Category: Toolbox

Empowering Teenagers to Compose: A Guide for Educators

A pen and a notebook with handwritten notes, a CD and a smartphone with a display of a video of music performance overlayed with the New Music Toolbox logo

Although K-12 music standards call for students to develop skills in composition, I often hear educators express that they feel ill-equipped to support their students in this endeavor. Many music teachers do not get trained on how to facilitate composition projects in the classroom, and their own experience with composing can be quite limited if their studies placed an emphasis on performance. As a result, instead of giving students the confidence to express themselves through their own works, many composition projects can turn out to be theory assessments in disguise.

Though these assignments can serve a purpose, they often do little to develop a young musician’s creativity, and at times, they can even stifle students’ artistry by implying that there is a “right” or “wrong” way to compose. Instead, students need activities that empower them to make their own artistic choices and explore music creation at any stage of their development. This is especially crucial in music programs where many students’ only access to formal music instruction is in the classroom, where their studies are typically not as individualized as they would be in a private lesson setting.

This article is a collection of actionable tips primarily from my own experience as a composer-educator and founder of the You(th) Can Compose! Summer Workshop. These strategies can be adapted to group or private lesson settings and don’t require that educators have extensive background in composition. Though these approaches are geared towards middle and high school students, many of these tips can be adapted to create lessons for students of different age groups.

  • Instead of giving students the confidence to express themselves through their own works, many composition projects can turn out to be theory assessments in disguise.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
  • Students need activities that empower them to make their own artistic choices and explore music creation at any stage of their development.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
  • Just as there are no right or wrong notes in a composition, there is no right or wrong way to compose a piece.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
  • I encourage students to improvise their ideas on their instrument while they record themselves on their devices. Then, I guide them in transcribing their improvisations to the best of their abilities. For students who have a limited fluency in written notation, this approach can be modified by using graphic or text-based notation, focusing on transcribing elements such as pitch or rhythm alone, or omitting the notation aspect altogether and allowing the student to memorize, perform, and even record finished versions their work.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
  • If students feel insecure about their ability to make creative decisions, this paralyzing mindset can be carried well into adulthood.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
  • All students need an environment where they are taken seriously and their creative ideas are not dismissed as being too weird, too simple, or too ridiculous, to name a few.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
  • Tasks such as recruiting performers, designing art for a concert program, or creating posters to advertise a performance are great ways to empower students to make creative choices and make their vision become a reality – skills that are vital for the career of any artist in today's world.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer

Cultivate a practice of observation and discussion.

Eric Booth, in his book The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible, advises that we need to guide students in practicing observation before defaulting to interpretation or judgment – a discipline that we also need to cultivate in our own practice.1 This approach enables students to learn a great deal from the music that they listen to, yet it also gives them an ability to ask insightful questions of themselves while they are in the process of realizing their own ideas.

If a student listens to a new piece and responds with “This piece makes me feel as if I am watching a cartoon,” giving a follow up question such as “What about the music reminds you of watching a cartoon?” can help them to return their focus to aspects such as the instrumentation or texture of the piece.

When we model questions that focus on observation, this empowers students to practice asking themselves more insightful questions during the composition process. For instance, a student who is dissatisfied with how their melody resolves can ask themselves, “What about this melody makes it sound incomplete?” However, if they immediately judge the melody as something that is “no good,” they will likely abandon their original ideas, and the opportunity to learn from their experiences will be missed.

Even if the student ultimately decides to scrap their composition and start over, taking a moment to pause and observe what they have created so far can give them the insight needed to accomplish what they set out to write the next time around.

Focus on one element of music at a time.

In the You(th) Can Compose! Summer Workshop, one of our topics during the first week of classes is a lesson on the elements of music. When we give students the vocabulary to talk about elements such as rhythm, pitch, and texture, they become better equipped to make observations about the music that they are listening to. That way, they are less dependent on interpretations and judgment.

Even if students are having trouble finding the right terminology to use in the midst of a discussion, it can be helpful to invite them to describe what they are observing to the best of their abilities without having to utilize the proper musical term right away. The vocabulary can always be taught later, and the students’ findings can be great ways to open up conversations around new terminology.

Aside from listening exercises, composition projects that focus on a singular element of music are great for narrowing the scope of a lesson while allowing plenty of room for creativity. For example, I’ve often used the Sonic Scavenger Hunt by composer-educator Danny Clay as a starting point for students to explore the concept of timbre.

Experiment with many approaches to composition.

When students can try their hand at a variety of approaches to composing, they will eventually choose a writing process that is most inspiring to them. Just as there are no right or wrong notes in a composition, there is no right or wrong way to compose a piece. They may even decide to change their approach based on the result that they are trying to accomplish in a given project.

Though a new approach may be uncomfortable at first, sometimes, students can actually be inspired in unexpected ways. I’ve taught workshops where students work together to compose chance music; however, I always tell them that even if they set up a system for choosing the notes, they are always free to break their own rules and edit the piece if they are dissatisfied with the result.

After using a die, a coin, or a picker wheel to determine certain elements of a piece, often, they will become quite opinionated about which notes to change and why they are changing them–another great opportunity for conversation.

Bringing in guest composers to teach a class (either in-person or virtually) or finding videos of composers talking about their creative process can motivate students to try something new. Though some students may initially feel that processes such as rolling a die or turning their name into musical notes are not legitimate ways to write music, when they discover that there are many established composers who have created masterpieces with similar strategies, they will feel validated in their own creative process.

Many of the reasons for introducing a variety of approaches to composition also apply to experimenting with different styles of notation. Another great aspect of Danny Clay’s Sonic Scavenger Hunt is that it is a great example of a graphic score – a concept that is fit for beginners and more experienced students alike.

Students can also explore projects that don’t require any notation, such as composing a fixed media piece in a program like Audacity. Young composers tend to fixate on pitches and rhythms, but these alternatives to traditional notation can be useful exercises in developing elements such as timbre, texture, and dynamics when students might not have focused on them before.

Use technology to your advantage…

Even simpler apps, such as voice notes or a video camera that’s included with a mobile device, can be useful tools for composing. When I teach composition, I often encourage students to record their ideas as they go. That way, they don’t have to worry about forgetting concepts that they are experimenting with – a strategy that I often use in my own work before I begin to notate my ideas. Documenting the composition process can also enable students to better reflect on their experiences since it will be easier to see how the piece evolves over time.

Aside from being a way to introduce students to other artists and composers, watching and discussing videos of performances, interviews, and demonstrations can be a great way for students to witness how sounds can be created in innovative ways. For instance this performance of Zaka by Jennifer Higdon has been a great conversation starter amongst my students since it demonstrates the concept of extended techniques. Additionally, this profile of Angélica Negrón has piqued my students’ curiosity about electronic music and found sounds.

…but be mindful of where technology has its limits. 

At times, introducing certain technology too early in our students’ development can encourage them to “color inside the lines” in unintended ways. I have often seen this happen to students who begin to use notation software long before they have started to get comfortable demonstrating their ideas on an instrument or writing sketches by hand, however imperfect these methods may be at first.

In a lot of notation software, such as Noteflight, MuseScore, or Sibelius, to name a few, users are asked to specify parameters such as the meter and key signature before they begin to enter the piece itself. Changing these options later on can become a barrier if students aren’t aware of how to work around these limitations or if they are not aware that their tools are imposing such limitations in the first place. This often results in melodies and rhythms that sound too “square” and pieces that can become too redundant.

One way that I counteract this is by encouraging students to improvise their ideas on their instrument while they record themselves on their devices. Then, I guide them in transcribing their improvisations to the best of their abilities.

For students who have a limited fluency in written notation, this approach can be modified by using graphic or text-based notation, focusing on transcribing elements such as pitch or rhythm alone, or omitting the notation aspect altogether and allowing the student to memorize, perform, and even record finished versions their work.

Some verbal and graphic notes for a musical composition that can be used instead of music notation

Save the theory assessments for another time.

When composition projects are primarily intended to examine whether your students can write an eight-bar melody in D Major, for example, they are much more likely to become fixated on whether they are choosing the “right” notes and pleasing their teacher. Instead, opt for open-ended projects that enable students to explore and define their musical tastes.

Students who feel empowered to envision and realize their own ideas will gain a sense of confidence that can be applied to any profession whether they choose to continue in their musical development or move on to other endeavors. On the other hand, if they feel insecure about their ability to make creative decisions, this paralyzing mindset can be carried well into adulthood.

Alice Kanack, the pioneer of Creative Ability Development, has a very helpful formula to refer to when structuring creative exercises for students:

Freedom of choice or Freedom from criticism + Disciplined practice and repetition of making choices = Creative Ability2

Whether I am teaching composition in my own studio or I am visiting another teacher’s class to do a workshop, I’ve found it much more empowering to encourage students to express their intentions and their artistic vision so that we can explore how they might accomplish what they intended. This is another reason why lessons that incorporate plenty of time for discussion and reflection are so important.

Embrace imperfection.

As educators, we can enable students to take creative risks and break free of a fixation on choosing “right” versus “wrong” notes by creating multiple opportunities for them to share works-in-progress. Often, I will set a short timer (e.g. 5-10 minutes) for students to respond to a prompt that is very narrow in scope. Then, they will have an opportunity to share what they came up with and express their intentions for their work as they go forward.

Even though there will often be at least one student who is too shy to share their unfinished works, I’ve found that simply inviting them to reflect on what the experience of composing was like can gain their trust. More often than not, they ultimately decide to present the music itself.

That being said, it is crucial to create a safe space for them to be vulnerable in this way, especially if they are in a group setting with their peers. All students need an environment where they are taken seriously and their creative ideas are not dismissed as being too weird, too simple, or too ridiculous, to name a few. This goes for all parties involved — their peers, their teachers, and even parents or guardians who are supporting them in their studies.3

Because of this, modeling what it’s like to embrace imperfection can be a powerful tool. When I give students an opportunity to work independently during class, I will often use the time to compose ideas for the same prompt and demonstrate what it’s like to share my own imperfect, unfinished work. This includes verbalizing my thoughts on how I feel about the creation at the moment. Whether I am excited about moving forward with my ideas or I feel ambivalent and want to scrap them, I make a habit of sharing these reflections with my students so that they can feel safe to do so as well.

Connect lessons to real-world experiences.

Introducing our students to living composers, whether it is via a live workshop or through pre-recorded media, can illustrate the many ways in which a career in music can take shape.

This can easily become a starting point for activities that give students a taste of what the music profession can be like. For instance, prompts such as writing a short solo for a classmate to perform can give students a glimpse into the process of writing a commission.

As part of the You(th) Can Compose! Summer Workshop, Samantha Hogan, has visited our class to share excerpts from her concert works as well as selections that she wrote for games and film. After her presentation, she facilitated a lesson in which the students created music to portray characters from I Wish I Were A Butterfly, a children’s book by James Howe. This kind of activity is a great way to introduce students to the idea of telling stories with music.

Aside from empowering students to make creative choices in the music itself, encouraging students to assist in the production of their work can give them confidence to initiate their own projects later on. Tasks such as recruiting performers, designing art for a concert program, or creating posters to advertise a performance are great ways to empower students to make creative choices and make their vision become a reality – skills that are vital for the career of any artist in today’s world.

One of Sakari's online composition lessons.

Conclusion

As you begin to apply these practices, my hope is that you will feel more confident to share the art of music composition with your students, even if you have little formal training in composition or you do not identify as a composer. Though an emphasis on observation and experimentation will take much more time than prompting students to “color inside the lines,” approaching the study of composition in this manner will offer more enriching opportunities for us to learn alongside our students, inviting them to take risks and explore new territories in their creative practice.

