Author: Garrett Hope

An Introvert’s Guide to the New Music Gathering (and Other Networking Events)

Last May I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to attend the New Music Gathering, an assembly of music makers in the new music field who have been meeting at locations across the country for the past few years now. It was a wonderful experience and is still a highlight from 2017 for me.

Near the end of the three-day event, I remember having a conversation with composer Aaron Jay Myers and violinist Nicole Parks during which we laughed at the idea of a conference full of self-identified introverts who were suddenly behaving like extroverts.

The nearly universal feeling seemed to be, “These are my people. I must meet them all!”

The nearly universal feeling seemed to be, “These are my people. I must meet them all!”

For those of us who do find ourselves on the introverted side of life, such concentrated social activity can be exhausting. While speaking with Aaron and Nicole, I imagined all the attendees returning home and retreating to their studios to live in silence for a week just to recover.

And can you blame them? Being around people is a lot of work for the introvert. It’s not that we don’t enjoy other people. Quite the opposite. It’s more that we take people in controllable doses with large chunks of alone time. The smaller the groups of people, the better.

The reality about the New Music Gathering (and all conferences, really) is that we can’t space the doses of people out. Conference organizers, especially the NMG organizers, design the event to be an intensive incubator of ideas, performances, meaningful conversations, and networking. And this is a good thing!

Sadly, I am unable to attend the 2018 gathering. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot and wanted to pass on many of the strategies I’ve used to make conferences such as the New Music Gathering powerful and memorable experiences.

Below is my guide for the introverted composer or performer attending this year’s New Music Gathering in Boston May 17–19.

The focus is on the New Music Gathering because it is just around the corner. More than that, if I was the kind of person to make bets, I would wager that nearly everyone I have met at NMG would self-identify as an introvert. To do what we do as composers and performers requires the ability to spend many hours in solitude.

The difference between introversion and extroversion is a matter of degrees.

The truth is that most people are ambiverts who exhibit both introverted and extroverted qualities depending on the context and situation. The difference between introversion and extroversion is a matter of degrees—think of it as a sliding scale—and we all have a natural inclination to be on one side or the other.

I hope this guide is universally helpful, even for the extroverts. The ideas can easily be applied to any conference or networking event. But if you self-identify as an introvert I wrote this for you. I hope to encourage you to get the most out of the conference. You do not need to feel pressure to do all the things. Nor should you feel guilt for doing only some of the things.

Set a clear intention for the conference

Decide in advance what you will get out of the conference. Last year I wanted to meet some people, deepen some relationships, and, in general, just observe. It was great! Setting an intention or two allows you frame the experience in advance. I know people who have used intentions to have better relationships and experiences. You can do this at NMG, too.

Do you intend to become better informed about trends in new music? Do you want to learn more about a specific topic/idea? Do you want to lay the foundation for a new collaboration? Do you hope to meet and network with performers?

Plan your schedule in advance

The NMG organizers have already published this year’s schedule of events. You can find it on the NMG website: http://www.newmusicgathering.org/.

Taking the time to plan things out now will reduce the stress of having to make a last-minute decision.

Except for the evening concerts and the keynote address, there are multiple events within each session block. Look at the schedule and consider in advance what you most want to attend. Taking the time to plan things out now will reduce the stress of having to make a last-minute decision. Decision fatigue is a real thing—especially, when you’re hungry, tired, or overwhelmed by the previous session you attended. Take the time now to map out the things that are of interest to you. This will also give you a good sense of the range of things happening at any one time, and will likely allow you more energy to be flexible once you’re there!

A solo instrumentalist performs on a violin that is sitting on a table top.

Build in alone time

One marker of introversion is that alone time is what recharges, energizes, and makes you feel capable and sane. It is okay to plan an hour or two in your schedule to be by yourself. Maybe you want to take an early afternoon nap. Maybe you need to spend an hour in the local coffee shop.

My experience is that conferences like NMG are inspiring and life-affirming, yet they require a high level of engagement. They require meeting and speaking with many people. They often include discussions of high-level topics that are not easy to parse or even talk about. In fact, reading through the schedule I see many sessions that promise to provide these very things.

There are also evening concerts and performances throughout every day of the conference. I’m positive you’ll want to listen carefully to the work of the composers and enjoy the skill of the performers. As I’m sure you’re aware, giving a performance your full attention can be both inspiring and taxing—and I don’t mean in a bad way! Nothing inspires me to compose more than attending a concert, but actively listening is also exhausting.

You may find, like me, that just taking an hour to be alone or with only one or two others is all it takes to be ready for the next session or concert. You want to get the most out of each session.

