This Is How To Avoid The Middleman

Following the first installment in the Keys To Creativity series, I contacted composer and blogger buddy Alex Shapiro to see what she thought about the notion that orchestras should focus more on developing in-house music production resources in order to enhance direct interaction with composers. Fortunately, Alex never disappoints…

Alex Shapiro so gets it.
Alex Shapiro so gets it.

Not only did Alex have an opinion, but she offered a 3,175 word article she wrote in 2008 which examines one of her commission projects that entails everything espoused in my Keys to Creativity article. So instead of summing up her experiences, the good folks that own the publishing rights to Alex’s article were kind enough to let me republish her article here.

Yes, it’s longer than a typical blog post but every single orchestra stakeholder needs to take the time to read it from top to bottom. Not only are there a multitude of lessons orchestras can learn from this experience, but there are big prizes awaiting the ensemble with the testicular fortitude to get on the ground floor (think “cornering the market of an untapped revenue stream”). If you want more information about Alex’s experience, contact her directly via her website and if you’re wondering about how to develop the revenue stream alluded to above, send me a note.

As an added bonus, Alex sent along clips from her commission to share with everyone, they’re available at the bottom of this article.


This feature originally appeared in the July/August 2008 issue of SOUNDING BOARD, the newsletter of the American Composers Forum and is reprinted here with their permission and that of its author.


Netting a Government Commission: MySpace Taps a New Musical Arsenal

by Alex Shapiro

The brass name plate on the door declared, “COMMANDER.” As I entered, my eyes grazed a wall of framed, autographed photos featuring highly ranked officers. Bookshelves held an assortment of reading material, CDs, files, and a few mementos of stuffed animal toys. A combat helmet casually rested atop a coat rack in which camouflaged jumpsuits hung next to civilian clothes. I was inside the Fort Monroe Army Base in Virginia.

How did I, a chamber-music composer, end up here? Blame it all on the serendipity of the Internet – and that MySpace page I put up a while back.

In the last week of June 2007, while reading messages from some of my newly acquired MySpace e-friends scattered around the world, I came across one that was longer than most. Most notable was that the photo of the writer was a man in a dark-blue military uniform, complete with an intimidatingly long sword, standing on a shorn green field. Ruling out high fashion battle dress, I went with the theory that this fellow was a band director. Additionally ruling out the possibility that anyone from the military would ever contact me, I assumed that this was probably a joke from a friend, since one doesn’t expect the U.S. government to go trolling for artists on MySpace. The writer’s name was Major Tod A. Addison, Commander and conductor of the United States Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) Band.

As I read the words tucked within the tight MySpace box which framed them, the phrases “inquiry for a possible commission,” and “piece for concert band,” popped out. I still wondered whether this was for real, since some of my pals are famous for their senses of humor. Reading further, the writer stated his understanding of budget needs and scheduling restraints in light of my current obligations. I began to take this letter seriously. I also began to worry, because concert wind band writing was many ZIP codes away from my comfort zone of acoustic and electronic chamber music. Not only had I never composed for wind band, I had never even attended a concert of wind band music.

Then I read the writer’s description of what kind of piece he was looking for, and yet another phrase popped out: his comment that he was seeking something with a “military theme.” I began to worry even more. I have a profound respect for the men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces. Their bravery and sacrifice is extraordinary and puts the ease of my daily life into sobering perspective. I love my country’s Constitution, and have spent years as an activist on legislative issues during my time as vice president of the Board of the 30,000 member American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. But I am not known for supporting my government’s pugilistic nature, regardless of the occupants of the White House. I wondered, “Did the Commander read my bio??” It clearly offers a clue – or twenty – about my civic leanings.

Yet I remembered that just because someone is employed by the government, does not mean that they necessarily agree with everything the ever-rotating administrations decide. Keeping this in mind and realizing that this letter was indeed for real, wanting the gig, but also wanting to be nothing short of honest in my response, I thought for a moment as to how I would balance my problem with the “military theme” request with my growing interest in delving into a creative world I knew virtually nothing about: concert wind band music.

