Tag: wind band

Composer Advocacy Notebook: In Search of the New “Normal”

The exhibition areas of the 2022 Midwest Clinic at McCormick Place in Chicago and the 2023 Chamber Music America conference at the Westin Times Square in New York City.

I’ve been attending the annual New York City-based conference of Chamber Music America in January since before the launch of NewMusicBox (which is nearly a quarter of a century) and, since 2015, have also traveled to Chicago in the latter part of December to attend The Midwest Clinic, an annual music expo focused mostly–but not exclusively–on wind bands. (It’s mostly school-based groups, but there are also military and community ensembles who perform here. And, in addition to wind bands, there are also school and community-based string orchestras, percussion ensembles, jazz big bands, and chamber groups.) What keeps me coming back to both these events year after year is the amount of focus on new music and that both attract a wide range of people involved in the music: interpreters, publishers, advocates, and–most importantly–composers from diverse backgrounds who have a very wide range of stylistic inclinations. This means there are always tons of new music-specific conversations (sadly often not the case at convenings for several other national music networks), plus there are tons of exciting live performances of new works. Once again, both events proved being worthy of my time.

Although it’s probably obvious, it needs to be pointed out that the pandemic was responsible for hiatuses of both events. (Strangely I still remember getting extremely sick right after flying back from Chicago in 2019, more than two months before the alleged North American arrival of COVID-19, which miraculously I still haven’t officially contracted, and I hope to keep it that way.)  Following the nation-wide shut down in March 2020, the Windy City’s monumental McCormick Place, North America’s largest convention center where the annual Midwest Clinic has taken place since 2009, shut its doors for well over a year. Obviously, there was no 2020 Clinic except for a somewhat surreal makeshift virtual event over Zoom. But McCormick gradually resumed business in June 2021, and by December the venue was purported to be back to “normal.” So there was a 2021 Midwest Clinic though it did not seem to attract its usual audience of over 17,000 people.

Since it always takes place in January, the much smaller CMA conference was the last major music gathering I attended before everything shut down in 2020. But for the next two years (2021 and 2022), it was deemed too unsafe to ask people from around the country (and, in fact, the world) to attend this sometimes claustrophobic-feeling event which for many years has taken place on three floors of a medium-sized hotel a block away from Times Square. Instead CMA presented virtual conferences which also took place, as it seems everything else did, over Zoom. So the gathering this past weekend was the first in-person CMA conference in three years and references to Rip Van Winkle were frequent as was an overarching sense of resilience and fortitude. As a result, this year’s CMA get together felt much more like a long awaited homecoming than Midwest Clinic did two weeks earlier. Still, neither was a “return to normal”; both events veered from their previous formulas in significant ways and overall these changes were refreshing and welcome.

Two versions of the same holiday display in McCormick Place during Midwest Clinic, before and after the reindeer lost its face.

Just about the only difference I perceived in the holiday decorations since I’ve been attending the Midwest Clinic is that at one point in 2019 the reindeer (which looks more like a moose to me) mysteriously lost its face. It was missing from the display in 2021 and 2022, but everything else was there.

Since I began attending the Midwest Clinic in 2015, the event has had pretty much the same format every single year down to the same banner photos of previous years’ honorees and even the same holiday decorations. From what I can glean, it has been exactly the same long before I began showing up. People could begin registering on a Tuesday evening, but the first event would always begin at around 8:00 A.M. on Wednesday morning. For three days there would be non-stop activities–many competing showcase concerts and panels (which they call clinics) as well as reading sessions, product showcases, and by-invitation only ceremonies (which are not printed in the program book, like the announcement of the annual Revelli Award), plus a bustling exhibition area–with all listed events usually ending by 9:00 pm in the evening. After those three somewhat overwhelming 13-hour plus days, there would be a relatively quiet final half-day on Saturday which way fewer people attended, ending with a showcase concert by a high profile wind band ending by early afternoon. (On that last day, not only is the Exhibition Hall already closed, so are almost all of McCormick Place’s food concessions making it feel like the event was already over.) Bands usually play in the same set of large rooms with one specific room, a significant walk from all other events on the schedule, reserved for jazz bands. When I first started attending this thing it felt like these groups were being segregated, but the long walk to hear them was always worth it.

This year the decorations as well as the banners of honorees were mostly the same (though thankfully, finally, they weren’t exclusively white men) as were the room assignments and the planned three and half-day structure. But there were two significant differences to the schedule, albeit only one of which was planned. Breaking its usual calendar, activities began on a Monday and were scheduled to end in the middle of the day that Thursday. But it was not to be. On Tuesday, fearing an historic winter storm which ultimately resulted in the cancellation of more than 18,000 flights nationwide, the organizers cut the event short, shutting the exhibition hall half a day early on Wednesday and rescheduling the events of the final Thursday half-day to other times where rooms were open on Tuesday night and Wednesday. By mid-Wednesday, McCormick Place seemed like a ghost town when a mere 24 hours earlier it felt like rush hour at Grand Central Station (and also, due to most folks not wearing face masks, like a massive potential super spreader event).

An assortment of tubas at the Exhibition Hall during the Midwest Clinic

There were soooooo many people at this thing, but there were also so many tubas!

