Author: Belinda Reynolds

Then, Now, Tomorrow: Collaboration in Writing Music for Student Players

(Text by Belinda Reynolds with video content by Ashley Killam)

I first wrote about the lack of works by living composers for younger players 15 years ago. Fast forward to today. Sadly, essentially nothing has changed. Contemporary music is still desperately needed in the teaching repertoire for most orchestral instruments.

Back then, I addressed the problem by creating a set of progressive level instrumental books, called CUSTOM MADE MUSIC SERIES (CMM). The 6th book has just been published by PRB Productions: CUSTOM MADE MUSIC VOLUME 6 – 10 Progressive Solos and Duos for Trumpet. Using this new CMM addition as a guidepost, I wish to share with you some tips on how to successfully compose for student players and make a lasting difference in new music for all of us in today’s challenging times.

Step One:
In approaching composing at the student level, find a collaborator who is both a player and a teacher of your chosen instrument(s). They will bring the expertise and knowledge needed to help you create a project that can make lasting change in the pedagogical repertoire. They can come from any avenue in your life – a former teacher, a colleague, a friend, a connection, anywhere! For my new project I collaborated with trumpet player/music educator/new music advocate Ashley Killam (she/her). She actually found me when she was researching composers to be listed in her open source music catalog of brass music by underrepresented composers. We wound up having a conversation about students and the trumpet repertoire and I asked her if she would be interested in being the Editor of a new CUSTOM MADE MUSIC book for trumpet. She was and thus began our project.

Watch the video below to hear Ashley’s point of view on the CUSTOM MADE MUSIC collaboration.

Step Two:
Together identify the technical gaps in the pedagogical repertoire of the instrument(s) you both wish to approach with your project. In this case, Ashley immediately knew what was needed, thanks to her extensive experience in working with music students and teachers across the country and in her studio. After a Zoom session and a few emails we decided to create a book mostly containing solos and some additional duos for three levels of trumpet players: beginners, late beginners, and early intermediate learners.

With each work I introduced the basic techniques that Ashley said were essential concepts for young trumpeters to master. I also kept all of the compositions limited to a one octave range because it was the maximum reach for most beginner players. All of these issues were addressed in composing a tasty melody for them to play. For me such challenges are creativity drivers; I believe in the motto “Limits Create Possibilities”.

Watch the video below to hear Ashley describe in more detail the ins and outs we addressed in the creation of these new compositions along with her playing one of the solos for beginner, “Carefree.”

Step Three:
Do workshops during the entirety of the creation of your composition(s). From day one I included Ashley almost as an equal partner, for I believe that bringing musicians into the creation of a new piece just makes for a higher quality composition. This is almost essential when composing for students. I learned this during my 25 years as a member of Common Sense Composers Collective, as well as with my own independent career. Ashley found this approach to be extremely rewarding, nourishing and a wonderful creative outlet for her. Together, along with her students, we ironed out the kinks and even found some new possibilities for some of the pieces. The results, we feel, are a stellar group of small pieces that young trumpet players can easily learn and gain technical skills while doing so. Take a look/listen below to one of the pieces that came to its true ‘life’, thanks to workshopping it:

Step Four:
Beta test all of your project before you bring it to its premiere and to market, so to speak. After workshopping your music, before it hits the limelight have the intended students or a similar group of learners “test” out your pieces. These young players are the final arbitrator of whether your music will or won’t work for them, regardless of what you and your collaborator have done thus far. What may seem idiomatic to a professional can sometimes seem weird and awkward to a newcomer. Ashley did this with many of her students, who gave her insights as to what articulations to finally use in some of the works.

Step Five:
Be enterprising and do tons of outreach and marketing to insure your project lives beyond the first performance/publication release. All too often a new music gem is lost into the past after its premiere because nobody pushed hard and long enough to give it a foothold in the repertoire. Compared to 15 years ago, marketing is easier than ever thanks to social media and other internet resources. Both you and your partner must utilize these tools. Urge your friends to help and reach out to all of your professional contacts that may have interest or contributions to make to your release. Outreach in the music education community is also essential, even more than ads. Get your music into the hands of teachers via networking with educational organizations, instrumental guilds, and music conventions, among other areas. Bring it to classrooms and teaching studios with creative workshops showcasing your project from the start to the finish. Folks love to know how something works before they purchase it! Once your project is ready for the public both you and your collaborator must invest in the time and effort to do these actions; creating room in the repertoire of an instrument is a long term investment. You must get fans of your project on board, those who teach the instrument(s) and those who play it/them.

I hope this presentation will inspire you to try writing at the student level. Don’t worry if you think your style is not ‘kid-friendly’. I have found that EVERY style can be student friendly if it is tested and presented in a way as to welcome the learner into its universe and not alienate them. Young players are mostly more open to the sounds of new music than their older counterparts. Your efforts will plant the seeds for long term sustainable growth of new music in both today’s and tomorrow’s professional players and audiences. In addition, it will help both your creative skills and your career trajectory as an artist. I have received numerous performances and commissions thanks to the reputation of my work in composing music for younger players. I welcome you to try this venture!

