by John Behnke
One of the great joys I have as a music editor is helping a young and/or new composer take his/her piece from being an accepted manuscript to a published piece ready for purchase. I still remember my first accepted piece. When I got the letter that said, “we would like to publish your piece,” I was overjoyed. I was ready to celebrate, and I think I did. I know that same feeling happens every time a composer learns that their piece will be published. It’s a feeling that never goes away.

Let me start this article about composing tips with a few simple facts. Handbell music publishing companies are in business to make money.  If they do not make money, they will be short-lived. Even though music editors would love to publish every piece that is sent to them, that is not remotely possible. If a music editor tells you that they know which pieces will sell and which won’t, they are lying. A music editor and the editorial staff have no crystal ball to know whether a piece will sell or not. They make a publishing decision purely from their “subjective gut of experience.”

Below are some questions that will help influence a positive decision:

1. Is it a title that needs to be in their catalog?  Or needs a new arrangement in their catalog?

2. Is it musically well written?

3. Is it well written for handbells or handchimes?

4. Is it marketable?  How many people might buy it?

5. Can it financially be produced?  Or will it be too expensive?

Let’s start with number 1.   Each company has a mission statement or philosophy that describes what they publish and who their clientele is. For example, a church denomination’s publisher will publish religious music. So a publisher like this will have a catalog filled with hymn-based arrangements and liturgy-related items, because their philosophy is to provide resources for their churches to use.    AGEHR Publishing on the other hand is the publishing arm of an organization, Handbell Musicians of America, and our mission statement reflects our membership.
AGHER Publishing’s mission statement reads “AGEHR Publishing seeks to provide a wide variety of high quality music to meet the needs of the diverse membership of the Handbell Musicians of America.   Level 1 to 6; bells and chimes; church and school; original and hymn based; all ranges 2-3 octaves through 5-7 octaves; Christmas, Easter, and beyond.”

This mission statement guides all of our publishing decisions. So yes, you will see some hymn-based arrangements, but you will also find original works, works for concerts, and some secular pieces, for all ranges and difficulty levels.

I often suggest to composers to look at the catalogs of the publishers and research what the publisher publishes. If you are observant, you can make a good guess if an arrangement or a new arrangement might be needed by a publisher. Your timing and knowledge of the repertoire can help you send the right music to the right publisher at the right time.

The well-known saying is “if you wish to succeed, build a better mouse trap.”  This is true for music as well. There are many already existing arrangements.    Does yours inspire and transport the listener?    Does it move the emotions?   It is said that the power of music is that it can describe an emotion or feeling, better than words can ever do.  A great piece of music communicates; it inspires; it transports; and it speaks to the soul.   This is number 2 in its essence – a piece should be musically well written.  This is difficult to put into words, but we all know a great piece of music when we hear it.

In addition to, and somewhat connected, a great piece of music should be well written for the handbells and/or handchimes, number 3.  It should keep ringers busy and happy; and it should be interesting, using techniques in creative ways.   Plus there should be level consistency within the piece, which means that a Level 2 piece really should be Level 2 throughout the piece.  Having a difficult spot or two of Level 4 difficulty in a Level 2 piece could make it unplayable for many choirs, and thereby make it a very frustrating purchase for a choir.   Paying attention to these aspects makes a piece successful and enjoyable for the ringers and the audience.

Some composers write or arrange music specifically for their group or a specific event and that is terrific.   By no means am I trying to push all composers into writing for publication.   But if you wish to submit your music for publication, you have more than your choir to think about.   You will want your music to be playable by as many groups as possible.   That is marketability, number 4.  A publishing company wants to sell its music to as many people as possible, that’s how they make money.  What has emerged over time is variable ranges for music, like 2 to 3 octave music, or 3 to 5 octave music, or even 5 to 7 octave music.   With a few well-placed optional notes, a 2 octave piece can also be a successful 3 octave piece.  This flexibility, with optional notes, opens up a whole new group of potential customers and thereby makes the piece more marketable.
The last question, number 5, is of course how much money will be required for a company to edit, engrave, print, and promote your piece.   There is a cost involved with each step of the process and the publisher needs to decide if the upfront cost will be recouped with sales.   An editor is paid to check your piece and make sure everything is clear and correct.   An engraver is hired to format the music for publication.  A printer next takes the “engraved” copy and duplicates it for others to buy.   Lastly the editor arranges for your music to be promoted with a recording of the piece and then with printing a promotional booklet and having those sent to potential customers.  If your music is not promoted, it is very possible, no one will see or hear it; and no one will buy it.   What good is having a piece published, if no one sees or hears it?   Each step in the process involves payment by the company to someone.   And the total of them all is the upfront price a company pays before any purchase occurs.    All the steps are necessary in creating a successfully published piece.
Now with all that said, I would like to encourage all young and/or new composers to think about adding your music to publishing catalogs.   We need more handbell composers in the world.  More composers and arrangers make the bell world more exciting and more diverse.
So do you have a piece to send in for review?   I hope so.   First do your research and find the publisher that best fits your music. Then find the name of the music editor on their website plus an email or address for submitting a manuscript.   Next prepare a PDF or a Finale file or a hard paper copy of your piece.   Never send your original.   And send your work along with a short letter telling us about you and your piece.  Be sure to only send your piece to one publisher at a time. The review process varies for each publisher.  Most will take 4-12 weeks to get you an answer regarding possible publication.  And normally you will receive a return email or note saying your manuscript has been received.  If you have written a needed arrangement, that is great music, and works well for bells or chimes, and is marketable for as many choirs as possible, you too may just receive a letter that states, “We would like to publish your piece.”  Then I say congratulations!   Go and celebrate this great feeling of accomplishment.