One of the most exciting moments for a composer can be when they first receive word a piece they’ve written will be published. That first success often comes after innumerable rejections. J.W. Pepper reached out to six renowned instrumental composers to hear about those moments and how they’ve progressed since their first publication.
In this last article in our three-part blog series, we share their responses, including what some of their favorite works are and why.
How did you first get published?
Deborah Baker Monday: I mailed my first compositions for strings to every publisher that deals with educational materials – yes, parcels and stamps. After many, many, many rejections I finally got a positive reply and that was my first publication. Things have become easier for submission these days because publishers are looking for a PDF accompanied by an MP3 recording. The good news is that you can send a digital recording from your score. For a while there, we sent recordings (even cassette tapes) to help with a submission to a publisher.
Kirt Mosier: I got published on the first serious song I wrote. Our orchestra performed it at the state Music Educators Association Conference and a publisher was at the performance and saw the audience reaction and asked me if they could publish it as soon as the concert was finished!
Soon Hee Newbold: FJH was primarily a piano publisher, so when they branched into instrumental (band and orchestra) I was given a tip to submit a few string pieces and see how they did. FJH accepted two string works, and things progressed from there.
Chris Thomas: I sat next to Soon Hee Newbold on an airplane – just friendly strangers. We realized we live close to one another, were both string players, and work in motion pictures. She referred me to her editor, who then asked me to write a new piece. I was published within a few months of that chance meeting. How you say? Dumb luck!!
Brian Balmages: I applied for an internship at Warner Brothers Publications when I was an undergraduate at James Madison University. I sent them a few pieces to show them my background in composition, arranging, and engraving. A few weeks later I got a call from their editor, Jack Lamb. We had a wonderful phone call. After a while, I asked him if I got the internship. He didn’t know about that. He was calling to tell me he wanted to publish two pieces! As it turns out, I wound up winning a spot at Disney, so I played there for my internship. Not a bad deal!
Lauren Bernofsky: I first got published by sending in a choral piece, Snow Flakes, to Boosey & Hawkes. They took it, and I couldn’t believe it! In the spirit of full disclosure, a former roommate of mine did work in the office there, but the piece was accepted by Doreen Rao, editor of a choral series there. I’d mailed in the score and recording, and I still remember the day when that acceptance letter arrived.
How do you market or sell your unpublished works?
Soon Hee Newbold: I don’t have too many unpublished works and most of that is film music, so I don’t sell or market my other compositions. I have a few pop songs on some albums, but that is sold through the internet and the producer that initially hired me to write those songs.
Deborah Baker Monday: I have not tried selling anything unpublished.
Kirt Mosier: I self-publish some of my more difficult works as well as professional-level works. I have a website where people can order them or purchase digital downloads.
Brian Balmages: Mainly word of mouth, and I am in the process of setting things up on my website. I also use social media a lot to promote some of my own projects. I enjoy the balance between my own self-published projects and my published ones.
Chris Thomas: I don’t. My policy is to forget the song and write a better work that deserves to be published. I have a graveyard of forgotten works that is several hundred deep.
Lauren Bernofsky: I try to get as many of my works with publishers as possible to free up as much time as possible for the creative side of being a composer. I list them on my website, often with a web page dedicated to them that includes a little about the piece and a recording. I often post videos and recordings of works on YouTube and SoundCloud. I will occasionally attend conferences and have an exhibit table where I sell all my works that are pertinent to the particular conference. For instance, I recently returned from the International Women’s Brass Conference where I sold just my works for brass.
That said, my works that haven’t been taken by a publisher, for instance my First Snow (string orchestra), I sell through the J.W. Pepper website. And some I just list on my website, and people who heard a recording of the piece might contact me. I sell very few pieces this way (I don’t devote much time to marketing them.) As it is, I’d say I spend more hours concerned with the business aspects of being a composer than actually writing music!
What would surprise composers most about the process of getting educational music published?
Soon Hee Newbold: The publishing process can be somewhat of a mystery, so what may surprise composers is the actual process it takes to listen to hundreds of submissions, take into account what spaces are available in the catalog and so on. I think many may be discouraged if they get a rejection letter, which is very common, but it many times has nothing to do with how good the composition is but the logistics of having it included. Also, most people are surprised that the copyright belongs to the publisher and not the writer.
Deborah Baker Monday: Maybe the biggest surprise was how long it takes to get from acceptance by a publisher to becoming available to the public. And then even longer to receive any royalties for sales.
Chris Thomas: How collaborative the process is. My editors know the market so intimately well, and what teachers and students are really hungry for. When we move forward with a new piece, there is a lot of back and forth over details to best serve these needs (and not the composer’s personal desires). We think about YOU more than you might think.
