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Living with Schizoaffective Disorder


For many years my ambition has been to be a composer someday.
But I have never, until early this morning, done very composer's most important job.

Michael David Crawford, Baritone,

February 14, 2006

Copyright © 2007 Michael David Crawford. All Rights Reserved.

For many years my ambition has been to be a composer someday. But I have never, until early this morning, done what is the most important thing a composer could do:

In over twenty-two years of playing the piano, I never wrote down my scores. Were I to have been struck by lightning, my music would have died with me. I compose by ear, you see, not by writing.

At first my music existed only in my own mind, or, for fleeting moments, in the minds of those who heard me play. I recorded my music in 1994, but it was still not readily accessible to other musicians.

I tried writing by hand on blank music staff paper, but I have poor handwriting and so my scores were ugly and nearly illegible. I had great hopes Great Wave Software's ConcertWare, but it turned out to work very poorly for me - very small changes in tempo totally screwed up the scores.

About a year ago, on the recommendation of a friend, I tried Lilypond, a GPL program billed as "Music notation for everyone". It is powerful and configurable, but has a steep learning curve. I didn't get very far with it.

It's not a What You See Is What You Get editor like most scoring programs - instead it compiles TeX-like markup source into PDF, Postscript and MIDI files. I think it would be better to call it "Music notation only a programmer could love." Good thing I'm a programmer. Last night I finally decided I'd do whatever it took to score my music with Lilypond.

Ladies and Germs, I present to you my very first score:


Sheet music coming Real Soon Now.

If you use A4 paper where you live, you could really help me out if you printed the A4 score to make sure it prints right. Don't try to hide - we know who you are. (Canuckistan may be a Soviet Republic, but it staunchly resists the state-mandated metric system, and so our paper is US Letter.)

I called it Emergence because it was the first song I ever composed. At first it had some kinda New Agey title like "The Emergence of the Artist Within", but I eventually decided that sounded really hokey and so shortened the title to its present form.

For me, it is a hopeful song, bringing to my mind the sprouting and blooming of young flowers after a hard winter.

This weekend I'll do my second song, Recursion. That's my personal favorite - LilDebbie says he likes it too - but many people don't. Bonita says it makes her anxious and my piano teacher back in Truro said it sounded "Tense". But I find it very relaxing to play and to listen to. I composed it during a very dark time when I was a student at UC Santa Cruz; I found it one of the few things that could comfort me.

Sahara and As Yet Untitled are going to take some time. I never play Sahara the same way twice; I always improvise it, and haven't yet settled on its finished form.

And I'm afraid I just plain forgot how to play As Yet Untitled. I composed it just a couple weeks before I recorded my album in 1994, but then shortly afterwards got very depressed and discouraged, and stopped playing for several years, not taking it up again in a serious way until we moved to Nova Scotia in 2003.

I expect I can learn it again by repeatedly listening to my recording and playing along with it.

Once I get all four scores written down, it will be time to finally start work on some new music. When I have four or five more pieces I will have enough songs for a full-length CD.

Buy the CD

You see, my album as it stands is properly called Geometric Visions: The Rough Draft, because it wasn't finished yet when I recorded it. I always meant to complete it someday, and now it looks like I have some hope of actually doing so.

Music That's Free As In Freedom

Writing down my scores, in all the formats given above, is important for more reasons than just preserving my legacy: all my songs have the Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 2.5 license.

What that means is that not only are you permitted to copy my music, or even sell it, but you are also permitted to create derivative works, so long as your versions also have the same license.

While one could make a techno remix from my audio recordings, it would be very difficult for most musicians to learn to play them by ear. What musicians and composers need is the source code to my music.

The ultimate source code is the Lilypond source, but the MIDI files can be imported directly into sequencing programs like Apple's GarageBand. Any pianist, even most beginners, could learn to play Emergence by printing one of the PDF documents, and then maybe try improvising on it.

Please: share and enjoy my music, or even better: use it as an inspiration for your own.

A Composer Who Can't Read Music?

I have written here before of how painful it is for me to read music. But once I got the hang of Lilypond, it only took me a few hours to write down the score to Emergence. I guess I must be able to read music just fine.

I first learned that Every Good Boy Does Fine in third grade, but somehow found music notation beyond my comprehension, so much so that when I decided to learn the piano, I did so in what must have been the hardest way imaginable: completely by ear, without ever taking any lessons.

I was determined to learn to play, but felt that it would be hopeless if I had to learn to read music first. And so what I did was to learn to improvise. It's not quite right to say that I learned to play by ear - those who can, can play any song they hear, but I can't; until I started lessons in 2004, I could only play my own compositions, and those only because I had them memorized.

When I started lessons three weeks ago here in Vancouver, I at first told my teacher Angela Bonilla that I couldn't read. At first she was going to start me with some very basic songs, like what you'd teach a little kid, but she found I could actually read a fair amount.

(Angela, being from the South American country of Colombia, didn't know that Every Good Boy Does Fine - and she has a Master's degree in music!)

It's not that I can't read; it's that I find sight-reading painful and laborious. It's very much like trying to read or understand a foreign language by translating it on the fly to one's native tongue.

To really be fluent in a foreign language, one must think in that language too. I cannot look at a note on a score and just play it; every single time I have to think to myself "Every Good Boy Does... Oh it's a D".

I am very encouraged, in having done the work it took to write this first score, to find that writing it seems to be a good way to learn to read music better. At first I would check for mistakes by compiling my Lilypond source to MIDI, then listening to it in the QuickTime Player, but by the time I was done all it took was to look at the PDFs on my screen.

Maybe there is hope that someday I might learn to sight-read. I was quite astounded one day when I saw a professional musician played the entire piano score of a high school musical on his first try. When I mentioned this years later to my wife she said "Imagine - reading a whole newspaper you've never read before."

There was a day when I was challenged to read "Dick and Jane". But now I read English prose all day long. If I can do that, I can learn to sight-read too.

-- Michael David Crawford

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