The cover for the latest volume in Belinda Reynolds's Custom Made Music Series: 10 Progressive Solos and Duos for Trumpet, edited by Ashley Killam

Belinda Reynolds, Composer
Raised in a Texan-Florida Air Force family, Belinda Reynolds (she/her) now considers herself an “adopted native” of California. Her music is performed worldwide and has been featured in such festivals as Lincoln Center’s Great Performers Series, the Spoleto Music Festival, and many more. As a Music Educator Ms. Reynolds is in demand nationwide helping children learn to create music. For more information, go to

Ashley Killam, Editor
Ashley Killam (she/her) is an international speaker, researcher, and educator based in Radford, Virginia. Killam is President of Diversity the Stand and General Manager of Rising Tide Music Press. Killam’s work centers around educating musicians on the importance of making ethical and sustainable changes in performing and teaching music. For more information, go to

Sell It To Children – A Manifesto for Composers

“It’s just music for children.”—Anonymous

Two of Belinda Reynolds’s star students, Dora and Nina, for whom she composed the piano duet Dora’s Bridges.

Four years ago, I had the privilege of writing a weekly Chatter post for NewMusicBox, with an initial focus on composing music for young players. I saw the column as an opportunity to address an issue I saw throughout my years as a composer and teacher. That is, most American classically trained composers do not take writing music for children seriously. Like it or not, it seems there is an elitist attitude that pervades our thinking about the contemporary repertoire. If it is for a virtuoso ensemble, great, the music has merit. If it is for a school chorus, well, that’s useful for the community, but is it really making an “artistic” statement? It irked me tirelessly when I would encounter some piece of writing or conversation bemoaning the demise of interest in new music. I felt the new music community was partially responsible for not nurturing its growth at the most fundamental level. If instrumentalists are not exposed to new music when they are learning to play, they are naturally going to be much more inhibited about trying it when they are done with their studies. Anyone in advertising or marketing knows that the best way to sell a product is to sell it to children. Didn’t we see that we were shooting ourselves in the foot?

That’s what it felt like, to me, four years ago, after years of being in the trenches composing for both virtuoso and student-level players. Thus I began my NewMusicBox column with the intention of it being a “call to arms,” so to speak. I wanted to rally my comrades and get us engaged and motivated to compose music for those without professional chops. I wrote weekly for over a year. During my tenure I received positive feedback and ideas from many readers. When I left, I felt I did my part in getting attention paid to the younger players, the ones who are eager to try things out but just don’t know how to play all the “hard stuff” yet.

Fast forward to 2011. In doing research for this article, I decided to peruse the immense resources of the American Music Center’s Online Music Library to see how much music I could find that was categorized as music for young players. The library is like a treasure box, having over 50,000 titles from over 6,000 composers that encompass a vast array of today’s music styles. I ultimately found only about 100 pieces out of about 50,000 or .02% of works that focus on music for young players. Has nothing changed?


“I would advise my young colleagues, the composers of symphonies, to drop in sometimes at the kindergarten, too. It is there that it is decided whether there will be anybody to understand their works in twenty years’ time.”—Zoltan Kodaly

Why is there still an oversight in composing for children? Does it have to do with our training as composers? Most of us were never taught how to compose music for an elementary technical level. In my own experience, not once did any of my beloved teachers discuss the issues surrounding writing for young players. I had the privilege of going to two top schools: one a university, one a conservatory. I was shown all the possibilities of what instruments can do. I was exposed to writing for incredible players. But, never was I introduced to writing for less skilled musicians. I was never encouraged to compose for any level lower than that of the professional player. It was simply overlooked.

It took a chance occurrence in my life to enlighten me regarding what Bach to Bartók knew about music: limits create possibilities. Like many of us, in graduate school I had to take jobs to help pay living expenses. One in particular changed the course of my composing life. While doing my doctoral work at Yale I taught piano and conducted the orchestra at a local music school. When they found out I was a composer, one teacher asked if I would be interested in writing music for her 5th grade chorus at a local elementary school. I said yes.

I had no clue how to compose something doable for 10-year-olds, something that would be within their technical reach while still interesting to me. In order to learn, I decided to make the commission into a collaborative project, going to the school and working with the kids in creating the piece they were to perform. I helped them make up melodies they could sing, melodies that became the basis of my own music for them. We worked weekly for months, getting to know each other and getting to know the music. The result was a choral work that was within their technical limits, yet conveyed my developing musical style. The children loved it. Furthermore, a number of students’ parents wanted to know about other music I composed, winning over a fan base I never encountered before. Even the teacher was so happy that she started an annual project of commissioning young composers to write for her student ensembles. My first experience composing for children was both compositionally satisfying and emotionally rewarding. I was hooked.

