Tag: educational music

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.

 

Unprecedented Time

A computer altered image of a Zoom recording session for Brian Baumbusch's music

There is no doubt that we are in unprecedented times. Living through a global pandemic has tested and revealed so much about who we are as a people and what we possess as a culture. From the social battles that we have all watched boil over and spill out onto the streets, to the emotional battles that we have all waged within ourselves over this past year, we are struggling to make sense of what the future holds. And through it all, I have learned what many already knew: that art is like a weed – stubborn and persistent. Art will push on regardless of the circumstances, and I find it to be a transcendent privilege as well as a dire responsibility to stay focused on ways to continue innovating the arts without hesitation or compromise.

My personal experience in 2020 has offered countless peaks and troughs on the emotional roller-coaster ride of life, though peppered within have been some welcomed serendipities. Dating back to the fall of 2019, I was gearing up to work on a commission for a large-scale multi-faceted project, TIDES, that had been several years in the making and involved video/media artist Ian Winters and co-composer Wayne Vitale, both long-term collaborators of mine. We laid a foundation with concrete artistic concepts and interlaced composing strategies, but due to last-minute circumstances beyond everyone’s control, that foundation cracked and we ended up dividing the musical component of the project into two separate compositions: a sound installation was to be composed by Vitale and I was to compose a live piece, and both would accompany video footage and media created by Winters. I then took on the responsibility during a five-week window to compose thirty minutes of music for TIDES to premiere in late March 2020. Indeed, this would be the first new composition that I had undertaken since the birth of my first child in May of 2019.

The piece that I composed as a result, named Tides after the larger project, is a quintet for clarinet, violin, vibraphone, harp, and piano, and as one might have guessed, the March premiere was never to take place. After completing the music in February and hosting some preliminary rehearsals with the players, our last round of rehearsals in March were cancelled one by one until ultimately the Minnesota Street Gallery in San Francisco, where the premiere was to be held, cancelled the late March performance.

As I witnessed all of this playing out, I started to glimpse the peculiar silver lining that was specific to my situation. Over the past five years, much of the music that I have composed involves the use of multiple simultaneously varying tempos, or polytempo. In order to perform this music accurately, I tell the musicians that they are required to use click tracks in performance, something that isn’t always met with open ears. Because of the fact that each click track carries its own independent tempo stream, players often express the frustration that hearing the other ensemble members adjacent to them playing in a different tempo can hinder their ability to accurately follow their own click track. In the case of Tides, I started to develop a new level of complexity in the polytempo structures that I was using, in part because I had assembled a crack ensemble of some of the Bay Area’s finest musicians, but also because the music was designed to accompany video footage created by the lead artist of the project, Ian Winters. Because of the fact that film and click-track-music are both real-time mediums, I wanted to take advantage of the potential for hyper-synchronicities between the two. All of this served to make a live ensemble performance of this piece that much more difficult.

After the Minnesota Street Gallery cancelled the premiere, they reached out about the possibility of reimagining the project so that it could be presented virtually on their website, and offered some additional funding en route to doing so. It occurred to me that not only could the project continue to move forward, albeit as a recording project rather than a performance project, but that it had the potential to be more successful this way. Since the players already had the click tracks and had been practicing along to them at home in preparation for the performance, I developed a concept that would allow for the players to record their parts directly from their own homes. I decided to break their parts up into “fragments” so that they wouldn’t have to record full takes of each movement. To do this, I snipped up each click track to the length of each predetermined fragment, and I added a “count-in” to each fragmented click track so the player could know when to enter; this was then reflected in their original part with new annotations.

Clarinet excerpt from the score of Brian Baumbusch's composition Tides.

Clarinet Excerpt from Tides, Movement 3

To produce the recording, we loaned hi-fi recording equipment to each player on a week-by-week basis so that each player would keep the equipment for a week, and then it would be wiped down, sanitized, and delivered to the next player. After finishing a recording session on a given day, the player would then upload the recordings to an online cloud drive that I had access to, and I would review them in the evening and send comments for adjustments that should be made in the next day’s recording session. Once the player had recorded all of their fragments to satisfaction, they were finished and their contribution to the project was then complete.

Unfortunately, our pianist had traveled to Indiana in the interim period after the premiere was to take place but before beginning the recording sessions. However, she had brought her electric keyboard with her which she used to maintain her remote teaching schedule. It occurred to me that if I could get her to record her part in MIDI using her electric keyboard, I could then reproduce that MIDI recording on an acoustic Disklavier and record the Disklavier playback for the final mix. I shipped a small audio interface and some MIDI cables to Indiana, and the pianist was able to use that in conjunction with her keyboard and laptop’s built-in recording software to produce the MIDI recording. Being a faculty member at the University of California, Santa Cruz, I was able to access one of the university’s Disklaviers to capture the final recording of her part.

As we underwent this unique recording process, I noticed some interesting parallels with film/moviemaking (we were in fact working together with a video artist). In film acting compared to stage acting, an actor can make use of subtle facial expressions and slight changes in their tone of voice to convey the nuances of their part. In addition, most actors who contribute to a large film project only get a small glimpse of the full production; their scenes will be shot in an order achronological to the film itself, and they likely will not interact with most of the other actors in the film and will have little sense of the overall concept or tone of the film aside from what they can gather from the script. All of this was true of our recording process. By recording their parts independently and at home, the players could record their part in whatever order they pleased, and they could narrow their dynamic range by close-miking their instruments and allowing for subtle dynamic changes to provide the necessary contours. Similarly, aside from the fact that we held some preliminary rehearsals of the piece before shelter-in-place restrictions were put into effect, there was no need for the musicians to be acquainted with one another or to have worked together before. Another similarity that I alluded to earlier is that both of these mediums are created along a careful timeline that, once completed, is fixed and exists in real-time, allowing for intricate synchronicities that are not so easily achieved in live performance.

  • Art is like a weed - stubborn and persistent.