Lauren Bernofsky: I think many composers would be surprised at the importance editors place on keeping everything in the piece on a uniform difficulty level, and therefore the requests editors make of composers for changes to the piece.
Kirt Mosier: I have been extremely fortunate and was published at an early age where there seemed to be a void for my style of writing. It is very difficult to get pieces published now. There are a lot more composers with excellent skills.
Brian Balmages: Many composers do not realize the amount of detail that goes into getting a piece published. I am a stickler for editing a piece, so they are often surprised at the level of detail I go into with regard to phrase marks, dynamics, articulation, orchestration and more. Many composers also do not realize how much work goes into publication. There are editors like myself who get a piece ready for production, then engravers, proofreaders, printers, a warehouse team, shipping team, marketing, sales. It is a lot of moving parts!
What are common misconceptions about being a composer of educational music?
Kirt Mosier: Ha! The most common would be that you get wealthy. I’ve been to national conventions and hear people speak of me and to me as if I’m some sort of guru or maestro. That always makes me smile. I just work hard and hope for the best.
Soon Hee Newbold: One of the biggest misconceptions I think is the type of salary composers receive. Either people think composers are wildly rich or they think they are starving. Most of us are somewhere in between. Also, I think there is an unfounded stigma with writing for educational music just like writing children’s books in the literary world.
Brian Balmages: Some composers pigeonhole themselves as “educational composers” and almost exclusively write for younger groups. I have no issue with that, but the truth about being a composer of educational music is this – if someone writes a piece of music, and someone learns something while listening to it, then it is educational music. If you have studied Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé and learned something about orchestration, color articulations, melodic development… then I would call it educational music.
Deborah Baker Monday: For me, the majority of people think I only write in a grade 1 and 2 because that is what most publishers are looking for from me. I have a huge number of pieces in that grade level. But I also have numerous pieces of higher grade levels which unfortunately are not played that much. I hope to get more interest in this part of my catalog.
Chris Thomas: Funny, I’ve never heard any assumptions about us thus far. I haven’t heard any rumors about our kind. The only surprise that seems to come from young musicians is that a composer can still be ALIVE!
Lauren Bernofsky: I love this question. The biggest misconceptions, I’d say, are that educational music is easier to write and less important than professional-level concert music. In fact, educational music can be a lot harder to write, since the composer has to know the technical considerations of the instruments intimately, and she has to of course stay within a certain difficulty level for each instrument. Try writing inspired music with all those technical restrictions! Not so easy, sometimes.
And, as for the importance of the music, I can’t imagine anything MORE important than high-quality music for developing musicians to play, because we have to keep them inspired, keep them wanting to continue playing – because, of course, student musicians of today are the professionals of tomorrow. I’ve noticed that educational music is often looked down on as being of lesser importance than the big warhorse concert works. But I couldn’t disagree more! Even the greatest players of our time came up playing SOMETHING that was easier than the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto! Developing players need the highest quality music to keep them inspired and learning!
After years of writing for young ensembles, has your perception of music composition changed?
Brian Balmages: No. If anything, it has become more focused in the notion that anything I write must have musical integrity. Whether that is a grade half piece or a grade 6+ piece.
Deborah Baker Monday: Yes. I have been writing for so many years for young ensembles that I have not allowed myself the time to compose spontaneously without an agenda.
Kirt Mosier: After writing for years, my perception of music composition has grown, and I don’t worry so much about the historical longevity of anything I write.
Lauren Bernofsky: I have always written for young ensembles alongside writing works for professional ensembles, and I wouldn’t say my perception of composing has changed, though I do move in and out of feeling excited about certain ensembles or genres of music. Right now, for instance, I’m most interested in writing an opera.
Soon Hee Newbold: I don’t think my core perception of composition has changed after writing for publication. Some of my favorite composers wrote for their students and professionals play these works still today – Vivaldi, Corelli, Mozart and so on.
Chris Thomas: No real perception change, just trying to sharpen my ability to write better for young ensembles. I’m constantly learning (thanks to my brilliant editors) how to serve young musicians better. I hope it’s translating into the music.
Tell us a little about the process of writing a commissioned work with a deadline.
Chris Thomas: My rule is always “story first.” I go through a phase of assembling feelings, visuals, and story points. Once the tone is set, I have to imagine a story line of sorts. Next is finding the melodies and harmonic language that tell the story best. From there, it’s a simple game of meeting daily composing goals. If I’m not visually clear on what I’m writing, then it’s hard to find the inspiration to be creative.
Deborah Baker Monday: I have been lucky enough to have a few months’ notice for a commission, and now that I am retired from teaching I am able to devote my full attention to the project. Once, while I was still teaching full time, I had THREE commissions over the same few months. That took lots of juggling time and attention to meet the deadlines!