Thus I began writing for student players. At first, there was no set plan. While I focused on creating a professional life as a composer, I simultaneously built up a teaching studio, focusing on private instruction in piano, composition, and musicianship. As part of their tutelage I began to compose a duet for each of my piano students. With each one, I customized the child’s part to their technical level and personality as a player, while using the teacher’s part to flesh out a rich texture of sounds and rhythms not normally found in the traditional teaching method books. The end results were a collection of pieces that every student was thrilled to have. It was music written for them, about them, and they mastered them with gusto. Furthermore, they did not limit themselves to their own works. They wanted to try other student’s pieces. They wanted to try other composers’ music. Just as I had gotten hooked on writing for kids, my kids got hooked on playing contemporary music. It was a win-win situation.

That was when I realized that there was a whole segment of music players for which there really wasn’t much new music available. These young instrumentalists were the foundation for the future of new music. Their ears had not been hardwired yet, nor had their minds been conditioned to a set of historical precedents. They were a clean, blank slate. Yet hardly any composers with my background were writing at their level.

Word began to spread among my fellow teachers about my duets, and I began to get requests to compose music for their students. I began a cottage industry of writing for colleagues’ studios. During these years my career as a “serious” composer progressed as well. Both as a member in the Common Sense Composers Collective and as an individual, I began to get “bigger” gigs and innovative projects with professional players. I also began to seek out projects that were addressed specifically to younger players.


“The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.”—Igor Stravinsky

My first big commission for children came from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where I was hired as composer-in-residence for their Music in the Schools Outreach Program. My task was to mentor a group of student string teachers and compose a piece for a group of elementary kids that had been learning their instruments for about two months. That meant they could play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and not much else. Through the process of collaboration with the teachers and the players, I decided to compose a work based on the first four notes of “Twinkle, Twinkle” and open strings. It consisted of patterns the students could easily master that, when aligned, created a kaleidoscopic post-minimalist piece of music. What initially seemed to be very constraining material actually proved to be fertile ground for my compositional technique. It enabled me to compose a piece of music that had integrity, one I felt proud to name in my list of works.

Thus began a new aspect of my composing life: writing for youth orchestras ranging from beginning to advanced levels. With each new project I learned more about the challenges and rewards of writing for younger players. Composing for beginners was the hardest, yet the most satisfying in some ways. I learned that in writing for very young players a composer must distill his or her voice down to its most essential level, stripping away any superfluous additives that are not necessary. You must find a way to make your sound world work within a set of very specific paradigms. A composer’s style does not matter. Students will dive into a sound world of an indeterminate piece as much as a work with a Neo-Romanticism flavor. The key is to create a sandbox where the students can play within their limited technique.

One European composer that succeeds in this is György Kurtág. His book of piano pieces, Játékok (Games), is an excellent example of how composers can use graphic notation in writing for young players. Technically the pieces stay within simple five -finger piano patterns when playing specific pitches. However, the sound universe opens up with elements of sound clusters, glissandos, dynamic range, and broad tempo fluctuations. All are notated with a graphic score Kürtag devised, which is explained in a concise appendix to the collection. Such pieces allow children to experiment on their instruments in a way they normally are not encouraged to do.

For myself, I am a post-minimalist composer (or at least that’s what I am told). I love to manipulate processes in the melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic realms. When working with beginning musicians, I create ways of making my rhythmic and harmonic offsets occur yet still be manageable to a student with little experience. One example is from my piano duets, Owen’s Ellaphant. The Primo part is for a beginning pianist. There are recurring patterns, all within the same five-finger piano position. However, bits of the patterns are sliced off and juxtaposed against one another. This all occurs against the Secondo part, written for a teacher or more advanced student. That part carries the bulk of the manipulations I do with the harmony and rhythms.

“My freedom thus consists in my moving about the narrow frame that I have assigned myself for each one of my undertakings.”—Igor Stravinsky

It is now almost 20 years since I composed my first piece for student players. At this juncture, I decided to look at what I have composed so far, assessing my strengths and weaknesses, and my contribution to the grand scheme of things. In doing so, I realized that there is still an arena that I felt still needed to be addressed for student players. That is solo contemporary music for the young instrumentalist.