    Brian Baumbusch, composer
  • There was no need for the musicians to be acquainted with one another or to have worked together before.

    Brian Baumbusch, composer
  • This new project provided supplementary work for me while allowing for the wind ensemble to avoid cancellation.

    Brian Baumbusch, composer
  • Almost all of our music history has been predicated on our ability to manifest a group feeling of musical time.

    Brian Baumbusch, composer

Some of the benefits that emerged out of working this way included the fact that since the players recorded their parts independently, those recordings were acoustically isolated from one another which offered advantages as to how they could be edited in post-production. Also, there was no need to coordinate and align the limited rental times of rehearsal space with the musicians already busy schedules, something that is difficult everywhere but can be an insurmountable task in the Bay Area. In essence, as technical complexities are added in the process of producing music this way, many logistical complexities, and the resources associated with them, are removed. These benefits notwithstanding, in order for musicians to work this way they need to accept the downsides which include the fact that they don’t get to play music “together;” more specifically, the social benefits of in-person music-making, both emotional and artistic, have been thrown aside and the cathartic culmination that comes during live performance has been lost. What has been gained, on the other hand, is the opportunity to produce idealized recordings that can make use of innovative compositional ideas that push past the limitations presented by in-person music-making.

Isotropes

I’d like to rewind back to mid-March of 2020. At that time, I had completed composing the music for Tides, learned that the premiere was to be cancelled, and developed some preliminary ideas for how to produce the remote-recording version of the piece without having yet done so (Tides was recorded in August). Realizing that I was well poised to make use of my skill set in composing with click tracks and eager to develop new and related compositional ideas, I was hungry to work on a new project. In a sleepless night, with infant yelps coming from the other room, I started to imagine the possibility of creating a modular open-instrumentation piece (think Terry Riley’s In C), in which a large group of musicians could record modules or “fragments” of their choosing. I imagined that a piece like this might be useful for lots of musicians, maybe even possible as an open-source project, as shelter-in-place orders were descending across the country and so many players were losing work. The next step was to find a group that was in need of such a project.

The U.C. Santa Cruz Wind Ensemble is an excellent group comprising students, community members, faculty members, and occasionally hired ringers, and happens to be directed by a close friend and collaborator of mine, Nat Berman. On March 15th, I texted Nat to ask him if he knew yet what the status of his ensemble was for the upcoming spring quarter, since it seemed likely at that moment that all of the university music ensembles would be cancelled. I myself am currently in my seventh year as the director of the Balinese gamelan ensembles at UCSC, and I was unsure then of the status of my own ensembles. Nat divined my underlying plan and responded to my text saying “Do you want to write us a click track piece that everyone can record individually?” As it turned out, both of my ensembles were indeed cancelled for that spring quarter, but this new project with Nat provided supplementary work for me while allowing for the wind ensemble to avoid cancellation.

The details of the commission were worked out in the following week after my initial text to Nat, and finalized around March 23. The piece would be called Isotropes, and the general concept was that it would be designed so that the players could record their parts remotely from home using whatever recording technology that was most readily available to them (generally cell phones and laptops, though various players had their own pro-audio recording gear that they used), and they would record along to click tracks that I would provide to accompany each part. The “premiere” would then be a virtual presentation of the final recording, mixing together all of the individual recordings made throughout the quarter. The first ensemble meeting was the very next week, on March 30, so I had about a week to compose some preliminary material for the piece and generate the parts and click tracks so that the musicians would have music to work on once the quarter started.

In that first week, as I further developed my concept for the piece and composed a collection of preliminary “fragments,” I continued to prioritize the need to create an open-instrumentation modular work. One of the reasons for this was that in the week before classes started, and even a week or two into the quarter, we were unsure of how many players would enroll in the ensemble and what the resulting instrumentation would be. Therefore, the piece needed to be flexible in regard to the number of players required and the instrumentation. As a result, I organized the score so that parts would be arranged first by instrument class (parts were either considered “sustaining” e.g. winds, strings, etc. or “non-sustaining” e.g. percussion, harp, piano, etc.) and then by register. In this way, the piece became “semi-open instrumentation” in that a given part must be played in the notated register and by an instrument in the same classification as the part, but within those restrictions the orchestration is flexible. Although this concept was tailored to some degree for the UCSC wind ensemble, the piece is designed to be for “adaptable orchestra” and playable by other types of orchestras such as string orchestras, symphony orchestras, etc.

An excerpt from the score of Brian Baumbusch's composition Isotropes

Excerpt from the score of Isotropes, Part I

Between March 23 and March 30, I wrote as much material as I could so as to keep the musicians busy once the quarter began and to give myself time to go back and write more of the piece as the musicians recorded the first section. Unlike most of the pieces that I compose in which I come up with a large formal structure for the entirety of the piece before composing various sections achronologically, in this case I composed from left to right, often feeling like I was composing one measure ahead of the musicians. And so it went for the ten weeks of the academic quarter: I would compose a movement of the piece, engrave the parts and click tracks and upload them onto a shared Google drive and as the musicians recorded each of the fragments from that movement, I would go back and compose the next movement. This happened in roughly two-week intervals so that over the course of about eight weeks, I had composed the four separate movements of the piece allowing for some final edits and re-records to take place during the final two weeks of the quarter.

Similar to the concept that I described for the piece Tides, Isotropes is designed to be recorded in fragments wherein each part contains between 5 and 15 fragments per movement. There is a total of about 1000 fragments in the whole piece split between 22 parts. Each fragment has its own unique click track, and the fragments are also assigned a difficult level (easy, medium, or difficult). I transposed each fragment in all of the relevant keys so that the players could choose which fragments they wished to record (often based on the difficulty level) as long as that fragment was written for their instrument class and fell within their instrument’s register. To keep track of who recorded what, we created a giant spreadsheet containing a box for each fragment, color-coded green (easy), yellow (medium), and orange (difficult), where the players would mark their initials in the boxes representing the fragments that they planned to record.

