A litter of new works

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve had a HUGE spike in my musical output. I finally finished Only Air, then wrote three new choral works and a song cycle.

Part of the reason for the spike was the simple fact that four of the above-mentioned works were commissions and had fast-approaching deadlines. I’m a horrible procrastinator at times, so deadlines are happy things for me. And while I adore Douglas Adams, I try not to ascribe to his philosophy on finishing work: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

1) The double bar went on Only Air around the 1st of January. In fact, I’m pretty sure it was the 1st of January. Apparently New Year’s Day hangovers can’t stop me from finishing a piece! Over the next month or so, I sought out critiques from friends and mentors, and continued to make some revisions, but the piece was effectively done.

2)After Only Air was finished and engraved, I turned my attention to They Lie at Rest for SATB choir (text by Christina Rossetti), which was commissioned by two choirs in Florida: East Ridge High School Concert Choir in Clermont, FL, and the Lake Minneola High School Choirs. The commission was instigated by East Ridge’s Gretchen Kemp, who’s a former classmate of mine from my Illinois State days, and with whom I sang in various choirs for several years. They Lie at Rest will be premiered on April 24 in Washington, D.C.

One of the fun and interesting parts of writing the piece was walking the schools through the commissioning process. For a lot of musicians, commissioning is something that only ensembles with huge budgets do, and it seems arcane and wildly expensive. It was enlightening for me to see how people outside of the new music world view commissioning. And it was wildly fun explaining the concept of a commissioning consortium and of co-commissioning to a newbie commissioner! (Definitely a reminder that what seems obvious and simple to me can be anything but that to others.)

3)Once They Lie at Rest was emailed to the choirs, I started in on Voices – the companion piece to When Music Sounds, which was premiered in December by the Illinois State University Madrigal Singers. I think I wrote the piece in three sittings. But when I got it into Sibelius, I realized that I didn’t quite like the ending. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to fix it right away because I had another deadline racing nearer and nearer.

4)In late December, I submitted some works to be considered for a commission by Providence Premieres, a new concert series in Providence, RI, and somehow I was awarded one of the commissions for the inaugural concert in April! This is actually the first time I’ve gotten something – other than residencies at artist colonies – that I’ve applied for. The commission was for a 7-9 minute piece using some combination of soprano, violin, and harp. I, of course, chose to use all three instruments.

For my texts, I chose three short poems by Elizabeth Morgan, who I met in 2009 at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. I was completely charmed by her reading one evening at the VCCA of her poem “Poetry Reading”, and ordered two of her books of poetry as soon as I got home, after whose arrival I fell in love with “Email from Odessa” from On Long Mountain. This cycle doesn’t use either text; instead it makes use of three contemplative poems that are, on the surface at least, about animals and insects: “Like Young Men”, “Gnat Facts on NPR”, and “Without a Philosophy”. The cycle, which takes its title from the last poem, clocks in around 10 minutes.

The crazy thing about the cycle (aside from my brief reference to The Orlons’ “Wah Watusi”) is that it was written and engraved, parts were extracted and formatted, and everything was sent off within 10 days of putting pencil to paper – while also holding down a full-time day job. (Yes, I sketch on paper first!) A few weeks later, and my head is still spinning from the frenzy of writing!

After finishing Without a Philosophy, I had a few days of relative down time before I packed my bags and ran off to Dallas for 5 days to be a little social butterfly at the American Choral Directors Association’s national conference. I’d never been to an ACDA conference before, so the whole experience was new and exciting. Aside from some travel difficulties getting to Dallas and the need for a better map of the area, it was a great time and I met some really great directors, as well as spent quality time with a few friends. I also learned quite a lot about some holes in the repertoire, as well as cemented some thoughts on a new business model I’ll be trying out with some other composers later this year.

After Dallas, I revisited Voices and finally got the ending right. And I banged out the parts to Only Air and sent them off so that rehearsals could start.

Blah blah blah, I quit my day job to go full-time freelance, blah blah, more on that later.