Thinking back to the duets I had composed for my students, I decided to use a similar approach in undertaking a new project, one aimed at addressing the need for music for young soloists. Called Custom Made Music, the series is a collection of books written for different instruments, with the focus being on customizing the music so that it effectively explores the possibilities of each instrument within a technical level that is needed in the instrument’s repertoire. Each book begins with my selecting as the editor a leading player/teacher of the instrument that is the focus of the book. I then meet with the chosen player and receive feedback about existing gaps in the teaching repertoire, with regards to new music. Once I have composed rough drafts, the performer and I work to refine the pieces, making sure the technical level is appropriate for the selected goal. The process is then taken to the next level by having the editor’s students try the music and provide feedback about the playability of the pieces. In addition, the music is also sent out to other teachers of the chosen instrument for additional comments. The result is a collection of student instrumental music that has been composed and refined in a collaborative environment, specifically tailored to the needs for the technical level of the instrument for which the book is written.

The cover for the first book in Belinda Reynolds’s Custom Made Music series, Custom Made Music: 12 Pieces for Piano Duet (PRB Edition No. ED007)

To start off this series, PRB Productions has recently published the flagship book called Custom Made Music: 12 Pieces for Piano Duet (PRB Edition No. ED007). It is a collection of the duets I composed for my own students and those of other teachers. The second book to be published is Custom Made Music for Solo Piano. To create this book, I worked with renowned pianist Teresa McCollough in making a solo collection of short intermediate piano pieces that addresses the need for music suitable for competitions and recitals. Currently I am composing the Custom Made Music for Clarinet book. My editor is performer/teacher Jeff Anderle, a member of the bass clarinet duo SQWONK and also a faculty member at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. At our initial meeting, Jeff pointed out that the clarinet repertoire is lacking in music for the late intermediate clarinetist. However, unlike the piano, the clarinet’s body of works needs an amalgam of instrumental combinations: works for solo clarinet, clarinet duos that can be played by student and teacher, and clarinet/piano pieces suitable for recitals. So, the clarinet music book will be comprised of two solo clarinet pieces, two clarinet duo pieces, and two clarinet/piano pieces. Upcoming collections in the series are planned for classical guitar, flute, and cello. Featured guest editors include performer/teachers David Tanenbaum, Esther Landau (flute), and Tanya Tomkins (cello).


“Let us take our children seriously! Everything else follows from this… only the best is good enough for a child.”—Zoltan Kodaly

It is true that organizations such as the American Music Center, American Composers Forum, and Meet The Composer are giving money and validation for undertaking composing for amateur ensembles. Likewise, there are a few classical composers who have successfully integrated writing for younger student ensembles into their professional lives. I know of one, Frank Ticheli, who has written numerous pieces for high school bands while also amassing a considerable collection of works for world-class ensembles. A professor at USC, his name is known by both the professional classical music scene and by young players, as I found when teaching one of my own students. However, he is the exception, not the rule. I look back on my own training as a pianist, violinist, and flutist and realize that my love of classical music began from playing works composed by composers like Bach, Mozart, Chopin, and Beethoven. They all wrote music accessible to the limits of a student player without compromising its quality. It was so satisfying to learn a Haydn Trio and then also hear one of his symphonies. Simplicity does not mean simplistic. Indeed, it is an art to be able to take an idea and present it in a manner accessible to the young. I feel our art needs more of this approach. It used to have it. It can have it again.


Ella’s Elegance from Belinda Reynolds’s Custom Made Music: 12 Pieces for Piano Duet (PRB Edition No. ED007). Courtesy of Belinda Reynolds. Click image or here for a full-size reproduction of the score.


School’s Out For the Summer!

It is summer again. For those of us who teach at institutions, this is often a time to leave aside those responsibilities and focus on composing, which, during the academic year, often gets pushed aside as obligations to our students and schools take precedence.

Those of us who teach in private studios, however, usually must continue to juggle writing music with teaching it. I am in this latter camp, but this summer I am going do a variation of what my salaried colleagues do. I am teaching minimally and will be taking a sabbatical from writing for NewMusicBox until the fall in order to write more music.

During my break, not only am I going to pump up the volume with composing, but I plan to take the time to reflect on the many topics and discussions that my Chatter contributions have fostered over the past year. Many of you have participated in the online discussion of the subjects, and many more of you have shared your thoughts with me privately. From finding ways to encourage the performance of new music by students to creating opportunities for all composers to write for young players and considering how to help educators find their way to us, many penetrating questions have been raised. How do we collaborate with colleagues from other fields? How do we get rid of the stigma of writing for non-professionals? How do we address the still preferential treatment composers with degrees get versus composers who write in certain genres? Perhaps most importantly, how do we create the means to address these problems?

Many suggestions and solutions have been offered, from using grassroots methods to working with the already created infrastructures of our communities. As I use my break to ruminate about all of these, my one burning question is, how has this online conversation made a difference? What issues, if any, have any of us acted on in response to reading about them here? Have our words encouraged actual change? Or has it merely functioned as a sounding board, a place for us to come together and share our ideas?

In my absence, Teresa McCollough will take up the reigns here on Monday. Teresa is a not a composer, but a pianist who has used her extensive performance career to promote the music of living composers. She will bring a vital new perspective to this conversation as we continue to address how to encourage and promote the players who perform our music and help connect audiences with the music of today. See you in the fall!