As a result, I wound up attending far fewer events than I usually do and, I must confess, I felt somewhat cheated though obviously the bad weather wasn’t the fault of Midwest Clinic’s organizers. Nevertheless, from what I did attend, I was able to perceive what I believe is real positive change. While the composers of the repertoire for performances at the Midwest Clinic are still quite far away from being truly representative of the cultural and gender diversity of the population of this country, there seemed to be a real effort to foreground music by Black composers as well as by women. It must be pointed out that the the entire event is heavily driven by music publishers. In the old days, the big publishers actively promoted certain composers and their works were the most prominent. In the 21st century landscape, where self-published composers can compete in a more level playing field, there is a greater opportunity to break into this network. It is something composers like John Mackey and Johan De Meij discovered a long time ago and they still keep coming every year. Admittedly, it’s not cheap. If your music gets performed in one of the concerts, you must be represented by a booth in the exhibition hall. This is a much easier expenditure for a big company than it is for an individual. But the most clever composers have formed collectives and support each other. As a result, a much greater diversity of composers is now present there and it has made a difference.

Omar Thomas, who in 2019 became the first Black composer ever to receive the Revelli Award, was a superstar at this year’s Clinic. He was engulfed by fans when he visited the booth of the Blue Dot Composers Collective (which he is one of the seven members of) in the exhibition hall. Thomas’s 2019 band piece celebrating the bravery of trans women, A Mother of a Revolution, conducted by Cynthia Johnson Turner (another superstar) during Monday’s concert by the Brooklyn Wind Symphony, was definitely one of this year’s musical highlights. I was also completely wowed by another work on that same program by a Black composer, Kevin Day‘s Concerto for Wind Ensemble, though I wish all five movements had been played and not just three. Music by Kelijah Dunton, Evan Williams, Katahj Copley, Jessie Montgomery, Daniel Bernard Roumain, Jonathan Bailey Holland, the late Florence Price, and JaRod Hall (the winner of the 2nd Barbara Buhlman Composition Prize) was also featured. Arguably this year’s biggest star was Vietnamese-American composer Viet Cuong who had several pieces performed, most prominently the 16-minute Vital Sines (2022), for which the United States Navy Band was joined by the six members of Eighth Blackbird on both of their Monday evening concert programs as well as a panel talk the following day during which excerpts were played. Another composer making huge strides at the Midwest Clinic is Aakash Mittal, who is interesting in finding common ground between the musical traditions of India and the wind band. In 2021, he participated in a panel about Asian perspectives in wind band music after having his first wind band piece played at Midwest by the Walsh Middle School Honors Band from Texas. This time around his Salt March, his second wind band piece and a consortium commission, was yet another piece performed by the Brooklyn folks.

The audience in one of the ballrooms at McCormick Place which has been transformed into a concert hall for the Midwest Clinic.

The audience waits in anticipation just before the start of the Brooklyn Wind Symphony’s showcase.

While there’s nowhere near a gender parity among the composers featured during Midwest Clinic concerts, most programs this year included at least one work by a female composer and sometimes there were more. Back in 2015, the only two female-identifying composers listed in the program book were Julie Giroux (whom I decided I had to meet and several years later spoke with for NewMusicBox) and Keiko Yamada (who did not attend that year because I later found out she does not actually exist). In the intervening years, seeing the name of a female composer on a program, still a rarity, was often the deciding factor in determining which of the sometimes five simultaneous concerts I would attend. This year I didn’t get to hear every piece by a female composer that was performed since they were no longer such complete outliers,  but nevertheless it was gratifying to hear works by Nicole Piunno, Laura Estes, Augusta Read Thomas (her 2020 composition Crackle was another highlight of the second Navy Band concert), Kimberly Archer (who had previously composed a work that was played by the U.S. Marine Band at Joe Biden’s Inauguration), Christina Huss, Carol Brittin Chambers, Yukiko Nishimura, and, of course, Julie Giroux. Frustratingly, though, the Revelli Award continues to be exclusively a domain for male composers and this year’s winning work, Flying Jewels by Colorado State University-based James M. David, though extremely effective, was no exception. Obviously there were also some other fabulous pieces by men. I’d be remiss not to mention David Biedenbender‘s stunning sax quartet concerto Severance (of which sadly only two of the three movements were played), Jim Stephenson‘s really exciting Wildcat Run, Joel Love‘s extremely moving It is Well, and finally the late John Zdechlik‘s masterful Rondo Capriccio which is hardly a brand new work (it was composed in 1979) but I had never heard it before so it was new to me. Finally, I must call attention here to the extraordinary Cedar Falls High School Jazz One from Iowa, the one jazz group I was able to trek over to hear. I was completely captivated by every piano solo played by high school senior Colten Thomas as well as the idiosyncratic drumming of junior Kate Galyen who have both been part of the band for three years. I can’t wait to hear them in other contexts one day. Still, when the whole thing came to an abrupt end a day before it should have, it was like suddenly going cold turkey. That’s why it was great to be able to have a similarly deep, albeit very different, musical immersion only two weeks later thanks to Chamber Music America.

The members of Cedar Falls High School Jazz One on stage.

The Cedar Falls High School Jazz One on stage at the designated jazz venue at McCormick Place.

If the Midwest Clinic is a successful story of incremental change, the Chamber Music America conference is a successful story of radical transformation. Well, maybe radical transformation is a bit of an exaggeration. Still, there were enough differences in the organization of this year’s conference so that it felt like a significantly different experience. In the past, the conference had three tightly packed days of activities starting early on Friday morning and running through Sunday evening. Although for several years there have also been several pre-conference sessions starting on Thursday. This year, there were also some events on Thursday, but the official conference opening actually took place on Thursday night with the annual reception hosted by BMI which is always attended by a significant number of BMI-affiliated composers who are in town in addition to the CMA conference registrants. This event, which is one of the new music community’s great schmoozefests, used to be the culminating event of the first day. By moving it an evening earlier, it was a great way for people to just catch up with one another after, in many cases, not seeing each other for three years. (Although admittedly a drinks and small bites reception in the COVID-era is somewhat akin to a mild form of Russian Roulette. A great many folks, myself included, remained mostly masked, though it’s impossible to nosh and chat while masked, so I sat at a table in the corner instead of engaging in my previous BC-era peregrinations around the room.)