Sources

  1. Eric Booth, The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible: Becoming a Virtuoso Educator (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 33.
  2. Alice Kay Kanack, Fun Improvisation for Violin: The Philosophy and Method of Creative Ability Development (USA: Summy-Birchard Music, 1996), 15.
  3. Kanack, 20.

 

On the Value of Time

Not too long ago, I received an email invitation to apply for an opportunity to work with an established ensemble. The application was a highly involved process and would make considerable demands on my time—including a trip out of state. If awarded the appointment, the position would require many obligations in addition to composing, including outreach, lectures, and a series of curated concerts.

The only mention of money? “We’re in the process of securing some grants,” the email read. Oh, okay.

I politely declined the invitation, explaining that I was already fully committed for the season in question (which was true). But, the more I contemplated the massive time commitment requested by the organization, the more troubled I became. How was it remotely appropriate to contact a person about a highly specialized, complex job—which also required a time-consuming, rigorous application process—without mentioning compensation?

This kind of treatment is rampant throughout our industry, and I know that performers certainly experience their own versions of the above scenario. Our field is plagued by an aversion toward discussing money, and this problem exists on both sides of the hiring equation. For composers, however, this issue is compounded by the very nature of our work. Because composers’ processes are diverse and often opaque, potential commissioners sometimes don’t know how to value what we do. This lack of understanding can result in a reluctance to discuss compensation and often justifies gross demands on our time and abilities.

Out of all the wacky things that composers do, money ought to be the most uncomplicated and straightforward component. When you approach a composer about a potential commission or collaboration, funding should be among the first issues you address. While it may feel distasteful to discuss money alongside your artistic vision, know that avoiding the topic—and even placing the impetus on the composer to inquire—is enormously disrespectful. Most composers wouldn’t claim to be in this business for the money, but we do expect to be treated professionally and compensated appropriately.

So. Here are a few things to keep in mind when you approach a composer and begin a conversation about a project:

Reach out to us in advance. Way in advance. Composition is a time-consuming activity. I do not write my music in “real” time, and I often plan my projects up to two years in advance. While there are exceptions, I typically can’t take on last-minute projects. Definitely reach out and ask us, but keep in mind that we’re often planning a season or two (or more!) ahead.

Be up front about the amount and source of your funding. This is critically important, regardless of your budget size. If you’re working with a low budget, unsure of your resources, or unable to pay—don’t misrepresent your financial limitations. We’ll respect your honesty, and if we can’t work with you this time, we’ll be more likely to consider future projects.

Directly address the work that you and/or your organization are putting in. Programming, performances, promotion, recording—what’s your investment? What are you contributing to make this project worthwhile for both parties?

Understand that demands on time separate from composing must be compensated. Community outreach? Masterclasses? A meet-and-greet with donors and subscribers? Great! Some musicians might offer these services for free or as part of their commitment; however, you should not make this assumption. Our time is valuable, and we need to be paid for our time.

Speaking of non-composing tasks: Address the time, effort, and expense that goes into engraving and preparing parts. This one is different for everyone—some composers consider engraving and parts preparation integral parts of their compositional process. Others don’t, and many composers outsource this work. Either way, budget both time and money to accommodate this phase.

Don’t act surprised or attempt to guilt us when we don’t offer a service for free or for a low/discounted fee. I’m frequently approached by individuals seeking music critiques, new arrangements of current works, business and marketing advice, and copyediting—with the expectation that I offer these services for free. When I indicate otherwise, I’m often met with incredulous responses like “But this will only take a few minutes!” Right, cool, but since when do you get to determine the value of my time?

Composers, I encourage you to examine how you spend your time and how you offer it to others. It is imperative to understand collaborators’ expectations before agreeing to a project (and always make sure your exact responsibilities are detailed in a contract). Guard your time, and don’t be afraid to set firm boundaries.

Time is valuable. This is something that I remember every day when I sit down to compose—truly, respect for others’ time is demanded by the very nature of my craft. The time that an audience member spends listening to my music ought to be worthwhile, and that’s the standard that I strive to uphold.

In short: We, as composers, respect your time. Please respect ours.

  • Because composers’ processes are diverse and often opaque, potential commissioners sometimes don’t know how to value what we do.

    Hilary Purrington
    Hilary Purrington
  • Out of all the wacky things that composers do, money ought to be the most uncomplicated and straightforward component.

    Hilary Purrington
    Hilary Purrington
  • I do not write my music in “real” time, and I often plan my projects up to two years in advance.

    Hilary Purrington
    Hilary Purrington
  • If you’re working with a low budget, unsure of your resources, or unable to pay—don’t misrepresent your financial limitations.

    Hilary Purrington
    Hilary Purrington
  • Composers, I encourage you to examine how you spend your time and how you offer it to others.

    Hilary Purrington
    Hilary Purrington

Musical Meal Prep: Managing Rapid-Fire Deadlines for the Aspiring and Evolving Music Creative

Alexandra Petkovski at her music work station overlayed with the New Music Toolbox logo.

Words like “organization,” “time-management” and “prioritization” are perhaps more likely to be first associated with the job of say, an accountant, however at the core, the foundation of the music industry rests on these integral pillars. Having worked as a composer, producer, songwriter, and artist throughout the Film/TV, contemporary, video game and commercial music worlds, I have learned that a good creative creates, a great creative finishes.

In my time thus far as a music creator, I have developed some go-tos when it comes to creating in the music industry profession. In a landscape of rapid-fire deadlines, the ability to create consistent, high-quality music is infinitely helped by preparation ahead of time. Think of it like meal prep. If you have all your vegetables cut and ready to go prior to starting your recipe, you will expedite the cooking process itself. (Et voila, quick and delicious stir-fry!) Here are several fundamentals I’ve come to lean on that help me in navigating through music industry deadlines, multiple project balancing, and multi-tasking generally.

Using A Template

There are a lot of varied stances on music templates and using them in the creative process. On one hand, it calls to question the amount of originality and authenticity present in a music cue or work. Are we just setting ourselves up for the cookie cutter effect? Will all of our work start to sound the same? Will our repertoire suddenly share similar sonic palettes? On the other hand, are we actually fostering and enabling our creativity in providing a foothold moving forward? Giving ourselves a gift – a catalyst for creation – ahead of time? I personally can see the validity in both these viewpoints, and have experienced both as such. Ultimately, I have found that for me, having at least some basic structure and set-up in place prior to jumping into a project provides me with a sense of support, and a better overall mental place to begin from. Below are the typical template elements I try to incorporate, and have “at the ready.”

Digital Audio Workstation Genre-Based Template

“Have template, will travel.”

Without going overkill (but also, feel free to!) having at least a handful of basic templates at the ready for different music directions and/or genres is a solid starting point. I have seen some insanely decked out templates, where all orchestral instrument groupings and their respective sample sound patches have been preloaded, a subfolder within the project designated for the music mix, the master subfolder, and the final stems printing portion (yeah…make sure your machine is equipped for the equivalent of a CPU rollercoaster ride of its life). I’ve also seen some very rudimentary, this-is-the-basic-breakdown-of-a-band ways to do it. I feel it really boils down to the type of project, and even further, what types of projects you really spend a majority of your time doing.

For myself, I like to have a template catered towards “trailerization” endeavors and orchestral projects. For context, “trailerization” is where an original or arranged music work is created in the sonic vein specific to Film and TV trailers, promotions, teasers, and in-show needledrops; although subject to change and definitely can vary, the predominant style of music here plays in the darker, epic and dramatic spaces. I will add that I have used templates to create music for specific briefs (a directive sent to music creator via supervisor, trailer house, advertising, and/or licensing agency outlining a specific musical aim and product goal dependent on project type) within the Film/TV and commercial realms, which I have found to be very helpful, whereas within the scoring to screen world have found that my personal preference is to work from a completely “clean slate.” This is largely in part due to the collaborative levels present in a project, and its overall customization. Scoring music for a film, for instance, relies heavily on the communication and dialogue between composer and director, possibly producer(s), and members of the film creative team in general. Sonic palette, although potentially drawing influence from music genres and references, will often be developed from ground zero. A call for song submissions for an ABC medical drama may be less pointed, and a bit more universal in the musical stylization process. Again, not always, but this has been my current bandwidth of experience. Either way, having a template to open and work from when hit with multiple project types and due dates can be a real time-saver, not to mention emotional crutch. Here’s what I like to have built into my “trailerization” template…

1. Covering the Sonic Spectrum – Sample Sounds and Sonic Palette

In my experience with “trailerizing” music cues and songs, having a definitive low and high end present in the sonic spectrum helps generate the dichotomy between tension and resolution throughout a piece of music. Contrast in sound creates musical pulse; a high airy synthesizer juxtaposed with a low oscillating bass can help evoke “anticipatory” “dark” tones, the pairing of rapidly rhythmic strings with low booming impacts, and subby hip-hop infused beats can create feelings of “epicness” and motion. In all cases, starting with a template where this sonic spectrum is represented (having respective sample sounds and patches preloaded) has been an excellent jumping off point in my work processes. The basic instrument and sample sound groups I’ve incorporated in my “trailerization” template are as follows: high synth, woodwind textures, choral/choir, piano (usually a felt piano), strings (high and low), electro percussion, orchestral percussion, band percussion, electro drums (beat kits), orchestral drums, basic drum kit, sub bass, low synth, FX (sweeps/impacts/crashes), and vocals. This is not to say I don’t add or take away instruments and patches dependent on where project creation takes me – maybe I decide to layer my bass with low brass, or I don’t want to use piano – but having something to start off from, and having instrument presets loaded already, really makes the whole creative process more efficient and thus enjoyable. Additionally, part of what makes a good template isn’t just having samples preloaded and/or designated instrument group tracks, but organizing within each patch/instrument grouping. Without diving into too much of the minutia, an example of this would be the way I approach my vocal groupings. Instead of just having all vocals organized as one large entity, I like to create labeled subsets consisting of leads, doubles, harmonies, BGVs (background vocals, often in the form of “ooh’s” “ah’s”), and ad libs. I do this simply by colour coordination of audio tracks, however whatever technique works for you is totally acceptable. A straightforward way of keeping groupings organized in the template is via track stacks. Which brings me to my next point.

2. Track Stacks

Track stacks–and/or folders, dependent on the Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)–are the gifts that keep on giving. Although they are a supremely simple notion, you’d be surprised at how long it took for me to catch on about their existence. (Well, I did – and now I’m never going back!) In essence, one selects a particular number of MIDI and/or audio tracks in their project, and can right click, select create track stack – and boom! – organize said tracks together in one folder. In Logic Pro, the DAW I work within, there are two types of track stacks to select from – a “folder stack” versus “summing stack.” For these purposes, selecting “summing stack” is the desired course of action. The beauty of this lies beyond just the obvious visual benefit, but can actually anticipate and set up the process for printing audio stems down the line. (There could be an entire segment on the process and description of printing stems, but for this article’s purposes, let’s just keep it simple and say that track stacks can become the stem buses printed to audio final stems.) The takeaway – track stacks are where it’s at.