Give yourself permission to skip something

Some of my favorite memories from last year’s NMG, as well as the many other conferences I’ve attended, are the spur-of-the-moment opportunities to grab a coffee with someone I just met or to have deep, meaningful conversation over an extra-long lunch. These are the times when you have to throw your schedule out the window.

And when you do that, you have to give yourself permission to miss a session. Whether you’re recharging by yourself or building community, don’t beat yourself up when this happens.

Yes, you want to be at everything (which is impossible). Yes, you wouldn’t want anyone to skip your session (but people do for a number of reasons). But it’s okay to miss something.

I used to feel enormous guilt after returning home from a conference because I didn’t do all the things. I realize now that that is a ridiculous expectation to have. Be present. Be involved. But also give yourself permission to miss something.

A view of the large audience for one of the panels at NMG 2017.

Don’t network in order to get, network in order to give

NMG is an ideal place to meet new people who love new music and who are interested in making it happen. In fact, they encourage it! Every year the organizers host a Speed Dating event where performers and composers can meet each other, share information, and see if there would be ways to work together.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking that the Speed Dating event is the only networking opportunity at NMG. Every interaction you have is an opportunity to build a relationship. And that’s how you should view networking.

Every interaction you have is an opportunity to build a relationship.

For some of us introverts, networking can feel like we have to put on armor and go slay a dragon. From just outside the door, it appears to be a heroic and difficult task—but it doesn’t have to be! If every interaction is networking, then the first step is to just enjoy each interaction. The next step is to work to add value to those you’re meeting and interacting with. Don’t network to gather the names and contact information of people you can ask something of. Instead, network to give to others. Network to build relationships with people who live and work in communities far from yours.

Some of the best tips I have for networking include being genuinely interested in other people; searching for ways to help other people, either with your skill set or other connections; and truly listening. The worst kind of networking experience is when you find that other people only want to talk about themselves.

As Dale Carnegie said in How to Win Friends and Influence People (one of the oldest books on networking), “To be interesting, be interested,” and “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”

Networking is also more than building the connections you have. It leads directly into the next point: network to build community.

Build community

When Lainie, Daniel, Mary, Matt, and Jascha founded the New Music Gathering, they intended for it to be different from any other conference available to composers and performers of new music. As they say in their mission statement, the conference is a way to “focus on the needs and desires of the community directly.”

This is why you will not find vendor booths or anyone selling anything at NMG.

Some of my friends have described NMG as a breath of fresh air. I have experienced this myself. It is a place to be with like-minded individuals who want to make music, explore ideas, and support each other.

By attending NMG you are participating in this community. Your networking, conversations, and interactions are all part of the bigger picture.

Work to build the community by developing your own relationships, by participating in the discussions, by attending sessions and concerts, and by encouraging those who have put in many hours of uncompensated work.

Some of you are thinking that the above work doesn’t fit in an introvert’s guide to NMG. If you are truly an introvert, sometimes the idea of building community can be terrifying. It requires engaging with others. It requires showing up when you don’t want to. Sometimes it requires engaging with those who you would rather avoid. More than that is the fact that the community that NMG supports extends across the nation and even internationally. Many introverts build rich and supportive communities around themselves with a small circle of friends. The introverts I know, including myself, can name a handful of people they’d enjoy seeing and spending time with. We can be, at best, ambivalent about everyone else.

It’s important to join and be a part of the larger community.

At the New Music Gathering, however, you have to leave the small community mindset at the door. It’s important to join and be a part of the larger community. It will benefit you in ways you can’t imagine, and it benefits others because they need to hear your voice, too. The community needs you to show up, contribute, share your music and ideas, and offer your support. And it might mean that you will go against your natural inclinations about engaging with others to make it a reality.

The gathering, as are most conferences, is only three days long. Set the intention to join and participate in what normally could be an uncomfortable setting. You can choose to make the community building an exciting and energizing part of the conference.

Don’t be negative

It’s trendy to be snarky. The mocking sarcasm can be most biting on social media. I’ve had to work hard to avoid trying to appear smart or clever by expressing sarcastic statements that come at the expense of others. Sure, they may be funny, but they certainly are not building community.

It’s normal, and even expected, to dissect the sessions and performances you attended. But I’ve participated in too many of these conversations where the snark becomes negative. The mutual dislike of a composition, topic, or presenter turns into an excuse to sling mud. Instead of building up, we tear down.

This doesn’t mean you have to like it all. I’m not sure that’s even possible. Just be careful with your words.

Be careful with your words.

