Know The Rules…
Well, that’s a headline that sells newspapers…(If you like that, you should check out my self-help bestseller Success – It’s way harder than you think!). I should say from the outset that this is part 1 of a two-part post. Part 2 will be …now break them – something that has much more appeal for our inner rebel.
I’m assuming that you have some level understanding of the “rules” of harmony, melody, how instruments work, instrument transposition etc. That’s not what I’m talking about in this post. Instead, I’m talking about music publishers rules. Actually, they are more like guidelines that they strongly encourage you to stick to, but it sounds edgier to say “rules”. Pick up almost any Concert Band piece and on the front of the score it will say something like “Grade 1” or “Medium Easy”. This tells you how the publisher has graded or rated the difficulty level of the piece.
All publishers grade the difficulty level of the pieces they publish. Exactly how they define each level varies slightly, but most adopt some kind of system that grades pieces from 1 to 5, with 1 the easiest and 5 the hardest. Often publishers will further refine these grades at the easy levels so it’s not uncommon to find pieces graded on a scale of 0.5, 1.0, (1.5), 2.0, (2.5), 3.0, 4.0, and 5.0. Some examples of publishers grading systems can be found at Brolga, Alfred/Belwin, Grand Mesa Music. For each grading level, publishers have guidelines about:
- Note choices – e.g. at the very easy (Grade 0.5) level, notes are restricted to the first 5 or 6 notes students learn. More about this later in the post.
- Range considerations for both instruments and parts for the same instrument. The 3rd trumpet part will have a lower allowable range than the 1st trumpet part.
- Key signature choices – note that key signature is not the same as tonality. A key signature of two flats can mean Bb major, G minor, C Dorian, D Phrygian…
- Rhythmic choices – no septuplets for beginners! (amongst other things)
- Time Signature choices
- Other scoring considerations with relation to solos, cross cueing and other similar issues
Alfred Publishing has its guidelines quite freely available on their website and often on the back of the “folder” music comes packaged in. You can find it here.
I have a hunch that one of the key reasons people have their piece rejected by publishers is because they break these guidelines, either by accident or deliberately (“rules are sooo restrictive man…I just want to write freely”, or “that’s just the way I wrote it, the 3rd trumpet has to play a high ‘C’ pianissimo or my vision will be lost”).
There are good, practical reasons why publishers have these guidelines and a great deal of thought has gone into developing them, even if you don’t agree or like them. It is important to note that sticking to the guidelines in most important when writing for the easiest grade levels. Publishing guidelines mean that:
- There is consistency in difficulty level across each part and to a lesser degree within each part. This prevents the situation where the flute part is crazy hard, but the clarinet part is very easy. In this case, either the flutes flounder or the clarinets are super bored. It also helps prevent a situation where 95% of the flute part is quite playable by a second year student, but 5% is only playable by a university graduate. Ok, that may be an exaggeration, but you get the idea.
- Pieces correlate to the general instrumental music pedagogy out there in the real world. (woo-hoo, I’ve used pedagogy in a sentence. It may even be used correctly….). Let me explain. Most students in Australia (where I live) and in the USA learn to play woodwind, brass and percussion instruments in some kind of ensemble based program using a band method book as a key part of the instruction. The big music publishers all have their own method book (e.g. Essential Elements, Tradition of Excellence, Accent on Achievement, The Yamaha Advantage) and most of these are evolutions of previous method books. This equals a great deal of thought and experimentation wrestling with the question “what is the best way to start beginner students so that they can all play together in a band from virtually their first lesson?”. Inevitably this involves some compromises, with some instruments having to compromise more than others (Oboe and French Horn being two classic examples). If you look at these various method books, you will see that they have all reached essentially the same conclusion. They all start with:
- the first 5 notes of the Bb major scale, and slowly expanding outwards to the one octave Bb major scale (+ a semitone [half step] below). The first note outside the Bb major scale is usually concert Ab, followed by concert E.
- note values of a whole, half and quarter notes (semibreve, minim, crotchet), which then expands to include dotted 1/2 notes, 1/8th note pairs, and then dotted 1/4 + 1/8 notes.
- Time signatures of 4/4, 3/4, 2/4
- Medium tempos
- Notice that this correlates to the guidelines for grade 0.5 to grade 1 pieces. In other words, the guidelines spell out what the students actually know at this point in their learning. You could argue that beginner students could easily play in 6/8 and in concert C major after learning for 9 months, but this is not what students are generally taught in the first year of learning, so to write a band piece in C major and 6/8 aimed at level 0.5 is almost inevitably a doomed exercise.