What Do You Think? Lessons in True Creative Collaboration

There is nothing like being out of your element to realize just how insulated your element is. In this case, I have been working on a documentary film, doing the original music as well as loaning snippets of earlier works of mine to the project. Last weekend we had a session in which the director, editor, and I got together for me to play for them the music I had composed so far to get their feedback regarding mood, timings, and the like.

Even though I pride myself on how much I try to stress collaboration between performers and composers, I was still taken aback with the ease and forthrightness both of these individuals had when talking about the music. “This works great here.” “This part totally does not fit.” “We need a stronger entry”. “That totally captures the energy.” “Can we score this differently?” I had never been in such a workshop setting where everyone felt free to speak so freely about the composition as it was still in its nebulous form.

It was not a one-way street, either. Ironically, I first felt shy about speaking up, as I am new to the film world. I did not know what my place was in the process. However, I soon got into the rhythm and felt free to offer my opinion about music cues, as well as other dramatic aspects of the film. It ended up being one of the most fruitful collaborative session I have been in, with everyone feeling like each of us “got it” when discussing our ideas.

Later in the week, I commented to the editor about the experience and how I was pleasantly surprised at the comfort and freedom both he and the producer/director felt in sharing their thoughts about how to develop the music. I mused about how in the classical music world it is still a challenge to get performers and composers to open up to one another during the creation or rehearsal of a piece. There is still some stigma or assumption associated with the compositional process that inhibits some from feeling that they can speak freely and be a welcomed contributor. To these remarks, the editor said something illuminating, to the effect of, “Well, in film we all look at one another as peers, on an equal footing.”

He is right. We are peers. Equals. The composer is on the same spectrum as the player. While we each have our special training and experience in our respective field, (composing, directing, conducting, playing), in the end, if we are all working on the same composition, ideally there should be a give and take in terms of being able to express one’s idea and be taken seriously. This does not mean that the owner of the work in question is a slave to the other’s suggestions. Ultimately, final creative and pragmatic decisions must lay on his or her shoulders. However I do feel that if such input does takes place, the resulting work will be better for it, as it makes the composer/producer/choregrapher really think and consider aspects of the project in ways perhaps not previously considered.

Another thing to consider is that, while the “peer factor” is a real issue in the new music world, there are other factors at work that I feel the film world does not have. In our history, most of the music performers play is already composed and “completed.” The composer is not present or is even dead. Thus, performance decisions fall fully on the performers. In this environment, a sense of almost romantic deference for the composer has often been applied, sometimes to the point of freezing the performer’s ability to make original performance practice decisions. Because of this, most players naturally do not know how to deal when the composer is there—why or what should they contribute? In the film world, such precedence is not there. In fact, film started its art without the presence of permenant music in the work. If there was music, it accompanied a film live and was often improvised by a living performer. Thus from the onset a composer was either involved after the film had been started or music was added well after the film was completed. If anything, a tendency began in which the composer in a film became like a performer in concert music—we are the last to be brought into the creative process, and thus do not know sometimes quite what to do.

I admit, I got lucky working with the people I am on this documentary. I know there are horror stories of composers being treated like automatons on media projects, just as there are horror stories of composers treating players as automatons on music projects. However, I still think that overall we can learn a lot from film about how to incorporate everyone involved in a project on a more inclusive creative footing and thus make a much higher quality piece of art than otherwise would have been created.

Feelings. Nothing More Than…

It’s that time of year again when countless music teachers present their students in various recitals throughout the country. Recently I attended a spring recital highlighting the best and brightest from around the Bay Area, ranging in level from beginning to advanced. As I listened, one performer in particular struck me with his playing: it was not only technically flawless; it had a sense of interpretation and original musicality not normally found in a younger player. Usually young performers who can shape phrases and master slight dynamic changes nevertheless sound as if these gestures were things they were taught rather than felt. So no matter how right the style of playing is, it still comes off as wooden and forced.

How do we teach interpretation? Can we? Is it something that we can foster in a player, or is it innate? Can some students progress in their music studies to a level others can never attain?

In an effort to help those who are just not getting it, I try what I have found to be almost a panacea for many pedagogical conundrums: composing. Alongside learning the repertoire, I encourage all my students make up their own music, for it is in that arena that they can truly try and test things and grow without fear of judgment because they are the authors. They cannot be wrong. They are in charge! They can make whatever decisions they want to in order to make their own work more than a bunch of notes on a page. Likewise, because they are the composers, they also are the ones who must create a way for other players to understand how to play their music. Thus, once the young composers have completed their pieces, I am a stickler for making them find the best way to notate their intentions to performers through their scores. They must find what they feel is the best way to notate their rhythms, dynamics, tempo. When this is done, I or another student plays the written pieces, so the young composers can hear how the music is realized in someone else’s hands. As a result, the students gain a sense of how interpretation really works, and it helps them play other pieces they learn.