One question I’ve found helpful with this is to ask, “Is this the person I want to be?” When I find myself saying the kinds of things that the person I want to be would not say, I stop. You can literally flip a switch and start acting like the person you want to be.

Just because you’re an introvert does not give you the excuse to belittle those who are putting their work and ideas out into the world. If you dislike what you hear, start a more constructive conversation about it. This, too, will build community.

NMG attendees crowd a room to watch a dance performance.

Enjoy yourself!

Lastly, have fun! If you go to NMG with the intention of having a great experience, you will. If you go thinking about how hard it will be to sustain conversations and network, that is what you will experience. Henry Ford supposedly said, “Whether you think you can or think you cannot, you are right.”

I encourage you to choose to enjoy yourself. Go into NMG expecting to hear great music brought to life by superlative performers. Look forward to meeting interesting people who are doing interesting things. Expect stimulating discussions on topics that matter.

Go with the attitude that you’re going to have a great time!

Go with the attitude that you’re going to have a great time!

Many of my composer friends have commented on how spending three days attending NMG has provided them with enough fuel and encouragement to sustain them for months afterward. If you want, you can also be so inspired.

Look at networking as an opportunity to help others with your unique set of skills. Choose to think of community building as an energizing experience.

And don’t be afraid to give yourself some self-love with the occasional break. It will make the other things so much easier.

Leveling Up, Part 3: Entering the Marketplace

You’ve written a band piece. Now what?

There are a couple of ways you can enter the world of educational band music. The first is to be commissioned by an ensemble to create something new just for them.

When this happens, a few problems are likely already solved for you: instrumentation, difficulty level, length, and first performance. And you’ll probably get paid, too! It’s a great gig.

On the other hand, if a piece of music is too customized for the commissioning ensemble (i.e., the year the ensemble commissions you they have 45 clarinets, 2 trumpets, and an all-state didgeridoo player) it can become very difficult to sell. If a publisher was interested in the music, you will likely be asked to re-orchestrate for a more balanced ensemble.  You may also need to write in cues and to include some doublings you never intended.

There is a lot of value to be found in filling your catalog with multiple pieces at a variety of grade levels.

The second way to enter the world of educational band music is to compose on spec. There is a lot of value to be found in filling your catalog with multiple pieces at a variety of grade levels. The more content you put out into the world: a) the easier it is for people to find you; b) the better you become at the craft of composition; and c) the closer you will get to writing Good Music every time.

You still need to solve a few problems before you begin:

  • Instrumentation: What size ensemble are you writing for and what forces are available? Ensembles with players new to their instruments will have fewer options. (It is unlikely a contrabassoon, C trumpet, or five-octave marimba will be available in Grade 1–2 ensembles.) The best way to learn what instrumentation is available at a given level is to study the scores of popular pieces. Pay attention to the degree of part independence and doubling as well.
  • Difficulty Level: I strongly encourage you to write the music that is pouring out of you! Let your imagine soar. Just be aware that you will likely end up (based on range, rhythmic/melodic complexity, harmonic language, instrumentation) with a Grade 5–6 piece. If you want your music to be available to the greater majority of educational ensembles you will also need to write pieces in the Grade 2–4 range. You do that by referring to the descriptions in the previous article, through score study, and by showing your music to your band director friends. If you’ve completed a piece of music and don’t know what the level for it should be, give it your best guess and then ask three or four band directors for help in leveling it. You’ll get great feedback, too.
  • Length: Young players who have just picked up their instruments have limited stamina. You might have an excellent idea for a Grade 2 multi-movement work that lasts for 15 minutes, but they will likely struggle to sustain that. Attend a few concerts at the elementary, middle, high school, and college/university levels and pay attention to how long the average piece lasts.

There are no special skills required for composing educational music. If you are open to the challenge of crafting well-written music within a few given parameters, start writing!

No matter what, if you want people to play your music you need to build relationships. Through each interview I have conducted for my podcast (and I’ve done almost 170 of them), one consistent idea to building a vibrant career as a composer is mentioned: relationships. To build a strong network, you need to build relationships. You build relationships by showing up at concerts and conferences.

Next Steps

I used to believe that reaching the double bar in my compositions was the ultimate goal, as if finalizing my musical vision through notation meant I had given birth to a new creation and it would go forth into the world.

I was wrong.

The music may be alive, but it’s not living just through notation.

The music may be alive, but it’s not living. After the double bar, you now have the daunting task of entering the market place, getting the attention of directors, and selling copies of your score.

You have to market and promote your music.

What follows are four questions to ask yourself as you go about marketing and promoting your music.

The principles are true no matter what kind of music you write, but I will focus the discussion on the educational band music world.