The real radical change, however, was the way that ensemble showcase performances were presented. In previous years, showcases were scheduled at the hotel on Friday and Saturday afternoons, sometimes competing against panel sessions and time to explore the exhibition hall. The beginnings and endings of showcase sets were always hectic, with folks going in and out, picking and choosing which groups they wanted to hear and it was often extremely noisy directly outside the room where the showcases took place, so sitting in the back was not ideal. (I commented in previous years that it seemed like the classically-oriented groups and the more jazz or improvisation-inclined groups attracted very different audiences with little overlap, which was extremely upsetting given CMA’s mission to bring all this music together.) But this year CMA held all the showcases at DROM, an eclectic music venue in Alphabet City that serves food and has a full bar. (An aside: the food, which was mostly Middle Eastern fare, was terrific if a bit overpriced; it was an expensive night out in New York City.) There were eight showcases on Friday night from 6:00 P.M. until around 10:15 P.M. and an additional six on Saturday morning from 11:00 A.M. until approximately 2:15 P.M.–all showcase sets were supposed to run no longer than 20 minutes but things inevitably went a bit overtime.  Still, people stayed and listened, and they listened to an incredible range of music.

Friday night’s marathon opened with a formidable Rochester NY-based artist-led ensemble called fivebyfive who were joined by Minneapolis-based electric harpist/composer Amy Nam in a performance of her fascinating CMA-commissioned …of breath and fire which also featured video footage of glass sculptures being created by Madeline Rile Smith. They subsequently performed Anthony R. Green‘s captivating … a tiny dream. I was disappointed not to hear the works by Missy Mazzoli and Edie Hill that were also listed on the program, but 20 minutes races by pretty quickly. The group was following by the stunning NYC-based Baroque ensemble Twelfth Night who did not perform any new music, but everything they played sounded new (Purcell and Fasch, plus an aria from BWV 199 by J.S. Bach for which they were joined by the mesmerizing soprano Julie Roset). The Beo String Quartet, which followed, also cancelled a piece they were supposed to perform by Missy Mazzoli, which was to be their opener. Instead they performed an work they themselves composed which was inspired by Mexican music in which at one point members of the quartet were whistling. It was much more captivating than their subsequent medley of a movement from Shostakovich’s 8th Quartet and an excerpt of Beethoven’s Opus 18 No. 1, but at least they ended with a portion of a work by contemporary Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz.

fivebyfive on stage at DROM with a video projection of glass sculptures.

CMA’s showcases at DROM began with fivebyfive joined by electric harpist Amy Nam for a performance of Nam’s …of breath and fire featuring a video projection of glass sculptures being created by Madeline Rile Smith.

The Dyachkov-Saulnier Duo also felt obliged to perform Beethoven. (In late December, Atma Classics just released the duo’s recording of his complete sonatas and variations for cello and piano, so they performed excerpts from a set of variations as well as one of the sonatas.) Mysteriously they also performed a movement of a sonata by Shostakovich, explaining that although he was Russian and Russian repertoire is taboo at the moment given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he was a dissident. And they ended with the Burlesque of the late jazz-inspired Ukrainian-born composer Nicolai Kapustin who spent most of his life in Russia. All of this music is top shelf repertoire, but if they were trying to make a statement about the situation in Ukraine, there are tons of living Ukrainian composers who work deserves a hearing. Also, why only play music composed by men? In 2023, it almost seems tone deaf. But they were certainly not the only group featured that seems out of touch with the zeitgeist. The overall lack of parity between male and female music creators throughout these showcases was as noticeable as it was at the Midwest Clinic. Duo Sonidos, which pairs violin and classical guitar, followed with transcriptions of music by Astor Piazzolla and Manuel Ponce plus a work written expressly for them by Clarice Assad which was by far the most interesting thing they played. Far more exciting was a transcription of music by another Latin American composer, Alberto Ginastera, by the Argentinian jazz vocalist Roxana Amed who performed with her quintet. Their rendition of Wayne Shorter’s Virgo was also ear opening.

The Aznavoorian Duo (sisters Ani and Marta, another cello-piano pairing) were up next and featured a program centered predominantly around Armenia (their ancestral homeland) but also included a couple of composers from other parts of lands that were also once part of the Soviet Union. They began with a transcription of a melody by the 19th century Armenian Komitas who is often considered the father of Armenian classical music and followed with a work inspired by Armenian culture from the American Peter Boyer. Again, I would have loved to have heard cello and piano repertoire by some living Armenian composers, but nevertheless I loved Ani’s tone on her cello, which was an instrument her father had built expressly for her. At this point, after more than three and a half hours of music with no intermission, I was getting pretty wiped out. But I was so glad I stayed to hear the final set featuring the Johnston Brothers, Ziggy and Miles, a guitar duo originally from Australia who are currently studying at Juilliard. Their combination of precision and duende (there’s really no better word for it even though they weren’t playing flamenco) was flabbergasting. Their opening performance of Brazilian guitarist/composer Paulo Bellinati’s Jongo was a non-stop energy jolt and the subsequent Rodrigo Tonadilla was also thrilling. Even their transcription of Debussy’s bonbon Clair de Line was revelatory. But their concluding account of Australian Nigel Westlake‘s Songs from the Forest was sublime. As they mentioned, most Americans have only heard his music for the movie Babe: Pig in the City. I know whose music I will be tracking down as much as I can of later this year.