5)And this past weekend while staying with Darien and his parents at their house in Montauk, I composed a new 4 1/2 minute piece for SSA choir and piano – Sunset: St. Louis, text by Sara Teasdale. The intention was to send it off to a competition (with fantastic terms and no entry fee, mind you), but it turns out that when I printed out the guidelines, they hadn’t been updated for this year’s voicing, which was mixed choir – SSA was last year! Regardless, I now know that not only can I write a 10 minute song cycle in 10 days, but I can also write and fully engrave a 4 1/2 minute choral piece in just under 32 hours!

And since I can’t enter the piece into the competition, I’ve made it available on NewMusicShelf with a 40% discount through the 13th. So if you or a director you know with a women’s/treble choir are looking for some new material, send ’em over here and tell ’em to use the code STLOUIS.

The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Competitions Pt 3: Age Limits

[This is part three of a multi-part miniseries of posts on composition competitions. Competitions are typically a significant part of a composer’s coming-of-age process, and young composers in particular are frequently (in some cases constantly) bombarded with exhortations to apply to everything possible from teachers, administrators, and older composers. In these posts, I’m taking a look at various issues with competitions that many composers have come to see as problems, and which have caused many to stop applying altogether.]


Many of the composition competitions out there have decided to focus on helping composers at the beginnings of their careers, which is only fitting because once a composer has established herself sufficiently, she no longer needs awards to pad her CV in order to make herself more desirable to schools, other competitions, or (possibly) potential commissioners.

What tends to get overlooked by many of the organizations hosting these competitions, however, is that not all composers begin their careers in their youth. Some composers merely come to writing music late in life. And others start a musical career, then move away from music for whatever reason (usually financial) to return in later years, effectively starting over. Enough significant composers from the 20th century fall into either of these categories that they need not be listed here.

Consequently, imposing age restrictions on competition entrants has the net effect of excluding emerging-but-no-longer-young composers who could benefit greatly from the performances/exposure that a competition placement could earn them. Composers starting later in life are already at the disadvantage of having to change gears or start from scratch, so these limits put them at a greater disadvantage by excluding them from potentially beneficial opportunities.

And, as composer Christian Carey pointed out in a Twitter conversation on the subject, age limits are not only exclusionary, but further pander to the cult of youth that has already swept popular culture.

In short, we’re looking for a composer who – in addition to being talented and skilled – is also, as a former teacher of mine once described some of my extra-musical qualities, “Young, cute, and f*ckable.” (Srsly.)

We’ve also fallen prey to the 5 O’Clock News Syndrome: searching for the next wunderkind who will wow us all with his facility: the myth of the youthful talent that is so limitless that the organization who “discovers” them will be praised for all time for recognizing such a phenomenon. The five-year-old who plays Mozart perfectly after a single hearing. The 17 year-old who composes symphonies crammed with orchestral “color”. In short, a youth who can be propped up in front of audiences and donors as “the next Mozart”.

Wunderkinden are rare. And thankfully so, because we invariably ask them to run before they can walk, and few seem to continue past adolescence or early adulthood, when the pressures to recreate and simultaneously surpass their youthful successes become too great.

I understand that age limits are intended to keep out composers with more experience and (hopefully) growing careers, but they also neglect to take into account those composers whose careers haven’t reached a sufficiently significant level by age 30…35…40…whatever completely arbitrary number the committee decides to impose on entrants.

And one can’t help but wonder if there’s not a sense of distaste at the thought of having a competition winner be in his 60s. There is a more than subtle ageism at work here.

Not every composer started like me when he was 14. And not every composer finds success in youth, early adulthood, or even middle age – there are incredibly skilled and talented composers who toil away without recognition during their lifetimes.

There should be no problem awarding a composer who is not in her 20s or 30s because she started later or hasn’t yet achieved the status that she “should have” by such an age.

