The Composer's Guide to Choral Conferences

Before my first choral convention — Chorus America, in 2011 — I was secretly terrified. What was I supposed to do when I got there? What if no one wanted to talk to me? What if I had no one to eat lunch with?

These thoughts are a little ridiculous; nothing came close to the worst scenarios I’d imagined, and the conference went wonderfully. Nevertheless, my spiral-of-anxiety questions were all rooted in valid concerns. As a composer at a convention originally intended for choral directors, how does one have a productive, enjoyable conference experience? How do we promote our music? How do we connect with conductors in a way that leads to future collaborations?

All of the questions I used to ask myself — both ridiculous and realistic — have answers. Here’s what I’ve learned from past choral conferences, along with good advice from other composers and conductors.

What will I do at the conference?

There will be so many reading sessions, concerts, and exhibits that you won’t possibly be able to do everything. Sit down with the schedule and plan on a few can’t-miss events ahead of time, but be ready to be flexible once you’re there. No matter how well you plan out your schedule, when you’re actually at the conference, your plans will shift. As a composer, if you have to choose between a meaningful conversation and going to a session, choose the meaningful conversation.

Publisher reading sessions are an experience unique to these conferences, and composer Abbie Betinis has good advice for composers attending them. “Go to as many Reading Sessions and Publisher Showcases as possible,” she recommends. “But don’t sing. Sit so you’re surrounded by conductors, and study everything: how each piece is introduced, how a room full of conductors sight reads, how they react to each new score. If the scores are loose, stay behind after everyone’s left and scurry around from chair to chair to see which scores the conductors left behind. It can be a harsh reality (especially if you find your own music in their reject piles!), but that has really opened my eyes to what conductors are looking for.”

If you’re looking to get more performances of your music, following Abbie’s advice can teach you not only how conductors think about programming new music, but how to view your own music through that lens.

What if I don’t know anyone?

Reach out ahead of time to see if people you know will be there, even if they’re acquaintances. Don’t worry about planning specific times to meet up, since making concrete plans before the conference can be a little tricky. Once you arrive at the conference and determine when you have free time in your schedule, you can make more specific plans.

Even if you don’t know many people going into the conference, there will be thousands of musicians there. Trust that you’ll meet and connect with plenty of new people once you get there.

What will I give out?

At past conventions, I’ve given out demo CDs, score packets, and individual scores. What was the most successful? Talking to conductors, handing them something, and then following up afterward. The object itself matters less than the act of having a conversation, so don’t stress too much about what you’re bringing.

That said, perusal scores are always a good idea. Brandon Elliott, director of Choral Arts Initiative, suggests giving out a single piece rather than a packet. He prefers receiving “one really stellar piece that piques my interest and encourages me to seek additional works or even a commission by that composer. Many packets fail to meet the specific needs of conductors. For example, when a composer hands me a packet of SSAA or SATB sacred music, I have no use for them. If they’re good pieces, I’ll file them away, but otherwise — sadly — they end up in the trash.”

Andrea Ramsey, a conductor and composer, also recommends bringing perusal scores. She suggests, “A conductor will appreciate the gift of a score, and if you put it in their hand, they’ll be more likely to take it home and glance at it rather than if you hand them a business card and point them to your website.”

If whatever promotional materials you’re handing out already have your contact information on them, there’s no need to hand out your business card. It’s important to get the other person’s contact information, too. If other people hand me their business cards, I put them all in one place and take pictures of them that night so I don’t have to worry about losing them while traveling home.

It’s not hard to shift a conversation to whatever promotional materials you’re handing out. One composer friend recommends using a phrase that’s hard to turn down: “Would you like some free music?” If you have a piece that’s genuinely a good fit for a particular conductor, explain why it suits them as you hand over the score.

Don’t be intimidated or afraid to give out your scores and talk about what you do. Choral composers need conductors to program their music, yes, but conductors also need composers to write engaging new works for them to program. Many conductors will be happy to learn about your music, especially if they’re being given free scores.

What will I talk about?

If you’re feeling nervous about making conversation at the conference, do a little prep work before you go. As a composer, you’ll very likely be asked these two questions over and over again: “What’s your music like?” and “What are you working on now?”

