How to commission a work for your concert band

How £19.25 per week for one year could produce a special work for your band.

Why on earth should our school or area band commission a work? How could we afford it and what benefits would it bring? Could we use it in the SCBF as an alternative to a work from the set list?

I hope to make clear how to go about commissioning a work for your concert band from some of our leading composers. When I say “commission” I mean that the composer is asked to write a unique piece for the band, personalised for the players within the band, a work which will be there for generations of bands to come and which will raise the profile of the band within the banding community. Being involved with a live composer will also be a fantastic experience for the players within the band and will give them a great insight to the composing process. As you will see from the information below, this is a tremendous way of raising the profile of your band and of creating high ethos and morale within the group.

There is a good history of concert band commissions in the UK, so let’s see how it works from the germ of an idea to the first performance.

Firstly, there will be an idea within the band that it would be good to have a piece specially written, which could come from conductctor, parents, committee or players, so, what happens next?

  1. Who do we approach to compose for the band?
  2. How do we contact the composer?
  3. How much would it cost?
  4. How long would it take?
  5. Will it be what we ask for or expect?
  6. How do we raise the money?
  7. Is there a contract?
  8. Are there hidden costs?
  9. Who has the copyright?
  10. How will the commission be recognised?
  11. What is a consortium?
  12. Will the composer attend the first performance?

1. A first list of composers who have proven track records in writing for concert band would contain Philip Sparke, Martin Ellerby, Alan Fernie and Bruce Fraser. There are many composers, but these are particularly experienced in writing for (a) concert band and (b) personalising a piece to a particular group. The composer, Peter Graham, should also be mentioned as being particularly interested in this project, though he has said that he prefers to write a piece and then find a band for it. (Peter can be contacted through http://www.gramercymusic.com/)

2. At the end of this article I list contacts for the above composers. Any of these would appreciate an email as an approach, and be willing to discuss a commission. Advice here is that you should decide which composer you would most like to write for your band, and then approach that one in the first place. If that does not work out, try the next one. It is not usual to contact all and sit back to decide on the best one for you. However, bearing in mind how architects are given commissions, if you do decide to contact all the composers, it is important to let them know that you are considering them as one of the group, and that you contact all of them to let them know of your decision.

3. The British Academy of Composers used to issue a list of minimum fees for commissions, but had to retract it due to EU rules. A rough guide from that list is that the minimum cost for a concert band piece would be £300 per minute. If you were commissioning major composers such as John Williams ( of Star Wars fame etc.) or James McMillan (world famous Scottish Classical composer), that figure would probably jump to thousands per minute.

4. Generally, composers will have busy schedules and you should plan at least 6 months in advance, but you can sometimes persuade composers to work to a shorter time scale.

5. In discussion with the composer, it is best to give a really good idea of what kind of piece you would really like. Is it an OPENER, a BIGGIE, a FINISHER, or a SLOW TUNE ? Perhaps the inspiration for the work will be drawn from local history or be based on the school or band name or be related to a story – the choices really are endless. Make sure that the composer is aware of the instrumentation and standard of the band. You want to end up with a piece that the band can play and that has real relevance to the school or community. Composers will often wish to visit a rehearsal to get a good picture of the band to allow them to personalise the work. Inviting composers to workshop a piece once it is written, is also a very good idea and brings a special meaning to the performers. This is where the composer would attend or conduct a rehearsal of the work and explain to the players how it was put together and how it is personalised for the band.

6. There are many ways to find-raise the cost of the commission, including applying to the Scottish Arts Council. Any award from them would come through Awards for All and would probably amount to half the cost of the commission. Everyone involved in the band world is aware of how difficult it is to raise money, and there are many ingenious ideas around. The thing is that there are people and organisations who will be interested in giving money towards a commission as their name/organisation can be mentioned in the score and parts as a form of advertising/public recognition. This is probably another article in itself. A very simple way forward is to have a band sub of 50 pence per week for 52 weeks ( based on your band having approx 39 members or more), this will fairly painlessly raise the £1000.00 sum you need for a five minute work.

7. It is a good idea to draw up a simple contract with the composer to decide on a date that the music will be delivered etc. It is usual to pay half the commission fee up front and the other half on delivery of the piece, but you will find that these composers are very flexible depending on circumstances. You can find commissioning contract samples on the internet. They tend to be quite complex for film score composers etc, but do give an idea.

8. All costs should be discussed with the composer before going ahead. You will see in the specific composer comments below that most of the group would supply the conductors score with the dedication to the band, plus a set of parts. These parts could be in pdf format where you can print out parts as required, or in hard copy supplied by the composer. It’s important to check whether there is an extra charge for hard copy parts. In the olden days, the composer handed over a score and the band had to arrange to have the parts copied separately and at extra cost. You will see from Alan Fernie’s response that he is a traditionalist, but is prepared to be involved in the preparation of the parts.

9. The copyright belongs to the composer, although you will have the right to the first performance. It is possible that the work could then be published and the name of the band would be on scores and parts being played all over the world. This has the ability to give your band a very positive international identity.

10. The front page of the score will state the commissioner of the work and can list names of individuals/organisations who contributed to the cost of the commission. If the work is published, the commissioning band(s) will be acknowledged at the front of the score and parts. It will also be recognised as an alternative to playing a piece from the set list at SCBF events. If the band wins through to National Level, the work will be recorded by the RSAMD Wind Orchestra.

11. A consortium is where two or more bands commission a work and split the cost between them. In this case each band will have the right to give first performances. This is a very cost effective way of commissioning a work as, the more bands involved the less each one has to pay. The downside to this is that it makes the work less personalised to a particular band.

12. Composers enjoy attending first performances of their works and would make every effort to be there.
These are specific comments from the list composers:

PHILIP SPARKE

“I am always happy to consider commissions from school and community bands. My scale of fees is completely flexible and depends on the type of piece and the size and grade of the ensemble concerned -even, perhaps, the nature of the premiere.

The fee includes a full set of publication-standard score and parts and, of course, rights of first performance and acknowledgement and dedication in the published edition. I usually ask for a lead time of 18 months to 2 years and actively encourage input from the commissioner about the type of piece required.”

MARTIN ELLERBY

“I’d be happy to be involved. I do have an ideal per minute rate which includes all the performing material to the commissioning body but would rather inform interested parties of this privately. Of course time scales are always crucial. I'd say as much as possible for the benefit of all concerned. Once in the diary I’m good at sticking to deadlines.”

ALAN FERNIE

“I generally would charge, for a school/area band work, £200 per minute of music. I think this, from what I’m led to believe, is on the cheap side, but I would counter that with the fact that I’d be sending in a hand-written score. I know, from prior experience, that this just isn’t an option any more with young players, so perhaps there could be an opportunity for someone in the organisation, staff or pupil, to set it on the computer, working in conjunction with myself - indeed I’d make myself available, as part of the commission, to do a composing/arranging workshop at the school band. As for ideas on subject matter – I’d be again looking to work together with the band, its director and myself.”

BRUCE FRASER

“I would firstly want to discuss ideas for the piece with the conductor/band/committee and would expect to be involved in rehearsals/workshops so that the band would get the most out of the experience. As far as cost, I tend to go at the average rate which would include the supply of score and set of parts produced on computer. I tend to be good at deadlines and can work very quickly”

Hopefully, this article will have given you a good insight to the process of commissioning a work for your concert band and let you consider the unique benefits from such a project.

Contacts

Good luck, and on behalf of the Scottish Concert Band Festival, I look forward to hearing some new works for your bands in the future.

© Bruce Fraser November 2009.