Taken alongside application fees and the rights grabs that many competitions make, it’s easy to suspect a certain…cynicism…at play in the organizations that host some of these competitions. The youth requirement all but guarantees that the entrants will be inexperienced and pliable, so a $25 gatekeeper fee doesn’t automatically seem outrageous to the applicants. Plus, a bit of legal-sounding language that seems to be guaranteeing a recording or multiple performances but which also effectively steals a composer’s rights will likely – and generally does – go unquestioned and unchallenged. After all, what experience do the entrants have to counter the claim, “This is just how things are done”?

The only ones to question these practices are the ones who are too old to apply anymore. And their criticisms can be easily written off as petty bitterness over not having achieved a certain status. (…which having won X competition would obviously have solved, if only they could enter it again.)

I’m just starting to age out of some of these competitions, and I honestly feel nothing but relief.

If organizations want to limit entrants to their competitions to be early in their careers, a glance at a composer’s works and CV list will show how long they’ve been at it, and how much experience they have. If a composer’s works list only goes back a handful of years, they’re obviously just starting out, regardless of age. If their musical education was 20 or 30 years ago, but their musical output has a corresponding 20 or 30 year gap…they’ve recently returned to their first love, and need all the help they can get in establishing themselves in this new career.

Competitions who purport to aid emerging composers (as opposed to composers just starting out) might have a slightly more difficult time with composers who are on the verge of moving from “emerging” to “established” (or whatever), but I think that this is a finer point that may need to be addressed on a competition-by-competition and composer-by-composer basis: “Is this composer sufficiently well-established that being awarded by our organization won’t be of significant aid to her career?”


I write the Composer’s Guide here, taking time away from my composing to do so. If this post helped you in any way, be a dear and click the donate button at the bottom of this post, will you? If you can’t afford to donate, please pass this chapter along to someone who you think might get some help from it.

And I really love to get feedback in the comments section, via email, and on Twitter – they really keep me going on this project.


Fanfare for the Little Green Man

Every so often, you run across an old piece that you’ve forgotten about, and that you really shouldn’t have. That happened today while I was home sick from the day job. I was clicking around on my desktop, and there, nestled in my folder marked “Chamber Works” was a long-forgotten (about two years) set of pieces that were supposed to be a slightly larger work. For several reasons, the full piece never came to fruition, although I’d still like it to. Since there are more pressing projects on my plate, it will have to stay on the back-burner for a while. In the meantime, I’m releasing the existing movements separately.

I spent about an hour cleaning up the second of the two movements, and am offering it up by itself: Fanfare for the Little Green Man for violin duo.

Here’s how my computer says it sounds:

And, of course, it’s available at the NewMusicShelf!

Like this

I’ve been working to add more social networking integration to the site. You’ve undoubtedly noticed the row of buttons on each blog post – Tweet This, Facebook Like, Google +1, Facebook Share. Click away – especially if you like something you’ve read here! If you like it, certainly someone else will, and you, lovely reader, are my best hope at being discovered by the masses! So by all means, Like, Tweet, Share, +1!

I’ve also added to each Works page a Facebook Like and Send button. This way, if there’s a particular work you like, you can let your Facebook friends know about it. More social networking integration will be coming this week.

Similarly, I’ve added the same buttons to the NewMusicShelf, so be sure to head over there and let the world know that you like this or that work of mine! If you have something you’d like to say about any of the works, you can also comment/write a review of any work on the NMS.

Also, be prepared for a new announcement, and a BUNCH of backdated blog posts in the coming week. (I’ve created a new Category for them, so you can read everything in one fell swoop!)

I hope you’ve all had a wonderful Labor Day weekend! I’ve spent mine at the beach in Montauk reading David Cutler’s The Savvy Musician, and eating FAR too much.

Doing Business: Virtual Shelf Space

This post originally appeared on the NewMusicShelf blog on August 6, 2011.

Virtual shelf space is a wonderful thing.

In a brick-and-mortar music store, of which there are sadly becoming less and less, shelf space is at a premium – a physical store can only hold so much physical sheet music. Of course, most music stores are now given over to instrument sales and rentals and audio equipment. Sheet music, if there is any, is relegated to a dark corner, and usually limited to the easy piano/vocal songbook of either X album by Y pop star or the latest Disney movie musical. In terms of concert music, you might find some Beethoven sonatas; possibly some Liszt; probably the Well-Tempered Klavier.

