Composing for Orchestras and Other Ensembles, Part 1: Getting the Gig

In this first installment in a two-part series, copyright & entertainment attorney Marc Ostrow fills you in on how to go about securing a gig to compose for an orchestra or other ensemble.

Posted in Songwriter 101 on July 29, 2010 by

Have you ever wanted to write a symphony, a tone poem for wind ensemble or an opera? Knowing something about orchestration certainly helps. But you should also know a bit about the business of writing these kinds of works, which like great music in any genre, has its unique twists and turns. Pulitzer-Prize winners like John Adams, John Harbison, Steve Reich and George Crumb don’t simply sit down to write a 20-minute concerto on spec.

These composers are commissioned to write new works. And it’s not just a handful of Pulitzer Prizers and ivory-tower academics that get gigs to write works for string quartet, percussion ensemble or choir. Jazz musicians like Billy Childs, Chick Corea, Paquito D’Rivera and Brad Mehldau have also gotten commissions to write concert works and there are many rock-oriented writers who’ve crossed over as well. So whether you’ve got a doctorate from Juilliard or are just a graduate of Mom & Dad’s garage, you, too could be commissioned to write new music if you’ve got the talent and desire to pursue it.

Major symphony orchestras, opera companies like the Metropolitan Opera and Houston Grand Opera as well as presenters like Carnegie Hall commission new works. But smaller, regional orchestras, opera companies and venues also do so and are sometimes more willing to take a risk on a lesser-known composer. Conservatories also commission works for their wind ensembles and the fees they pay rival those paid by major orchestras. Individual patrons, from billionaires to your local dentist or fast food franchisee, also commission pieces.

Now you’re thinking, “How do I get me one of them commission gigs?” Classical publishers like Boosey (Hendon) and Schirmer (Associated) have Composers & Repertoire departments with trained professionals who seek new commissions for their composers. However, organizations like Meet the Composer (, which has an excellent, free guide to the commissioning process, as well as the American Music Center ( and American Composers Forum ( offer resources to assist the self-published composer. Some organizations like Chamber Music America ( offer grants to classical and jazz composers to write new works. The friendly folks in BMI’s classical department can also provide guidance.

So, how much can you get paid to write that concerto for electric guitar and orchestra? The fee depends upon several factors, including the status and experience of the composer, the length of the piece and the instrumentation. A five-minute piece for sax quartet and vibes by someone straight out of Berklee won’t command as high a fee than as a flute concerto for full orchestra written by a living legend like Elliott Carter shortly before his 100th birthday.

Assuming you’re neither a novice nor a superstar, you might get paid around $2,000 for a five-minute work for voice and piano. A work for a handful of musicians that’s less than 10 minutes long might garner a fee in the range of $7,500, while that 20-minute concerto for electric guitar and orchestra might get you somewhere in the range of $30,000 or more. If you’re lucky enough to be asked to write a full-length opera for a major opera company, you could be paid well into six figures, while a one-act for a small company may get you something in the range of the fee for that guitar concerto.

Finding a patron and agreeing on the type of work and the fee is just the beginning of the process. Next time, I’ll discuss the major deal points as well as some pitfalls to avoid.

Marc D. Ostrow is a copyright and entertainment lawyer in New York City, as well as a songwriter and composer. Previously, he was the head of the NY office of classical music publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, where he started the jazz division.  He also served as a Senior Attorney in BMI’s Legal Department.

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