Spreadsheet listing the various components of Brian Baumbusch's composition Isotropes

The notated parts themselves referenced the accompanying click track, each of which contained a count-in and was composed of different pitched clicks to indicate the meter of the given fragment.

A notated example of a polytempo

Rhythmically, the piece makes use of many instances of polytempo in which multiple simultaneously varying tempo streams occur between the parts. In these cases, the rhythmic notation that I chose to display for the various parts is simplified to only contain note-heads without stems, and those note-heads are roughly spatially oriented within the score. In looking at the part above, you can count 12 notes in the first measure and 8 notes in the last measure, which is evidence that this fragment is undergoing a gradual ritardando, even though that ritardando is not reflected in the global score but is only localized to this specific part. At this point in the piece, simultaneous with this part is another part that is undergoing a gradual accelerando; this occurs during the third movement in which these two discrete tempo streams begin with a relationship of 3/1 in that the faster tempo is three times as fast as the slower tempo, and over the course of about a minute they converge on one another.

This is just one of many instances of polytempo used in the piece. Other sections of the piece contain three or more simultaneous tempo streams, some of which may be changing while others remain static. Sometimes, the tempo will vary drastically between two adjacent fragments within a single part. From the perspective of the musicians, this is a non-issue because adjacent fragments are not recorded in a single take and might not even be recorded by the same player. The players’ perspective is always localized to the tempo of the fragment that they are recording at a given time, and the rhythmic complexity of the music only comes together as multiple recordings are mixed together in post-production.

In this way, Isotropes demonstrates some of the possibilities presented by the remote recording paradigm. Although it is a piece that could be performed live (while still using click-tracks), it is actually much easier to create through remote collaboration. It also justifies the use of technology, particularly click tracks, in composing and recording music. For me, the process of attempting to innovate musical time through my work with click tracks has often felt like more of a necessity than anything else. Once I decided that I was going to ask performers to use click tracks in live performance starting back in 2015, I had to justify that decision by creating music that couldn’t be made any other way. In the same way now, I hope that composers and ensembles who turn to click tracks for their remote collaborations can justify the use of that technology for reasons other than convenience or compromise.

Over the past 8 months, many ensembles have been forced to compromise their plans because of the limitations that they see resulting from the prohibition of in-person rehearsal and performance. Many have struggled as they’ve tried to adapt existing musical traditions to meet the current predicament, finding that much of these adaptations introduce difficulties and degradations to something that we are much better suited to do in person. Indeed, almost all of our music history has been predicated on our ability to manifest a group feeling of musical time, either through a unified pulse or as indicated by a conductor, while playing our instruments together in-person. This is something that we are very good at as a species and has been evidenced across the globe for millennia. However, this is not the only way to manifest musical time. As more and more musicians and ensembles are turning to recording technologies and click tracks to create music, we have a responsibility to use this technology to innovate music in ways that will expand our musical language even after a return to normalcy arrives. If for no other reason, we need to do this now because we CAN do this now. Right now is an incredible time to explore the possibilities of remote collaboration and innovative approaches to musical time, precisely because of the fact that so many musicians are at home and looking for work. In that way, the unprecedented time that we are in offers an unprecedented opportunity. We have no justification for blaming the current moment for curtailing our artistic potential. We need to start adopting new performance practices, rather than adapting or compromising existing ones.

[Ed. note: Other Minds has released a digital album of Brian Baumbusch’s music featuring both Isotropes and Tides which is available to download via Bandcamp as of December 18, 2020. – FJO]

The Curious Case of Keiko Yamada

A Japanese face mask on a shelf

The evening of August 31 began like most Saturday nights at the start of the fall semester. I was reviewing course plans and readings for the upcoming week, while I casually scrolled through my email. It was late, and I had long since lost whatever drive had propelled me earlier when I received an email from David Biedenbender, a friend and colleague at Blue Dot Collective, with the subject line “Larry Clark.” Curious, I clicked on the message and was presented with a top-line that read, “This is SO NOT OKAY…” above two screenshots. The first was an image from jwpepper.com of a Grade 1/2 string orchestra piece entitled Kon’nichiwa by a composer named Keiko Yamada with the description: “This piece is ‘hello,’ with a smile on your face.”

I was confused. The title and description were, at worst, innocuous, maybe trite, but they certainly didn’t warrant an all caps critique. It wasn’t until I scrolled down further to the second screenshot that I began to understand. There I found a copied message from Owen Davis, a composer/percussionist/music teacher from Flagstaff, AZ that outlined the controversy signaled in the email’s subject line. It read in part[1]:

*PSA* to all of my friends in music education and specifically the band world: Prominent composer/Arranger Larry Clark made a pen name “Keiko Yamada” to pretend to be a Japanese Female composer in order to profit from calls for diversity in music education! […] To make things worse, after being pulled from some prominent music publishers after being publicly outed for this, some publishers decided to put his real name on the score. This winter [he] is an invited presenter at the prestigious Midwest Band Clinic leading a talk on “Selecting Quality Literature” for band.

Despite the anger expressed in Davis’s account and his speculated motives, my initial reaction was disbelief. The idea that a white male composer decided to use a pseudonym that did not conform to his race or gender read almost like a bad joke—who could possibly think this was a good idea? Moreover, I thought, who needs a pen name in twenty-first-century American music publishing? Women and people of color aren’t overtly banned from publishing or self-publishing their music, and white men are especially not prevented from getting their works performed. There’s no reason to have a pen name today. And while cultural appropriation has become a topic of discussion recently, there are no prohibitions that would necessitate a fake Asian identity to write a piece like Kon’nichiwa. White male composers have been doing it for centuries and continue to do so.[2]

The idea that a white male composer decided to use a pseudonym that did not conform to his race or gender read almost like a bad joke—who could possibly think this was a good idea?