The following morning’s collection of showcases began with Doug Beavers‘s Luna, a nine-piece conjunto which spanned Latin Jazz and full on salsa. It was a welcome wake up since DROM’s coffee wasn’t. The noticeably quieter Interwoven, an intercultural ensemble combining Western bowed strings with Chinese erhu and Japanese koto, was up next. They performed works combining Western and Eastern instruments by Americans Thomas Osborne and Daron Hagen as well as suite featuring music by early 20th century Chinese composer Liu Tianhua that was later reworked by Chen Yaoxing. More cross-cultural music followed, a duo comprised of Dutch trumpeter Eric Vloeimans and American accordionist Will Holshouser, both of whom composed repertoire they performed. I was particularly moved by Redbud Winter, a work Holshouser wrote in memory of his mother.

Members of ShoutHouse during their CMA conference showcase performance at DROM.

ShoutHouse was literally larger and louder than any other ensemble that performed during the 2023 CMA conference showcases at DROM.

Next, it was back to full throttle volume with ShoutHouse, a cross-genre nonet fronted by composer Will Healy which combines musicians with classical, jazz, and hip-hop backgrounds in performances of music mostly composed by Healy with words by spiritchild, who is the group’s MC. They also performed a piece written expressly for them by Jack Frerer. Acknowledgement should also be given to ShoutHouse’s seamless interweaving of acoustic and electronic sounds which rarely comes off so effectively in a live music performance. I was floored by Alfredo Colon‘s soloing on EWI (electronic wind instrument). They were a tough act to follow, but there were still two more sets. Tallā Rouge, a self-described “Cajun-Persian viola duo,” performed mostly excerpts including, ack, more Beethoven, though it was nice to hear their performances of music by Caroline Shaw and Dave Rimelis. Finally, the Dan Pugach Nonet, a three wind, three brass, piano-bass-drums nearly big band devoted to performing the music of drummer/leader Pugach. Most of the players had a chance to solo except for, frustrating, bass trombonist Jen Hinkle, the only woman in the group and, more frustrating, the only female instrumentalist in any of the jazz-oriented ensembles. From where I was sitting I could clearly hear her tone on her instrument and the music could have greatly benefitted from some foregrounding of that lower register. As soon as they finished playing, it was a mad rush to the chartered bus to take us back to the hotel with only a few minutes to spare before the afternoon panels began.

I have not yet written about any of the panels, some of which also took place on Friday afternoon before the showcases, figuring it was better to describe them all in one place. On Friday, I attended a panel about making concerts accessible to a neurodiverse audience. The presenter, Jenna Richards, offered some valuable insights about optimal durations, providing attendees with as much advance information as possible, and working with the performance space so it could be made less constricting than the typical rows of seats in most venues. But by focusing on presenting movements from standard repertoire rather than encouraging session attendees to commission composers who could create vibrant music designed especially for such a performance it seemed far less transformative a presentation than it could have been. Far more useful was the session led by a group of musicians associated with ChamberQUEERDanielle Buonaiuto, Aiden Feltkamp, Brian Mummert, and Mazz Swift–with the provocative title “‘Til All of Us Are Free: A Liberatory Framework for DEI in Chamber Music Organizations.” The panelists had the very crowded room of session attendees breakout into smaller groups to discuss ways in which a chamber group could diversify its audience and funder base. The group I was part of mostly agreed that such a plan must begin with diversifying the people who are performing and the repertoire being performed. But not everyone held that view. It got somewhat contentious at times. When various groups were reporting back, a member of one of the groups talked about the need to sometimes devote concerts to core repertoire which they have now decided to embellish with commentary from the stage along the lines of “imagine what kind of music would have been written had one of Bach’s daughters been allowed to compose music.” To which I felt compelled to raise my hand and counter that there were female composers who were active at that time. What about Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre? As well as Black composers. So if you’re performing Mozart, why not also include a piece by Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Obviously today’s extremely wide range of compositional voices are the most representative of world in which we currently live, but there are plenty of reasons why it is important to show that a diverse range of people writing music is not a 21st century aberration and highlighting that range offers a fuller view of the great repertoire that is all of our inheritance.

A very crowded room at the Westin Times Square with groups of people sitting together in conversation.

Breakout groups for GenderQUEER’s EDI panel at the 2023 CMA conference continued having provocative conversations long after time ran out for the session.

On Saturday, I attended a session moderated by 2023 CMA Conference Chair, flutist Jennie Oh Brown, featuring two visionary musician/administrators: tenor Nicholas Phan who also serves as the Artistic Director of the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago; and jazz singer Dwight Trible who also serves as Executive Director of the The World Stage performance gallery in Los Angeles. Perhaps the biggest insight from that session was Phan’s quip that the problem with classical music is that it “has been marketed as a luxury item for such a long time” and “that’s such a greedy way to experience this music.” Finally, I attended a very practical and informative session about touring and presenting during the pandemic which was billed as “jazz and chamber music” but everyone on the panel came from a jazz perspective–Rodney Marsalis and Morgan Pappas (from Marsalis Mansion Artists) plus artist manager Gail Boyd, a co-founder of the Jazz Coalition.  Although the situations they described, everything from unpaid fees to the uncertainty of rescheduling, are equally applicable to classical music, as well as indie rock, funk, or bluegrass for that matter. After attending The Midwest Clinic where you wouldn’t be blamed if you erroneously believed the pandemic was over, it was refreshing to hear people talk about the ongoing problems we are all still facing in trying to make music in these still extremely precarious times.

