On Encouraging Young Composers
Let’s say you have a promising musician in your choir who’s interested in composing. How can you, as an educator, encourage them to write music?
I don’t use the word “encourage” lightly. The most important thing for a young composer, even more important than feedback or criticism, is encouragement to keep going. I didn’t take any composition lessons until college, but my high school choral director, Barbara Klemp, asked me to arrange for the chorus in which I sang. As a senior in high school I entered and won a choral composition competition, which led to the very first time I heard my choral compositions performed live, and that experience changed the course of my life. Without Dr. Klemp’s encouragement, I’m not sure I’d be a composer today.
If you encounter a young musician with an interest in composing, here are a few ways to encourage them:
Suggest an arrangement.
For someone very new to composing, especially in high school, this might be the best starting point. If there’s a pop or folk song you’re already thinking of programming, reach out to your student to see if they'd be interested in arranging it. They may have a piece in mind that they'd like to arrange for choir, too.
Perform an original composition.
If you ask your aspiring composer to write a new piece for your ensemble, there are steps you can take to make sure it’ll be a good fit.
Be sure you agree on the text before the composer has started writing the piece. The text should be in the public domain—published prior to 1923—or the composer should have written permission from the author.
Ask to see the score well before it’s needed; give a deadline that’s at least a month earlier than your singers will need to start rehearsing the piece. (This is probably good advice for working with composers of any age!)
The MIDI playback of a computer notation program has seduced many a young composer into writing entirely unsingable vocal lines, so don’t be afraid to gently point out issues with range or impracticalities. With the composer present, be ready to propose and/or try solutions to any of these issues in rehearsal.
Often, the most helpful feedback a composer can receive is witnessing their new work being rehearsed: hearing a soprano say she’s exhausted from holding a high G for twelve measures in a row, for instance, or noticing how hard it is for a listener to distinguish words set in tightly-staggered rhythms. The experience of working with a real chorus offers a much more meaningful lesson than hearing a conductor say something “won’t work.”
Read through new works.
If the idea of committing to an unknown piece by a young composer is still daunting, start with a reading session. A perfect time for this is the end of the school year, after performances are done. Give your students at least a month or two of notice about the reading session, too, so they’ll have time to compose or arrange something for the group and provide you with a score if they’re interested in participating.
Suggest resources and next steps.
Two websites that consistently update their calls for scores and competitions for composers are The Composer's Site and American Composers Forum. Many choruses and organizations hold recurring (annual or biennial) calls for scores.
If you don’t compose, suggest that your composer reach out to others working in the field. They may have questions, and they may not know any other living composers. Many composers—myself included—can be reached easily via our websites and are more than happy to respond to a young composer’s questions.
If you have the chance to encourage a young musician to write for chorus—for your chorus—do it. There is little more exhilarating as a composer than writing for a group in which you are a member. Composers have their entire lives to hone their craft; as a trusted mentor and educator, the best gift you can offer a young composer is encouragement.
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Originally published in Cantate Magazine, Vol. 28, No. 3, Fall 2016.