Tag: wind band

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.

  • When I was in junior high, I was writing for junior high band, because that was the level I was.

    Julie Giroux on boardwalk
    Julie Giroux, composer
  • Because I’d always played piano—when I got into band, I realized I was only playing one note. And that’s pretty boring.

    Julie Giroux on boardwalk
    Julie Giroux, composer
  • Now I have a whole other year to sit here, and eat Cheetos and play video games.

    Julie Giroux on boardwalk
    Julie Giroux, composer
  • I didn’t know that there weren’t women. I didn’t think about it. … . I didn’t know anybody was alive who was doing it.

    Julie Giroux on boardwalk
    Julie Giroux, composer
  • The band is as complex and has as many colors as an orchestra does.

    Julie Giroux on boardwalk
    Julie Giroux, composer
  • Elvis stopped being Elvis because he stopped growing.

    Julie Giroux on boardwalk
    Julie Giroux, composer
  • It’s like I have a box of 168 crayons. And if you want to give me 12, I don’t want to color with 12.

    Julie Giroux on boardwalk
    Julie Giroux, composer
  • There isn’t a person in the United States that doesn’t know “Jingle Bells.”

    Julie Giroux on boardwalk
    Julie Giroux, composer

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.