I wrote Major Addison a warm MySpace message reply of thanks and genuine interest. I suspected that there was a comfortable budget for the commission, and I knew for certain that given the opportunity to compose for this 40-piece ensemble, I would learn a tremendous amount. Addressing the issue of his desire for something military in nature, I carefully typed the following: “A ‘military theme’ can mean so many things, from strong national pride and patriotism, to difficult decisions that come from the need to secure a nation, to the joyous and painful results from these actions. Quite a lot of emotion for musicians to explore.” I figured that this would either put a quick end to any further discussion of a commission, or open up new musical avenues. Receiving Major Addison’s enthusiastic response the next day, I was happy to have achieved the latter.

But how in the world did Major Addison find me in the first place? I later learned he was visiting the MySpace page of a friend of his, fellow composer Anne McGinty, and saw me listed among her “Top Friends.” I had never emailed, much less met, Anne, but I now know she is best known for her educational band music and was recently commissioned to write for the TRADOC Band herself. Apparently she liked my online audio clips enough to post me up there right along with Simon Cowell and Quincy Jones (ah, the delightful bizarreness of MySpace), and that directly led to the Commander clicking on my audio files, hearing my work, and contacting me. Needless to say, soon after beginning the dialogue with Major Addison, I wrote Anne a grateful message, and since then she and I have become friends via email and phone. Internet networking at its best, all the way around: a new commission and new friends.

Working for Uncle Sam: a Parallel Universe

The ensuing contract process was just a tad different from the usual civilian commissioning agreement, beginning with my need to sign up with the Central Contractor Registration System, obtain a Trading Partner Identification Number, a DUNS Confirmation Number, a CAGE Code, a NAICS Code, create a confidential Trading Partner Profile, and become a contractor with the Department of Defense! Suddenly I was getting a lot of emails splashing around the acronyms CCR,TPIN, DUNS, TPP, NAICS, CAGE and TRADOC. Slightly dizzying, but the guys in the Army office were always helpful if in a moment of civilian confusion I had a question or three.

One of my more amusing afternoons prior to beginning the piece was spent slogging through the lengthy online registration process, which involved the requirement for me to classify and categorize the kind of work I do. I found myself scrolling slowly through an impressively long list of job descriptions that, oddly enough, I had never before considered: Nuclear Radiation Specialist, Area Mine Clearance Personnel, Weapons Repair Services, Guided Missile Assistant, and Radioactive Waste Management, among the many colorful options. Tempting as it was to go for that last one in light of what some of my pieces sound like, I checked the box for “Entertainers & Entertainment Groups.”

There is something a little unnerving about receiving emails whose subject line includes the capitalized declaration: [UNCLASSIFIED]. But there was something even funnier, if also slightly unnerving, at the bottom of some of these emails. Working with the U.S. Armed Forces bands, one is constantly reminded that not only are these players superb musicians, many of whom come from the finest conservatories and university programs, but they are also soldiers.

My introduction to this parallel musical universe came when I received an email from one of the band members who also works in the TRADOC office helping with administrative details. I glanced at the signature at the end of his email, and almost fell out of my chair laughing. After his rank and name, was the following: “Bass Trombonist and Ammunition Handler.”

Major Addison and the TRADOC band extended a generous invitation to fly me from my home on San Juan Island, Washington, to Newport News, Virginia, for the late March premiere. It was a treat to attend the final rehearsal, hearing all the notes from my head blasted at me by wonderful players. And it was certainly visually unique: everyone, including Maestro Addison at the podium, wore their camouflage utility jumpsuits, with pant legs tucked into rugged army boots. The musicians looked like at any moment they were ready to drop their oboes and head into combat. I sat there feeling remarkably well protected, and tried to imagine the New York Philharmonic musicians in such attire.

Military personnel, even those who are artists, use a traditional language that is foreign to a civilian like me. These musicians possess a decorum of emotional detachment, and a remarkable lack of ego about what they do, referring to their musical work as assignments or tasks to be accomplished. Rank is very significant in this world, and I was careful to always address my new friend Tod as “Major Addison” when speaking with the musicians. Likewise, I was always addressed formally as “Ma’am” or “Ms. Shapiro.” This sincereness and formality is striking, and charming, to an independent composer from the hippie West Coast.