I logged onto Facebook to see if the story had developed. It had, but like most social media discussion, it was more emotionally enlightening than factually informative. Comments were flooding in, some expressing confusion, but mostly anger. While monitoring the conversations, I decided to verify the charges against Clark as best I could. I checked the Midwest Band Clinic schedule, and Clark’s clinic “In the Eyes of the Beholder: Selecting Quality Literature” was indeed happening. Then I went to the JW Pepper site. I saw more Japanese-themed titles and pieces with duel compositional credit given to Larry Clark and Keiko Yamada.[3]

At this moment, my disbelief became resentment. The thought that Clark, a former Vice President and Editor-in-Chief at Carl Fischer Music, one of most prominent publishing companies for educational music in the country, had used his position to publish and promote works under his Keiko Yamada pseudonym was enraging. Because it was late and no additional information was forthcoming, I grew irritable. I told my friends and colleagues I would certainly be there at Clark’s Midwest presentation to ask him what it meant to program “quality” literature. Like many commentators, I fantasized about a confrontation, the chance to be seen and be heard. But this online back-and-forth quickly exhausted its potential, and failed to provide any release. We needed and deserved to know more.

The next day, Clark issued a statement of apology on his Facebook page.

To my friends and colleagues in the music community, I offer my heartfelt apology. Several years ago, I wrote music using the pen name Keiko Yamada. I sincerely meant no harm in doing so. It has been common for composers and authors to use pen names for centuries. Times have obviously changed, and I realized that the use of this pen name was uninformed, insensitive, and out of touch with the need for cultural appropriation and diversity in music.

In 2016, together with my publisher at the time, we decided to eliminate the use of pen names altogether. I chose to have all of these pieces changed to reflect my name as a composer. Old inventory was removed and recalled from music retailers. New versions with my name as the composer were reprinted, at my personal expense.

I accept the responsibility for my uninformed decision to use this pen name. I believe in the music as I do all of the music I write, but what I did was wrong and needs to be corrected.

I can’t change the past and am trying to make things right through my own company Excelcia Music Publishing. Cultural authenticity is paramount, and I will strive to put the composer first by seeking out composers of diverse backgrounds that better reflect the students that will perform the music. I hope that my actions going forward will demonstrate my desire to learn from my mistake.

I am sincerely sorry and will continue to be better informed and sensitive to these important issues.

When I read this, I felt deflated. What should have provided the information crucial to making sense of the emotions riled up the night before was missing. Clark’s apology failed to explain why he decided to use a pseudonym. Its absence only aggravated my frustrations. I took to social media and again found comfort in peers who felt similarly disappointed in Clark’s statement. Unfortunately, by this time, the Internet had produced its inevitable backlash. And we were confronted by Clark’s defenders who posted hurtful remarks like “I’m sorry this was a problem for you ppl [sic] are so triggered and emotional these days I don’t think you need to apologise [sic]” and “Seriously? I see no need to apologize. This world is getting way too sensitive!” Needless to say, but this didn’t help.

As the debates around Clark grew increasingly acrimonious, a series of dramatic actions took place. The Midwest Clinic canceled the Clark presentation. Music by Keiko Yamada was quickly removed from Internet shelves. Webpages disappeared. Carl Fischer issued a statement to their orchestra directors about the controversy saying, “We now realize we should have gone further by taking these publications out of circulation, an action we have since taken.” Clark reiterated his apology online. Everything regarding Larry Clark and Keiko Yamada was shut down in a mere matter of days.

The disappearing of Clark and Yamada felt vaguely like a cover-up, a way to cut debate off before more significant questions could be asked.

The responses to these actions were mixed. Some friends and colleagues were jubilant. For them, the offender had been punished, and the offending material erased. But their numbers were small, and their satisfaction generally waned in the wake of the Midwest Clinic talk cancellation, and the removal of Clark’s music from available outlets. Others, myself included, were more ambivalent. The disappearing of Clark and Yamada didn’t feel like a resolution. It felt vaguely like a cover-up, a way to cut debate off before more significant questions could be asked. Like questions that extend beyond Clark about his enablers at Carl Fisher, about the people who knew about Keiko Yamada and remained silent, and about the other potential pen names that did or may even still exist in company catalogs.

Most of all, the actions still didn’t answer the question of why Larry Clark had done what he had done. What was Clark’s rationale? What possible circumstances allowed him to think Keiko Yamada was a good idea? My initial research only produced more questions, like if Keiko Yamada’s name was used specifically for originally composed Asian-styled pedagogical orchestral music, why did Clark/Yamada arrange Albert Ellmenreich’s Spinning Song? I realized I needed to talk to Clark. Fortunately, Clark was also eager to talk, and a month after the scandal broke,[4] we were able to sit for an interview.

What follows is a transcript of our conversation I produced in the hours following our meeting. (Clark did not want a recording and has approved the text below.) Our time was limited, which prevented some follow up questions that I wanted to ask. Overall, the exchange was frank, and I appreciated his readiness to respond to all queries that I posed.


Fortunately, Clark was eager to talk, and a month after the scandal broke, we were able to sit for an interview.

Jennifer Jolley: In your initial apology you claimed that using a pen name “has been common for composers and authors…for centuries,” but that “[t]imes obviously have changed.” Looking over the pieces under the name Yamada it seems that you adopted this name in 2009, am I correct?

Larry Clark: I wrote the first piece (Hotaka Sunset) in 2004 and it was published in 2005.

JJ: Okay, you created this persona in 2004. So, then you believed it was appropriate to create the persona of an Asian woman in 2004. I guess my question is: what events or developments in the past decade caused you to reassess the decision you made in 2004?

LC: I wasn’t thinking that it was a good idea in 2004; it was flawed thinking on my part anyway. I didn’t give it a whole lot of thought. When I started writing in the publishing business, I was mentored by a lot by older composers in publishing. It was really common that most of them had pseudonyms. This is not an excuse, just how it was when I started getting pieces published.