The new stuff – the stuff that you and I write – doesn’t have much of a chance there, unfortunately. Plus, you’re limited to sales in a single location if you even manage to get some of that premium physical shelf space for your own works.

A physical shelf can only hold so many scores. In a bookstore, you’ll notice that some books are faced spine out, and others are turned so that you see the full front cover. Those that are turned out are meant to sell well – new releases, intended bestsellers, whatever the publisher had decided needs to sell a lot this month. By being turned out, they’re given more shelf space – more prime real estate – because they’re supposed to get noticed. The spine-out books take more of an effort to look through because each book takes up less space, and you also have to tilt your head to the right to read the title and author. Here, those authors who have more books on the shelf, and are consequently taking up more real estate, will get noticed more and sell better. Scores, however, because of their size, never really get the luxury of facing cover out.

With digital scores, however, shelf space is virtual. And virtual shelf space is unlimited.

With virtual shelf space, as with physical shelf space, you want to take up as much as possible. People who are looking for scores may pass over the lone piece by So-And-So wedged amongst the rest of the scores on a shelf, be it in a physical location or online. The more you have available, the more likely you are to be noticed, and the more likely you are to be checked out and hopefully bought.

Think of it in terms of the signal-to-noise ratio. Your music is the signal, and everyone else’s is the noise. (This isn’t a value judgment on anyone’s music, obviously.) You want people to get your signal despite all the noise trying to drown it out. A weak signal – i.e., having only one or two scores available – isn’t likely to get you noticed. It’s certainly possible, but you’re more likely to be noticed if you have five pieces or ten pieces or your entire catalog available in any given market.

“Any given market?” you ask. By market, I’m not referring to the broader (albeit fairly small) “market” for concert music scores. Instead, I mean a virtual location. Your website is one of them. NewMusicShelf is another. If you have only one piece available through the NewMusicShelf, at this moment (there are 271 scores/parts available, and another 12 being added this weekend) you make up less than one third of one percent of the total available works/total shelf space. If, like me, you have about 40 scores/sets of parts available, you take up around 15% of the shelf space – you’re much more likely to be seen as visitors click around the site. Right now Allen Brings takes up the most shelf space on NewMusicShelf with a whopping 139 scores – that’s 51% of the current virtual shelf space on the site. I do recommend you check out his stuff.

I should also add: with my signal-to-noise analogy, I’m not implying that you don’t want people buying other composers’ scores. Whether they buy someone else’s music or not is a neutral matter. All you’re aiming for is to get your music in front of them and into their hands.

So my advice for today to composers is this: wherever you’re able to make it happen, take up as much of the virtual shelf space as you can. Make yourself visible. When you write something, put it on your website, put it here, make sure people can find it.

Pricing: A Practical Approach

This post originally appeared on the NewMusicShelf blog on June 10, 2011.

In an effort to make pricing my scores easier and less subjective, I’ve been tinkering with a series of formulas to tell me what I should charge, and I think I’ve come up with some good stuff.

However, before I get into the math of it, I want to quickly paraphrase my post Pricing: The Goldilocks Zone where I talk about my philosophy on setting prices. Until now, I’ve set mine by asking myself two questions: 1) “If I were buying an identical score by another composer, what price would be most attractive to me?” and 2) “Is that price something I’m willing to accept for my own work?” It’s worked well so far, but is hardly objective.

I actually designed a whole Excel spreadsheet that does double duty as my catalog and a price calculator. All I have to do is plug in what it costs to print one copy of the score, and it spits out what I should charge for print scores on one sheet, and what I should charge for electronic scores on another. It took me an afternoon to create, and is a lot of fun to play with.

Let’s walk through an example of how the formulas work with a bit of math. For this example, I’m going to assume that the score costs exactly $5.00 to print and bind, and that there are no other costs associated with the production of the score itself. Your score will cost more or less depending on the number of pages and the quality of the materials. But for right now, we’re going to take $5.00 as our starting point.

