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Home > Articles > Commissioning a Piece

Commissioning a Piece
Kevin McChesney
1) Decide on the project. The director should get input from the group that is going to play the piece. Talk about the occasion or person that the piece is to commemorate or other purposes you might have for the piece (which may be as simple as playing it in concert).

Together the director and the bell choir should think through whether they'd like an arrangement of an existing tune or an original piece, difficulty of the piece, length, whether they'd like to use instruments beyond the bells such as brass or organ, and considerations of style.

It's often a good idea to have more than one, even several, ideas in mind in case there are copyright problems (see below) or if the writer has some ideas that are a bit different from the original idea but that will work well for the project.

2) Check on copyrights. This is the step that most often gets neglected in exploring the possibilities for commissioned works.

Certainly a piece can be created based on a tune that is under copyright, but much time and energy is saved if those commissioning the work check into this at the outset. If the work uses public domain material, there's no problem; but if it is going to use copyrighted material, it is up to the director and bell choir to obtain permission, not the writer.

If you do need to get copyright permission, contact the copyright holder asking for permission to create a work for handbell choir and for permission for your group to perform that work. Any necessary fees for that permission are negotiated as well.

Most copyright holders are responsive and open to giving this permission. However, there are exceptions and obviously if permission is denied, it's back to step one with a new project idea.

When permission is granted by the copyright holder, this allows the arrangement to be written and one specific group to play that arrangement. Sometimes permission is even limited to performing the work on one specific occasion, though this is not common.

All considerations of getting the piece published or for other groups to perform the piece are separate copyright transactions between the copyright holder and the publisher or the other groups.

3) Contact the writer(s). Discuss the writers whose work the group has had an affinity for. Notice that it is important to have more than one writer in mind - there is no predicting the writing schedule that an individual writer might have. This is especially important if the commissioned project has a deadline such as being premiered at a church anniversary celebration.

Talk over the various ideas for the work with the writer as well as the occasion(s) you have in mind for the piece and get initial reactions and input. Some writers accept nearly every commission idea, others do not.

It is important that the work created is what the group needs for the occasion or concerts on which the piece is to be presented. It is equally important that the writer be comfortable with the project so that first-rate work will result. While it might be disappointing for a favorite writer to turn away a commission project because of scheduling or not feeling comfortable with the idea, it is best to know this early in the game rather than later.

4) Discuss terms. If the project is a "go" with your writer, discuss deadlines and terms.

The group's responsibilities are to provide the writer with all information regarding style, difficulty, and so on concerning the piece, and of course to take care of the writer's fee. Fees vary widely. Some writers prefer half upfront and half on completion, others the entire amount upon completion.

The writer's responsibilities are to provide a well-written project and to deliver the piece to the group within deadline.

A word of warning about the deadline! Some writers are better than others about deadlines. It would be wise to provide a deadline that is well in advance of the premiere occasion so that some extension of the deadline is possible if needed. Also, be sure that not only the deadline but also what will happen if the deadline is not met are carefully spelled out in the initial contract. Some projects have a much more flexible deadline than others, so these terms will vary with each project.

5) Get it in writing. It is vital that all terms, including length, difficulty, etc. of the piece, addresses and contact information, fees, and deadlines are spelled out in writing.

An often-neglected but important step is to include provisions for the unforeseen, like if there is cancellation of or changes in the occasion the piece is being written for, if the director has a sudden change of circumstances and has to vacate the director's position before the piece is completed, if the writer does not complete the project in a timely fashion.

6) The completed piece. When the piece is completed on time, it is delivered to the group. Generally, only one master copy is provided, because of course the group has permission to make copies according to the group's needs. Remember, unless the group has specific permission from the copyright holder, the group does NOT have permission to give this piece to another group for performance. In the case of copyrighted material, the copyright holder is the company that owns the material the piece is based on. In the case of public domain material, the copyright holder is your writer.

7) Publication. Most often, both the group and the writer would like to see the commissioned project published so that others may perform the piece. In general, the writer pursues publication of the work.

In the case of copyrighted material, the publisher enters fresh negotiations with the copyright holder concerning publication. Permission to create the work for an individual group does not guarantee that permission will be given to publish the piece more widely.

When the piece is published, it should have a suitable dedication line which acknowledges the commissioning group and the occasion or person for which the piece was written.

Some writers make a practice of sending the group printed copies upon publication, others do not.

It is important for the group to keep in mind that the publication process is often a very lengthy one. It is not uncommon for a group to receive the completed work a year or more after making initial contact with a writer. It may very well take another year or more for the writer to spark a publisher's interest in the piece. Even after a piece is accepted for publication, it is common practice for that piece to be printed and distributed two years later. So understand that commissioning a work does not mean that the piece will "see the light of day" any time soon.