3. Signal Flow Set Up; All Aboard the Bus(ing)

Having desired signal flow paths predetermined, particularly in the form of presets and busing to auxiliary channels, enables one to create polished, industry-standard products at a faster rate, and allows one to (at least roughly) mix tracks simultaneously to composing and producing. This applies to all types of project templates generally. In a music mix, there are a couple options to consider. One may incorporate auxiliary channels to mix wet signal with dry signal on initial tracks, which is what the basis of parallel compression is. Respectively, one can also stereo output track stack groupings to auxiliaries, enabling the ability to add group compression, reverb, delay, and any desired effects. On this note, typically different instrument and/or sound groupings will have a varying kind of compression, parallel compression, EQ and/or reverb and delay assigned to them. In any case, if one has these respective buses set up ahead of time, it expedites the process of taking a fully composed/produced piece of music to its mixing stage. In my “trailerization” template, I like to incorporate at least a couple different reverb and delay types/presets assigned to track stack groupings, and have parallel compression ready to dial in for all. I’ve found through experience the ability to send stems dry (without effects) and wet is also an important one, so that if another mixer becomes involved with the project, one can send them dry stems so that they may apply their own respective effects. Overall, I find that having bigger reverb chamber sounds and mild delays helps create the “dramatic” tone of a trailerized cue. There may be other effective ways to set up signal flow, however, this template component works fairly well for me.

4. Presets and Chains

I find presets and “go-to” chains are a great way to save time, and especially beneficial regarding vocals. I like to have certain chain effects on the track, at the ready, but I also like to have presets saved for vocal specific busing too. For instance, in my trailerization template, I have a Vox FX 1 preset saved, which contains “Vocalsynth” – a means for creating a lower octave double on vocals. I have a Vox FX 2 and Vox FX 3 that I’ve got saved to help expedite real-time production and mix of vocals as well.

Additionally, as far as presets go, I find that having a mastering preset to apply quickly to a demo product (when sending a song or cue to a client for instance) of the music mix helps take a cue across the finish line, and also can help it stand out generally. This doesn’t have to be fancy at all, and in fact, my own “trailerization” master preset is super simple, consisting of Izotope’s plug-in Ozone 8 (for all our racing-against-the-clock mastering needs). For those unfamiliar, Ozone 8 essentially allows one to try out different cue sound outputs, playing with potential project polishing including but not limited to EQ, compression, and limiters. Especially in limited time perimeters, it is a reliable and user-friendly method of heightening one’s music work. In a similar vein, creating vocal chain presets is also a huge time-saver under rapid-fire deadlines.

Making Playlists

Another excellent tool which I feel helps promote efficiency, thus creative flowing of juices, is the simple yet effective act of making playlists. In short, no matter the project, it is extremely beneficial to put together sonic references in the form of songs, music cues, score, etc. to turn to for creative inspiration. Further, when working with clients on projects, it is so helpful to have material to refer to when communicating about energy, feelings, vibe and direction for a music piece or score. There are many ways to go about doing this; some people like to have general playlists at the ready for their own creative reference contingent on music genre type or stylization, others will primarily create playlists once a dialogue with a client is underway, shaping said playlist as a result (sometimes this playlist may actually already exist in the client’s mind, unbeknownst to them, on a subconscious level of what they’d like to hear. This is up to us to investigate and coax out). For me, I like to partake in both schools of thought, where I have several playlists in place specific to a project type, which ironically were developed as a result of client-communication and creative collaboration dialogue. What came first, the chicken or the egg? Who cares – does it sound good?

A Creator is Only as Good as Their Calendar

Well, in the music industry this may not always be the case. However, in the story of my professional (and personal for that matter!) life, one of the most undeniably sexy leading characters has revealed themselves to be…*drum roll please*…my calendar! It’s funny, but it is fundamentally true. I have found that keeping an up-to-date, organized calendar is essential. My recommendation: use a calendar on a technological device, like your phone. Every time a new deadline comes down the pipe, or a new project is underway, write that down. Have a color-coding system. Instead of just having a to-do list, which outlines the work that needs to be done but doesn’t convey much else in terms of saying when it’s getting done, a calendar creates a visual image for the day-to-day activities. When a new deadline arises, one is able to see what they can possibly move around on their schedule in order to meet it, and/or prioritize the level of importance a project has in real-time. I’ll leave it at this. Your calendar is your friend. Use it. Cherish it.

Applicability to the Wide Music Project Gamut

Anticipation and preparation techniques for managing rapid-fire deadlines specific to creating music for media-related projects are also very applicable and relevant to a wide gamut of music project types generally. In the case of templates, one is able to use this model, for example, in instances of writing a musical, composing an orchestral work for live performance, and/or arranging a piece for a band or recording gig. The key ingredient in all these cases is creating a foundational framework to use in a consistent manner. For instance, The Jones Family, a roughly two and a half hour musical which I wrote, composed, cast, and recorded, began with the development and solidification of my sonic palette, and the instrumental decisions of what would comprise its sound. Once I determined the instruments that would weave the fabric of the musical, I was able to use that template again and again, employing it for respective musical songs. Further, in the process of translating produced instrumental mock-ups to initial notation (for live instrumental performance purposes) having a consistent outline of instrument groupings, and organized MIDI data, expedited “putting the music to paper” overall. In addition to templates, making playlists to help spark creative fire or provide sonic reference to a music genre can help lend perspective and context for projects like composing for a string quartet, illuminating music elements like melody, harmony, and rhythm to better serve industry expectation. Having a strong understanding of the industry standard helps better inform the music direction and choices you make. Whatever the music project deadline type, you want to equip yourself to the best of your ability regarding the landscape you are working within. Beyond this, you want to use the tools at your disposal to cut down time and better achieve your goals. This is why using a calendar to help outline, organize, and solidify your schedule and manage your music project deadlines is so beneficial (and I cannot emphasize enough – so simple!)

Above all, managing rapid-fire deadlines in the form of organization, time-management and prioritization is in service of making art to the best of one’s ability. I feel it important to also note that one of the underlying key elements of managing deadlines is consistently working on something, no matter what. Anticipating the play is half the battle. Although it can be supremely difficult sometimes (seriously) try to always have something on the go – if you’re feeling less creatively motivated (and the deadline allows it) perhaps shift gears for several hours, focusing on admin or “house-keeping” to-do lists. Understanding how you maximize your productivity, and where your time is best spent, is vital to always staying as prepared as possible for when new deadlines arise. I believe that what partly defines a sustainable, long-term profession in the music industry is the act of honoring one’s craft and time, ultimately setting one up for success. As we all continue on our musical and artistic journeys, I hope these techniques and tips can provide some help navigating the landscape forward.

Synthesizing Environmental Sounds

A hand manipulating a patch cord on a synthesizer with lots of patches and an overlay of the New Music Toolbox logo

Why bother replicating environmental sounds through electronic music synthesis when recording something is faster and more accurate? What is the point of recreating something when that thing already exists. For these questions, I have a philosophical answer and a practical answer.

On the philosophical side, fabricating a simulacra of the sounds around us is at its core a meditative process, built equally around practices of listening and analysis. It pays respect to the omnipresence of the invisible and honors the complexity of seemingly simple things. It unlocks new techniques for interaction with our instruments and enriches our experience of the world apart from them: “what makes up that sound” becomes something of a walking mantra impressing itself on everything you hear.

On the practical side, a recording is a life-like portrait, fixed and unchanging. It excludes from us the agency to restructure the world it captures. It relegates our creative interactions to the realm of post-processing (i.e. filtering, adding reverb, etc.) to emphasize or hide aspects of the events captured on tape.

The technique I’ll explain in this article takes the opposite approach: utilizing filtering, reverb, etc. as foundational elements for creating real-world portraiture while retaining the freedom of dream-logic malleability. Can you record the sound of a tin room in which a prop plane idles while its engine keeps changing size? Maybe. Can you synthesize it? Definitely.

Approaching a sound with the goal of recreating it is like listening to an exploded diagram, where a sonic totality is divided into components and considered individually. It is with an ear to this deliberate listening that I share with you words that have guided my work for the past decade, passed along to me by the great Bob Snyder, a Chicago-based artist, educator and friend, in the form of his “Ear Training” synthesis exercises. He started with a simple question through which the components of any sound can be observed and serve as a roadmap for from-scratch fabrication. “Is a sound noisy or tonal, and is its movement (if it has any) regular or irregular?”

Let’s do a quick exercise: listen to a sound, any sound (a baby crying, a phone ringing), and ask yourself: can I hum it? Trace the movement of the sound with your hand in the air and observe: is it rising and falling in a pattern? The answers to these questions point toward the equipment needed to recreate them. If the sound is tonal (if you can hum it), select an oscillator; if it isn’t, choose a noise generator. There are of course plenty of sounds that have both (a howling wind, the word “cha,” etc.) but for this initial thought experiment choose a tone or noise source to best fit whatever is the sound’s dominant component.

Next, is something about the sound changing? It could be its amplitude, its pitch, its timbre, etc., but if you find yourself tracing out this motion with your hand note how your hand is moving: regularly (up and down, like a car alarm) or less regularly (like shoes clanking away in a drier). A repeating motion would point toward a looping, cyclical modulator (a low frequency oscillator, a sequencer, etc.), where irregular motion would indicate something either noise-based or a mixture of otherwise unrelated things. Either jot these observations down or keep them in your head, whatever works best for you— the important thing is to remain cognizant of them as they accumulate.

To recreate a sound from scratch is to assemble these observations as discrete instructional steps. Try not to get bogged down by the totality of the sound itself. Instead focus on these component parts: the sound is nothing more than a list of them in aggregate.

Start with the basics—tone or noise, what about it is it changing— and slowly zoom in on the details from there. Wind blowing through a grove of trees is noisy and irregular. Sometimes the leaves rustle with more treble, sometimes with more mid-range. These various noisy timbres seem to happen sequentially, rather than simultaneously, as if the branches pushed one way sound different than when the wind changes direction and pushes them the other, and so on. Study the sound, note these characteristics, think of your observations as a decoder ring.

Hopefully this provides something of an overview of the opportunities that are possible in synthesizing environmental sounds and lays out some of the aspects of sound to focus on in your listening. Now let’s try our hand at a concrete example and patch something up!

I’d like to synthesize the sounds of the beach, in particular a memory I have of an afternoon spent there as a child.  We’ll begin with the sound of ocean waves from the listening perspective of the shoreline. It’s low tide and the surf is mild. The sun hangs in the air, lazily

Once we have a working version of our central sound component, I find it helpful to surround it with supporting contextual sonics. These reinforce our creation’s place in this fabricated soundscape and allow for a degree of set-dressing about which the details are entirely ours to decide. Are these ocean waves happening on a beach or are they crashing in an office? Those decisions are executed through the inclusion of these background characters.

For this patch, I’ll play it straight and set the sound stereotypically. To create the sense of a shoreline, the focus will be on a pair of hallmarks—things you might hear (and in this case things I remember hearing) while sitting on the beach and listening to the waves: the dull roar of the ocean and the whipping hiss of the wind.

In tuning these sounds I’ll be utilizing Low and High Pass filters, and doing so with an ear for how each filter type represents distance: using Low Pass filters for sounds that are far away (and whose top end has rolled off), and High Pass filters for sounds that are close-up (and whose top end is accentuated). Additionally, setting the relative level of these sounds against each other paints a portrait of attention: the sounds being focused on (in this case the waves) can seem louder than their neighbors (the wind, the ocean), and should that observation shift for any reason this balance can be adjusted accordingly.

Finally, the addition of narrative elements can lend to this sound-portrait some much-appreciated variety: if the background is always there, the things that come and go can pull us into a far more immersive listening experience.

