Jeff Chambers was in eighth grade when his brother gave him a copy of the music notation software program Finale. As Chambers tells it, he was just naive enough to be unafraid of composing pageantry music for a marching band with that gift copy — a task that would be daunting to most.
Once Chambers began composing, he never stopped. Now, as 2022 comes to a close, Chambers reports that he has worked with 145 school marching bands and composed 24 new marching band shows this year alone. How does a kid with a copy of Finale become a full-time composer for schools across the country when many are only able to call composing a side job? Chambers was kind enough to sit down with me and talk about the strategy behind his art and business.
It’s All About Process
Chambers credits his ability to compose so many shows to his methodical work ethic. His mentor and University of Idaho professor of percussion, Daniel Bukvich, taught him the value of being ruthless with his commitment to composition.
Chambers still experiences a composer’s version of “writer’s block” from time to time, but knows not to wait for inspiration to strike when he has to get through what he calls “100 steps” until he has a finished product. Chambers compares his process to building a house. He works “macro to micro,” creating a framework for a show by mapping out parts he needs to work on each day in order to deliver a composition in time for a school marching band to practice it and bring it to competition.
Chambers laughs when asked about combining art with his daily business. He says turning his love of pageantry composition into something that supports his family and his five other employees doesn’t really feel like work and offers him the best of both worlds. Chambers trusts that even though he may not write a large portion of a show in one day or know exactly where a piece is going when he begins with a simple melody or chord progression, he knows that his composition will come together through his daily dedication to the process.
Learning to Pivot
It would be easy for a composer to believe they had to create a new work for each client. Chambers began this way, but quickly realized it would not be sustainable or allow him to create a successful business. There were simply too many schools requesting his work.
Chambers started adding some of his previously composed arrangements to his website, from Brittany Spears’ “Toxic” to the classic hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King.” In his second year of selling previously arranged shows, business took off. This pulled in more money and freed up Chambers to take on more commissions. He developed a business model that encourages creativity but focuses on reselling his work.
Despite the success of this re-selling model, the pandemic fundamentally changed how marching bands operate and almost brought Jeff Chambers Music to a close. The company began 2020 with a record year of marching-band show commissions. Chambers and his wife had just had their first child in March 2020 when the world shut down. Despite wondering how he might support his family, instead of panicking, Chambers shifted perspective again.
He contacted every music educator that he was working with and shared the honest truth: Jeff Chambers Music was his livelihood. He asked schools to pay whatever they could on their balances for their pageantry music, even as the world waited to know more about the pandemic. He made cold calls to other schools and was able to sell pieces he had already written. He even worked with a school marching band to create a virtual show.
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Focusing on People
Chambers is the main composer for the business, but dreams of bringing on new composing talent and promoting those on his team so that Jeff Chambers Music can accept more commissions.
It is Chambers’ humility that makes him stand out as an artist and employer. While he plays multiple instruments and has a background in music education where he learned the pedagogical basics of each band instrument, he remains open to continued learning. He says he often calls an old roommate and professional saxophonist so that he can better understand how to write the saxophone part in a show.
The personable Chambers also drives a team ethos to reflect that shows composed through Jeff Chambers Music are a group effort. He is always expressing gratitude to his employees and is working on replacing the words “I” and “me” with “us” and “our” when speaking with students and band directors who are commissioning compositions. It is common for him to say to a school marching band: “How can we help you grow as a musician through this show that we created for you?”
After falling in love with pageantry music when he was a student in a marching band, Chambers now hopes he will be composing music for the rest of his life. It’s the students of 2023 and beyond who continue to inspire his work. Jeff Chambers Music strives to create music that teaches them something about life. Chambers believes that they can create music that is fun to play, fun to watch, and is competitive for school marching bands. With 145 marching bands using Jeff Chambers Music in 2022 alone, it is clear that a focus on happiness is creating a great body of work and is a major driver of his success.