If you noticed someone looking curiously at your luggage, and this person started to approach you, there are all kinds of nefarious suspicions that you might rightfully have. Musician Shaun Buswell was this person, but he had a more benign purpose in mind: to determine if there was a musical instrument hidden away in someone’s bag or case. He wanted to introduce himself to enough people who were “kind, non-judgmental souls” that would be willing to participate in his challenge: to create in ten days, from scratch, an orchestra of complete strangers that would play a one-off concert at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
That task, which he called the Fringe Orchestra Challenge, was inspired by an earlier endeavor of Shaun’s, the Underground Orchestra Challenge, in which he met strangers on the London Underground in 2012 and recruited them to be part of his band, which still plays on today.
“To write the music, to arrange the music, was more of a challenge than I had ever considered,” Shaun told BBC journalist Dan Curtis. “I won’t know what kind of music to write, or which piece to arrange for, until I meet those musicians. So I have to meet them, work out whether they’re interested, and then score the music.”
Shaun used Sibelius 7 to score the music for the orchestra, and I contacted him to learn more about his process.
“I can’t actually read music,” Shaun told me, “so I use Sibelius in a fairly revolutionary way as I’m the first generation to really be able to use software to score for me, in the same way a person could now write a book by using speech software. I move the notes up and down, make them look “pretty” and Google anything I’m uncertain about. I understand a bit about bow marks and breathing, but can’t play a single thing except guitar. So I don’t know about chords or what works or what doesn’t. I just feel it and hope for the best!
“For example, I had a euphonium player contact me at midnight on the last day of the challenge telling me she played in bass clef concert pitch. So I Googled what that meant! Then I decided it was the same as something like a trombone or cello and rewrote the euphonium parts in this clef by copy and pasting melodies I thought would work. Sibelius tells me if it’s too low or high and I use that as guidance also,” Shaun said.
Shaun also discovered the time-honored method of copying masterworks to enhance his studies. “I had to transcribe the whole trumpet part for Holst’s Mars from E to B-flat by hand for the Underground Challenge and that taught me a lot about the way these dots are meant to look (I didn’t know you could have double dots on things, for example!). I still don’t know what each of them are by looking but I’m starting to see patterns within the music, so I guess I am learning,” he said.
In addition to Sibelius, Shaun uses Cubase in his writing and recording process, but he knows that “the musicians need scores, so I’m finding Sibelius gives me the best option to communicate with the musicians who actually know what they’re doing! I’m surprised that hardly any of it seems to be wrong now.”