To illustrate this point we’ll create the sound of a single-passenger plane in flight, passing overhead.  Unlike our wave, wind and ocean patches, this one is definitely hummable and will require tone sources to synthesize.  While there are myriad ways to go about recreating engine sonics, each essentially contains at least an oscillator and at least some timbral complexity, especially if that engine is full of moving parts!  The aspects that you choose to focus on in your own engine synthesis work will depend greatly on your listening work: what about the sound jumps out to you?  What is essential?  In the case of the single-passenger plane, I’ll be celebrating its beat-frequency-like movement, its stereo position adjustments and the Doppler Effect that occurs as it passes from one side of the beach to the other.

Now that we have our waves, our environment and our wildcard narrative element, let’s combine them into a performance. The world we create in the mixing of these sounds is at any point re-definable: on a whim the ocean can become tiny, the wind can whip itself up into a terrifying wall, the waves can pause and hold mid-crash. While the example illustrated below is one that tilts towards accuracy it can at any moment morph into something else entirely: a far more fantastical collage of sonic impossibilities or simply the next memory that comes to mind. The fluidity of the portrait is entirely yours to decide.

Like any skill, decoding and fabricating environmental sounds is an exercise that rewards practice. I encourage you to start as soon as you finish this article. Close your eyes and whatever you hear or imagine first ask yourself: what makes up that sound? Thanks for listening.

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 www.belindareynolds.com.

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 www.ashleykillam.com.

Writing Music for Developing Instrumentalists and Singers

close up of a trumpet

“I’d love to do that with my band, but it’s too hard for us.”

“I can’t afford it.”

“We don’t have all of those parts.”

“I’m out of time to look.”

These are some of the frustrations I’ve heard in the last six months from at least four music educators and community ensemble directors who want to diversify the voices they amplify in their programming. They’re caught in a deeply frustrating bind: even if they could find a new piece and they could afford it, their students couldn’t play it—it’s too technically advanced for their developing players. And that’s saying they can find a new piece from a new voice in the slim hour of the day they’re not running between classes, lessons, planning, meetings, and fixing the jammed copier.

These artists’ and educators’ mission is to nurture as many healthy musical habits as possible and share their growth with their communities. They’re invested in programming more works by living composers, especially composers from communities of historically marginalized voices. They’re invested in their students and community members not seeing a revolving door of the same names in the top right corner of the page all the time. They’re invested in their own growth as conductors and willing to put in the score study and rehearsal planning to learn new works, and that needs to be strategic for them.

Teachers and conductors must consider the developing techniques of their players, limited budgets for their libraries, and limited time to seek out new works that are not yet available through major publishers for whom they already have vendor numbers established in their purchasing systems. These ensembles need technically and financially accessible works for their libraries from living composers.

Here is a mix of practical and philosophical ideas for how you can help.

 

Pick Your Parameters

While composers love to explore ideas at the boundaries of virtuosic technical prowess with incisive beauty, these are not the works that developing players or time-pressed joyful amateurs can hope to be successful in playing.

  • Both long works and miniatures are physically and mentally challenging. Help these players work up to great heights with works between three and seven minutes in duration.
  • Pick one area of challenge for your musical ideas to explore. You want developing players to feel invited into capability, not overwhelmed by notation. If you are going to include rhythms they will need to woodshed, put it in a key area that does not push them. If you are going to push them on tonal centers that are distant from the fundamentals of their instrument, do not push them on range, too. If you are going to introduce them to mixed meters, keep the modulations predictable and the tempo moderate, etc.
  • Offer options for instrumentation where possible. Many schools and community ensembles will not have a full concert complement for orchestra or band or the funds to hire ringers. Double reeds are not guaranteed. Include cues for important passages to instruments with similar ranges. This goes for percussion, too. They will have a glockenspiel, but not crotales.
  • Add not only text and translation for choirs, but also consider adding IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet characters) as a reference for a harried choir director.
  • Leave a little more space, if possible, around the text for developing singers to write in pronunciations.
  • Provide clear and endearing program and performance notes. These players dig them.
  • Edit to the utmost of your skill. Include curtesy accidentals. If it saves a pressed-for-time music educator rehearsal time, they will buy from you again.

 

Make It Affordable

Your work and expertise deserve a fair price. Full stop. Most schools and community ensembles aren’t able to commission; a commission would take a year of fundraising. No one should be arguing that composers should lower their rates or “do it for the exposure.” Music educators are generally aware of the work, practice, and years of collective experience go into a single composition, and they also know that they must make their dollars go as far as possible, and many an E-copy from a major publisher is between $55.00 and $75.00 USD. Many departments and ensembles have budgets in the hundreds of dollars a year, not thousands, to add to their libraries. They will have a budget review process, a public one, and need to be able to explain the value for price and direct benefit to students of their expenditures.

  • Consider having a collection of E-works that these ensembles can afford.
  • Offer collections where they do not need to purchase additional parts if one part goes missing.
  • When connections are made or orders come in, be as responsive as possible to whatever documentation process is needed for transparency to demonstrate they are good stewards of tax dollars.
  • Consider partnering with music libraries that are well connected through interlibrary loan networks to buy sections of your catalog and tell educators in your network where to check them out.

 

Make Some New Friends, Reconnect with Old Friends

Connect with Educators and Community Ensembles in your area. It’s not prestigious. These students and lifelong players don’t need your headshot and bio; they need you. And while there are many grants out there to help pay for visiting guest artists (and they should), an honored guest in their midst is only one of the ways that students and community members should connect with composers in-person or electronically. We are the people in their neighborhood; some of the time we should sit beside them, not in front of them. Not just our work, but our presence erodes symbolic assassination. Our engagement within these ensembles is one of many experiences for these musicians that normalize, that de-exoticize, the relationship between composers and performers, especially performers from low-population density areas. Don’t let the developing technique and less than perfect rehearsal discipline blind you to the big hearts of these groups. All kinds of ensembles need nurturing.

  • Join a community ensemble with a municipal or college group and participate.
  • Share your networks with the educators you meet in them.

Both music students and amateurs who play for a lifetime are looking forward to making music with you. Let’s get better connected.

 

Zoom Tips for Private Music Instructors

Private Music Teachers in Unchartered Territory

Unfortunately, many of us are back to feeling unsafe when it comes to in-person learning, due to the increase in the Delta variant. Here are some tips for private music teachers who are transitioning back to Zoom learning.

Background: This article is written from the perspective of a classical flutist who has a background in instrumental music education, particularly, band. That being said, many of these tips can be adapted to other instruments.

Keep Students Connected

I am a huge advocate of taking the time to get to know your student on a more personal level. This means that you need to take a breath and keep your students connected. Learn more about their school: Are they in-person, are they online? What are they doing when they’re not so busy? While this tip may sound basic, it can mean the difference between keeping your student on Zoom or losing them to a competitor who is still offering lessons in person.

I recall the ‘Aha’ moment I had with a student when I realized that she was reading The Lunar Chronicles Series; A set of books that I had begun reading when I was her age as well. Knowing that she was into fantasy and dystopian novels helped me make more relatable allegories for her during flute lessons. Checking in is always time well spent, whether it’s about sports, family, or video games. While we can’t always physically be there, we can get emotionally closer to our students. The better the rapport you have with your pupil, the easier the transition back to online will be.

Integrate Manipulatives

Just because you can’t be with your student in person, doesn’t mean that you can’t use manipulatives. Do some research, and find things that your students can make at home. Some of my favorite tools to use for flutists include simple household items like disposable chopsticks, straws, and Smarties. Chopsticks and straws make easy fixes for weak embouchures and poor tonguing techniques. A roll of smarties (the candy) can be placed on the knuckles to check if the student’s wrist is properly lifted. Elementary students will enjoy making their percussion instruments from tubes and paper and performing new rhythm exercises on them.

Guitar students and other instrumentalists will benefit from manipulatives as well. For example, recently, when I was receiving an online bass lesson, I was instructed to hold a small object between my pinkie and ring finger. This helped me fix the position of my picking hand, without my teacher having to physically be there.

Change Their Angle

It can be very difficult to help your student hold their instrument properly when you can’t physically adjust it for them. Having your pupil periodically change their camera angle will help immensely. I remember when I was an undergrad, one of my professors was watching me during a lesson. He realized that he had only ever seen me play from one certain angle, in the same place, in his office. It wasn’t until he stood up from his chair that he realized that I was playing with a poor wrist technique. My left hand needed to be dropped so that I could play more comfortably.

Use Their Metronome

This is a tip that I learned from guitarist Samuel Rugg. Don’t teach Zoom lessons with your metronome. Lag is one of the biggest complications of teaching music lessons online. If you use your metronome, there will be two lags: One from your metronome getting to the student, and the second, in the student’s sound getting back to you. In essence, even if the student is playing perfectly in time with your metronome, you won’t hear it as such. It’s best to save you and your student some time (and headache) by having the metronome and performance coming from the same location.

Assign Something Unconventional

Students will greatly appreciate lessons that fall outside the norm. Even if they are studying cello performance, try throwing a vocal exercise or composition prompt their way. When it comes to studying music, there’s no irrelevant exercise. Everything is connected.

There are tons of great online music tools out there, too. So when it comes to Zoom lessons? Don’t be afraid to assign a bit of fun homework. For younger students, try giving them an online listening game from Classics for Kids (www.classicsforkids.com/games.html) or ask them to compose on a short melody in Chrome Music Lab (musiclab.chromeexperiments.com/).

For adult students, have them compose something on an instrument they don’t play inside of Garage band (www.apple.com/mac/garageband/). Or, get your students to work on a track together using a free collaborative music site like LoopLabs (www.looplabs.com/).

If you’d like to go more along the classical route, you can also try assigning ear training through a site like Teoria (www.teoria.com/).

Recruit a Family Audience

Many musically gifted students have had to endure the better part of two years with no on-stage performances. A couple of months back, I was teaching an intermediate flute student online. She had seemed far more engaged during this particular lesson than she had been in the previous weeks. I didn’t realize until the end of the lesson (when she turned her camera away from me) that her older siblings and parents had been listening in on us.

At first, I was spooked. I watched my internal teacher become critical: “Did I do a good enough job entertaining the family? Did I spend too much time making book references? “ But then, the mental chatter faded. I realized that recruiting family members can help fill that missing space of not having a stage. When her family was listening, she had an audience.

Conclusion

It’s a brave new world for all of us Zoom music teachers. But we’ve been here before, and we can do this again. Keep conversations during lessons light and lively, and don’t be afraid to try something a little odd. And remember: Online music is better than no music at all!

Looking Out For Each Other with The Real Music Wages Database

A photo of an old card catalog from a library

I recently visited a sound art class at Vanderbilt University (over Zoom) as a guest artist. Towards the end of our conversation, one of the students asked me about what I was looking forward to in the future of my work and the fields of music and sound art. Rather than the aesthetic answer the student expected (and I could easily see myself giving a year ago), I surprised both of us by unhesitatingly responding that I was looking forward to improved arts workers’ conditions.

As excited as I am about the opera I’m currently writing or thingNY’s upcoming foray into mail art, the immediate effort I see from various communities of artists to create better working conditions and a healthier, more equitable social and economic ecosystem for the arts eclipses any individual art project or aesthetic movement in terms of my optimism for the future. From the boisterous and massive in-person protests to the quiet one-on-one conversations, from the various collective conversations on Zoom to the steady helping hand of mutual aid organizations, across the podcast interviews, slack channels, op-eds, and, yes, the astounding musical performances and recordings, a culture of community care has been dancing in a rainbow of tempos in all corners of the performing arts world. Into this spirit of sharing knowledge and resources, the New Music Organizing Caucus has created the Real Music Wages Database.