1) What level of music is it?

This entire series of blog posts started with trying to clearly define what each grade level of music meant. I found it to be an impossible task. Instead, there are guidelines for each grade level. If you have questions about how the leveling system works and want to see some basic definitions of Grades 1–6, read the previous article.

Knowing the difficulty level of your music will help you market your music, because one of the first filters a band director uses when selecting new music is to sort by grade level.

The band directors I know typically program some easier music in order to work on technique and sound production, music at the heart of the ensemble’s level that is accessible yet keeps the students on their toes, and music that challenges them and helps them mature as musicians. Where does your music fit? The answer, of course, is different for every school, director, and ensemble and will likely even differ from year to year. You should be able to confidently describe to a director which ways your music provides challenges to the players.

Knowing how difficult your music is, and answering the next question below, is the first key to marketing your music. A challenging piece for a middle school ensemble may be an easy or on-level piece for a high school ensemble.

2) Who are you writing for?

This question is less about aiming to please a specific set of people than it is about knowing who might purchase your score and parts and then perform your piece.

If you haven’t answered the first question—What level of music is it?—you will struggle to answer this question.

A common answer I hear from the composers I work with as they build their businesses is that their music is for everybody.

Is it? Really?

The surest way to guarantee no one engages with your music is to make it for everybody.

The surest way to guarantee no one engages with your music is to make it for everybody. Knowing who may be interested in your music will help you market your music. It allows you to know who to get your music in front of. Most composers have a limited marketing budget (if any) and limited time. Understanding who we should be reaching out to simplifies the process and makes our efforts more meaningful and cost efficient.

This reduces the number of people we should email. It will increase the effectiveness of any advertising you do, and it will help you know who to speak with at conferences.

Now that you know who to get your music in front of and how to describe the difficulty level of your piece, you can begin to generate traffic.

3) Where are you sending people?

In business, traffic is what leads to sales. A brick and mortar store that is difficult to get to, has poor parking, and is in a part of town that feels unsafe will struggle to generate traffic. Likewise, a poorly designed website that has an obscure address (URL), is difficult to navigate, and doesn’t provide safe and easy ways for band directors to purchase your music will not prosper.

Ideally you want to control the traffic. Some marketers refer to this as owning the traffic. If conductors are clicking on your links or searching you out, do you know—or have control over—where they end up?

Part of the problem with Facebook is that we own zero of the traffic that comes to our pages. But we do own the traffic that comes to our own websites from, or through, Facebook. The goal should always be to get people to your website.

It’s fantastic if your Facebook composer page has hundreds, or even thousands, of likes, but have those likes translated into sales of scores, performances, or new commissions? Probably not. Don’t confuse social media interest with controlling traffic. Do everything you can to send people out of social media and onto your website where you can build an email list and (hopefully) sell a score.

Clever URL names don’t work well.

Be sure your website looks good, is easy to navigate, gives visitors what they’re looking for, and has an easy to remember or find URL. (YourName.com is always the best choice; clever names don’t work well. My first URL was frogmanmusic.com, which no longer exists—why would anyone ever click on or trust that?)

4) Have you made it easy for people to buy your music?

When people are ready to make a purchase online, they want to make the purchase now! If you have your music for sale on your website (recordings, scores, or whatever), make it easy for them to make the purchase.

Here are some tips:

  • Create a large “Buy Now” button for each piece you want to sell. Don’t make the conductor who visits your site and is interested in acquiring a copy of your score search for the purchase link. It should be big and easy to find. Maybe even put it on there twice, once on the top of the page and again on the bottom.
  • Create a storefront. If you have a WordPress website, there are several plugins that will enable you to create a storefront that allows visitors to make a purchase. These plugins can also track inventory, create item pages, create and accept coupons, calculate shipping and tax, and generate receipts with unique order numbers. The WooCommerce plugin works great and is relatively easy to set up. If you don’t know how to do this, hire a freelancer from fiverr.com to set it up on your site—it’s money well spent. If you are going to run your own storefront, you will need to purchase an SSL (secure sockets layer) certificate from your website host to make your website and the storefront as secure as possible. The last thing you want to do is expose the credit card numbers and personal information of those who purchase your music.
  • No matter which platform of website you are on (WordPress, Joomla, Wix, Squarespace, custom built, or something else—and some of these come with built-in storefronts), you will need a way to process payments. Remember, the goal is to make it easy for those who are interested in purchasing your music. Therefore a cumbersome payment processor with many levels of clicking might cause people to walk away halfway through. Online marketing and sales experts call this phenomenon shopping cart abandonment—and you don’t want to cause those who have ALREADY made the decision to spend money on your music to get frustrated and walk away. I personally use PayPal, Stripe, and Square between my multiple businesses, but other frequently used processors include Amazon Payments, Braintree, and Samurai. Each processor offers a different set of benefits and has a different cost structure. They earn money by taking a percentage of each transaction and adding on a service fee—these are the same as the credit card processing fees every brick and mortar store has to pay whenever you make a purchase. Choose the one with the lowest fee structure that also integrates with your storefront and/or website platform. (Nothing is universal.) If you plan on selling your scores, parts, and recordings at conferences and in-person events, you will need a payment processor for that as well. Square and Clover are almost ubiquitous. If you live in the U.S., I guarantee that you have made a purchase at a restaurant, farmer’s market, or small business using one or both of these methods. They allow you to create invoices and process sales from your tablet or smartphone.
  • If you are traditionally published, you can still create the “Buy Now” All you need to do at this point is make that button a hyperlink that sends the customer to the purchase page of your publisher or an online retailer. Remember: make it easy and eliminate as many steps and clicks as you can.
  • A regular problem self-published composers encounter when selling to educators is the processing of purchase orders. Most school districts have very strict policies regarding how a purchase can be made—don’t expect the director to simply use their personal credit card and submit the receipt for reimbursement. It’s often not that simple or easy. A purchase order (often abbreviated PO) helps large organizations, such as a school district, systematize purchases from all vendors. They are documents specifying what is being purchased, the quantity of each item, and the price. When a vendor or business accepts a PO it becomes a legally binding contract to fulfill the order. Contrast that with an invoice (or receipt), which is written by the vendor and describes what the vendor will do or what the vendor did. POs, on the other hand, are written by the buyer and describe exactly what they want and how they want it. Very small businesses, like yourself as the composer selling a score, can struggle to process a PO because it increases the paperwork and might require you to set up special processing with your bank. The vendor may also require other things from you, such as a W-9 and your business EIN (tax number). One solution is to get your music into the online storefronts of music distributors and retailers who already have systems in place to deal with POs. Both SheetMusicPlus and J.W. Pepper offer the option to sell your music on their site for a fee or percentage cut of every sale. (By the way, J.W. Pepper is the largest online retailer of educational music.) There are also a number of co-ops and other distribution platforms and storefronts popping up for self-published composers. These include NewMusicShelf, MusicSpoke, ADJ∙ective New Music, Graphite, and the Independent Music Publishers Cooperative. Some of these are exclusive, but all of them have figured out how to make it easy for all interested parties to purchase music, including schools that have to use purchase orders.
Don’t be afraid! The world needs your voice.

Lastly, and most importantly, don’t be afraid! The world needs your voice. Many people struggle with the transactional nature of selling music. However, if you’ve taken the time to build a relationship first, it’s less about selling and more about having a dialogue about your compositions.

Leveling Up, Part 2: Making the Grade

My goal when I started writing these posts on leveled band music was to create clearly defined boundaries for each of the grade levels. I was constantly frustrated, and remain so, about the nebulous nature of what each level means.

For instance, I would ask my conductor and composer friends, “What is a Grade 2 piece for band?” and would receive multiple answers. The most aggravating aspect to the answers was that each one started with a variation of, “It’s hard to define.”

Leveling music provides a shortcut for educators looking for new pieces.

The leveling system was created by publishers as a way to sort music by difficulty and complexity. It provides a shortcut for educators who are looking for new pieces.  Some state music education organizations started creating curated lists of pieces for festivals and competitions that also took advantage of the leveling system. This has allowed bands from different districts to compete in juried festivals and competitions on equal footing.

The leveling system has also helped create a set of standards. We can expect students who have been studying their instrument and performing in ensembles for a given number of years to have competency at the corresponding grade level.

There is basic agreement between the various publishers and the state lists about what the grade levels mean, but there is also overlap between the levels. One publisher’s Grade 2 is another’s Grade 3. If a composer is asked to write a Grade 4 piece, how will he or she know if they’re on the mark? It depends on the specific ensemble and knowledge based on experience. The best teacher of what music should look like at a particular grade level is, of course, to study the scores of other pieces at the grade level you are aiming to hit.

In my last post we looked at the business of sheet music and how educational instrumental sheet music has sales in the neighborhood of $100,000,000 annually. It’s a big business. This post looks at the various levels and provides some general characteristics of each.

The Big Picture

Composers interested in writing for bands should start by asking two important questions:

  1. Given the age and experience of the students in the group, what is possible?
  2. Are the challenging portions of the music I am writing providing teaching opportunities or are they barriers to performance?