Another composer-teacher shared with me how he uses composing as a pedagogical tool for developing interpretation by injecting extra-musical ideas into the process. Often when a young player writes a piece, there is an image or story behind it: e.g. it is an angry piece or it is about a sunny sky. While it is natural for these kids to visualize and apply such metaphors to their creations, they often do not make the leap to do such with other music. That’s when my colleague steps in and suggests that they make up an image or story to go along with a piece they are learning, like they do with their own music. The light bulb almost always goes off, and suddenly a student plays with a sensitivity and originality not seen previously.

Helping a musician develop into a sensitive, insightful performer is a tricky thing. There are no hard and fast rules. However, interpretation is, in a way, a type of composing: it is the creation of a perspective and a process from which to perform a piece of music. So, doesn’t it make sense to use composing to unleash a player’s potential?

Getting Music Into the Hands of Young Performers

Last week’s chatter about the challenges young players face in buying contemporary music brought a groundswell of commentary. In my article, I tried to highlight the economic problems that performers and publishers face, which ultimately affect all composers’ attempts to get their music to younger players. However, given the posted comments, most took it as an opportunity to draw battle lines between the self-published and the commercially published music communities, with many even venting distaste and hostility towards the commercial publishing world.

I think that is not the point. Rather, as Jenny Bilfield pointed out in her comment, “The ultimate goal, whether one is commercially published, or self-published, is to get the music into the hands of performers.” Right now, there is no central repository that gives interested clients a portal from which to peruse all American new music, regardless of who publishes it. Furthermore, there still is a Berlin Wall between composers (and their representatives) and the community of non-professional/student players. We do not have a way to communicate with them, and they do not have a way to find us. This is the challenge.

Rather than creating a completely new intrastructure to do this, why not adapt a clearinghouse of information for music that is already in place? Why not tweak the American Music Center’s NewMusicJukeBox? For those of you not aware of this service, any AMC member can post his/her music there with links, sound clips, and score samples for all to peruse. Members can also input keywords to describe their pieces. Inputing phrases such as “educational music,” “music for children,” and “beginning player” would be a great way to attract music educators, student musicians, and amateur players. Also prominently featuring information about the difficulty level of the music in the program notes would be extremely useful. Everyone who already has music on the site should update their pieces’ descriptions to reflect their suitability for younger musicians to play.

Once enough people have done this, all we’ll need to do is figure out a better way to educate the educators about this resource. While the web will be a valuable media outlet, there are still thousands of teachers who are not internet savvy, and parents of school-age kids do not have time to shower, much less have the awareness or time to read website articles. Like it or not, just trusting folks to Google us will not cut it. Many parents who take an active role in their children’s music education read the magazines put out by educational organizations such as the National Music Teachers Association, the Suzuki Association of the Americas, the National Association of Music Educators, etc. In order for this plan to truly succeed, we must use these resources, too.

Most of these journals are hungry for new submissions and would welcome writings by some fresh faces. I personally have seen how doing articles for these journals does make a difference. Sometime back I wrote a Toolbox article for NewMusicBox about how to compose music for young players. With the AMC’s permission, I retooled the article to be aimed at teachers and submitted it to the SAA. They published it, inadvertently causing a lot of interest in my music with the Suzuki community. It even resulted in a small commission. So, think of what could happen if articles appeared in all of the journals at the same time, trumpeting NewMusicJukeBox as the It Girl for new music for young players?

Once the information is available and used by those that matter, a tipping point will occur and issues of costs, availability, and the like, I feel, will move into the background as the playing field is open to all. Hopefully then, the war with the publishers will dissipate as all composers will be on a level playing field, as how one is published need not be a criteria for getting in on the action.

Rent Control

Recently in NewMusicBox there has been a lot of discussion surrounding the relationships that the music publishing industry has with composers and consumers. One issue in particular has been the sale and rental of scores and parts. While there is a huge variance on how much one charges for such materials, in the world of pre-college music education there is a lot of frustration among players and teachers regarding the affordability of buying or renting new music.

Not long ago I was faced with a dilemma when dealing with an ensemble of high school students that wanted to produce a concert of new music. When they approached the various publishers to procure the scores and parts of the pieces they wanted to perform, they were hit with incredibly high fees, sometimes over $800 simply to rent one piece. When the music teachers at the school approached the companies to request a discount, very little change was made in the prices even though it was clear that there was no way the kids could pay. The result was that some very wonderful works by living composers were dropped from the program in favor of works by dead ones, whose music the student ensemble could afford.