JJ: How many of these composers had pseudonyms? How many did they have?

LC: I can’t really even tell you that because I don’t know. All of the composers that I had worked with at least had one. Sometimes it had to do with market proliferation; sometimes it had to do with that you’re known as a person who writes at a certain grade level, and sometimes to be taken seriously at a different grade level you needed to use a different name.

“When I started writing, I was mentored by a lot by older composers. It was really common that most of them had pseudonyms.”

I don’t have any excuse for doing this at all. I didn’t give it a lot of thought. I realize it was super insensitive, not a really well-thought out idea. I wish I could take it back, honestly. Going forward, I realize there was no excuse. I was being ignorant and it’s appropriation. Back in 2005, no one really thought about it like they do now. Again, not an excuse.

JJ: So now I’m curious as to when you decided not to use the Yamada pseudonym anymore. What prompted you to do this? You wrote that you and your publisher worked to eliminate pen names and sought to recall inventory that didn’t list you as the composer. Why didn’t you or Carl Fisher Music make a public statement on this? The recalling of music at your own expense suggests that you thought it was at least problematic, why did you remain silent?

LC: It started to feel like it was a bad idea when things started to change culturally, and with more awareness, and political correctness. I’m super apologetic to you; I understand how this could be interpreted.

My feelings about using the pen name started to change when the pieces began to have success. People wanted to meet Keiko Yamada and possibly commission works. Honestly, I didn’t know what to do. I felt really uncomfortable about that. At first, I was not trying to keep it a secret. Musicians in the recording session were aware it was my pen name. When we started receiving requests for information I tried to be more elusive about it, which I regret greatly. I guess I just got scared, which is not a good excuse, but the truth. As the political climate changed and the country became more divided, that is when the topic came up at Carl Fischer. And that is when I began to think about the opportunities this could be taking away from real composers of diversity, and how hurtful that could be.

“People wanted to meet Keiko Yamada and possibly commission works. Honestly, I didn’t know what to do.”

We got into discussions at Carl Fischer about this, so we decided to stop. At first, we thought it would be best to get rid of all the music. That did not sit well with me, because I believed in the music. I thought it was some of my best work, and wanted it to continue, so I made the choice personally to take whatever ramifications came my way and have the pieces changed to my name. The problem is, we didn’t do a good job expressing all of that to the public, because we feared what the ramifications would be. We had concern that what has been happening would happen. I was willing to at that time take it; I wanted to have the music continued. The problem was with the execution of what was done. I was on the team; it was a company decision and that’s how it was handled. [Ed. Note: Sonya Kim has been president of Carl Fischer since 2008.] I think we would all agree that we didn’t handle it well and we didn’t handle it thoroughly and I regret that too.

In retrospect, I, together with Carl Fischer, could have been more transparent and thorough in handling the situation.

JJ: So the orchestra people/directors knew about the pseudonym?

LC: Many of the orchestra people were very upset when that happened.

JJ: Why?

LC: Because of the same reason as the band people. On Facebook there is a String Orchestra Directors Page and that information blew up then. It was split: they took sides. At the time, I asked Sonya Kim, president of Carl Fischer what are we were going to do.

JJ: I want to pinpoint something you said earlier. When exactly did Keiko’s music become successful? Can you pinpoint a year or piece?

LC: People wanted to meet me/her in either 2006 or 2007? Yes, it is Japanese Lullaby that became successful. It was selected for a lot of festival lists and was performed at Midwest, etc.

JJ: Following up on this, Keiko Yamada is a composer listed on a few Prescribed Music Lists, and I believe one of Yamada’s works was performed at the Midwest Clinic. Did you alert anyone involved that you were the composer of the works selected? Do you remember which state lists Keiko Yamada was on?

LC: Which state lists…this is very challenging to determine…

JJ: That is what I’ve been discovering.

LC: I know they were on Florida, Texas, maybe Maryland? There are a lot of states that don’t have a state list. Many of the pieces were performed at Midwest. This happened multiple times, and almost every year.

This is how we tried to alert people in 2016. The intention was not successfully executed. Carl Fischer was to alert the dealers that the names were changing to mine. The Letter asked music dealers to alert the music committees for state lists. This was sent out after these pieces were selected. Carl Fischer sent this to their dealer network, the sheet music dealers.

JJ: While the use of a pen name does date back centuries, this doesn’t satisfactorily explain your motive for using one. A pen name is a strategy employed in response to exigent circumstances such as the protection of an individual’s physical safety (dissents in unfree societies), the preemption of discrimination (Jewish actors that Anglicize their stage names), or to allow individuals access (women authors seeking the consideration of male dominated publishing houses). Given that you were a successful American composer working in a publishing house what were the circumstances that necessitated and/or motivated your creation of Keiko Yamada?

LC: Well, it was not well thought out, I had written a piece that was Japanese in style; I was having difficulty with sales in orchestra music, because I was considered more of a band composer. When they see my name they think, “Oh well, he’s a band music guy. He’s just writing band music and then writing and arranging it for strings.” I was not taken as seriously at that point as an orchestra composer.

JJ: So to clarify, this piece you’re talking about was initially a string piece, not a band piece that was later transcribed to strings?

LC: This was initially a string piece. Clarification: there are no Keiko Yamada band pieces.

JJ: I find it fascinating that publishing educational band and orchestral music was so segregated and isolated. That just boggles my mind.

“Funny story: I was chatting with Michael Colgrass once. He asked me, ‘Why don’t you write college level music?’ and I replied, ‘I’m known as the middle school band guy!’”

LC: Funny story: I was chatting with Michael Colgrass once. He asked me, “Why don’t you write college level music?” and I replied, “I’m known as the middle school band guy!”

JJ: That’s nuts because you have band pieces for higher levels.

LC: I think it’s easier to go top-down; I started writing music for lower levels first, so it’s harder to go up. There was a time at Carl Fischer where they wanted to label music as “serious vs. educational music.” I was against that.

