4. Making the Grade
FJO: Now the whole question of grades. There’s the Mikrokosmos of Bartòk which is a series of graded piano pieces, but that’s unusual in classical music repertoire. You’d never say, “Oh, a Harrison Birtwistle or Elliott Carter piece is a 5.” Well, it would actually probably be a 6 or a 7.
Jonathan: Or a 17!
FJO: So what do these grades mean? How does the grading system work and how crucial is it for you to have it on your scores to get your music out there?
Jonathan: You sort of have to because the entire educational community works off of that, at least in America.
Eric: In Europe, it’s a different system, but they also very much want to know what it is.
Jonathan: I feel, regrettably, they’re very fixated on the grading system.
Steve: Especially on the easier end. The harder pieces, the high-end college pieces, they don’t care. But Grade 3 is like this magical term.
Jonathan: They’re in Grade 1 through 6.
FJO: So explain what each of those numbers mean…
Jim: Theoretically, wasn’t it supposed to reflect the number of years that the ensemble has been playing?
Eric: I’m sure that it’s a publishing thing…
Steve: It’s not necessarily written in concrete from publisher to publisher or state to state. Different states will label pieces different grade levels for their own purposes. So there’s nothing written in stone, but generally, a Grade 3 is an easy piece for junior high or high school.
FJO: What does an easy piece mean?
Steve: Very limited ranges as far as the instruments go.
Eric: Within a staff basically.
Steve: And it can’t be longer than four or five minutes.
Jim: Watch solos. You don’t want to do solos.
Eric: And, this is the one we’ve recently been amazed at, especially me personally: I’ve taken some of my choral works and transcribed them for winds and on the page they’re great “1”s, maybe “2”s. They’re chorales so they have a limited range, but there are some interesting harmonies thrown in here and there. Often times, I’ve seen them listed as Grades 4 or 5 which is relatively advanced. And the thing that I hear more often than not is that they’re musically advanced. It requires such musicianship to make the music work.
FJO: OK, you’re all saying a lot of “they” as opposed to “us”. If you guys don’t grade them yourselves, how do they get graded? Is there someone out there like the PMRC that’s puts a little sticker on each piece?
Jim: It would be nice if it were organized like that!
Eric: The people who really do it and who truly are in charge of all of this is the Texas Music Educators Association [TMEA]. Texas makes a Texas List and it’s a special list. I think that more than 50 percent of the states in America use that as their all-state and their educational informant, so if you get on the list, you’re gold. They have a committee that decides. At the same time, the publishers will market it any number of ways. Maybe a piece that Texas thinks is Grade 4, Hal Leonard will still call Grade 3 because they know that they are going to sell more copies of it. Oftentimes it’s just a perception thing. A conductor will buy the piece simply because it’s a Grade 3, and get in there and realize the piece is actually more difficult, but will try it anyway.
FJO: So how do you get on the radar of this mysterious Texas entity?
Steve: It’s every four years…I submitted a lot of my music this last time which was two years ago now.
FJO: Does it cost anything to submit?
Steve: No, just printing some scores… I printed about 18 of each of them and sent them.
Eric: If you’re looking for practical advice for composers, then I would say the way to get on that list is to have your piece performed by as many relatively influential conductors as possible…
Jonathan: In Texas…
Eric: They come from all over. When I say influential, there are colleges and high schools throughout the U.S. that have great programs. And many conductors will follow their lead. Once you’ve got some momentum with a piece, it seems to have its own life and appears magically on the list.
Jim: They can petition to have things added to the list.
FJO: So who are these influential conductors?
Jonathan: It depends on what world of wind band you’re talking about.
Steve: There’ve been a number of conductors who have been very helpful to us and very supportive.
FJO: But, in the field, there have been legendary people like H. Robert Reynolds and Freddy Fennell. These guys are the elder statesmen… Who are the important and influential conductors coming on the scene now?
Eric: There’s a real strata. All of those guys generally do extremely difficult music that relatively few bands can play. So while many conductors may admire them, they certainly can’t use the music they play for their high school and even college bands. So, there’s this group of people, and most of them come to Midwest every year, and they talk and they tell each other: “Look, there’s this great new piece I heard, have you heard about this thing? Where can I get the score and parts?” It’s a little leaderless, which is exciting I have to say. It’s infuriating also, because then you start developing voodoo theories about how to break into the big time and you can’t really find the path.