When asked to write for an educational ensemble, many composers begin with the limitations of the players—instrumentation, ranges, etc. This is important information! However, we also need to think about what the students CAN do. So, if you’re asked to write a Grade 2 piece you can begin by wondering what a middle school band and the students who are in it are capable of.

We need to think about what the students CAN do.

Most middle school band students have been playing for 2–3 years. They can play at least two octaves worth of notes. They are comfortable with a range of key signatures (mostly between 0–4 flats). Sixteenth notes, dotted rhythms, and simple triplet passages are all within reach. They can also do a lot of things your music engraving software won’t play back (and it’s why so many of us forget these are available), such as noise making, singing, speaking into their instruments, playing with a breathy and unfocused sound (actually, this might be lack of skill development, but you can still take advantage of it!), and more.

I will never forget performing my first P. D. Q. Bach piece as a student. It required me to remove the mouthpiece of my clarinet from the instrument and blow into it. The result was one of the worst duck calls I’ve ever heard. I’m pretty sure the piece was P. D. Q. Bach’s Grand Serenade for an Awful Lot of Winds and Percussion (check out this performance, especially from 3:20–3:50). Not only did Peter Schickele (P. D. Q. Bach’s real name) use extended techniques, but he also introduced us to non-standard notation. More than that, it was fun and exciting! Do you remember when you first encountered the use of noise and extended techniques as a student?

If you performed in an instrumental ensemble as a child, your director may have used one of the many core method books made available by publishers. These method books walk a beginning ensemble from their very first notes to performances of compositions. Pedagogues have spent decades refining the books and carefully selecting which skills are presented when. The books are coordinated so each member of the ensemble, no matter which instrument they play, is working on the same skills and music simultaneously. You can see some of the most popular methods here.

Studying these method books is a great way to learn what’s possible for the ensemble you’re composing for. If a director says the ensemble has recently finished book two of a particular method series, that means something. That method book is now a resource for what’s possible and what ground has been covered in terms of range, key, rhythm, tempo, and articulation. Coupled with a good conversation with a competent director or the commissioning ensemble, it will also provide you a way forward so you can craft a musically satisfying piece that appropriately challenges the ensemble.

In a recent interview for The Portfolio Composer podcast, I was speaking with band director Aaron Given and he gave this great piece of advice:

As you’re thinking about how hard you’re going to make [your piece] and what you need to do to make it sound the way you want it so you’re not artistically compromising yourself, think about teaching opportunities versus performance barriers.

As composers writing for younger players, we need to ask ourselves if challenging passages require increased effort from the student or if we’re actually asking students to do something that’s developmentally inappropriate. Aaron gives the example of a few measures of fast scale passages versus asking the trumpets to hit a high Bb.

Appropriate challenges are often welcome and necessary, but the long term consequence of performance barriers is that your piece will not be performed.

Appropriate challenges, such as asking the players to woodshed their scales, are often welcome and necessary for the continued development of the players and ensemble. However, asking them to make a jump in skill that does not represent a good next step is a performance barrier. An ensemble director can and will work into the rehearsal the drill and practice necessary to improve the skills called for in a piece. These are the teaching opportunities. However, as Aaron said with regards to the high trumpet Bb, a performance barrier would require him to work every day with the trumpets on overtone series exercises and embouchure control to the detriment and neglect of the rest of the ensemble in order to ready the section for performance. The long term consequence is that your piece will not be performed.

Almost all of my early pieces for concert band and wind ensemble made this mistake. If, on the whole, the piece could fit comfortably as a Grade 3, I would also include problematic passages where one section’s part was suddenly a Grade 4.5–5. It created incredible rehearsal challenges for the director and did not provide appropriate teaching opportunities.

One final word of advice: do not look at the key signatures associated with the grade levels and limit yourself to those major or minor keys. Instead, consider the key signatures as representative of pitch collections. All of the modes, pentatonic scales, and (in moderation) even some non-tonal scales can be used.

Most high school bands playing Grade 3–4 literature are comfortable with up to four, sometimes five, flats and even one sharp. Though the music should still be pitch centered, and for the most part tonal, brief whole tone, octatonic, and other synthetic scale passages can still be worked in. Treat those passages with care and use them briefly, but know that not every piece for band has to be in the key of Bb major. Moments of Debussy-like planing, Ivesian bitonality, Stravinskian stratification and juxtaposition, and Hindemithian counterpoint can have their place in educational music. But remember: Are you including those passages for teaching opportunities? Or will they become stumbling blocks for performance?