Kirt Mosier: I always promise the piece to the client on a deadline that is a month longer than I think it will take to write the piece. I try to give the client more than they thought they would get – sooner than they thought they would get it. Deadlines keep me on track, and I actually like them.
Soon Hee Newbold: I think this process may be somewhat different depending on the composer, but I think the common procedure is to contact the composer at least a year in advance. If the schedule works out, there’s an agreement and usually a deposit upfront with the remainder due upon completion. There is no guarantee that the commissioned work will be published, but if it is, it’ll include the group’s name and director.
Brian Balmages: I always try to leave more than enough time for a commission in case the muse does not want to sit on my shoulder and give me the inspiration I need. I always like to find out information from the commissioning group including notes about their ensemble – strengths, weaknesses, etc. The most important thing is that I deliver something that they want, as opposed to writing a piece of music that will do well after it is published. Too many groups commission composers and get a piece of music that would have been “written anyway.”
Lauren Bernofsky: I love having deadlines! It allows me to structure my composing time. When I’m writing a piece for a deadline, I use the following method to stay on track to get the piece finished on time: after coming up with the main melodic material for a piece, I take the tempo and number of beats per bar and use that to determine how many measures I’ll need to write the required duration for the piece. I then divide by the number of days leading up to about a week before the piece is due, and that result is the number of measures I need to write per day to stay on track (allowing about a week at the end for tweaking and making parts.)
What is your favorite piece of music that you’ve written, and why?
Brian Balmages: This is a tough one. It’s like asking me who my favorite child is! So I won’t answer it directly, but I will say that the pieces I love the most are the ones that I am most emotionally connected with when I wrote them. There are a few examples, such as 30,000 and Forever for orchestra and Breaking Point for wind ensemble. And there are also chamber music pieces that I love, because they let me explore a different side of myself that I do not often visit.
Deborah Baker Monday: I have two favorites. For the Star of County Down (an arrangement) because I wrote it as a tribute to my grandmother. Every time I conduct it I am still filled with the emotion it brought me as I grieved her passing. Chant Formations is also a favorite. It is dedicated to my mother, but I had been captivated by the Ubi Caritas chant for awhile and this was my opportunity to share it in different settings.
Chris Thomas: Picking a favorite child is a tricky business, but I’ll have to say Rainfall in Vernazza. I just love the melody, the moody harmony, and the setting in which the piece first arrived in my imagination. I consider it among my best published works. Sadly, Rainfall is my least performed composition. It’s a lonely little song, floating unnoticed in the catalogs. That said, I’ll always be its number one fan!
Soon Hee Newbold: I don’t have a stand-out favorite but a few that have a bit more meaning perhaps because of the circumstances surrounding the work. Some of these include Perseus, A Pirate’s Legend, Lion City, and Russian Music Box.
Kirt Mosier: I suppose Overture to the Wind for sentimental reasons. It was the first serious piece I tried to write, and it was about watching summer storms in southeast Kansas at my grandparents’ home. I would not call it my favorite piece because of compositional aspects. I don’t write like that anymore so it also holds a sentimental place in my heart for that reason.
Lauren Bernofsky: I am most happy with a song cycle of mine for soprano and string orchestra called Five Songs on Poems of Robert Herrick. Each movement contrasts the others and gives me an opportunity to explore different textures possible from a string orchestra. The various poems I used for the lyrics sent me in various interesting directions for the mood and type of music. And I, well, just like the sound of it!
Is there anything else you want to share with our audience (important lessons, stories, etc.)?
Soon Hee Newbold: I’m asked frequently about the particulars of making it in the publishing world being a female minority. In my own personal journey, I never gave much thought of it to be honest. I just wrote music I wanted to listen to and made sure it was the best I could do with the parameters given.
Lauren Bernofsky: I never composed before someone told me to. And I’m so glad that I tried it out, because I’d had no idea that I had the ability to create music that people actually want to hear and play. I think everyone should give composing a try, even if you think you can’t do it. You never know if you have a hidden talent! While composing is hard, often agonizing work, it’s the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had.
Kirt Mosier: If you want to be a composer or create anything, don’t think of what you do as overly important. This is where writer’s block can come into play. View what you do as disposable, reshapable, remoldable. You will be much more prolific this way and maybe something you create will become timeless!
Deborah Baker Monday: Don’t give up. Be persistent. Be patient.
Brian Balmages: Going through graduate school at the University of Miami, I had the opportunity to meet and share a meal with some incredible individuals including Alfred Reed, Fred Fennell, David Maslanka, Gary Green and James Syler. Jim is a wonderful composer and became a good friend. Over lunch one day he told me how it took him several years after he left school to figure out who HE was and what HE wanted to write. It made me realize that I had been spending so much time trying to write like Maslanka, Colgrass, and others that I was not paying attention to who I am. That is when I began being true to myself and realizing that it is okay to write music for younger players. That does not diminish who I am as an artist. And I have since embraced that, and enjoy the opportunity to write for a young ensemble one moment and then a symphony orchestra the next.
