Encouraging Composers Within Your Ensemble
Let’s say you have a promising musician in your choir who’s interested in composing. As a conductor, how can you encourage them to write music?
I don’t use the word “encourage” lightly. The most important thing for anyone new to composing, even more important than feedback or criticism, is encouragement to keep going. I didn’t take composition lessons until college, but my high school choral director, Dr. Barbara Klemp, let me arrange "And All That Jazz" from Chicago for the chorus with which I sang during my junior year. With Dr. Klemp's encouragement, I entered and won a choral composition competition in the spring of my senior year, which led to the very first time I heard my original choral music performed live. Those experiences changed the course of my life.
If you encounter a musician in your chorus with an interest in composing, here are a few ways to encourage them to write for your ensemble:
SUGGEST AN ARRANGEMENT
For someone very new to composing, 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 a 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. If the text isn't in the public domain, the composer should have written permission from the author to set that tet to music.
Ask to see the score well before it’s needed. Give the composer a deadline that’s at least a month or two earlier than your singers will need to start rehearsing the piece. This is probably good advice for working with composers of any age! This way, you'll have time to familiarize yourself with the piece.
You'll also have time to clarify questions about range or other technical issues that you might want the composer to revise before rehearsals begin. The playback feature in computer notation programs has seduced many an inexperienced composer into writing unsingable vocal lines, so don’t be afraid to gently point out these issues if they occur. Be ready to propose and try solutions to any of these issues in rehearsal with the composer present, too. I like to think of this approach like an eye exam ("Which is better, one or two?"). You can offer what's on the page first ("one"), then propose another solution ("two"), then ask the composer which they prefer and be prepared to go with that answer.
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, for instance, or noticing how hard it is for a listener to distinguish words set in overlapping rhythms. The experience of working with a real chorus offers a much more meaningful lesson than hearing a conductor or composition teacher say that something “won’t work.”
If your goal is to help mentor and nurture a composer's interest in writing music, then you might find yourself premiering a piece you wouldn't normally program. This can still fulfill both your and the composer's intentions. Even if you don't love the piece, I've venture that you and your singers will still grow tremendously through the process of working with a composer in your ensemble.
READ THROUGH NEW WORKS
If the idea of committing to an unknown piece by a young composer is still daunting, or if you're worried you won't have enough time to commit to premiering a new piece, you might start instead by offering a reading session. A perfect time for this is the end of the season or school year, after a performance is done. Give your singers at least a month or two of notice about the reading session, so they’ll have time to compose or arrange something for the group and provide a score for you and your singers. As with a commission, you may want to give an earlier deadline than you'll actually need.
With a reading session, you'll still want plenty of time to look through the score(s) beforehand. A poorly prepared reading session can actually hurt rather than nurture a developing composer, if it gives the impression that their music is "impossible" or that the piece sounds terrible. A successful reading will offer a jumping-off point to further revise the piece, if needed, and will give the composer a sense of what's working well. A recording of the reading session, even an informal one made via a phone or single mic, can help a composer find another ensemble to premiere the work in concert.
To conduct a successful reading, you'll want to first identify potentially tricky spots with your singers in advance, then give singers a minute or more to silently look over those spots and the entire score before you sing through it. Consider playing through the most challenging harmonic or melodic moments on the piano before the piece is sung out loud. You might also consider reading through a new piece twice in a row, to give singers a chance to fix their mistakes on the second run.
If the reading session goes well, you can consider programming the most successful pieces on an upcoming program.
SUGGEST RESOURCES AND NEXT STEPS
Two websites that consistently update their calls for scores and competitions for composers are American Composers Forum and The Composer's Site. Many choruses and other ensembles hold recurring calls for scores, so as you learn about these, you can encourage composers to apply to these year after year.
You can also suggest that less experienced composers reach out to others working in this field. Many composers—myself included—can be reached easily via our websites and are more than happy to respond to questions about the craft or career of composing.
If you have the chance to urge a young musician to try writing for chorus—for your chorus—I urge you to do it. There is little more exhilarating as a composer than writing for a group in which you're a member, and I imagine that your experience mentoring a composer's developing talents will be just as thrilling.
. . . . .
Originally published in Cantate Magazine, Vol. 28, No. 3, Fall 2016. Revised Spring 2023.