This is not an isolated case. When I was 15 years old, I won a concerto competition in orchestra camp, and I chose to play a contemporary work. When the director went to order the music, the costs were so high that he could not rent the parts for the orchestra so they reduced my public performance to a two piano rendition of the work. It was a real bummer for a teenager. Even professional groups struggle as there are stories about players being faced with the choice of either dropping a piece from their program or going about less-than-honest ways to procure the music, all because they cannot afford to pay.

How do we change the culture surrounding the sale and distribution of our music so that it is available and accessible to those beyond the insular world of professional ensembles? Even though the majority of composers are not signed with one of the major publishing companies, this issues affects us all. Most teachers of young or amateur players do not know about the options out there for finding new music, so they usually make their first foray into contemporary music by approaching an established publisher’s catalog, of which they already have a familiarity. If they experience problems when going to a resource they know, why would they ever want to make the extra effort to find out about music that is not published by the big guys?

This may sound like a David vs. Goliath story, but there is more to it than that. Publishers argue—rightly so—that they are not dictating draconian prices. Rather, the fees represent the real costs in terms of the manpower and materials needed to keep a presentable collection of scores and parts available for rental. Time and time again, they lament, rented-out parts are returned unusable, with pen scrawls and tattered edges. And if the music is actually sold, the company often loses money as it can take years to recoup the costs inherent even in printing a run of 200 copies of a score.

So if we can’t blame all the ills on the publishers, how can we make it viable for them to encourag non-professionalse to try the music of living composers? Jennifer Bilfield, past president of Boosey and Hawkes, has come up with some ingenious ideas. She suggested that perhaps all the publishers could work together and create a foundation which would give out vouchers to teachers and students to make using a piece of published music for performance affordable. The publishers could design a simple, one-page application process. When an application is submitted, the applicant is awarded a certificate which can be redeemed for part rentals. That way the publishers know how their music will be handled and teachers/students have a simple portal into the world of working with music by living artists. Jennifer also suggested a more local approach in which performing organizations that already have a relationship with a publisher, such as the local orchestra, adopt a school and its music program. They then act as intermediaries from which schools can request music. The costs for the music could be underwritten by the performing organization or the publisher could allow 2-3 rentals at reduced prices to the student ensembles in exchange for a guarantee of the sponsoring professional music ensemble renting a certain amount of music for their respective players.

So there are ways to try to change this situation and I am sure some of you have great ideas of your own. However, it takes movement and initiative by those in the publishing world, an arena that is hard-pressed now to remake itself in light of the digital age. Any interested individuals inside that industry cannot go out on a limb without some support from us. They are working for businesses, and businesses have to make a profit. We need to show them how fostering programs for the performance of new music by young players is actually a smart investment decision. We can talk and write all we want, but if we can’t get the ears and the trust of the publishers, how can we get them to be part of the solution?

Residential Architecture

This past week I had the opportunity to be in New York City, which I still think of as my second home, as part of the American Symphony Orchestra League and Meet the Composer’s Music Alive Short Term Residencies Program. For one jammed-pack day, the selected composers and representatives of the involved orchestras convened with the staff of the administrating organizations, the purpose being to inform, support, and assess the work we were about to embark on: that of being composers in 2-6 week residencies with institutions ranging in size from regional and youth orchestras to the Philadelphia Orchestra.

After a morning of overview, presentations, and refining our respective residency agendas, the afternoon was spent in conversation, the aim being to further fine-tune the services of the Music Alive program. While a lot of fascinating and engrossing topics were discussed, one in particular struck all with a sense of urgency and importance: what does one do after the residency? In other words, what can one do with the initial investment of the participating orchestras so that the fruits of the labors of all involved, from composers to orchestras to the sponsoring organizations, are more than a flash in the pan?

How do you build on a good thing? What can we as composers and administrators do to help those performing organizations that have a true desire to continue to involve living composers, but are still green to it? While each participant’s residency has its own distinctive personality, all did seem to have one common denominator: each host ensemble already had a previous relationship with its residing composer. Whether it was a passing acquaintance with the conductor or the orchestra had already performed or commissioned its composer, every residency had in place the chosen person due to previous circumstances before applying for the Music Alive funding.

This should come as no surprise. Except for perhaps the American Composers Forum’s Continental Harmony program, there really is no national infrastructure through which conductors/music directors can be introduced to composers. Perhaps there is a way current composer residencies can help? As part of residencies, composers can help orchestras set up a mechanism that will help them find other composers to have in residence. This could be setting up a public search process. Or, orchestras could utilize the American Music Center’s NewMusicJukeBox to find possible candidates. The current residing composer could do even as little as suggest ten colleagues who might be a good fit for that specific organization. If all the participating composers did only that, it would open the door for at least 70 more composers alone. And how could the service organizations help the orchestras in this quest? Perhaps they could help by offering support in laying the infrastructure for an ongoing composer residence program. This could entail everything from how to find and/or allocate funding to creating residency contracts to fostering ongoing board and audience support for the venture.