JJ: That’s so wrong. Anyway, how did you invent the name Keiko Yamada?

LC: The name was not well thought out, not sensitive, not all those things. I thought, Yamada is a common Japanese surname. Keiko…I don’t remember. I didn’t want anything gender specific. I didn’t do enough research.

JJ: I have to say, I’m not of Japanese descent, but I’ve known a few Japanese people in my life, and “Keiko” is very much a feminine name.

LC: I realize that now; I didn’t do a lot of research. Honestly, I don’t really have a good answer for you, because it was not well thought out.

JJ: Next question. Colleagues of mine have noted that when they researched Keiko Yamada, they were confused by her online biography. Several publishers and even a young student presenting on Yamada used the birth date of another musician of the same name—it’s the first Keiko Yamada musician when you Google the name. You also contributed to this effect by having most of Yamada’s work be Asian themed (Kazoku, Kabosu, Yuki Matsuri, Rickshaw, Japanese Hoedown etc.), and then when you had Keiko Yamada arrange Albert Ellmenreich’s Spinning Song. So I guess my question is if Yamada is an innocuous pen name, why did you develop such a distinct body of work for her? Was it because these pieces are strictly orchestral in nature?

“The interesting thing is that—no excuses—I found a different voice to write in, which I enjoyed.”

LC: With regard to the birthdate and the bio, I have no idea where any of that came from. There was never a bio or birthdate sent out. Regarding a body of work, yes, the interesting thing is that—no excuses—I found a different voice to write in, which I enjoyed. I was trying not to be disrespectful or cliché to the music to Japan, I creatively sounded like a different composer I thought. Again, it doesn’t change the fact that we’re here.

Spinning Song…That was the only one that was not of Japanese influence…I don’t remember why. I don’t know.

JJ: Is it because Spinning Song fell under the purview of “orchestra music” and Keiko was strictly an “orchestra composer”?

LC: I wasn’t doing as much orchestra music under my own name because it wasn’t doing as well.

JJ: Following up on this, do you have records of how many other composers in 2016 in the Carl Fisher Music catalog were writing under their own name and an additional pen name? If so, did any of those composers use a pen name that didn’t conform to their gender or race?

LC: Actually, not with Carl Fischer. My first job in publishing was with Warner Bros. Publications in Miami in 1995. [Pen names were] used often for grade level and used often for a lot of arrangements. If someone did use pen names, it would be for Grade 2 marching band arrangements, for example if they were known more for say more difficult arrangements.

JJ: Does this still go on?

LC: I think so. I was working at Warner Bros. until 1999. I still believe some are still out there.

Actually, I have a funny story about this. I started out as a marching band arranger, and a friend of my boss Jack Bullock, who was a middle school band director, said, “I like this guy Larry Clark’s arrangements; is that a pseudonym for you?”

JJ: That’s wild.

LC: My name is so simple, it probably sounded like a pseudonym to her.

JJ: Did anyone know about some specific pseudonyms? I mean, there seemed to be a reputation that everybody was using them.

LC: There was a reputation of pseudonyms, but no one knew who they were. This was more so in the “pop” arranging scene at WB. We were doing so much so quickly. We had a couple of days or a weekend to turn around these arrangements.

JJ: Did anyone switch their gender or race with these pseudonyms?

LC: Gender or race? YES. Race, but not gender.

JJ: And this had to do with style?

LC: Did this have to do with style? It was similar to what I did, but I took it one step too far. There is one case I remember off the top of my head; it was used to be a specific style of music.

By the way my official title at Warner Bros. was Marching Band and Jazz Ensemble Instrumental Editor from 1995–1999. I worked at Carl Fischer from 1999–2018, and I started my own company in 2018.

JJ: Why did you start your own company?

“I left Carl Fischer on good terms in 2018, and will always be proud of the company and the work I did there.”

LC: I worked remotely (from my Florida home) for Carl Fischer starting in 2003. It is challenging to keep a connection with a company over a long period of time as employees come and go, and so in the last few years I felt more disconnected to the company, despite the ongoing collaboration, conference calls, trips to the headquarters, etc. It was no one’s fault, just happened, and I left Carl Fischer on good terms in 2018, and will always be proud of the company and the work I did there. With my new company I had some ideas on how I wanted to do some things differently.  Self-publishing has become more of the thing. I think it’s because composers don’t feel serviced. We’re trying to help with that.

JJ: So, speaking of Carl Fischer, your position at Carl Fisher Music from 1999–2018 was Vice President and Editor-in-Chief and an archived bio from Midwest describes part of your duties as reviewing thousands of works for publication. Between 2005–2016 did you ever promote Yamada works in your official capacities?

LC: I don’t understand your question. What do you mean by promoting works in official capacities?

JJ: Let me clarify. For example, I believe if you register as a publisher at the Midwest Clinic, you’re allowed to submit some pieces for reading sessions?

LC: The Keiko pieces were already being selected for performances, so there was no need for reading sessions. Midwest has very strict restrictions for what can be programmed on concerts. You have to have one of each grade level from a different publisher on your concert…

JJ: You have to have a march…

LC: You have to have a march, etc. for band. Midwest provides the list of performing ensembles to the publishers once they are selected.

JJ: Did you have a say as to which pieces were on which list?

LC: Yes, but we would send them a CD sampler/MP3 list that also included scores. We would send everything; including Christmas music, because some groups wanted to play those, since the convention is close to Christmas.

JJ: Because that was a good time of year to buy Christmas music, I’m assuming.

LC: Yes.

JJ: Did you ever promote Keiko Yamada’s music over others?

LC: No, we did not promote some pieces over others. We promoted the new pieces in our catalog. We would usually send out separate band and orchestra lists. We would send out CDs for all the new orchestra music and all new band music. If any of these were of interest, we would send you a full score or even a set. We would bend over backwards to get music performed as often as we could. Now it’s all in Dropbox; we have available non-printable scores. We organize it more by grade level.