Grades

Below are brief descriptions for grade levels 1-6. Some systems stop at Grade 5. In order to accommodate pieces that are too challenging for one level, but not quite as difficult for the following level, publishers often use a half-point system, i.e., 2.5, 3, 3.5, etc.

The lines between the grade levels are fuzzy.

I compiled these descriptions from personal experience. Depending on which source you are looking at you may find some disagreement. Keep in mind that these are descriptions are not designed to be definitive. The lines between the grade levels are fuzzy and this serves only as a rough guideline. When composing for a specific ensemble, you need to discuss with the director what that ensemble is capable of, knowing that the group may or may not fit into one of these categories nicely.

Grade 1—Very Easy (1 year of playing experience)

  • First-year bands
  • Basic rhythms, with a uniformity of rhythms throughout the ensemble
  • Simple meters
  • Limited ranges
  • Limited technique
  • No exposed passages or solo work
  • Key signature: 1–2 flats (not C major*)
  • Length: 1–3 minutes

*A brief word about key signatures. Woodwind and brass instruments tend to favor flat keys because several instruments in the ensemble are transposed. For the transposed instruments (the most common being Bb clarinet, all saxophones, trumpet, and French horn), the first scale learned is often the written F or C major scale. However, due to the transposing nature of the instrument, the sounding key is typically Bb, Eb, Ab, or Db. As young wind instrument players increase their knowledge of chromatic notes and key signatures the expansion is often to add more flats. This is in stark contrast to young string players who, due to the nature of the open strings, learn sharp keys first and typically increase their knowledge by adding sharps.

Grade 2—Easy (2 years of playing experience)

  • Middle school bands, small-program high schools
  • Introduction of easy compound meters
  • Intermediate rhythms with some syncopation, dotted notes, and triplets
  • Key signature: up to 2–3 flats
  • Length: 2–5 minutes

Grade 3—Medium (3–4 years playing experience)

  • Advanced middle school bands, most high schools
  • Challenging rhythms
  • Easy changing and asymmetrical meters
  • Some solo and soli (sectional) writing, beginning of part independence
  • Slight use of extreme ranges
  • Advanced technique
  • Key signature: up to 4 flats
  • Length: 3–7 minutes

Grade 4—Medium Advanced (5–6 years playing experience)

  • Advanced high schools, colleges, and small-program universities
  • Challenging rhythms with a free use of syncopation
  • Frequent changing and some asymmetrical meters
  • Solo writing with much part independence
  • Key signature: 1 sharp to 5 flats
  • Length: 6+ minutes and multiple movements

Grade 5—Advanced (7–9 years playing experience)

  • Advanced high schools, universities
  • Very challenging rhythms
  • Changing and asymmetrical meters
  • Full range
  • Virtuosic writing
  • Key signature: All
  • Length: Any

Grade 6—Professional (10+ years playing experience)

  • Most universities
  • Very difficult in all facets

Leveling Up, Part 1: The Business of Sheet Music

As I am wrapping up a recent commission for high school concert band, I am reflecting on my experience composing for educational instrumental ensembles.  Writing music for these ensembles is deeply rewarding—primarily because they are eager to perform freshly composed music and are willing to try new things.

Writing music for younger players also has its challenges. Chief among them is writing within the constraints of students’ developing technique. How do you communicate your musical idea if the players have limited ranges? If the music must stay within a small set of keys? If the players are still learning to sub-divide the beat and can’t read music in asymmetrical meters?

How do you communicate your musical idea if the players have limited ranges?

But as I started writing pedagogical music the most vexing problem of all for me was leveling the music. In the world of educational instrumental music, each work receives a grade, typically on a scale of 1–6. This makes sense. It’s a simple way for a director to sort through music to find the pieces appropriate for his or her ensemble.

The rub is that there is no consistent definition of the levels! One publisher’s Grade 3 piece is another’s Grade 4, or maybe even Grade 2. Some states publish their own leveling guidelines that are different from the publishers.

Plus, it’s big business! Every year schools spend significant amounts of money to purchase sets of scores and parts. Composers who write for educational ensembles need to understand the leveling system so they can better write for younger players and promote their finished scores in a market hungry for new music.

This post will look at the business of educational instrumental publishing and why leveling matters. In subsequent posts I will examine the leveling system more carefully and provide some best practices for writing for elementary, middle, and high school bands.

The Business of Sheet Music Publishing

Educational music is big business and there are incredible opportunities for composers to impact the lives of students, create art, and generate income. To paint a picture: according to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were 24,053 secondary (middle and high school) public schools in the United States in the 2013–2014 academic year.  Not every school has a music program, but most do. Another study published by the National Center for Education Statistics in 2012 says that in the 2009–2010 academic year 94% of elementary schools and 91% of secondary schools had music programs.

