musician who wants to set up lead sheets or sell, record, or otherwise communicate his or her compositions or arrangements. At some point you’ll have to learn these programs—or pay someone to input the notes — in order to preview what the compositions sound like and to homogenize/commercialize the look and feel of the notes. Thankfully, you can download “lite” versions of commercial transcription programs (such as Finale NotePad) for free.

  2. You are not alone. It seems to me that, if someone were to write an application as elegant and usable as, say, the “i” software Apple writes for the Macintosh, today’s two main music-composition programs would quickly go away.

  3. I have yet to find music-nib-friendly staff paper (if anyone reading this has a recommendation, please email it to me). What I do is download a PDF document of staff paper free from the University of Virginia web site and print it to my most fountain-pen-friendly laser printer paper, then experiment.

  4. Jazz musicians love and are most familiar playing off lead sheets from fake books written by people who know how to use music nibs. This is probably the last frontier of actual professional music nib use—so it doesn’t surprise me at all that you say this.

  5. It’s not my job to hawk Richard’s wares, thank goodness. Yet, let it be known that he does offer said music nibs.

Certainly, pen collectors create opportunities to write with their pens, both time-wasting trivial pursuits and actual productive pursuits. We could sit around all day goofing off with a pen, especially a new one we got on eBay, at a pen show, or wherever our favorite haunt might be.

But more and more, I think that pen writing serves as a necessary escape from our computers. These infernal devices, especially when equipped with high-speed Internet access, can be stress-makers, with their bad news of wars and disease, people emailing about work and personal obligations, and their demanding one-on-one nature. They demand your full bandwidth, they suck you away from the people around you, and they keep you from the things you love — such as composing or arranging music, and writing with fountain pens. Or, if you’re one of the lucky ones who write music with appropriately nibbed fountain pens, both at the same time.

So, Don Patton, you’re not a geek or a Luddite. I think you’ve actually got your priorities straight — putting creativity ahead of music-tech geekology. I give you permission to put fountain pen to paper and write out those lead sheets.

When it comes time to computerize that music, hand it over to a technician who might not have a creative cell in his or her body, but who can input those notes into your software of choice faster than you can run through 12 bars of “Pfrancing.” That’s the best use of everybody’s time. And creativity.

cover Further Reading: Art from Start to Finish: Jazz, Painting, Writing, and Other Improvisations, edited by Howard S. Becker, Robert R. Faulkner, and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett

If you want a deeper, more scholarly exploration of the compositional process, check out this excellent book.

Freelance writer Don Fluckinger lives in Nashua, New Hampshire, and is the son-in-law of Richard Binder. His articles have been published in Antiques Roadshow Insider, The Boston Globe, and on the collectibles Web site. Please note: Any opinions stated in this column are Don’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Richard Binder or this Web site. Don Fluckinger
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