The Real Music Wages Database is an anonymous, crowd-sourced list of real wage transactions reported by musicians. We track how much someone has been paid, who paid them, and how many hours of work it involved. The more entries are added to the spreadsheet, the more discernable a true economic snapshot of the new music industry is visible. Inspired by similar crowd-sourced spreadsheets for dancers, baristas, museum workers, and adjunct professors, we created the Real Music Wages Database to help freelance music workers navigate what can be a very confusing financial landscape and give us tools to negotiate wages for ourselves, particularly in situations when we don’t have a union or an agent working on our behalf. The transparency of the database is meant to also be useful for ensembles, composers, producers, and presenters who want to get a better idea of what an industry standard might look like. The database has the potential to both identify organizations that don’t pay their performers enough as well as model how much an organization should pay their performers, ultimately encouraging equal pay rates and a living wage for musicians. (Oh man, doesn’t that sound nice?)

  • Starting out a career in new music and its adjacent musical scenes can be very confusing financially.

    Gelsey Bell
  • A larger reckoning around funding and transparency in larger non-profit arts institutions is currently taking place and we hope this database can just be one tool in the reforming process.

    Gelsey Bell

Starting out a career in new music and its adjacent musical scenes can be very confusing financially. For me, learning what I should be paid involved years of being paid a vast variety of amounts (or not at all) in ways that even still don’t always reflect the amount of work put in. One gig will pay my rent for two months after a week of work, while another gig will take a month of work to only pay half of my month’s rent. All of us freelancers know that part of our hustle is stitching together a living from a disparate assortment of gigs, each with its own unique equation of give and take. We’re hopeful that the Real Music Wages Database will speed up the knowledge gathering process significantly for young musicians, particularly those who don’t always feel comfortable casually asking their peers what they are being paid, as well as offer transparency for those who have been going at it for a while. In addition, the database can be a resource to other performing arts workers, like dancers and performance artists, who work with some of the same institutions, presenters, and venues that we do, but who historically have had an even harder time making a decent living, and can use the details of our experiences to uplift their own.

The database is limited in the information it gathers. For instance, we don’t ask about the tax status of the gig, or if you were given retirement benefits or health insurance. (Because let’s be real – how often does that happen?) And unlike other databases, we don’t ask about your gender or racial identity, whether you are disabled or your sexual orientation. We think tracking that kind of information is important and we fully support the reckoning over equity taking place within the new music world. However, we want to protect our community’s anonymity and felt that such a level of detailed, identifying information could sabotage those efforts.

We also wanted to make adding entries to the database quick and easy. So we decided to only ask for the most essential information and then use a system of tagging so that each person can decide what additional information would be useful for others to know. For instance, if a gig is associated with a specific university or institution that did not directly pay you; whether the gig was with an orchestra or chamber ensemble, for an opera or a wedding; whether it was for a specific series or festival; if it was a recording session; or if it involved an adjacent field, be that dance, theatre, or a religious service. The more tags are used, the more options will be suggested for you as you type into the ‘Tag’ field. This way, people can add as much information as they want and it is up to each individual to decide what they are comfortable sharing.

The database is also focused on gigs where the musician is not a generative artist. We understand how complicated the funding structures for our work as composers, sound artists, and performance creators can be. We decided that to fully measure the intricacies of our creative time for such projects would take a different set of questions. (We also encourage folks to use the NewMusicBox Commissioning Fees Calculator if it will be useful for your situation.) And finally, we especially encourage musicians to input their gigs paid for by funded institutions, particularly non-profit organizations that receive funds from foundations and governmental arts councils. A larger reckoning around funding and transparency in larger non-profit arts institutions is currently taking place and we hope this database can just be one tool in the reforming process.

The New Music Organizing Caucus (NMOC) is a baby of an organization, originally founded by composer-pianist Dorian Wallace and now spearheaded by a small group of dedicated and welcoming activist musicians. Initiated during the activist summer of 2020 that was energized by Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, NMOC holds monthly Zoom meetings where a community of new music workers come together to, as stated on the NMOC website, “advocate for decent working conditions and fair wages, provide support against discriminatory practices, share skills and knowledge, and fight for diversity, equity and inclusion in our field.” It’s a community of fellow musicians that welcomes anyone who wants to become more involved. I have met many people for the first time in these meetings, which might begin in shy awkwardness and end in refreshing sensations of solidarity. As with any volunteer organization, the more its membership wants to do, the more will happen. So far, we rely on pro bono assistance. For instance, Brian McCorkle designed the website for the database, and Sophia Richardson and Alyssa McCallion designed the logo.

The Real Music Wage Database is the first large project initiated by NMOC with an eye on other ways we can support our community and share resources in the future. The group also works to advocate for the special interests of new music in larger organizations such as the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW), and the Music Workers Alliance (MWA), as well as connect members with resources in these larger organizations. Though many of the active members are based in New York City, there are members from all across the United States. And even as in-person events begin again in the coming year, the group plans to continue meeting online so that it can serve and connect a wider geographical range of musicians.

Like many others, the reason I have more time to go to Zoom meetings for volunteer, activist organizations is because I don’t have as much work as I did before the pandemic started. (Also, I was probably working too much before the pandemic started, but that’s another story…) You might be looking at the Real Music Wages Database and thinking you’d love to input gigs when you have them again. When that day comes (and oh it will), I hope you do! In addition, it is tax season. I recently found myself adding entries as I went through my paystubs and expenses from 2020 in preparation for meeting with my tax guy. However strange it seems to me looking back on what felt like an impossibly long year, there were two and a half months of work in 2020 before the lockdown completely transformed every aspect of my life, and that is as obvious in my banking activity as it is in my sleep schedule. For the ultra-ambitious musician with free time, take a moment now to add your gigs from multiple past years. And for the slow-and-steady thoughtful freelancer, thank you for adding your gigs as you get them for many years to come. The Real Music Wages Database is as much of a useful tool as our collective music community nurtures it to be. I’m real thankful to be part of a community of folks that look out for each other.

(In full transparency, the NMOC Real Wages Steering Committee currently consists of Gelsey Bell, Nicholas Connolly, David Friend, Andrew Griffin, Marina Kifferstein, Brian McCorkle, Luisa Muhr, Pablo O’Connell, and Hajnal Pivnick. We can be reached at [email protected]. Want to be more involved? Please join us!)

The logo for the Real Music Wages database

Livestream Community Survey: What We Learned from the Field

Three members of the [Switch ~ Ensemble] playing instruments and an additional person operating a laptop for a livestream


A January 2021 full broadcast performance from Switch~ in residence at UT Austin for 5 telematic world premieres: Nathan Nokes’s Co-Opt (2020); Ian Whillock’s void (2020); Geli Li’s Long Nights (2020); Monte Taylor’s Zoetrope (2020) and Lydia Wayne Chang’s Project Agree: Mission for the Internet Communities (2020) (All works performed by the [Switch~ Ensemble] telematically on December 1 & 2, 2020.)


In August 2020, the [Switch~ Ensemble] led a Community Survey about the habits, preferences, and interests of concert-goers for livestreams. We are pleased to provide a summary of the responses, as well as recommendations based on our analysis of the data.

We publicized the survey through direct email marketing and in our social media. Several organizations, including New Music USA, helped boost the reach of our announcements through their channels. In total we had 52 respondents. Responses were collected in a Google form.

The first section of the survey helped us have a baseline for who was responding. Respondents tended to reflect [Switch~]’s audience overall, including a significant number of other musicians and industry insiders. One-third of respondents indicated they are “very familiar” with [Switch~], and the average survey respondent had a relative fluency in music technology. One shortcoming in the breadth of responses was that none of the respondents identified as disabled/having a disability. So, for example, we do not have the perspective of anyone who is blind/low vision or deaf/hard-of-hearing and their experiences trying to navigate video livestream performances.

Two further sections asked detailed questions about past attendance and preferences for future engagement and opportunities.

In the months between survey and publication of this essay, vaccines raced from experimentation to delivery, indicating a return to concert halls may come in the next 6–9 months. Yet, livestreaming and virtual interaction have been around for some time and are undoubtedly here to stay. While there is no substitute for in-person interaction, livestreams do have significant benefits. They can allow us to reduce our carbon footprint, invest more in artists and less in plane tickets, and more equitably engage in collaborations with artists from across the country and around the world.

6 KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Livestreams are a lifeline for connecting with friends and/or artists you like. Strong results in this area is the most important predictor of success.
  • Improving the standard of production value and audio quality are critical for the ecosystem.
  • There is some skepticism of the value of livestreamed shows, which ensembles are inadvertently exacerbating through their marketing and messaging. Instead, we should be building trust in broadcast performances as a valuable way to experience music.
  • There is a growing divide between those in the habit of regularly attending livestream performances and those who are not. From initial marketing to concert time, each cohort has different needs when it comes to helping them feel welcome, supported, and engaged.
  • Repertoire choices matter a good deal, in complex ways. Respondents seem well-aware we are all in uncharted waters, and that the sky is the limit for imagination and innovation. There is great interest in new works, premieres, and using this opportunity to work on repairing longstanding issues around equity and the exclusion of talented artists.
  • People are not always forthright or self-aware in what drives their attendance or interest, and tastes can change quickly. Accordingly, some information is curious if not self-contradictory. This topic has a long history, notably: the Ford Edsel.

 

A FEW DEFINITIONS

Let us pause for a moment and define some terms. We’re defining a livestream as any way of sharing artistic content where the performers and audience aren’t in the same place, but the audience can watch/listen thanks to technology.

A situation where all the performers are in one place and sharing a video stream out to their audience is commonly referred to as a broadcast.

A situation where all the performers are in different places—coordinating by way of teleconferencing software, then sharing a video with their audience—is commonly referred to as a telematic performance. Musicians have been researching these topics for decades. For example, we encourage you to read about Pauline Oliveros and her research in this arena.

Many artists and ensembles are presenting livestreamed performances where the audience observes at the moment of performance. We could call this a synchronous livestream: the music is made and consumed at the same moment, with performers and audience together on a video conference like Zoom.

Others are opting to assemble performances/recordings that are then released on a streaming platform at a later date. We might call this an asynchronous livestream.

SOME BASIC LEARNINGS & DATA

For several questions, options ranged from “Really Negative” to “Very Positive” and/or from “Irrelevant” to “Very Important”. To help analyze data quantitatively, “Really Negative” and “Irrelevant” were both assigned a value of 1.0, and “Very Positive” or “Very Important” assigned a 5.0. For example, a quality score of 2.5 and an importance rating of 4.5 would suggest a given feature is of low quality and very important to the experience of a livestream.

A chart comparing responses to the question:

Reflecting on the decisions to attend past livestreams, the most important factor was “get to see friends/colleagues perform”. It scored an average importance 4.3/5.0, with 42% ranking it Important and 48% ranking it Very Important.

That livestreams “Feel like a return to normal” were largely irrelevant, scoring an average of 2.2. There appears to be a collective understanding that “normal” is not possible and that livestreams do not support a sense of normalcy.

Choice of platform was also rather insignificant: an average importance of 2.3, with only 2 Very Important and 14 Irrelevant. A wide range of platforms are popular, with 44 respondents indicating past attendance on YouTube/YouTube Premiere (36), Facebook Live (32), Zoom (25) and Twitch (15). (Respondents could check multiple entries). However, regardless of platform, qualitative comments suggest a strong preference for a flexible schedule of consumption rather than a limited release only at “concert time”.