After all the heady sounds and ideas on Friday and Saturday, Sunday was a bit of a let-down. The day’s activities began with a somewhat lackluster networking breakfast that was not heavily attended. Thankfully there was an amazing concert at the hotel later in the afternoon devoted to two CMA commissions: Martha Sullivan‘s Certain Dragons performed by the dazzling vocal sextet The Western Wind; and Arun Ramamurthy‘s New Moon Suite performed by his trio consisting of Sameer Gupta on drumset, Damon Banks on electric bass, and the composer on violin performed in Karnatic style. I’m glad it was not followed by anything else, since anything else would have felt extremely intrusive after such sonic transports, but it might have been nice to have an additional panel in the morning, although I remember all too well how disappointing it was to participate in a Sunday morning CMA panel which was very poorly attended.

Sameer Gupta, Damon Banks, and Arun Ramamurthy being applauded.

The Arun Ramamurthy Trio (Sameer Gupta, Damon Banks, and Arun Ramamurthy) right after they proved that great music can happen, even in a conference room at a hotel!

Admittedly I did not attend the luncheon honoring new music soprano and educator Lucy Shelton (recipient of CMA’s 2023 Richard J. Bogomolny National Service Award) and Palestinian-American composer/multi-instrumentalist Ronnie Malley (recipient of CMA’s 2023 Michael Jaffee Visionary Award). There was an extra $45 charge to attend and it was probably too late to get a ticket plus I had already paid for and attended the similarly priced networking luncheon on Friday and was somewhat worried that eating yet another meal (Friday’s was albeit a tasty Asian-themed buffet which was an improvement over previous years’ fare) on a round table surrounded by a group of necessarily unmasked people some of whom I probably did not know was probably too much of a crapshoot after having already attended the opening reception as well as eating and drinking during the ensemble showcases at DROM.

Still, overall the 2023 Chamber Music America conference was head and shoulders above most of the annual CMA conferences I’ve attended in recent memory. So a special shoutout is in order to conference chair Jennie Oh Brown as well as to CMA’s visionary and extremely articulate new CEO Kevin Kwan Loucks, who is also an active chamber music pianist. I was thrilled that during his introductory remarks to the keynote speaker Loucks mentioned that CMA is in the process of trying to secure their own performance venue which I imagine will be as galvanizing a space for the chamber music community as OPERA America’s National Opera Center has been for singers, vocal coaches, producers, composers, librettists and all the other members of the opera community. I should also write a few words about that keynote speaker, film, television and stage actor Giancarlo Esposito, whom I first became acquainted with from his performance as the intellectually rigorous tempestuous militant Buggin’ Out in Spike Lee’s 1989 motion picture Do The Right Thing. Esposito offered many pearls of wisdom during his extremely performative speech, but the two that left the strongest impression on me is that our goal as artists (whether creative or interpretative artists) should be “to bring people from one state of consciousness to another” and that the only thing “we have the ability to control is our attitude.” Finally, I want to offer my heartfelt thanks to CMA’s Susan Dadian who, as per every other conference I have attended since she joined the staff many many years ago, tirelessly kept finding me to introduce me to composers who were there whom she thought I may not yet know. I will be back again next year!

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.


Julie Giroux: A Wind Band is a Box of 168 Crayons

Julie Giroux on boardwalk

I still vividly remember my very first encounter with Julie Giroux. It was in 2015 during the first time I attended the Midwest Clinic, a massive music conference/festival/expo which is heavily but not exclusively devoted to wind band music held annually in Chicago right before the end of each calendar year.

Though I knew some wind band repertoire and had even attended a few wind band concerts over the years, nothing prepared me for how huge the wind band community is—comprising school-based ensembles, community groups, and musical units that are the pride of each of the branches of the military, plus wind bands from around the world. I was not only floored by the sensitivity and virtuosity of performance at what were basically showcases at a conference center which normally might not inspire such a level of commitment, but also how devoted these musicians were to newly composed music. There were so many new composers I discovered that first year, mostly all men, with one very noticeable exception—Julie Giroux, whose works were featured on several concerts. I still remember two of her pieces I heard that week—Riften Wed and Just Flyin’. Both took the audience on a journey that was a real sonic adventure and, at the same time, both were—dare I say it—fun.

Who was this Julie Giroux? I had to meet her. I tracked her down in the giant exhibition area of McCormick Center, which is where Midwest Clinic attendees congregate in between concerts and panel discussions. In fact, it’s a giant marketplace where attendees can and do buy sheet music, recordings (fancy that!), instruments, and even band uniforms. Giroux was holding court by the stand of her music publisher, Musica Propria. There was a line waiting to get her autograph that was longer than two city blocks. I waited. When I finally got directly in front of her, she was laughing uproariously, perhaps at something someone had just said. I was not sure. It’s very loud in that space. I didn’t have much time since there was a line just as long behind me by that point, but I told her how much I liked her music and handed her my business card saying that I hoped we’d have a chance to have a longer conversation at some point for NewMusicBox. I learned that she was based in Mississippi and began plotting ways of traveling there to chat with her. It proved challenging. Then I thought maybe we could record a convo with her during next year’s Midwest Clinic. That proved impossible since everyone else there wanted to talk to her, too, but at least I managed to say hi briefly again and hear some more of her music. And the cycle repeated itself in 2017, 2018, and 2019.

But strangely in this crazy year of 2020 when no one is able to go anywhere, we’re actually able to go more places than usual—virtually—since almost everyone is online all the time. In fact, this week (December 16-18), the Midwest Clinic, which typically attracts well over 15,000 attendees, is also an exclusively web-based experience and, as a result, might even break their previous attendance records. So, I thought I’d take a chance and reach out to Julie Giroux and see if she’d be willing to talk over Zoom. It took a while to set up, but it was well worth the wait.