The other assumption we’re going to make, aside from the starting cost, is that we want our works picked up by distributors like J.W. Pepper or Theodore Front; so we’re going to figure in the discount that distributors take, which is typically around 40%.

Print Scores
So we start out with our $5.00 cost to produce the score.

Step one is just about the only subjective step in the print pricing process: figuring out our base profit per score. This can be a set dollar amount, or a percentage of the sale. I prefer the latter because it’s flexible, and it helps keep the final price more reasonable.

For myself, I’ve chosen a 20% base profit*. Meaning: 20% of the price after adding the base profit to the printing costs. Not 20% of the printing price.

So: “Cost with Profit” = $5.00 + (20% of “Cost with Profit”).

The easiest way to figure this is to subtract your percentage from 100% and turn it into a decimal: 100% – 20% = 80% or 0.8.

Then divide your cost by this new number: $5.00 / 0.8 = $6.25.

I may have lost some of you already. Let’s do it backward to show you what just happened. 20% of $6.25 is $1.25. So we have our $5.00 printing cost plus our 20% ($1.25) base profit.

Cost with Profit = $5.00 + (20% of Cost with Profit)
$6.25 = $5.00 + $1.25

Good? Good.

Step two: we add the distributor discount, which is typically 40%. We add this into our price because we have to price our scores the same as the distributor sells them. The discount they take is their incentive for buying scores from you, as well as their profit. Why is theirs twice what mine is? Because they have a staff and I don’t.

So, we do the same trick to calculate the distributor price that we used to get our Cost with Profit.

$6.25 / (100% – 40%) = $10.42

C w/ P & Disc = $6.25 + (40% of C w/ P & Disc)
$10.42 = $6.25 + $4.17

One final step, just for the sake of aesthetics. Let’s round up to $10.50. It’s just a prettier number.

So there’s your print price for a score that cost you $5.00 to print.

If a distributor wants to sell this score, you sell it to them for $6.25 per copy (or $6.30 since we rounded up, and that counts for something), and they sell it for $10.50. Of the $6.30 you got from the distributor, you paid $5.00 to print it, and end up earning $1.30 – your Base Profit!

To sell it on your site, you sell it for $10.50 and make $5.50 after your production costs. Awesome.

A quick recap:

Printing Costs: $5.00
Base Profit (20% of Price net of distributor discount, or 12% of Gross) $1.25
Discount (40% of Gross) $4.17
Final Gross $10.42
Rounded Gross $10.50

* The base profit here is not 20% of the gross price, but 20% of the price net of the distributor’s discount. I figure it this way to keep the price more affordable. See “Another Approach” below for an example of how calculating the base profit against gross affects the gross price.

Electronic Scores
So let’s start with our final Print price of $10.50 and go from there to find the price for our Electronic score.

We have a few options of how we want to deal with this. You’re entitled to keep the same price, but I don’t particularly approve of that since you have no printing/binding costs for an electronic score.

I prefer to just subtract out the printing costs, so $10.50 – $5.00, leaving you with $5.50, which is pretty damned good for a product with no overhead costs.

Some other composers take half of the print price, which in this case would be $5.25. A negligible difference between this and what I do.

Assuming you sell the electronic scores on your own site and use PayPal as your payment solution, you’re going to pay $0.46 on $5.50, leaving you with a net of $5.04.

Or you can set your price taking the PayPal fee into account. If you want to net $5.50, you can set your price at $6.00 and net $5.53.

If you were to use NewMusicShelf as your distributor, the fee is 14% of the gross price plus the PayPal transaction fee (2.9% + $0.30). So if you want to end up with $5.50, you’ll set your price at $7.00 to account for the $0.98 NewMusicShelf distribution fee and $0.50 PayPal transaction fee, and you’ll net $5.52. (To start at $5.50, you’ll have a total of $1.23 in fees and net $4.27.)