I left rehearsal on the base in the company of Major Addison and Lt. Sharon Toulouse, an impressive young woman who is the other conductor of the band. Headed for an early dinner, we happened to step foot outside just as 5:00 p.m. rolled around. Suddenly, a trumpet was playing taps and my companions abruptly froze right where we were standing, and held a salute. After taps, a canon sounded, and then a military jet swooped overhead. I asked if the latter was a regular fly over, and Tod said no, just good timing. A flash of melancholy hit me as I juxtaposed the uniformed musicians in this safe environment, with the uniformed soldiers flying missions and risking their lives overseas at this same moment.

Getting to Work

The experience of composing this piece for the TRADOC Band was fabulous. I have never been more respectfully treated by a client. Anything I needed and any question I had, were no problem at all. I was even able to set the delivery date for the non-transposed concert pitch score; the Army offices would take care of all the parts preparation. Most significantly, I retain the publishing rights for a piece with an extraordinarily brief 90-day exclusivity. The job itself could not have gone more smoothly.

Beginning the piece, however, was another issue, as I did battle with myself and my many, slightly schizophrenic, muses. I have a broad stylistic approach, and as I worked to envision the piece before even writing a note, I wrestled with a myriad of choices. Unused to having such a sizable array of musicians from whom I could make a joyous noise, the sonic possibilities became nearly overwhelming. Much of my concert music catalog could be noted for pieces that elicit a lot of sound and timbral depth from a small number of players. Suddenly, my acoustic world had multiplied ten-fold, and the endless choices created endless ideas and endless pondering as to which path to take.

Added to this was the education inherent in thinking about the balance of my palette: no string section, a full electric rhythm section, and 2’s and 3’s of almost every woodwind and brass except trumpets, of which I had a whopping five. During the first couple of weeks of starting the work, I came up with so many different techniques that interested me, that ultimately I couldn’t employ even half of them within a single eight minute piece. My initial sketches – drawings, musical scribbles and brief, descriptive outbursts of text – will serve me later for other band pieces.

Leaving Assumptions at the Door

A couple of weeks before the premiere, the phone rang with the band copyist, also a French hornist with the TRADOC band, on the other end. After a brief exchange of hellos and thank-you’s, he began, “Uh, Ms. Shapiro, I just want to check with you about the French horns.”

Uh-oh. Did I write something out of range? I started rewinding the piece in my mind, searching quickly for the different horn phrases and how I might have supremely messed up. Visions of wearing a prisoner’s orange jumpsuit flashed in my head, in case I had just failed miserably.

“Well, in measure 36, did you intend them in that octave? I mean, for them to be that low?”

I breathed an internal sigh of relief.

“Yes, I was looking for a dark sound there. Is this going to be a problem? Can they play this comfortably at such a quiet dynamic?”

“Oh, no problem at all, ma’am. They’re really going to love it. It’s just that we never see writing like this for the horns; it’s so…symphonic. That ‘s why we wanted you to write for us in the first place, because we knew it would be different.”

I knew it would be different, too, and while one half of me had been eager to stretch my brain and their repertoire a little, the other half of me had been terrified that with my utter lack of experience in this arena, I’d fall on my face in a very public way. Of course, that fear didn’t stop me from taking the gig, but it haunted me for the first few weeks as I began composing, wondering whether what I was hearing in my head would translate well once set free in the air.

Early on, to test the waters, I expressed some of my outside-the-box ideas about the music to Major Addison, telling him about a concept I had for using key clicks, and asking whether his band members might be up for singing. His response was nothing short of enthusiastic. “Oh, sure, they’ll love all that!” I realized I could do anything I wanted, and the combination of being paid well and writing for someone who clearly went to me because he wanted something different from the usual fare, was all the inspiration I needed. Not once did the Major suggest what to write, or more significantly, what not to.