“I feel like we’re in one of those really bad sci-fi films from the ‘70s where you get sucked into some computer and are trying to live that way,” she commented at some point during our sprawling conversation in which we explored the ins and outs of the wind band (including an in-depth discussion of her own wind band symphonies), her career in Hollywood (which led to her being the first female composer to win an Emmy), her wacky arrangements of Christmas songs (‘tis the season after all), and how she’s coping with life in quarantine. “I have a whole other year to sit here, and eat Cheetos and play video games,” she quipped.

I was somewhat surprised to learn that despite Giroux’s interest in a broad range of music making, she is not terribly interested in writing chamber music. “It’s because I am just a spoiled brat,” she confessed. “It’s like I have a box of 168 crayons. Right? And if you want to give me 12, I don’t want to color with 12. I want to color with 168, you know. So to me, it’s always no. It’s like you go to a restaurant and it’s a menu that has one thing on it. You know, you’re like, ‘No, no. I want pages. I want to just be overwhelmed with the choices that I have.’ … I mean it does sound like something I need to do to be a better composer, but it’s not something I want to do.”

New Music USA · SoundLives — Julie Giroux: A Wind Band is a Box of 168 Crayons
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Julie Giroux
November 16, 2020—7 P.M. E.S.T.
Via a Zoom Conference Call between Mississippi and New York NY
Produced and recorded by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

Stepping Forward at the Midwest Clinic

Every year during the week before Christmas, thousands of music educators, student musicians, and industry professionals gather in Chicago to discuss the latest trends and techniques in music education, listen to top-level ensembles from around the world, hear newly available repertoire, and peruse the expansive exhibit hall at the Midwest Clinic. The largest international band and orchestra conference in the world, this event is truly a spectacle. The four-day conference is packed with panels, presentations, concerts, reading sessions, and promotional goodies that attract close to 20,000 attendees, including many band directors. For composers, it is an exceptional networking opportunity simply due to the sheer number of conductors present. And if you are lucky enough to have your music performed, it will be heard by thousands of band directors from throughout the country who are seeking out new pieces to program.

If you are lucky enough to have your music performed at the Midwest Clinic, it will be heard by thousands of band directors.

I had been considering attending the Midwest Clinic for a while, but I wasn’t quite sure where I would fit into the mix. I’m not a band director, and I only have two band pieces in my catalog, so I’m not sure I can even call myself a “band composer.” Was it worth going?

While still on the fence, I was pointed to a Facebook post from composer John Mackey–a veritable superstar of the band world. Due to Midwest’s policy requiring publishers to buy advertising space if two pieces of music they publish are performed in showcases there and a booth in the exhibition hall if they have three or more, Mackey had purchased a booth in the exhibit hall and was offering it up, free of charge, to self-published composers who are people of color and/or identify as women. I was shocked and delighted, and I immediately jumped at the opportunity! Not only was this offer incredibly generous (booth space is not cheap!), it recognized what I already suspected before even venturing to the festival: the Midwest Clinic has a diversity problem.

A screenshot of John Mackey's Facebook post

As you enter Chicago’s massive McCormick Place convention center and ascend the escalator to register for the conference, you are greeted by larger-than-life banners honoring current and former festival award winners, and a giant, cylindrical “wall of fame” covered in photos of even more award winners and board members from throughout the conference’s 71-year history–all but a small handful of whom are white men. Such a display can feel a bit unwelcoming for those who do not look like the men in the photos, and it is disappointing to consider that the movers and shakers of the Midwest Clinic, with their impact on music education nationwide, do not reflect the diversity of the students in our schools.

But the Midwest Clinic has a diversity problem.

Beyond the leadership, Midwest Clinic’s programming is equally in need of modernization. After my second day at the conference, I realized that not a single one of the concerts I had attended included a female composer. Now, it would be impossible to see every concert at Midwest, and I had experienced just a handful of the performances. Was it a fluke that I had missed the pieces by women? To be certain, I pored through the festival program and found that of the 500 pieces performed at the Midwest Clinic by 51 different ensembles (including bands, orchestras, jazz bands, and chamber groups), only 23 pieces (4.6%) were composed by women, and just 71 (14.2%) were written by composers of color.

But what about the band concerts on their own? With such enthusiasm for new music, surely the wind ensemble programming would be more diverse than that of the orchestras, right? Alas, of the 212 pieces performed by bands during the Midwest Clinic, only seven (a measly 3.3%) were written by women, and 26 (12.3%) by people of color.

Of the 500 pieces performed at the Midwest Clinic, only 23 pieces (4.6%) were composed by women, and just 71 (14.2%) were written by composers of color.

Sadly, none of this came as much of a surprise to me. I’ve been performing in winds bands since the fifth grade, and I continue to do so today. Through the years I’ve become keenly aware of the white male dominance both on the podium and in the repertoire. In fact, the performance of one of my works by a wind ensemble last year marked the first time in more than five years that this particular group had played a piece by a woman. This dilemma is not unique to the Midwest Clinic, but a festival of its magnitude and influence has the potential to create meaningful change in the diversity represented in music education settings throughout the nation.

Luckily, members of the music education community are stepping forward to do just that, and it seems that things are slowly changing. For the first time, this year the conference included three clinics pertaining to diversity and inclusion. Tremon Kizer, associate director of bands at the University of Central Florida, offered an overview of various wind band repertoire by minority composers; Minneapolis-based music educator Adrian Davis gave a presentation on the underrepresentation of African-American males in music education, examining recruitment and retention from K-12 to professional levels; and a discussion on equity and inclusion in the music classroom was led by a diverse and illustrious panel of music educators. And of course there was John Mackey’s booth in the exhibit hall, taken over by underrepresented composers and generating quite a buzz throughout the convention center.