Obviously there are lots of choices here, and a lot of wiggle room. There’s no overhead to take into account, although there are various transaction fees that you might pay, depending on where and how you sell your electronic scores.

Another approach
Another approach that can be taken is to calculate the base profit and the distributor discount together. This changes the price because the profit in the example above is not calculated against the final gross price. Instead, it is only calculated taking into account the overhead costs. Calculating the profit and discount together looks like this:

Gross = $5.00 + (20% Gross) + (40% Gross)


Gross = $5.00 + (60% Gross)

$5.00 / 0.4 = Gross

$5.00 / 0.4 = $12.50

Cost $5.00
Base Profit $2.50
Distributor Discount $5.00
Gross Price $12.50

I prefer not to do it this way because it actually raises the price more than I’m comfortable with. Because I don’t expect to have a print distributor for a while, and because I anticipate selling the bulk of my scores through my own website anyway once I do get one, I’m content for the time being to have a profit of $1.25 on this example score sold through a distributor. After all, I’ll be making a $5.50 profit when it’s sold on my own website.


Yesterday I joined a little online “collective” of composers who are writing an exquisite corpse via Twitter. So far, I’ve contributed one measure (the second), and am sure to write a few more before the 140 measures are complete. You can check out the website for #Armada (Hashtag Armada) here: http://hashtagarmada.wordpress.com/.

The resulting piece will most likely end up on the NewMusicShelf, so stay tuned.

“The Gallant Weaver” for Choir

This evening I started a new arrangement of “The Gallant Weaver” for SATB choir and piano. The reason? There’s a choral composition competition (say that ten times fast) that I’d like to enter, and the deadline is Friday. I’ve been hemming and hawing over texts for ages, and this afternoon after a very busy day at the day job where I didn’t choose a text like I’d half-planned to do (“Look it up while you’re at work, instead of doing your work! Brought to you by the Internet Foundation.”), I decided to make life a little easier on myself and just arrange something from my existing catalog. “The Gallant Weaver” is ripe for the picking in this respect, and also happens to be one of my favorites of my own songs (don’t tell the others, though – we don’t want them getting jealous…).

So after a little walk in this beautiful warm weather, I dove into the arrangement and am already at the halfway mark. I should be able to finish the arrangement Wednesday evening, which makes me incredibly happy. It’s nice to add a new piece to my catalog, and to do it so quickly!

I’d have it done tomorrow, except that I’m meeting with Jeff Algera to make the final arrangements for the Tobenski-Algera Concert Series, which is effectively finished. However, part of our meeting is to deal with the funds leftover from our semi-season last year so that I can start a new series in the coming months very much like the T-A Concerts. The reason for the dissolution of the Series is that Jeff and his wife are moving to California next month, which will make continuing the Concerts in their current form very difficult. Obviously, Copland and Sessions managed to do it via post in the early ’30s while the latter lived in Paris, and it’s infinitely easier to communicate via Skype, but it’s time to change things up a bit, and Jeff’s life will certainly be taken up for quite a while with setting up his new life and web business on the West Coast.

I don’t normally write pieces specifically for competitions. In fact, I usually avoid those that require an unperformed, unpublished piece because I have so few of those. And as a self-published composer, I honestly can’t say that I have any unpublished pieces. As soon as I finish something, I slap the Tobenski Music Press logo on it, and throw it on my site and the NewMusicShelf. Everything I write is immediately considered to be published. But it’s not published by a “legacy publisher” (a nice term I came across to describe traditional publishers), which is certainly what is meant by the “no publication” rule. No danger of that ever happening – I don’t want a “legacy publisher”! (More on that some other time.) My other point of “meh”-ness is that the piece can’t be performed in the meantime, or submitted anywhere else. So, until August when the award winners are announced, this arrangement, which I’m so far very happy with, has to sit on my hard drive and twiddle its thumbs. But I guarantee that even though I can’t do anything with it in the meantime, it will be ready to go for the instant that the announcements are made. Of course, I’m certainly hoping that it has to sit on the shelf for another few months because it’s won the award and needs to be premiered by this organization!

Fingers crossed!