Generally, when asked to name reasons they would attend a [Switch~] livestream, respondents favored innovative repertoire (40 votes) and to support members (35) above all. A sense of community, “repertoire I know and like”, and interesting ancillary content saw moderate support (15-18), and “feels like a return to normal” saw few (8).

A chart comparing the 3 reasons respondents gave for coming to a livestream event: Innovative repertoire (40); to support members (35); Familiar repertoire (18); Sense of community (17); interviews and presentations (15); feels like a return to normal (8)

These responses support earlier data on the importance of social connections, and elevate the importance of new and excellent repertoire.

GOING DEEPER

We took a deeper dive into consumer preferences with a closer analysis of four questions in particular. (Fair warning, the next few sections get a little wonky!)

  • How important were the following factors to your experience of past livestreams?
  • How did the following factors impact your choice to attend past events?
  • What are some reasons you would RECOMMEND a [Switch~] livestream to a friend
  • What are some reasons you would HESITATE to recommend a [Switch~] livestream to a friend?

The factors considered in each question fell in three analogous buckets:

  • Audio & production quality
  • Getting to see friends or artists you support
  • The content of the performance itself

Separately, all respondents were asked: “Would you recommend a [Switch~] livestream to a friend?” as a yes/no/maybe question. In the following sections, we’ll talk about two groups: those who answered this question yes (we’ll call them advocates) and those who answered maybe (we’ll call them fence sitters). The cohort of respondents that indicated they attended 4-or-more prior livestreams will also be frequently compared against the cohort that attended few-to-none.

 

FOUR QUESTIONS

A chart comparing responses to these 2 questions:

As mentioned above, audio quality had the greatest impact on experience but the lowest quality score. This is a problem, as it appears to be eroding trust that livestreams are worth going to.

Audio quality was nearly unanimous in importance but respondents were displeased with its success. The average importance was 4.4/5.0. However, most found the success rate poor (3.0). Production and technical skill, more broadly, were very important too (an average of, 4.1, with 14 Very Important, and 0 Irrelevant) but also saw a mediocre score for quality (3.3).

Scores around 3.0 may seem average, but, generally, consumers tend to be optimistic when filling out surveys like these. For example, the Net Promoter Score used by many Fortunate 500 corporations considers a score less than 7 on a 1-10 scale to be a “Detractor”. Accordingly, anything at or below 3.0 on our scale warrants some concern.

So, we’ll start with the bad news: the level of satisfaction with audio quality warrants some concern. The single-lowest quality score assessed by any group (2.7) was on audio quality, from those who attend few-to-no livestreams. 2.7 is even lower than the already troubling score to this question overall (3.0). This perceived lack of quality from the cohort of few-to-no show-goers is particularly significant as it suggests we are either losing audience members or that they don’t attend at all due to threshold fear of an undesirable experience.

Interestingly, our group of fence-sitters had more favorable views of the audio quality in livestreams they attended than just about any other cohort (!), with above average (3.2) sense of quality and equivalent sense of importance (4.3). A separate question on “Production/technical quality” saw similar results, with fence sitters holding slightly more favorable views on average.

So, why are they on the fence? Data suggest that, as a group, they report a significantly lower sense of quality experience getting to see friends or artists or they know.

“Got to see friends &a colleagues” was generally positive (4.2) and influential to the experience (4.2). This was most true for advocates (4.5 & 4.5, respectively), and for attendees of 4+ prior shows (4.3 & 4.2). But responses grew more tepid with those who had attended few-to-none (4.0 & 4.1) and most of all with the fence sitters (3.8 & 3.7)—i.e. those who hesitate to suggest a livestream show to a friend.

Taken all together, we see an important distinction: The most important reason people are not going to shows is because audio quality is important to them and it’s bad. The most important reason people are hesitating to recommend them to friends is because they have not felt good about getting to see friends and colleagues in a compelling performance.

A chart comparing the responses to the question:

To see friends and colleagues perform is once again the gold standard. It scored equally highly among survey respondents familiar with [Switch~] and unfamiliar with [Switch~]. In other words, this is a field-wide phenomenon, not a reflection of [Switch~]’s specific fans.

Those who attend livestreams regularly have stronger and more polarized feelings about new works designed for the medium. But, interestingly, the platform matters less to those in the habit of attending more livestreams. The latter were more than twice as likely to name it an Irrelevant feature.

While “Feels like a return to normal” scored badly across the board, it was most influential to those who had attended few to no prior livestreams.

“New works designed for the medium” scored highest among those who use music tech professionally, but a bit less strongly among others. It is logical that experts in the field want to see innovation.

  • Livestreaming and virtual interaction have been around for some time and are undoubtedly here to stay.

    Zach Sheets
  • Repertoire choices matter a good deal, in complex ways.

    Zach Sheets
  • The most important reason people are not going to shows is because audio quality is important to them and it’s bad.

    Zach Sheets
  • Experts in the field want to see innovation.

    Zach Sheets
  • Getting to see new works and premieres and a thoughtfulness about equity feature prominently.

    Zach Sheets
  • Ensembles have increasingly sophisticated capacity to pre-assemble recordings and release them as though they were live.

    Zach Sheets
  • We all know audiences are more than willing to support artists if they believe in the value of the experience.

    Zach Sheets
  • A new medium may open connections to brilliant artists who were pushed out of traditional contemporary western classical music channels.

    Zach Sheets

Advocates and fence sitters largely agreed about which features were irrelevant to their experience, but a few key issues separated what did matter to them. Advocates ranked getting to see friends and colleagues perform more highly. And where fence-sitters cared more about getting to see repertoire they know and like (3.5 vs 3.0) advocates had stronger feelings about seeing new works designed for the medium: 27% vs 5% who named it Very Important.

A chart comparing responses to the question: "What are some reasons you would recommend a livestream to a friend?" Answers (very important vs. irrelevant) were: Technical skill (23/0); New works & premieres (9/0); Thoughfulness about equity (18/-4); Interviews/info about the work (5/0); Connection to a member (9/-6); Familiar repertoire (6/-2); and Good marketing (3/-8)

Perhaps predictably, the fence sitters consistently gave more tepid responses to each of the 5-point scale questions compared to the advocates. The most noticeable divergence was with the importance of having a connection to a member (3.8 vs 2.8), with thoughtfulness about equity in programming a close second (4.3 vs 3.5).

But, advocates and fence sitters agreed that getting to see new works and premieres was an important factor. Not a single person deemed this feature irrelevant. The only attribute that fence sitters thought was more important to a recommendation than advocates was “It’s repertoire I know and like.” Perhaps those who are unsure about livestreams feel more comfortable with some familiarity with the repertoire.

Those who have been attending livestreams often were more likely to care about new works and premieres than those who had attended few to none (4.0 vs. 3.6), and less likely to be influenced by knowing a specific member (3.2 vs 3.5). Overall, the number of respondents who named “new works and premieres”, “thoughtfulness about equity”, and “technical skill/quality” as “Very Important” was about 10-15 percentage points higher among those regularly attending livestreams. These therefore seem like 3 key areas for capitalizing on most ardent supporters.

The group of respondents who had attended 4 or more previous livestreams gave relatively similar answers in this section than those who had attended few to none. The greatest average difference was in the importance of good marketing. Just 5% of people who had attended few-to-no livestreams said this feature was irrelevant, compared to 23% of those often attending livestreams. It stands to reason that those regularly in the habit of attending livestreams are less reliant on attractive marketing to get them “off the fence”.

In separate questions, the importance of “New works and premieres” tended to score less favorably than “new works designed for the medium”. At first, that seems a curious finding: the two are functionally synonymous. We believe it suggests some lingering hesitation about livestreams as a medium. The salient takeaway is likely that “come see a world premiere” is a more effective call to action than “come see a new work made for streaming.”

The difference between advocates and fence-sitters was most noticeable when considering the reasons to recommend a livestream. Their responses about reasons for hesitation were similar. In other words, the two groups shared hesitations but the advocates had significantly greater excitement. This suggests the problem is not one of “like and dislike” but rather of excitement versus apathy.

Chart comparing responses to the question: "What are some of the reasons you would hestitate to recommend a livestream to a friend?" Answers (very important vs. irrelevant) were: Ticket price (+12/-5); not enough thinking about equity (+12/-11); don't think livestreams are interesting (+7/-8); worried about technical difficulties (+7/-8); too much conventional repertoire (+5/-9); marketing not engaging (0/-8); and unfamiliar with repertoire (0/-22)

Overall, there is an uphill battle with livestreams: 42% of respondents said they “just don’t think livestreams are interesting” as an important or very important reason they would hesitate to recommend a show.

Those who had attended 4+ prior livestreams had fewer hesitations overall than those who had attended few to none. The greatest variances were around concerns of poor marketing, a lack of familiarity with the repertoire, and technical difficulties: Those who had attended few to no livestreams named them 10-20% more important, on average. While 53% of respondents who regularly attend livestreams said that unfamiliar repertoire was irrelevant in provoking hesitation, just 30% of those who rarely attend livestreams said the same.

What does stand out for the fence-sitting group? Getting to see new works and premieres and a thoughtfulness about equity feature prominently. But technical skill/quality tops the chart with an average of 4.1 and almost 30% of respondents rating it “Very Important” to recommend a show to a friend or colleague.

However, our fence sitters were less willing to admit that concerns about technical difficulties were a source of hesitation. You may also remember earlier data that the fence sitters felt audio & production quality of shows they attended was actually better than average.

In the words of Kenan Thompson, What’s up with that? While this at first seems contradictory, the wording of the questions provides two clues: 1) the concern is not discrete technical difficulties so much as an overall lack of enthusiasm about the quality of livestreams, and 2) the concern is not that something will be bad so much as a reluctance to suggest to someone else that it will be good.

Finally, fence-sitters appear among the most price-sensitive for ticket sales, ranking that more important than average as a source of hesitation. However, in a separate section about the financial impact of COVID, respondents in this group were less negatively impacted than respondents overall. In fact, nearly half of respondents in this group were making similar or more than what they used to, compared to pre-COVID times. Only 14% had lost more than half their income.

Taken together with above data about the poorer sense of connection to known and beloved artists, we believe these data suggest not an inevitable inability to afford shows, but rather a skepticism of their value.

Accordingly, we feel the solution is not ever-cheaper tickets and centering “free show!” in one’s marketing. Rather, the solution may be to earn trust by cultivating excellent content, and hone our skills at naming its value. Whether or not to actually charge for tickets will depend on each ensemble’s community and specific goals, but regardless we should be mindful not to perpetuate a lack of trust in the value of artistic work by centering how “cheap” they are to attend. That might well make it harder to attract audiences.

 

COMMUNICATION, IMPLEMENTATION, AND ATTENDANCE

Marketing and communication can likely play a key role in fostering greater confidence that livestreams will be a compelling concert experience. At the moment, respondents seem to be expressing a gap in trust that livestreamed shows will be a quality experience, which is hindering the sector’s overall ability to connect with audiences in this format.

We know that people are willing to watch performances and listen to music on a laptop or phone: we do it all day long. We would be best served to compete for attention on an axis where we see we have an advantage, like:

  • connect with artists you know and like despite quarantine
  • see friends and colleagues
  • see new musical works and premieres

On the latter point, new music ensembles tend to thrive in ordinary circumstances. However, the logistical constraints of quarantine have challenged many ensembles but empowered others. Improvisers, mixed media artists, and ensembles interested in multimedia have been able to produce new and significant bodies of work. Some groups may not be able to perform right now, and that’s okay too.