Luckily it seems that things are slowly changing.

Thanks to Mackey’s offer, nine of us showed up to exhibit our music together at a shared booth sponsored by Mackey’s publishing company, Osti Music. The participants were Erin Paton Pierce, Kevin Day, Evan Williams, Nicole Piunno, Haley Woodrow, Denzel Washington, Jennifer Rose, Omar Thomas, and myself. We took shifts working the booth, during which time we could display our scores, share recordings, and chat with conference attendees. The reaction from visitors was overwhelmingly positive; band directors are eager for new, high-quality repertoire to perform with their bands. While some people were initially confused that there was no music by John Mackey at the booth, they were almost always content to discover something unexpected from the composers who were present. Other visitors claimed they simply had to stop by to see what all the fuss was about. Apparently, this kind of booth-sharing has never been done at Midwest before, and there was even some confusion over whether it was within Midwest Clinic’s exhibit hall regulations. In the end, all the rules had been followed and we forged ahead.

Six of the composers who were promoting their music at the Osti Music Booth at the 2017 Midwest Clinic.

Away from the exhibit hall, our participation at the Osti Music booth was an easy conversation starter when networking with band directors, and it provided an extra layer of legitimacy for those of us mired in impostor syndrome. Between my shifts at the booth and networking throughout the conference, I made numerous new contacts with potential collaborators and fellow composers, sold a few scores, and even recruited some new members to a consortium commission I’m organizing. On top of that, I heard impressive performances by ensembles ranging in age from middle school to professional, learned about current trends and needs in music education, and discovered a thrilling assortment of music from my new composer friends.

All in all, attending the Midwest Clinic is an outstanding experience for composers of music for wind band. And while an air of exclusivity remains intact throughout the conference culture and programming, the tides are slowly turning. The messages of clinicians addressing issues of diversity and inclusion are now being heard, and John Mackey’s generosity in sharing the Osti Music booth set an incredible example of what it means to be an ally to underrepresented composers. I hope that this shift will continue, and I’m eager to see what kind of impact these efforts will have over the next few years at the Midwest Clinic and in instrumental music programs throughout the country.

The composers who were promoting their music at the Midwest Clinic's Osti Music booth sitting around a table with John Mackey having dinner.

Our group of “Osti Music” composers had a celebratory dinner with John Mackey.


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?


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.


[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.

Up Next

This last year has been a great start for the Libera Composers Association consortium project; what started as a short-term venture among friends is quickly expanding to a nationally-reaching collaboration between composers and school music programs. While we are still accepting bands for the consortium this season, my co-director Maxwell Lafontant and I are already making plans for next year. We have learned quite a bit in our first season about how to reach out to band directors and what we can do to make our consortium more convenient for them in the future. While there are some general administrative changes underway–such as switching our operating calendar from a “calendar year” model to a “school year” model–there are a lot of bigger-picture changes we hope to make in the coming seasons.

Next year’s composers will write their initial scores as piano reductions so instrumentation of the final product can be tailored to each band.

In order to facilitate a more collaborative experience, we plan to have next year’s composers write their initial scores as piano reductions. In this way, with the main musical material of the work easily accessible and clearly understood, band directors and composers can collaborate throughout the season to tailor the instrumentation of the final product to each band individually. This will also give our composers, most of whom are still in degree programs or freshly graduated, an in-depth look at orchestration and arranging, while also allowing them to more intimately appreciate the kinds of challenges high school bands face. This training will offer them the opportunity to better understand the current high school market for future works and projects, as well as provide them with a variety of arrangements available for future performances.

We have also received a large number of requests to add concurrent series for orchestra and choir, which are also programs across the country in desperate need of projects like this for their students. While we are still looking at how feasible accommodating these requests are at this time, we believe that adding at least one of these ensemble types to our project next year may in fact be possible. We have even discussed the option of using student texts for a future choral series, providing young writers the opportunity to have their words shared across the country as part of our consortium. While we would end up with fewer composers for band next year (only three or four rather than five or six), we would have the ability to work with multiple musical programs within in a single school, thus providing multiple composers (and therefore a wider variety of opportunities to high school students) per program in a single school year.

Max and I have been looking at composers for next year, attempting to find alumni composers in more disparate areas of the country, creating ease of access to our composers for a larger number of schools at a lower cost. We also hope to bring alumni composers together from an even wider variety of disciplines and musical backgrounds.

One of our composers, Dylan Carlson, has been making connections with schools in the Los Angeles area, and we’ve been in discussions with the district about becoming an official arts partner, meaning that those schools would have more consistent access to all of our composers in that geographic area for lessons, workshops, and clinics. These kinds of partnerships could be mutually beneficial for municipalities across the country–Chicago, New York, Atlanta, Dallas. All of these larger metropolitan areas have many schools in a concentrated area that could benefit from young composers working with the students to create more vital, interesting performances for the community, and an even more interactive educational environment for students. Also, with these kinds of partnerships, the potential for interdisciplinary collaboration can be developed as well. With so many of our composers having backgrounds in theater, film, video games, history, the sciences, literature, and the plethora of other fields that our liberal arts education has taught us to synthesize with music, the possibilities for school-wide involvement in this kind of project are endless. We hope to further develop the potential for interdisciplinary work in future seasons, as we work with schools to see what kinds of projects they would like to develop with us.

The goal is to re-engage students in the musical arts and to educate them about the relevancy and vitality of artistic endeavors.