- It ensures similar scoring options across the grade level.
- At the grade 0.5 level, there will only be 1 trumpet part, 1 french horn part and 1 trombone/baritone part (with Tuba the octave below). This reflects the fact that pitching is tricky for beginner brass players and unison parts for each instrument provides them with the greatest chance of success. There are similar restrictions on the number of woodwind parts.
- Similarly, the low woodwinds (bassoon, baritone sax, bass clarinet) will be scored in unison with the trombone/baritone/(tuba). This is a reflection of the likelihood of actually having all these instruments present (not very likely) and means that with just one player of any of these instrument means that the bass line is covered. This is very important as small band programs with limited numbers of players are most often just playing easy repertoire.
So, I’d encourage you to try to write within the guidelines for a grade level. It will help ensure that your piece is successfully played by a band and means that your piece is much more likely to be accepted by a publisher. A great resource to help you learn what students can and can’t do at the lower grade levels is the beginner books themselves. The conductor’s score book usually has a detailed listing of what concepts are introduced, and when.
All this talk of rules and guidelines can feel very restrictive, so in my next post I’ll talk about how to “break” them (successfully). Until then, ponder this question What CAN students do at this level? This quote from Stravinsky (he wrote some stuff that seems to work ok) is also worth thinking about:
The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.
Less relevant, but funny, is this one:
Harpists spend 90% of their lives tuning their harps and 10% playing out of tune.
Odyssey – The Coda
Although I haven’t actually signed a contract yet, I expect that Odyssey will be published later this year. Woo-hoo! I thought it might be useful to let you know the process post sending it off to the publisher. So,
- I send the piece to the publisher for their consideration. I emailed a pdf version of the score, a mp3 generated by Finale and a brief description of the piece. Because I have a relationship with this publisher, I didn’t include any material introducing me.
- The publisher wrote back with a couple of minor suggestions (“have you thought about maybe doubling the Glock part on chimes”) and was enthusiastic about the piece.
- I looked at the suggestions and by and large incorporated them. I then sent back a revised score and a much higher quality mp3 recording generated using East-West Symphonic Orchestra samples (I’ll list details of how I did this at the end)
- The publisher took the score and recording to an editorial board meeting where they review potential repertoire for their new catalogue. The board liked the piece, but also came back with some further minor suggestions
- I looked carefully at their suggestions, incorporated some but not others. I then sent back a revised score and an email detailed what I had changed. Also, quite importantly, I detailed which suggestions I didn’t incorporate and why.
- The publisher replied with one last tweak, and we were done.
From here, I still need to sign a contract. The publisher will organise all the recording, publishing, marketing side of things. The first time I would see a royalty cheque would be late January 2015. So the process from writing a piece to seeing some money is roughly about 18 months.
If you want to know more detail about how I used the EW samples, keep reading, otherwise see you next time!
Using the East West Sample Libraries
First, it’s worth saying that if you are sending a piece to a publisher for consideration, try to send the best recording you can. This may just mean making sure you get the best out of your notation program (can you add some reverb?, can you tweak note lengths, dynamics etc to make it play back better?). In my case, it means using some of the sample libraries I own. Here’s what I do:
- Create a midi file from Finale of my piece. Technically, I could use my samples within Finale (I think), but it’s really, really awkward.
- Import the midi file into my DAW (digital audio workstation – i.e. Cubase, Logic, Digital Performer, Protools, Reaper etc). I use Cubase at the moment. DAW’s are generally a much better tool for manipulating midi data and mixing tracks than trying to use your notation program. I generally try to use the right “tool” for the job. Notate in a notation program, produce audio in a DAW.
- Do a bunch of preliminary editing to tidy up the tracks – glue fragments together, delete midi data my sample don’t recognise, copy and paste midi data (where required) to the correct midi controller for my samples, break up the tracks into various sample patch types. This means putting all the staccato notes on one track, all the legato notes on another track etc.
- Load up the samples from the East West libraries and press play! In my case I’m working on an old laptop that chokes if I try to run an entire band of samples. So I do sections at a time (e.g. all the clarinet parts), check that they work, render to audio so I can unload those samples and load a new set.
- Mix the tracks
- Add some reverb (if necessary)
- Create an mp3 (High Quality mp3 though)
Hopefully that makes sense – let me know if you have questions.
You can read about the rest of the process of writing this piece here, here and here.