These are my jet-lagged musings as I have returned to my true home, San Francisco. But I know there are many more ideas out there. We just need to share them. Groups like the American Symphony Orchestra League and Meet the Composer are listening. You know the old proverb: if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. But, if you teach him how to fish, you can feed him for life.

Opening Up Pandora’s Box

I am having a surreal experience at the moment. I am creating my own radio station of sorts. As I listen, I am being analyzed to find out my musical tastes so that I can have my very own customized play list, void of any musical irritations to my ears.

I am at, a fairly recent invention that is a take-off of the feature of “If you liked this item, may I suggest the following?” Here, with a couple of clicks one can hear a series of selections in a variety of genres: rock, jazz, hip-hop, Latin, electronic, with classical music to come. As each piece plays you can rate it, saying: “Yes I like it” or “No, toss it off!” You can even select a submenu which allows you to organize the song into different stations, read about it, and even buy it from Amazon or iTunes. Besides rating, a listener is asked to provide everything from one’s email address to geographical location, age, and gender. However, your privacy is protected. Also, no in depth description of your taste in styles is asked, as the site does that analysis for you.

How is this done? Here in the Bay Area lies Pandora’s headquarters, where dozens of musicians and music analysists are housed, sitting at their PCs, listening to CD after CD. All have extensive background in their music expertise, and care is taken as to not weigh the employees’ preferences into the categorizations. Instead, they use over 100 parameters to figure out what music you are interested in hearing based on rhythmic, melodic, harmonic, textural, and structural characteristics, where the music is from, what the instrumentation is, and what the general mood of the music is.

This trips me out. The thought of having my special own radio station sounds fantastic. However, the idea that my tastes can be defined by an algorithm based upon an absolute set of parameters does somewhat unsettle me. While things like, harmonic language, tempo, form, and instrumentation are easily defined, just because I love one piece with a certain list of these traits does not necessarily mean I may like another with the same attributes. Right now, Pandora has no “classical” or “contemporary” library. But, it is in the works. With its launch, my music along with that of hundreds more “serious composers” will be available for addition to one’s radio station. Where will I be listed? Only in contemporary? Will that knock out my pieces for Baroque instruments, thus not made available to Baroque enthusiasts, who, in the past have really enjoyed these works? What about my pieces that integrate elements of different styles, from ambient to gospel? Where are they going to go? Will the weight of some analysts’ observations outweigh some others, thus segregating some music from listeners who, in my opinion, may have been a more receptive listener? Even if a work may have multiple listenings, as the composer, I may have a bias to where I wish for my music to be housed, one that cannot be obtained by a set of absolutes. Where will you be, so I can enjoy your music, too? Tune in to see the results of this fascinating view of the future.

A Sliver of Rehearsal Time Can Go a Long Way

During a rehearsal by a chamber ensemble that is premiering a work of mine this month, I asked the group if it would be possible to take five minutes to read through one of my student’s pieces. This teen has only been composing for a year and had never written for this instrumentation before, so I wanted him to hear his first efforts. Instead of doing it behind closed doors, the group offered to do the reading as part of their public rehearsal/workshop, where they were to work on my music alongside two other pieces they had programmed.

It was a win-win situation for all. The budding composer had the experience of having pros play and constructively critique his music, learning more in ten minutes than I could teach him in ten months. The audience loved it, finding participation in helping a young musician to be, as some said, a “heart warming” and “magical” experience. As for the ensemble, it took only a sliver of their rehearsal time. Furthermore, they found it to be fun to share their insights and discover how this kid heard the music in his head as compared to what he heard when real players performed his piece.

Yes, there are professional organizations doing readings of new music by younger composers. Groups such as the Del Sol or the Berkeley Symphony often tack on to their public readings a piece by a high school student. However, this format is not the norm. When student readings do occur, ensembles usually present it as an event in and of itself, with the entire program being readings of students’ pieces. While laudable and encouraging, by doing it this way, it often makes the prospect more daunting for an ensemble since it takes the same time and money to produce a concert of such readings as it does a regular concert. Furthermore, they also tend to be geared towards playing pieces written by composers who, though young or emerging, are actually as experienced and seasoned as some of their older counterparts.

However, by making it a more informal affair, players can easily integrate readings into their group’s schedule while simultaneously helping out the true beginners in an immeasurable way. You don’t need to do a call for scores. You don’t even need an audience. Just contact a high school or talk to colleagues and mention that your ensemble is open to taking 15 minutes to read through a student’s piece. Then have the kid show up at a rehearsal with the music and perhaps a recording devise. Just play through the music and give your thoughts. It does not need to be like a master class, and you do not have to be a teacher. But, by making this little effort, you will be a hero. And, quite possibly, word of your activities will spread, and you’ll see the fruits of your altruism in an expanding audience. A little really goes a long way here.