More than anything, the goal of the Libera Composers Association is to re-engage students in the musical arts and to educate them about the relevancy and vitality of artistic endeavors. We feel the best way to accomplish this is to create well-crafted music, to connect students to living composers who are studying and working in the field today, to collaborate directly with music programs—both those in need of revitalization and those looking to further enrich their students’ musical experiences—and to create stronger, more concrete connections between school music programs and their communities through performance. Particularly at time when funding for the arts has become tenuous and school districts are struggling to meet a wide array of demands with smaller budgets, it is more important than ever to bring projects like this to communities across the country.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All, but Can You Hand Tailor a Consortium?

Members of the Deerfield-Windsor School Band

With the other members of the Libera Composers Association already hard at work on their new pieces for the consortium, my co-director Max Lafontant and I set out to find interested directors for the project. Our alma mater, Luther College, is notorious for its numerous Dorian Festivals and camps—programs that host performances and clinics on campus for high school musicians from around the Midwest. We were able to convince the music department to give us a list of band directors who had sent students to the Dorian festival last season, knowing it would be a great source of directors who already had positive ties to Luther and its music program, even if they were not alumni themselves. When we got the list of over 100 bands, Max and I spent weeks combing through school websites to check out the programs and directors.

While many schools and programs were basking in the public glow of their marching band seasons (early-to-mid fall), we found that this was not the case across the board. Some of the band directors no longer taught at the schools. Some had recently had their budgets slashed. (One school in Iowa had even had their band program eliminated entirely.) Max and I became concerned, realizing that—even with our modest instrumentation guidelines for the composers to work with as a core ensemble—there were plenty of schools that simply didn’t have the instruments or resources to participate. While it was too late to accommodate schools in such dire positions for that particular season, it did impact how we planned to move forward with subsequent seasons. (More on this next week.) In the meantime, we reached out to about ninety schools from the list provided to us by Luther, and a few dozen more directors from a pool of colleagues and personal connections. We even had our composers reach out to directors from their hometowns, hoping to make local connections.

Grade 3 concert music can be difficult to find for directors.

Initially, there was a huge response from the band community—grade 3 concert music (late middle-school or early high school levels) can be difficult to find for directors, and many of them indicated they had never been part of a commissioning experience or consortium before. However, our consortium model was unusual. Normally bands will commission a work in tandem from one composer, sometimes receiving updates throughout the composition process, and then premiere the works later in the year. Sometimes bands will join consortiums once a work is finished based on a perusal score and the composer’s reputation. Our consortium had a range of composers and the works were already underway, but incomplete. While we had many interested directors in late September, we found that it was difficult to sustain that initial feeling of investment until our perusal period in January. While we had a band or two join the consortium officially before the scores were complete, most of the directors wanted to see music before committing, but didn’t want to wait until January to complete their spring programming. The biggest difference between arranging a consortium and a single commission is how hand-tailored a particular work can be to a specific band (the latter having the greatest potential for customization, while the former tends to be more generic), and our project was attempting to synthesize elements of both experiences.

Members of the Deerfield-Windsor School Band

Members of the Albany, Georgia-based Deerfield-Windsor School Band rehearsing for the first performance of a consortium piece, a composition by Max Lafontant, which was featured on the band’s February 26 concert. Photo courtesy of Deerfield-Windsor music director Justin Swearinger.

Max and I tried several different tactics to address the issue. In some cases we gave the directors a summary of the works being composed, having the composers write abstracts about their intentions for the pieces they were working on. In other cases, we put them in contact with the composers directly to form more personal connections. We sent out a newsletter with information about the directors who had joined, updates on the works-in-progress, pictures of the composers’ workspaces, and even a short article with tips about how to work with a composer (since so many of our directors expressed this was their first time). Max and I had talked with our mentor, Dr. Brooke Joyce, about high school band directors at the beginning of this process. He told us that band directors are some of the most overworked, exhausted, underfunded educators in the country. We needed to keep our communication with them convenient, clear, and concise. It would be all too easy for them to drop a project like this otherwise. Therefore, one of our greatest challenges was trying to balance our communication—to be proactive without badgering, to be clear without being verbose. Also, there are as many different preferences as there are directors; some of our directors loved getting newsletters with helpful tips, others found it obnoxious. Spreadsheets abounded as we kept track of a great number of details about each director and school we worked with; not just to help us keep directors on the project for this year, but also to help us understand how to better serve directors in the future.

So many of the band directors expressed this was their first time working with a composer.

The recording session with the Luther College Concert Band proved to be a very useful recruiting tool. Dr. Joyce helped us to organize and run the session. We had the band (under the direction of Dr. Joan deAlbuquerque) read and record 30” to 1’00” of music from each piece so we could post excerpts online. This was a great resource for interested directors, since they could get a strong idea of what the pieces would sound like with a real band even though the works were yet unfinished. The reading session was also helpful to the composers, who could now gauge how difficult their piece may be for high school students, make note of what in their score appeared to be unclear to the conductor and the ensemble at first glance, and also simply hear how their piece was sounding with a live ensemble. All of the composers in the LCA were grateful that our alma mater was so supportive of the project, willing to give over precious rehearsal time for these readings.

We already have a healthy number of performances scheduled for the coming season and a great number of directors who are itching to participate next season.

While many of our groups are currently in the Midwest, Dylan Carlson and Neil Quillen are both based out of California and have been working to bring bands from L.A. and San Francisco into the project. We also made contact with an international school in Tokyo, Japan, and are working to expand through similar avenues next year. Our first performance (which took place in late February) was from a small band in Albany, Georgia, performing Max’s work. Also, while we are still looking for more bands to join the consortium, we already have a healthy number of performances scheduled for the coming season and a great number of directors who are itching to participate next season. While we definitely faced our challenges this past year, Max and I learned a lot from the directors, administrators, and composers we’ve been working with, and we are looking forward to developing this exciting collaboration next season.