And again, everything we were sending out was new. We’d send it out in the late spring/early summer for the new school year. Also, Carl Fischer would send out a cover letter on behalf of the composers. I’ve been encouraging composers in my new company to write an additional personalized cover letter in addition if they have time; most composers take me up on that and it has been very successful.

JJ: I’ve spoken with a lot of composers and music colleagues in the run-up to our discussion and there is a lot of frustration, and even anger from their points of view. In their perspectives, your apologies for your actions ignore the real-world consequences of your actions. You were already an established composer; you held a position of power in a prominent publishing company, and yet you decided to compose under the name of an Asian woman. Given the concerted push to diversify music that is occurring when you’re writing as Keiko Yamada, do you understand why many people feel you likely stole opportunities from them?

“All I can do going forward is to try to make a difference for women and composers of color.”

LC: One hundred percent. Of course, I didn’t think about this when I created the name in 2004. Again, this is not something you can take back. All I can do going forward is to try to make a difference for women and composers of color. I’ve already agreed to give every penny I’ve made from these pieces over to help underrepresented composers. I’m still waiting for Carl Fischer to give me a full accounting of how much I made with these pieces. But I also don’t want to do any of this with any fanfare, and I am not looking for any accolades. I know how upset people are, and I know how ridiculously ignorant and insensitive this was.

This is not in line with who I am. I did a very insensitive and uniformed thing; I regret doing this. I understand people may never play my music again. However, I have five boys, and they have to see me handle this the right way. A lot of people said horrible things without knowing me. I have a multicultural family. I adopted two boys from Haiti. I’m disappointed in myself; I’m embarrassed. It’s been tough.

JJ: What do you think you can offer the current conversation about diversity in music given your actions?

LC: Certainly, I’ve been trying to do this throughout my career. There are a lack of women and people of color that are composing. Today it’s even more difficult because there is even more self-publishing. It’s very difficult to find people. It’s a challenge. I’m continuing to do that. We have women and people of color in my company. You know, some people said I didn’t have enough women and people of color, but I just started my company in July of 2018, and it takes time, but I feel I can also help with this. I will have one conversation at a time and work to regain trust.

JJ: Individually?

LC: Yes. There are some people who said I did nothing wrong, but that’s not true. I did do something wrong. I want to talk to those people too. If other composers use pseudonyms, I hope they reconsider using them. I hope I can be a beacon as to what not to do.

JJ: Are there any specific people you want to talk to?

“I hope I can be a beacon as to what not to do.”

LC: Anyone who wants to listen? I would love to hear your feedback. I will be at Midwest, so if anyone wants to talk to me, they can find me.

JJ: How will they find you? Can I tell people how to find you at Midwest?

LC: Excelcia will have a booth, and I will be there, because the most important thing to me is that I don’t want my actions to hurt my fifty composers. They just had their first release. We just started.

JJ: You know, admittedly, I was a little disappointed that your Midwest session got canceled because I thought this would have given you the perfect opportunity to answer the questions we all had personally. Hopefully, by December our deep frustration and anger would be lessened a bit so we can have a constructive conversation with you.

LC: And my topic at Midwest was not to tell people which pieces they should be programming. It was how to pick literature that’s of quality, how to identify pieces with good counterpoint, good harmony and melody, which pieces used good ranges for their specific ensemble, etc.

JJ: And I get what you’re saying here; unfortunately, the word “quality” now is code for “music that has been written by cisgender white males” because “quality” has been used as a knee-jerk response to why it’s still okay to ignore and disregard music written by women and people of color. And then when people like me hear the word “quality” being used in association with programming, I instantly believe those who refuse to diversify programming state that music by others cannot be as good.

LC: I agree that the same people who tried to say I did nothing wrong were also throwing around things like “I only play quality music.” That is wrong, too, and the point of my clinic at Midwest was not to tell anyone what quality music is, but to give conductors tools to look for pieces with good craft. I understand what you are saying about the term “quality” and its implications—I will be more sensitive to that.

JJ: Here’s a question: is your new publishing company more of a distributor than a traditional publisher?

LC: It’s a regular publishing company; it is similarly done like Carl Fisher and others. We do professional recordings and distribution with all the major sheet music dealers of the world. We do a lot more on social media.

JJ: I’m thinking aloud here…is there an “in between” way in which composers who are skeptical about having you publish their works could have some sort of trial period? Admittedly, considering how I identify, I would not want you to publish my music. But let’s say, maybe over quite a few years from now, you can use your publishing company to get a person of color’s music on a Midwest reading session without having them officially sign up with your company?

LC: Midwest has strict rules: they have all these rules on how you have to have certain representation of grade levels, different publishers…it’s challenging. I recently reached out to Kaitlin Bove [the founder of the organization …And We Were Heard] to inquire how I might be able to assist the organization. I think her idea of the recordings is awesome. Here’s the interesting thing. They are finding bands to record Grade 3 and 4 pieces, but they can’t get anyone to record the Grade 1 and 2 pieces, and I said, “I’m your guy!” I’ll record those pieces—even for orchestra.

JJ: That is a great idea. I love this. We composers are so dependent on these recordings, and they’re hard to obtain.

“I was also thinking about starting a scholarship with the money I earned to help fund a composer who is a woman or a person of color going to college to study composition. And I don’t want credit for this.”

LC: Yes, I’m hopeful that she will be interested in me doing that, and I’d pay for it personally; I won’t have my publishing company pay for those recordings. I was also thinking about starting a scholarship with the money I earned to help fund a composer who is a woman or a person of color going to college to study composition. And I don’t want credit for this.

JJ: Those are all my questions, and I want to thank you for taking the time to chat with me and answer my questions. Is there anything else you would like to add?

