Walk into any music store and you will almost certainly see, besides all the instruments and associated gear, a display of music books. Some might be instructional in nature while others may comprise collections of songs based upon a specific songwriter’s or band’s catalogue, or some other theme. Have you ever wondered what goes into the creation of such books?
MakingMusicMag.com recently sat down with Dick Sheridan who, in addition to being a prominent band leader and a music teacher in Central New York, is also a prolific author of music books. He gladly shared his approach to creating such books, which draws heavily from his experiences as both a performer and a teacher.
Sheridan describes himself as a “mostly self-taught” musician with a solid background as a player of several stringed instruments, primarily tenor banjo and ukulele. His early influences include “my Dad’s piano music – songs of the 1920s,” while the three-chord folk music of Burl Ives and others caught his ear during his collegiate years in the 1950s.
After a tour in Japan with the U.S. Marines and a stint in grad school, Sheridan returned to his musical roots and began playing tenor banjo with a group of musicians that eventually morphed into the “Soda Ash 6” – a renown jazz/Dixieland band that has performed for decades throughout upstate New York.
Sheridan’s approach to writing music books mirrors his approach to playing. “I’m more of an accompanist than a soloist – I solo with chords,” he said. “It’s amazing what you can do with inversions. There’s so much more that you can do than the standard I, IV, V stuff.”
Sheridan added that his focus on chord structure came primarily from being challenged by his students. “My understanding of chords evolved the more I worked with students,” he said, adding that he “needed to come up with a more imaginative type of chording” in order to return that challenge to his students.
His books also offer a strong focus on arrangement – how a composition is organized. “I really enjoy the arranging aspect; I’m more of an arranger than a writer,” Sheridan said. “I’m not really a creative writer. My best understanding is chords in that I’m more of a chordal player.”
When deciding on a topic or theme for a new book project, Sheridan observed that he is generally limited to songs written prior to 1924, the vast majority of which are in the public domain. “Getting permission to use copywritten songs is expensive,” he said, noting that publishers generally want to keep their expenses to a minimum.
“I enjoy researching and coming up with themes,” he continued. As for the inspiration for a specific theme, he says, “Who knows? It depends upon the feelings of the day.”
Over the past 10 years or so, Sheridan has written some 30 music books, with themes that include songs from World War I, college “fight songs,” Christmas carols, sea chanties, waltzes arranged for ukulele, and Jewish folk songs to name but a few. He is currently working on a book of theme music from old-time radio shows for the ukulele. Indeed, the “uke” is the primary instrument for which he writes; he has also penned books with tunes arranged for mandolin, guitar and tenor banjo.
As for the specific songs he includes in his offerings, Sheridan’s key word is “interesting.”
“Once I establish a theme, I then pick songs that I find interesting and hope the reader will find them interesting as well,” he explained. In arranging his tunes of choice, Sheridan points out that he does not necessarily lean toward making the songs any easier or more challenging to play, he simply strives to come up with an arrangement of chords and inversions that will spark the reader/player’s curiosity and perhaps challenge him or her to tackle that particular piece.
There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. For example, Sheridan has also authored a book for tenor banjo containing Irish songs for which he took a much different approach.
“It’s a departure from using mainly chords,” he explained. “In Irish music the melody is most important. There are lots of triplets, embellishments, and high-speed notes.”
When he first began writing music books, Sheridan wrote out everything, including chord charts and tablature, in longhand. He quickly discovered that publishers were not appreciative of those efforts. He now uses the software program Finale, noting that Sibelius and Band In A Box are also popular choices.
Sheridan’s books all include chord diagrams, tablature and melody notes to help the reader/player capture the essence of the songs contained within. He also strives to make good use of clip art as both a visual aid and decoration to enhance his books. He noted that many publishers seem to be more interested in a book’s cover, rather than its content, as a selling point. Many music books feature the instrument involved – a guitar, banjo or whatever – on their covers, which Sheridan calls “cliché.”
His latest publication, a collection of songs arranged for guitar with “easy chord solos,” features an attractive lakeshore scene on the cover, a departure from the “norm” of instrument-based covers. Mentioned earlier was the fact that Sheridan does not consider himself a writer of music, yet all of the songs in this latest work are his original compositions.
“Some are simple, some are elaborate,” he said. “These are all songs I’ve written specifically for students” in order to demonstrate a particular point of instruction – say a specific way of inverting a chord or building a progression.
Sheridan noted that most of his book projects are one-shot deals in which he is paid a flat fee. “On some deals I get royalties but it’s mostly one-time payments,” he said, adding that his level of creative input varies, depending upon for whom he is working. “With some publishers I have no control, while others are more interested in my suggestions.”
The author offered a piece of advice for budding book writers – always get someone else to look over your work. “You can’t proofread you own material,” he said, noting that Hal Leonard, one of the publishers with whom he works, has a great in-house staff to support its writers.
He offered further counsel for potential buyers of music books: “Look for books that match your ability and interests.” Obvious? Perhaps, but it does little good for a musician to get bogged down trying to play something that is beyond his or her capabilities and/or outside of his or her interests.
Sheridan’s books are available through his publishers and their distributors, as well as at many music stores. Simply do an online search for “Dick Sheridan Music” to discover his works.