Between $2.4–10 million is spent annually on purchasing new music for public high schools per year.

With a very conservative estimate that directors have $100 to spend per ensemble per year on purchasing new music for their libraries (which amounts to between one and two new pieces with score and parts, on average) that means between $2.4–10 million is spent annually on purchasing new music for public high schools per year.[1]

These numbers aren’t exaggerations.

Some schools have up to four or five ensembles that all need music. In reality, the number is probably even larger because I am not including private schools (33,619 in 2013–2014 according to NCES), elementary schools (67,034), and degree-granting institutions (4,724).

The hard truth is that educational instrumental music publishing is a $25 million industry minimum and probably has sales in excess of $100 million annually.

And there’s choral, solo instrumental and method books, chamber music, pop and rock tune arrangements, and sacred music on top of this, but it’s not the focus of this article. Just know that as an educational ensemble, choirs can spend just as much as bands and orchestras when purchasing new music every year and that nearly all students who study privately are required to purchase method books and solo literature continually.[2]

Once we add in all ensembles and instruments, the sheet music publishing industry is nearly three times larger. Some estimates peg the sheet music industry at $1 billion dollars.

Don’t be quick to dismiss leveled music for degree-granting institutions, either. Outside of large music programs, most small, regional, and liberal arts college and university bands and orchestras consist of non-majors who have a passion for music. When I was conducting a string ensemble at a highly selective East Coast liberal arts college, most of the members of my group were pre-med and science majors. The literature we played was in the grade 3–4 range. It was the same for the concert band. It’s also the same for thousands of degree-granting institutions across the country. But it’s worth noting that, for better or worse, all band music (and even most orchestral music) has been leveled by this point.

To be clear: ALL band music and most orchestral music is leveled, and it is a big business.

Show Me The Music 

Leveling of music plays a critical role in both the business of sheet music publishing and in classroom pedagogy. For the music publishers, independent self-publishers or the major publishing houses alike, leveling the music makes it easier to sell. For the ensemble director, leveling provides a quick way to sort through the many hundreds of options and track skill development and artistic growth of an ensemble over time.

Leveling the music makes it easier to sell.

The leveling system was created by publishers who desired to promote music differentiated by skill and difficulty, and by state band programs to create a handicapping system for competitions, festivals, and juried performances. It is a system that works well, despite the nebulous nature of defining the grading scale.

At this point, composers writing for educational groups know that they are working within the leveling system and often, in collaboration with the commissioning ensemble, aim for a specific grade level based on a set of parameters. The next article in this series will examine the grade levels and what they mean more closely.

Composers who write for educational ensembles have the unique opportunity to take this information and use it their advantage. If you can find the most appropriate level for your composition, you can then more easily get it in front of the people who would be the most likely to purchase it and perform it. While doing that, you can describe how the piece works specific skills and which outcomes the director can expect to see with their ensembles.

Imagine the following scene: a 75,000 square foot showroom floor where the largest booths are those of publishing houses and music distribution companies. As a band director shopping for scores, how do you quickly sort through thousands of pieces to find the ones appropriate for your band? Your first step might be to begin with bins marked at the level your band typically plays.

Likewise, unless one is searching for a specific piece or composer, the easiest and most expedient way to sort through music online is by sorting by the grade level. Give it a try yourself sometime.

The Grades Aren’t Everything

As any composer with extensive experience writing for younger players will tell you, the levels aren’t everything. In fact, sometimes they get in the way.

Music is an art form and defies boxes and labels.

One reason for that is because music is an art form and defies boxes and labels. Another reason is one I listed above: the defining of levels is a challenge and although there is a lot of overlap, each publisher (and even some states) classify the music differently. In the next article we’ll begin to look more closely at how leveling works and how you can write music within that system.

NOTES:

[1] The $100/ensemble number was derived from an informal survey of my band directing contacts on Facebook that live across the U.S. and serve diverse communities. Depending on the district, school, and community this number could, in reality, be lower (some directors have a budget of $0) or much higher.

[2] The music publishing world is still battling the problem of private instructors photocopying repertoire and ensemble directors copying parts. Both activities are nearly always illegal. At most county and state solo and ensemble competitions, the student and director are required to have original parts and multiple original copies of the score. This is not true for NATS (National Association of Teachers of Singing) state, regional, and national competitions. The illegal copying of art songs (primarily for the accompanist and also to avoid the student having to purchase a large volume for the sake of one aria) is rampant.