LC: I just appreciate the tone and the tenor of this interview. And I want to apologize to you personally, and I’ll personally apologize to anyone, because I know what I did hurt others and I am truly sorry for that. I also have apologized to my kids too, because I want them to see that we are all flawed beings, and we sometimes make poor decisions in life. We have to own up to those mistakes, accept the consequences, try to make amends to the people we hurt, and learn and grow in the process.  I also want them to learn from me so that they think very carefully about everything they do, and how their actions affect others.


As the conversation fades and the transcript becomes my primary reference, things are both clearer and more complex. My first imaginings of confronting Clark the night the story broke bore little resemblance to the encounter. After talking one-on-one, I have to admit, I have more empathy for Larry Clark. I relate to him as a composer and as an imperfect human being. Yet even in retrospect, the experience poses some difficulties for me.

It’s hard to stay angry with Clark, but not because his explanations of Keiko Yamada are particularly good.

On the one hand it’s hard to stay angry with Clark, but not because his explanations of Keiko Yamada are particularly good. I believe he’s deeply sorry, and his desire to learn seems genuine. On the other hand, it’s still frustrating and disappointing to read his evasions like “political correctness” or his self-presentation as a victim (“that band guy in the eyes of the orchestra world”). I find myself wanting to yell that white men impersonating Asian women didn’t just become wrong in the twenty-first century. But to be compelled to forcefully say something so obvious is exhausting and worse, it puts the responsibility on me.

And it’s here where I find some clarity to the source of conflict I feel about Clark and Yamada. Powerful people have the luxury of evolving to a point where they might consider the benefits their person and positions have accrued. But this process takes place in real time, time that is experienced very differently by people outside the establishment. How many composers during Keiko Yamada’s “career” lost opportunities because a rental or a place on a state list went to “her”? How many of those selections were motivated by a music director’s desire to diversify their concerts? How many times did a young woman or person of color feel that powerful sense of possibility in imagining someone like them writing the work they were about to play? Moreover, how do we take stock of the reverberations extending from the fact that Clark didn’t confess but rather was caught.

It’s a certain way the open booth at Midwest (which I genuinely recommend) is the perfect encapsulation of the problems and contradictions that I’m feeling: it is laudable but insufficient. The booth will likely be more therapeutic than transformative because it keeps Clark at the center and does little to address the systemic corruption of the larger music world. Indeed, the paradox of the entire Clark/Yamada affair is that Clark does deserve harsh judgment, but focusing too much on him dilutes the ability to see the broader problems. Systems are difficult things to imagine, understand, and transform. Clark’s actions warrant condemnation, but he was aided and abetted throughout Yamada’s fictitious career. A culture of silence and selfishness of vision in the highest reaches of the publishing world permitted Clark to act as he did. For the Clark/Yamada affair to be useful, there needs to be a much more comprehensive and transparent examination of catalogs in the band and orchestra world. If Clark’s claims about the pervasiveness of pen names are correct, we need an account and not just of the composers, but of the administrators and executives who facilitated this.

Composing music is hard, but being a composer is harder.

Composing music is hard, but being a composer is harder. It’s financially precarious, filled with rejection, and driven by a sense of self that is constantly under siege. To be a composer of color or a woman (or both) is beyond difficult. They are profoundly absent in concert halls today, and the situation is not much better when you look at the state lists.[5] The lingering effects of Clark/Yamada are to magnify the paranoia and cynicism too often experienced by underrepresented composers. It confirms the most extreme sense that the music world is an unfair system rigged in favor of the privileged. I guess this is why I can’t offer a succinct summation or tidy lesson learned from this mess. So in place of a conclusion I want to offer thoughts. I hope Larry Clark will continue to work for change. I also hope he knows how much work needs to be done and that there’s a real chance he’ll never balance his ledger. I want him to get to that place, but I also know that I can’t speak for anyone else. Above all, to the women and people of color, I hope you keep writing.


Notes:

1. Full Text of Davis’s message:

*PSA* to all of my friends in music education and specifically the band world: Prominent composer/Arranger Larry Clark made a pen name “Keiko Yamada” to pretend to be a Japanese Female composer in order to profit from calls for diversity in music education! This is disgusting, misleading, and just awful that we have students being subjected to not even appropriated music, but a fantasy of appropriated music. What does this accomplish? What goals of diversity and growth does this further?

To make things worse, after being pulled from some prominent music publishers after being publicly outed for this, some publishers decided to put his real name on the score. This winter he is an invited presenter at the prestigious Midwest Band Clinic leading a talk on “Selecting Quality Literature” for band. There is so much music that exists in the world of band by diverse voices – why does this still need to be published?

I don’t know what needs to happen and can’t individually leverage against this. I am not a band director, but if I was I probably wouldn’t support his work any longer. As a music educator, however, I am just really frustrated and saddened by this news.


2. For example, John Barnes Chance wrote Variations on a Korean Folk Song for concert band in 1965; this piece is standard wind ensemble repertoire and is still being performed.


3. Besides Kon’nichiwa, other titles include Tsumasaki, Koneko, Sunayama, Mystic Fawn, and Japanese Hoedown.


4. This interview took place on Monday, September 30, 2019.


5. Average Representation of Diverse Composers (Women, People of Color, Women of Color) across state lists: 6.37%; Average Representation of Women Composers of Color on sampled state lists: 0.03%. Statistics compiled by Cory Meals, Assistant Professor of Music Education at the University of Houston.

Leveling Up, Part 2: Making the Grade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Big Picture

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

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

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

We need to think about what the students CAN do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grades

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

The lines between the grade levels are fuzzy.

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

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

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

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

Grade 2—Easy (2 years of playing experience)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade 6—Professional (10+ years playing experience)

  • Most universities
  • Very difficult in all facets

Leveling Up, Part 1: The Business of Sheet Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Business of Sheet Music Publishing

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

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

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

These numbers aren’t exaggerations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Show Me The Music 

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

Leveling the music makes it easier to sell.

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

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

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

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

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

The Grades Aren’t Everything

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

Music is an art form and defies boxes and labels.

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

NOTES:

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

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