Chris Thomas: Finally, a little life lesson – I’ve learned that people in elevated, authoritative places sometimes like to tell us what we are capable or incapable of doing. I have seen many great talents give up their music based on somebody else’s careless disbelief. I nearly gave up composing because of such unfounded cynicism. What matters is that you forge ahead because YOU love it! You will always improve if you have passion. You will accomplish great things when you don’t give up. Your path will always be different than those around you, so stay your course and create great music.
J.W. Pepper thanks these composers for sharing their time and insights. Browse their full repertoire in the links below:
Deborah Baker Monday taught for 25 years in the award-winning Logan City School District Orchestra Program in Logan, Utah. She is a regular faculty member at the Utah State University Summer Music Clinic and performs with the Cache Chamber Orchestra. She received her B.M.E. from Florida State University with an emphasis in strings and an M.M. in composition from the University of Alabama. She continued doctoral studies in composition at Louisiana State University. Baker Monday has published over 130 works for string orchestra with seven leading educational music publishers. She has also presented sessions at numerous state music conferences, including ASTA, The Midwest Clinic, and the prestigious Ohio State String Teachers Workshop.
Brian Balmages is an award-winning composer and conductor. His music has been performed throughout the world, including premieres at the College Band Directors National Conference, The Midwest Clinic, Carnegie Hall, and the Kennedy Center. He is a recipient of the A. Austin Harding Award from the American School Band Directors Association and the Distinguished Alumni Award from James Madison University. As a conductor, Balmages enjoys regular engagements with all-state bands and orchestras as well as international appearances in Canada, Australia, and Italy. He is Director of Instrumental Publications for The FJH Music Company and on faculty at Towson University.
Lauren Bernofsky’s music has been performed across the United States as well as internationally in major venues from Carnegie Hall to Grieg Hall in Bergen, Norway. Her works are published by ten different publishers. She holds degrees from the Hartt School, New England Conservatory, and Boston University, where she earned a doctorate in composition. She has taught at Boston University; the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; The Peabody Institute; and Interlochen. She conducts at regional festivals and serves as a clinician at schools, festivals, and national conferences.
Internationally known artist Kirt Mosier is both a conductor and a composer. He has conducted numerous performances with international orchestras at venues including the United States’ Carnegie Hall, Iceland’s Harpa Hall, Austria’s Musikverein and MuTh Concert Halls, and Australia’s famed Sydney Opera House. Mosier has twice won national composition awards and has had many works featured at The Midwest Clinic. Mosier was recently awarded the Joanna Nichols Artist in Residence Grant by the Taipei American School and will be the Artist in Residence in Taipei, Taiwan beginning in 2020. Currently, Mosier is the artistic director for the Youth Symphony of Kansas City and is also the associate conductor of the Lee’s Summit Symphony. Mosier also had a distinguished career as Director of Orchestras with the Raytown and Lee’s Summit School Districts in Missouri, in addition to teaching orchestration for the University of Missouri Kansas City Conservatory.
Soon Hee Newbold began studying piano at age five and violin at age seven. She has won many prestigious competitions and has performed throughout the world in venues such as Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, Wolf Trap, Aspen, and Tanglewood. She received her Bachelor of Music degree from James Madison University, where she studied film scoring, orchestration, and audio production. Upon graduation, Newbold began working as a professional musician, contractor, and stage manager. In addition to her valuable contributions to educational orchestra literature with many compositions published by The FJH Music Company, she has written and arranged works for albums, recording projects, and various performing ensembles.
Chris Thomas is a composer for film, television, and theme parks, and he has been a TEDx speaker. His scores have been nominated for a Film & TV Music Award; he won the Gold Medal Prize at the Park City Film Music Festival and the Best Film & TV Music award at eWorld Music Awards. Chris has written music for several Emmy-nominated films, and for Woman Rebel, which was shortlisted for an Academy Award. In television, he works as a composer, orchestrator, and conductor. Thomas’ work can be heard in theme parks all over the world. He has written music for the Evermore Adventure Park, Knott’s Berry Farm, Queen Mary Chill, Dreamland Theme Park (UK), Los Angeles Haunted Hayride, and many more. Thomas’ works for the concert hall have been performed from Carnegie Hall and Sydney Opera House to the Hollywood Bowl. He recently premiered a series of concert works in France, Belgium, and Germany. Thomas also recently completed his first symphony, called the Malheur Symphony. His educational works are published with The FJH Music Company and Wingert-Jones Publications.
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