On the first two points, there is likely considerable room for growth. How to enhance the possibility for social connection in these events is a rich area for discussion and sharing ideas. When asked if they would want a chance to socialize in a livestream performance, 49% of respondents said yes, 43% said “maybe”, and just 8% said no. A prior familiarity with [Switch~] did not necessarily correspond to increased interest in socializing. The most likely groups to say yes were the “advocates” (those who said “yes” I would recommend a livestream to a friend) and those who had previously attended 4 or more livestreams. The least interested in socializing were the “fence sitters” and those who had attended few to no livestreams. This divide, mentioned elsewhere, suggests a fundamental split between those who have enthusiastically incorporated livestream events into their routine and others who are less skeptical of engaging in that way.

Our colleague Megan Ihnen asked a great question: How can we, the performers, help individuals further foster a sense that they are connecting to the artists they like? Something like a listening party, side-by-side with a pre-recording livestream release, has a lot of merit. Zoom breakout rooms—like cocktail tables at an album release party—could work too. Concerts can’t be everything for everybody all the time. Getting the fence sitters off the fence may require different work than further activating the advocates.

With tools like YouTube Premiere or StreamYard, ensembles have increasingly sophisticated capacity to pre-assemble recordings and release them as though they were live. Interweaving pre-recorded performances with interviews or live questions over Zoom can foster a sense of “liveness”. Specific tactics—like having performers wear the same clothes or film at the same camera angle as their original performance earlier in the week—can enhance it further.

There are a few important factors to note in the marketing and communications of livestreamed concerts that appear to impact attendance significantly.

About 80% of respondents said that at some point since March, they had been interested in a livestream but ultimately did not attend it. Given a list of possible reasons in a multi-choice poll:

  • 31% said they wound up missing the show because they didn’t get a reminder
  • 12% said because there were no tickets or reservations it was easy to skip
  • 22% had technical difficulties
  • 34% said the event was poorly marketed or communicated
  • 61% said they simply “forgot”, as opposed to 31% who “lost interest”

In other sections, respondents indicated they felt marketing had little impact on their choice to attend livestreams. However, given the above data, we believe they may be significantly underestimating its influence on their behavior. When over a third of respondents acknowledge they accidentally missed a show because it was poorly marketed or communicated, the conclusion seems self-evident.

Or, as our colleague Megan Ihnen put it: if a show doesn’t have effective marketing, how did you even know about it?

Some simple best practices could include:

  • Well timed reminders (including day-of) about the show
  • A registration system with personalized link & reminder (like house shows: “RSVP for address”)
  • Charging a small admission fee

The last point is rarely done, and was something respondents are sensitive to in their reasons for hesitating to recommend an event. However, we all know audiences are more than willing to support artists if they believe in the value of the experience. And, as anyone who’s ever worked a box office knows: pre-sales always have a low no-show rate.

A screenshot from a telematic performance by the [Switch~ Ensemble] showing members of the ensemble in separate locations and program notes.

A screenshot from a telematic performance by the [Switch~ Ensemble]

LOOKING TOWARD FUTURE

In the long term, being able to produce effective livestreamed and/or telematic performances can hold considerable value for the sector.

A vaccine may be on the horizon, but livestream performances are almost certainly here to stay. Grantors and arts services organizations could fulfill at least 2 key responsibilities:

  1. Grants for ensembles and musicians to acquire at least basic level professional audio equipment. Not only would these investments help enhance our capacity to produce higher-quality virtual events, but so too would they alleviate many longstanding inequitable access issues.
  2. Lead open workshops on technical questions and production/audio skills, and host convenings for ensembles to share best practices. There is no need for so many artists to have to stumble through the same questions in their own silos. Grantors like New Music USA could support trainings and workshops—even “office hours” style drop in sessions—with technical directors and marketing and communications staff of larger organizations who have already seen success in this medium.

Among the many benefits of livestream shows we might count limiting unnecessary travel. How often is the principal beneficiary of an artistic project an airline? It’s also terrible for the environment. While there is no substitute for in-person interaction, vast time, money, and environmental impact is spent flying new music ensembles throughout the country. If even a small share of that travel could be replaced by high quality virtual interaction, it would cut down our outsized carbon footprint and put more money in musicians’ pockets.

Telematic livestreams in particular are also an occasion to consider further experimentation with an innovative and rich medium. Many artists have made vivid work with digital software for a long time, so there is a fertile tradition on which to build.

Moreover, as many ensembles continue to reckon with the homogeneity of their social and professional networks—on lines of race, class, gender, and other aspects of identity—experimentation in a new medium may open connections to brilliant artists who were pushed out of traditional contemporary western classical music channels by its history of orthodoxy and oppressive gatekeeping. And more facile collaboration across physical distance would have democratizing impact by alleviating the advantage of living in high-rent urban areas to be near a “scene”.

So: how are you making livestreams work for you?

[Ed. Note: Switch~ Ensemble’s next livestream is on March 5, 2021. Learn more about the event and register for it on EventBrite.]

Composer Commission Pay in the United States

A chart showing the range of composer commissioning fees.

By David E. Farrell and Loretta K. Notareschi

This article is an introduction to a research report on the Composer Commission Pay Survey conducted in Fall 2019 by David E. Farrell and Loretta K. Notareschi. To read the complete report, visit www.composerpaysurvey.com.

How much should composers get paid for commissions?

This is a question most composers have. As composers ourselves, we recently set out to find the answer. We were motivated not only by our curiosity, but also by our desire to know what is fair and equitable. When approached by an individual or ensemble for a commission, we have had a perplexing variety of experiences. Everything from being told, “I will pay whatever you charge” to “We know this isn’t enough, but here’s what’s possible in our budget.” We have been paid on occasion what seemed like a generous amount; we have also done work for no financial compensation at all.

Informal discussions about commission fees with fellow composers did not help broaden our understanding. These conversations were frequently beset with embarrassment, defensiveness, and long-winded explanations of why the composers accepted fees that did not match their expectations. This kind of dialogue was, however, preferable to another common response: silence and unwillingness to mention numbers. Different as they may be, both reactions gave the same impression: composers were unsure what a fair commission fee would be. They didn’t know how much to ask for.

Some composers wonder why they’re not being paid more. Some are surprised by the amounts they have been paid.

The reality is that many questions surround composer pay. Some people wonder why they’re not being paid more. Some people are surprised by the amounts they have been paid. Some people worry they should have gotten more, but weren’t bold enough to ask for it. Some composers get asked to name their number. Others are told, “this is the budget.” Some of us are making a living from our commissions. Some of us have other jobs that help pay the bills. Many of us are jealous of people who do something different than we do and whom, we suspect, are getting paid more. The questions, to put it bluntly, are fraught.

How do people in other professions deal with such consternation? They look to labor statistics. We consulted several resources in our research looking for such statistics. The “Commissioning Fees Calculator” on NewMusicBox is a well-known resource that suggests fees for composers. But the origin of these numbers is unclear, and anecdotal experience points to them being higher than what many people actually encounter. The American Composers Forum gives some numbers in their “Commissioning by Individuals” guide, but the numbers vary widely and are again not sourced. The US government collects pay data for many professions, but the category in which composers are included also includes many other kinds of musicians, making the data not helpful in answering our question. Joan Jeffri’s Taking Note: A Study of Composers and New Music Activity in the U.S. is a 2008 study including data on  composer income. While it gives good numbers about overall income, its broad numbers didn’t give us the answers we wanted about individual commission fees. Sound and Music in the United Kingdom in collaboration with the Australian Music Centre presented a model we found most useful–their 2015 Composer Commissioning Survey Report asked about individual commission fees and primarily reported on those in the U.K. and Australia. Finally, in late 2020, we learned about another U.S. commission pay survey, conducted by Fahad Siadat. Dr. Siadat’s report is forthcoming, and we are interested to see its results.

Considering how much composers should be paid is even more difficult if we don’t know what composers are being paid.

After considering this existing body of work, we found ourselves with more questions. Considering how much composers should be paid is even more difficult if we don’t know what composers are being paid. Thus, we decided to create a survey to ask composers to name their commission fees.  We focused on what we most wanted to know: How much do composers get paid for commissions? What are the musical characteristics, including instrumentation, genre, and duration, of commissions of different amounts? What are the demographic characteristics, such as career stage, gender, race/ethnicity, religion, etc., of highly-paid, modestly-paid, and unpaid composers? Then we developed a series of detailed questions for the survey regarding these topics and others. We chose to survey composers whose commissions resulted in concert performances of live music, and we also chose to focus on commission income only. In fall 2019, we launched the survey and received data from over 200 composers, reflecting information on 871 commissions from 2017 and 2018.

  • Some composers wonder why they’re not being paid more. Some are surprised by the amounts they have been paid.

    David E. Farrell & Loretta K. Notareschi
  • Considering how much composers should be paid is even more difficult if we don’t know what composers are being paid.

    David E. Farrell & Loretta K. Notareschi
  • In general, larger ensembles paid at a higher rate than solo works or small ensembles

    David E. Farrell & Loretta K. Notareschi
  • Greater experience was generally reflected in higher commission fees.

    David E. Farrell & Loretta K. Notareschi
  • The results and conclusions of the Composer Commission Pay Survey should not be considered comprehensive nor final.

    David E. Farrell & Loretta K. Notareschi
  • Many professional composers, at all levels of experience, take a mix of paid and unpaid commissions.

    David E. Farrell & Loretta K. Notareschi
  • We look forward to a time when discussions about money among new music constituents are not beset with shame, fear, or silence.

    David E. Farrell & Loretta K. Notareschi

Commission Pay, Genre, and Instrumentation

Our first question was the simplest–how much did composers get paid for commissions in 2017-2018? The range of responses went from nothing–37% of the 871 commissions reported on were done for no fee–to an opera commission for $300,000, an impressive outlier from our dataset. The median commission fee of $1,500 ($150 per minute) best represents “central tendency” (a statistics term meaning the center of a dataset) from the data collected. The chart in Figure 1 excludes the $300,000 outlier and the unpaid commissions to show how fees were spread across various commissions.

Fig. 1

A chart showing the range of composer commissioning fees.

While commission activity was clustered below $5,000, there were a good number of fees above that. A similar diagram (Fig. 2) shows commission fees at and below $9,000, excluding a large number of outliers (as defined by the interquartile method) and focusing on the area where most fees exist.

Fig. 2

A chart showing commissioning fees at or below $9000.

While the overall median gives a good sense of the big picture, we can look at instrumentation and genre to get a sense of how these affect commission fees as well. As can be seen in Figure 3 our responses were heavily weighted towards classical works, but the instrumentations varied widely.

Fig. 3

Figure 4 shows a comparative chart of median fees, both per commission and per minute of music, along with the percentage of paid commissions for each instrumentation type. The “n” value is the number of components in a dataset. In this chart and others shown below, the per-commission and per-minute medians leave out unpaid commissions, thus the “n” values are different there than for the percentage of paid commissions.