As it turned out, Major Addison is one of the more sophisticated musicians I’ve met. Talking about music in his office, he delighted in showing me his favorite John Cage and John Adams CDs, and spoke at length about Harry Partch’s work, which fascinated him. Between that, and other conversations I had with a few band members about contemporary music they love to play, any preconceptions I may have had about band musicians flew out the window.

There was, however, a subtle component that I chose to take into consideration. Major Addison mentioned that he had to put this new piece, and also the other traditional band music, on one specific concert marked “Concert Music Series,” because his audiences might not sit through all of this otherwise. Hmmm. I started to think about who the audience might be for these concerts. Many of the attendees are military families, government employees, and locals from the community, which is almost never a major metropolis. In other words, it is unlikely that a large number of people in the audience hear new music on a regular basis, if at all.

In no way does that mean a composer should dumb down their work. I believe that composers who work for hire can be true to their personal voice, and still relate to an audience by choosing to speak through an aspect of their musical language that might also be readily absorbed by others. One of the signatures of my music is that I traverse many different genres, and can cull from a wide palette as a new piece unfolds. Envisioning what would become “Homecoming,” I knew that, inspired by the success of my flute quartet “Bioplasm,” I would open the piece with key clicks. “If they sound fabulous on just four instruments, just think how they’ll sound on 40!” was my silly mantra. I also knew that I wanted to turn my back on the predictable timpani-snare-bass drum norm for band percussion, and immediately excised those from my arsenal, preferring to feature all mallets and later, drum set.

I chose a rather post-minimalist beginning, quietly setting up an irregularly repetitive intro based on parallel 5ths in the mallets, and letting it play out just long enough to make the audience wonder where, if anywhere, this piece is going. It indeed did go somewhere, gradually ramping up through chord entrances and thematic ideas until it blossomed into a full-on big band jazz number, alternatively shifting between that world and more traditionally concert band-sounding chords. By the end of the piece the jazz-pop feel wins out with a loudly joyous ending. It was fun to write something not quite concert and not quite pop, and these were all authentic parts of my musical personality.

Banding Together

Despite my misgivings about aspects of the piece’s orchestration that I still intend to improve, “Homecoming” was wonderfully received by a full audience and I signed a lot of programs that evening. It was a moving experience to briefly introduce the piece and discuss the meaning of the music, which travels from concern and worry, to promise and hope, and finally, to celebration. Far more than with savvy New Music audiences, putting a story along with this abstract wall of sound was a very effective way to have others connect with it. Most moving of all was a conversation I had after the concert with the young wife of the band’s incoming music director. Bouncing two small children in a stroller, she told me that her brother was killed in Iraq just five months earlier. Unbeknownst to me, there is an event for veteran families called “Homecoming,” and in their grief, her parents had attended one in order to meet their son’s friends, and find a glimpse of closure. The woman told me how much my piece meant to her. I was speechless.

With nearly three hundred active bands in the States and abroad, and a budget far larger than that of the music division of the N.E.A., the U.S.Armed Forces is actually the country’s biggest employer of musicians, and a patron of new music. The musicians work very hard and endure rigors of physical training, but in exchange they receive benefits and pensions that many hard working players might envy. Like State Department diplomats, many of the musicians have tours of duty for just two to four years at a time, and are then transferred to other locations, which can be a challenge for family life. Most remain stateside, but a few are deployed overseas.

I’m very happy – and relieved – to have had such a positive experience, especially since I don’t look very good in bright orange. Major Addison is proud of commissioning new works each year and loves letting his colleagues know about their availability. Within two weeks of the premiere, he distributed information about “Homecoming” to a number of other conductors in the Armed Forces. I’m going to seek out more band opportunities, because the possibility for many well rehearsed performances from rental scores is quite appealing. Having had the finest on-the-job training, my initial fears are now replaced by a desire to become an even better wind band composer. Inspiration is the kind of ammunition I think I’m best at handling.

Homecoming: opening (Live outdoor performance, May 2008, United States Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) Band, Major Tod A. Addison, conducting.)

[audio:Homecoming_Opening.mp3]

Homecoming: closing (Live outdoor performance, May 2008, United States Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) Band, Major Tod A. Addison, conducting.)
[audio:Homecoming_Closing.mp3]

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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