You’ll want to tailor your responses depending on the conversation you’re having. If you’re currently writing a piece for women’s chorus and another for mixed chorus, and you’re talking to the director of a women’s chorus, you know which project to mention in that conversation. You can shift that question to highlight whatever you’ve brought to hand out, too: “I can actually give you some of my music right now!” If you arrive prepared to talk about what you do and why you love doing it, you’ll be less anxious going into new conversations.

There’s an even more important question to ask yourself before the conference than what you’ll talk about:

What am I going to ask other people?

What would you like to know about other composers you’ll meet? What will you ask conductors about themselves and their choirs? What do you want to learn at the conference?

Andrea suggests having a mutual friend introduce you to a conductor you’d like to talk to and asking that conductor “what they do, who they are, what their choirs are like, and what kind of music they program.” She recommends that you “build rapport, find out what friends you have in common, and get to know them as a human being before offering up a suggested title or score.”

There are plenty of reliable questions to ask composers or conductors: “How did you get your start [conducting / composing]?” “What’s your favorite piece that you’ve [programmed / written]?” “What are you working on now?”

Composer Sydney Guillaume has found that “quality is better than quantity when it comes to meeting conductors,” and “it’s better to build lasting relationships than to try and meet as many conductors as possible.” I agree, and if you make even one meaningful connection that ultimately leads to a lasting working relationship, you’ve had a successful conference. Sydney also suggests that composers “don’t appear ‘hungry’ for conductors to perform their music — have wonderful, meaningful conversations, build some curiosity around your music and let the process play out organically. It’s great to follow up but it’s also wise to not push it too much.”

 

Having a great conversation is, I’d argue, even more important than giving your music to someone. You can send your music to them at a later date, but you can’t recreate over email the experience of actually meeting them in person. They’re much more likely to remember you and be open to receiving your scores if you’ve already met in person. Initial connections can take years to turn into working relationships, so view the conference as a chance to initiate great first conversations and nurture existing connections rather than achieve overly-specific goals that you might not meet (“I must walk away from this convention with a three new commissions!”).

 

Andrea offers good advice on making and maintaining connections from a conductor’s perspective; she says, “I’m much more likely to perform a new work by a composer when I have made a connection with them and they’ve been purposeful in their approach.” She recommends following up post-convention: “Wait 2–3 weeks and send them a thank you email saying ‘Hey, I really enjoyed meeting you and hope you are well. Just finished this SSAA piece and thought it might work well for your women’s chorus. No pressure, but have a look!’ ”

There are two questions I labeled slightly ridiculous at the beginning of this article that are worth mentioning anyway:

Who will I eat lunch with?

You’re not going to find yourself starving and alone in a corner; choral conferences are generally very social places. Asking where you’re going to eat is a valid concern for one reason, though: there’s so much to do, meals might be spontaneous and very spread-out. You may find yourself having an early breakfast, a late lunch at 2 p.m., and a pre-concert dinner at 5 p.m. Be prepared: bring snacks! Pack protein bars. Hang out near crowded booths around meal-times and see if the people you’re talking to would like to grab food nearby. When you connect with other composers and conductors and you mutually want to hang out again, get their contact information.

What if no one wants to talk to me?

Plenty of people will want to talk to you if you want to talk to them! Still, if you’re an introvert or have social anxiety, you may have a few moments where you’re standing by yourself, feeling alone. When that happens, I try to ask myself where, exactly, I’m feeling discomfort or anxiety, being mindful of the fact that it’s just a feeling. My initial reaction may be to flee back to my hotel room, and that’s always an option, but the feeling of anxiety can’t actually harm me. What’s the worst that will happen if I keep standing by myself for another moment or two? In those moments you can always walk for a lap around the exhibit hall, and pretend you’re on a purposeful mission. Feeling uncomfortable will pass.

There’s no need to be intimidated by a conference, especially when you’ve asked yourself a few key questions in advance. Who will be there that you already know? Who will be there that you’d like to seek out? What are you particularly eager to learn from other conductors and composers? What will you be bringing? (Scores of your music, and protein bars.)

Be ready to speak confidently and concisely about your own work: What are you working on that you’re really excited about, and how can you concisely and articulately describe your music?

 

If you’re clear on what you’d like to get out of the conference ahead of time, you’ll be ready to take advantage of each planned and spontaneous opportunity to connect when it comes up. And again, it only takes one great, lasting connection to make a conference worthwhile.

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Originally published on the MusicSpoke Blog.

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