Fig. 4 Median Fees and Percentage of Paid Commissions by Instrumentation

Soloist with Large Ensemble$2,750.00$171.81493%15

Per Commission Fee Per Minute Fee N Percentage Paid N
Full Data Set Medians $1,500 $150 533 63% 871
Instrumentations
Solo $1,000.00 $100.00 128 52% 254
Trio/Quartet $1,000.00 $100.00 65 53% 125
Ensemble of 5-9 $1,500.00 $133.33 82 58% 141
Chamber Chorus (10-22) $500.00 $125.00 31 76% 41
Small Wind or Jazz Band (10-22) $375.00 $73.80 10 56% 18
Chamber Orchestra (10-22) $2,500.00 $142.86 17 50% 34
Chorus (over 22) $3,100.00 $612.50 80 87% 92
String Orchestra (over 22) $300.00 $75.00 5 86% 7
Wind Band (over 22) $3,500.00 $427.50 30 77% 39
Full Orchestra (over 22) $5,000.00 $375.00 31 74% 46
Full Orchestra with Chorus $7,000.00 $424.84 10 80% 15
Other $2,000.00 $147.45 30 73% 44

In general, larger ensembles received paid commissions at a higher rate than solo works or small ensembles, and those commissions tended to be for larger amounts. Interestingly, the highest paid instrumentation per minute of music was large chorus. Large choruses were also the second most likely to pay their composers, with a paid rate of 87% (higher than large chorus was the instrumentation of soloist + large ensemble, at 93%).

In general, larger ensembles paid at a higher rate than solo works or small ensembles

.

Composer Characteristics

Besides information on their compositions, we also queried the composers in our study about their personal characteristics, such as career stage, gender, race/ethnicity, religion, etc. We used a range of questions to ascertain the career stage of our respondents (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5

We can see the correlation of career stage and commission income data in Figure 6. The n values here are the number of people in each category.

Fig. 6 Career Stage and Commission Income

Total Fees Per Commission Fee Per Minute Fee N Number of Commissions Percentage Commissions Paid N
Full Data Set Medians $3,000 $1,500 $150 179 4 66% 240
Most advanced music degree
None $19,200.00 $2,284.44 $341.54 6 3 66% 9
Associate’s $1,100.00 $550.00 $15.88 1 5 40% 1
Bachelor’s $1,070.00 $750.00 $83.33 17 2 66% 23
Master’s $2,000.00 $587.50 $75.83 41 3 70% 47
Artist’s Diploma $14,000.00 $2,500.00 $226.90 2 8 65% 2
Doctoral $4,000.00 $1,708.33 $200.00 105 3 66% 127
Date of most recent music degree
2010-19 $2,500.00 $925.00 $100.00 87 4 66% 103
2000-2009 $2,550.00 $1,500.00 $102.98 32 2 75% 35
1990-1999 $4,500.00 $2,125.00 $190.28 23 3 50% 31
1980-1989 $9,500.00 $3,000.00 $242.13 17 2 50% 25
pre 1980 $4,250.00 $1,541.67 $369.05 8 2 100% 10
Date of first commission income
2010-19 $1,900.00 $750.00 $83.33 71 4 56% 84
2000-2009 $3,700.00 $1,500.00 $226.43 45 3 80% 49
1990-1999 $3,250.00 $1,604.17 $193.75 28 3 66% 38
1980-1989 $7,750.00 $2,958.33 $204.47 18 2 50% 21
pre 1980 $30,250.00 $5,756.94 $572.92 10 3.5 100% 11
Percentage of successive years with commission income
0 – 25 percent $1,000.00 $500.00 $65.70 49 2 40% 77
25 – 50 percent $2,500.00 $1,250.00 $118.16 39 2 65% 44
50 – 75 percent $3,350.00 $1,500.00 $127.78 29 3 66% 31
75 – 100 percent $12,750.00 $2,916.67 $264.14 55 5 100% 57

 

Across measurements, greater experience was generally reflected in higher commission fees.

Greater experience was generally reflected in higher commission fees.

We also asked our survey respondents for data about their demographic identities. The pie charts in Figure 7 show the breakdowns in gender, sexual orientation, age, region, population, religion, and race/ethnicity. The regional areas are defined by the U.S. Census.

Fig. 7

The respondents to our survey tended to be white, heterosexual males from large home communities. Age, religion, and region of residence varied more widely among our respondents. We considered fee information from all these demographic categories; selected results are presented in Figures 8 and 9. The n values are, again, the number of people in each category.

 

Fig. 8 Selected Demographic Data and Commission Income

Total Fees Per Commission Fee Per Minute Fee N Number of Commissions Percentage of Commissions Paid N
Full Data Set Medians $3,000 $1,500 $150 179 4 66% 240
Gender
Male $2,900 $1,300.00 $113.64 115 3 65% 142
Female $3,700 $1,500.00 $170.83 53 4 78% 60
Sexual Orientation
Heterosexual $3,350 $1,460.00 $139.27 129 3 66% 159
Non-Heterosexual $2,700 $1,200.00 $100.00 41 4 66% 46
Age
18 – 29 $1,200 $470.08 $63.15 28 3 54% 32
30 – 39 $3,850 $1,460.00 $139.27 53 4 80% 61
40 – 49 $1,500 $1,000.00 $105.95 37 3 66% 41
50 -59 $3,750 $1,854.17 $195.14 24 3 50% 32
60+ $7,000 $2,916.67 $303.03 29 2 58% 40
Religion
Agnostic/Atheist/
Non-Religious
$4,500 $2,062.50 $192.55 94 3 80% 109
Bahai $666 $333.00 $30.27 1 3 66% 1
Buddhist $2,850 $1,200.00 $102.98 4 2 100% 5
Catholic $2,385 $764.29 $144.67 8 2 45% 12
Christian (not catholic) $1,500 $690.00 $78.33 38 3 55% 47
Jewish $3,000 $1,500.00 $190.28 17 4 80% 21
Other $16,450 $1,916.67 $431.02 2 5.5 75% 2
Prefer not to answer $2,000 $1,000.00 $96.43 19 3 66% 23
Race / ethnicity
White Non Hispanic $3,000 $1,300.00 $121.62 151 3 66% 182
Non-White $3,000 $900.00 $105.95 23 3.5 66% 28

 

Fig. 9 Selected Geographical Data and Commission Income

Total Fees Per Commission Fee Per Minute Fee N Number of Commissions Percentage of Commissions Paid N
Full Data Set Medians $3,000 $1,500 $150 179 4 66% 240
Size of home community
More than 50000 $3,450 $1,500.00 $128.46 126 3 66% 155
2500 – 50000 $1,330 $1,000.00 $107.14 43 3 66% 49
Region
Pacific West $5,750 $2,583.33 $217.11 26 4 67% 32
Mountain West $2,550 $725.00 $75.00 22 3 70% 24
West North Central $2,850 $1,350.00 $127.78 13 3 65% 15
West South Central $1,350 $875.00 $79.17 12 2 68% 15
East North Central $2,500 $1,250.00 $100.00 29 3 59% 34
East South Central $8,650 $2,912.50 $318.40 2 4 83% 2
South Atlantic $2,150 $879.17 $97.40 20 4 49% 27
Middle Atlantic $3,500 $1,500.00 $196.21 34 3 72% 38
New England $3,500 $1,250.00 $198.41 17 3 45% 24

 

Who gets paid the most?

We wanted to know more about our outliers–the composers who received the largest commissions. We used a common test–the interquartile range method–to determine what commissions were outliers, and then we looked at the demographic information of the 30 composers who received these commissions. In many ways they were similar to our entire dataset, but some qualities stood out. “High earners” are more likely to have composition agents representing them. They were more likely to be over 60 years of age, or to be in their 30s. They were more likely to live in the Pacific West region. And they were much more likely to be regularly commissioned. Figure 10 shows data from the group of high earners.

Fig. 10 High Earner Characteristics

Conclusions

The major conclusions we were able to draw from our study are as follows:

  • The median commission fee for all compositions was $1500, or $150 per minute.
  • While commission fees were generally under $10,000, there was a sizable portion of outliers – around 11 percent of works – whose fees were between $10,000 and $50,000, or sometimes even greater.
  • Commissions for small groups or soloists were more likely to be unpaid, or for small fees. Commissions for large ensembles were more likely to be paid, and to command larger fees. Most outlier fees were for large ensemble commissions. The best paying large ensemble was the large choir.
  • Composers with more experience tended to receive higher fees.
  • Without taking into consideration factors such as experience level, female composers had a higher per-minute pay rate than males, and white composers had a higher per minute pay than non-white composers (as a group).

 

More data is needed.

The results and conclusions of the Composer Commission Pay Survey should not be considered comprehensive nor final.

The results and conclusions of the Composer Commission Pay Survey should not be considered comprehensive nor final. While over 400 composers began our survey, just over 200 completed it, and they presented information on 871 commissions that occurred within 2017-2018. This is just a snapshot of data over a limited period of time. Regular surveys of commission pay would provide a clearer picture of the economic situation for today’s composer. Further research, supported by composer advocacy groups and professional organizations, is necessary to obtain data that will empower composers in making informed professional decisions.

 

More sophisticated analysis of data is needed.

Beyond more data collection, we would also like to invite future researchers to collaborate with us to conduct more sophisticated statistical analyses of the data from this study. It is important to note that when looking at the “conclusions” that women are paid more than men and whites more than non-whites, we have not yet answered questions that would consider data variables in combination and find out what the factors are that may contribute to these pay anomalies. For example, we don’t know if the women or white people in our sample were more likely to have higher degrees, or more years of experience, or some combination of factors that would have made their higher pay unexceptional; or, controlling for all these factors, whether their higher pay was indeed unaccounted for by anything other than gender or race.

 

More research on unpaid commissions is needed.

After launching our survey, we heard from one successful composer who refused to participate because we decided to include unpaid commissions. This composer insisted that “in the real world,” professional composers never take unpaid commissions. We disagree, having found in our survey (and in our own lived experiences), that many professional composers, at all levels of experience, take a mix of paid and unpaid commissions. We should not ignore this reality of many in our field.

Many professional composers, at all levels of experience, take a mix of paid and unpaid commissions.

37% of the 871 commissions in our survey were unpaid. Around half of all chamber music was unpaid. These are significant numbers. What factors influence this reality? How can the new music community do better in compensating all composers? These are important questions.

 

Conversation about pay should be normalized.

Finally, our call for action is for members of our profession–composers, performers, and commissioners–to talk about the economic issues raised by our study. The recent trend toward open discussion of pay needs to come to the field of composition, too. We look forward to a time when discussions about money among new music constituents are not beset with shame, fear, or silence. We want to empower composers and commissioners to have frank conversations about what pay is fair. To do so would shed light on a difficult topic and free us all to work toward improving the new music economy.

We look forward to a time when discussions about money among new music constituents are not beset with shame, fear, or silence.

For a more comprehensive look at the Composer Commission Pay Survey, its methods, limitations, results, and conclusions, we invite readers to visit www.composerpaysurvey.com to read our complete research report (complete with footnotes!). We also welcome correspondence at [email protected] and [email protected]

The Composer Commission Pay Survey was planned, created, and reported on with the help of many individuals, whose assistance we gratefully acknowledge here. For help in envisioning and designing the survey, we thank Ed Harsh, Frank J. Oteri, Scott Winship, Alex Shapiro, Jazmin Muro, Christopher Roberts, Kala Pierson, and Iddo Aharony. For help with analysis, we thank Tim Trenary, Kristofor Voss, and Kris Nadler Dean. For help with editing the final report, we thank Natalie Kirschstein, Carla Aguilar, Kevin Garlow, and John Pippen. Finally, we thank all of the respondents to the survey for their generous time in recording responses.”