Commissioning: A how-to guide for newbies

How do you approach a composer for a new work?



Commissioning a new work is a great experience for everyone. I encourage all musicians to consider going through the process at least once. It’s rewarding, exciting, and a grand new adventure for all.

However; I urge you to read below and consider each of these points carefully before you reach out to a composer. We love working with you but seriously, an email that says, ‘We’d like to commission you – how much do you charge?’ is not a way to a composer’s heart. Make it a great project right from the start by being informed. Promise we will love you for it!


1. Know your due date…then add 1-3 years

If you want a decent piece from a good composer, invite your composer 1-3 years out from your due date. This way, you can guarantee they are available and you reserve your place in their commissioning timeline. Once you have that place and your time comes, you will have the total attention of that composer on your project.

(NOTE: It is customary to sign a contract to lock your place into the timeline. Know that the contract will also detail performing rights and exclusivity – so have a think about that, too. Usually, at the time you sign the contract you also pay some kind of deposit, ranging from 25-50 per cent.) Speaking of deposits…

2. Have a budget ready

Know what you want (how many minutes, level of difficulty, instrumentation, etc.) and share that with the composer. Expect anywhere between $500-$2000+ per completed minute of music – usually based on level of difficulty and notoriety of the composer.

3. Consider the birthing process of the work

Bringing a new work to life isn’t like buying one off the shelf. Know – and expect – that it won’t be completed when it’s given to you. It will still need tweaking, adjusting and composing. This is a normal part of the process and even big-time, professional composers have stated that they go through this process on approach to premiere and beyond. So, if preparing something for a particular event like a competition or festival, you may wish to set your due date for the commission 3-6 months out to provide process time with your composer.

The composer will want to hear details about the work. Sure – discrepancies regarding engraving concerns are expected (‘Can you make the second clarinet part not go over the break?’; ‘The trombone parts are missing a rehearsal figure at bar 117’;, etc.). This is all fine, but what the composer really wants to know is: ‘Does the piece work?’. And that means putting on your musicianship hat, and honestly and respectfully working alongside the composer to bring the piece to life. It’s fun – but you must understand that this is a normal part of the process.

4. Planning for the premiere

Process time brings me to another budgetary consideration few know about. Most composers I know also build into their contracts a fee to attend rehearsals in the lead-up to the premiere, including accommodation/travel costs. All of this is time, and even composers have to eat. Please know that if a composer charges $500 per completed minute and you commission a 10-minute work, that’s $5000. So now say it takes 10 weeks to write that 10 minute work. That’s $500 per week. If they then spend an additional 1-2 weeks engraving the score and preparing parts, and then a further 1-3 weeks tweaking, re-arranging and adjusting their score, we are now up to a possible 15 weeks spent on your commission, meaning that the composer makes $333 per week on your project. Hence, adding travel and accommodation fees (and workshop fees, too) is a perfectly acceptable request from the composer. Know about it and add it into your budget.

5. Printing costs and engraving

As stated above, part of the process, after the initial creative burst, is to prepare the work so it is readable by conductor and band. This is a lot of work – imagine how many notes there are in a 10-minute piece! Some composers ask for additional engraving costs and provide the option of hiring an engraver to complete the task. Please be aware of this, and also think about who is going to pay for the printing of the score and parts (and there maybe multiple re-prints during the birthing process, too).

Once you have all of this sorted, then you can approach your happy-to-hear-from-you composer. Everyone charges differently and, yes, the question of ‘how much?’ does have to be asked. But if you go to your composer with a thorough plan with lots of details, then the money question isn’t so hard. You’ll know what you can afford, and both of you can take it from there.

Good luck, and remember: the world needs new music from a diverse range of composers!

About the writer

Have you ever played a ‘Blackshaw’ with your wind ensemble? If you have, then you know that a work by this Australian composer-educator is different from the norm. You will also know that it takes you, the director, on an alternate educational pathway that for some, is a little uncomfortable at first. That said you would also know that it is a surprise package, an audience favourite and presents you the director with interesting conducting challenges.

Such is the work of Jodie Blackshaw.

Jodie Blackshaw (b. 1971) grew up in the Riverina, NSW and after completing high school, and studied a Bachelor of Music (Composition) with Professor Larry Sitsky at the Australian National University School of Music. Since then, she has worked in a range of schools teaching classroom/instrumental music and conducting ensembles.

Through her teaching, conducting and composing, Blackshaw has passionately searched for a compositional approach to band that offers directors a product that centres on musical elements other than melody and harmony. In 2006, Jodie won the inaugural Frank Ticheli Composition Contest with her work Whirlwind and has since travelled throughout Australia, the United States, Canada and the UAE as a guest composer and creative music teaching clinician. Highlights of these travels include twice presenting at the prestigious Midwest Clinic in Chicago, the premiere of her emotionally compelling work, Soulström with the UNT Symphonic Wind Band under the baton of Professor Dennis Fisher, and her residency as the Joy Anthony Douglass Visiting Master Teacher at the Crane School of Music, State University of New York (Potsdam).

In 2016, Jodie launched her Off the Podium professional development webinar series, connecting like-minded, creative band directors throughout the world. She is currently studying a PhD in Composition at the Australian National University with a focus on composing music for children influenced by brain-based educational principles. Blackshaw is fanatical about producing quality, meaningful works for band and is frequently commissioned by various groups throughout the Western world to do just that. She desires that her music not just be “another piece, but an educational and spiritual journey for both the players and the director”.

This blog was published on Jodie Blackshaw’s website, where you can find out more about the composer.


Image supplied. Featured image: Andrew Malone via Flickr, CC-BY-2.0.

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