How to Get Your First Commission

I used to be utterly perplexed by how to go about getting a commission. Other composers got commissions. I wanted commissions. How on earth did people get commissions?

To be honest, it felt similar to how the idea of dating feels when you're young. Before you’ve dated someone, the very concept of having a boyfriend or girlfriend can seem insurmountable, like something that might happen for everyone except you. What if you’re undatable? Uncommissionable? Both can feel like something that everyone else but you instinctively knows how to do.

My very first commission was from the Orange County Women’s Chorus. A choral director I sang with in undergrad had emailed the OCWC’s director, Eliza Rubenstein, to introduce us both and say that I was moving to Southern California. Eliza wrote back saying that if I wanted to pass along some work samples, her chorus was looking for a composer to commission and could consider me for that opportunity.

Easy enough, right? This was, mind you, after years of seeing other composers get commissions and feeling completely baffled by the whole process. After that first fortuitous commission, it was over a year before I received another one, from a conductor who’d pursued his doctorate at the University of Maryland while I was an undergraduate there. In the year between those two commissions, I wondered whether perhaps the first one was a fluke. Maybe no one else would ever want to work with me again.

That wasn’t true, of course. The hardest part of getting a first commission can be accepting that it just takes time. Much like dating, getting a commission just sort of happens when you connect with the right person at the right time. While commissions do depend on the timing being right for a conductor and their ensemble, there are actions you can take in the meantime to greatly increase the odds of getting a commission.

Relationships with conductors don’t form overnight, and your first few commissions will likely come from people you already know, or people only one degree removed from you. It usually isn’t until your work is known on a bigger scale that people will contact you out of the blue wanting to commission you. Even then, they'll often know someone who’s worked with you in the past and personally recommended your work.

If someone you know says they want to work with you, trust them. Give them time, and keep—casually, not overwhelmingly—in touch. Email once or twice a year asking if they’d be interested in seeing some of your newest pieces. They’re going to work with you when the timing is right on their end. This can take years.

One simple phrase that communicates that you’d love to work with someone in the future: “I’d love to write a piece for you.” This puts the ball in their court without straight-up asking for a commission.

Stay in touch with those who have already performed your music. It can feel like maybe they’re less likely to work with you again, as if you’ve used up your one chance with that ensemble. In fact, the exact opposite is true; if a conductor loves your work and has the means to commission you, they will likely continue to commission and program your work multiple times.

Many commissioning relationships start with an ensemble performing an existing piece in your catalogue and then deciding to commission a new work later on. Do your best to cultivate a lasting friendship with conductors you respect and admire. Rather than a one-off job opportunity, you’re nurturing a life-long working relationship.

While you’re waiting for a first paid commission, ask the musician friends and acquaintances that you think are particularly talented if you can write a new piece for them. Especially if you are still in school, relish this time to write exactly the music you want to write, without restrictions or worrying whether you’re being paid enough. Ask the performer for a timeline for the new composition, and stick to those deadlines. Tailor each piece specifically to the strengths of the soloist or ensemble for whom you are writing.

Treat each opportunity to write for someone you know like a professional commission. Often, composing for friends and colleagues leads to future commissions from these very same performers down the line, when they are more established in their own careers and in the position to be funding new works.

Ultimately, there isn’t any magic formula for getting a first commission, short of time plus good work plus maintaining relationships. If you keep creating excellent work, though, and you gently remind the people you’d love to work with that your excellent work exists, your first commission should be right around the corner.

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This post was originally published on the MusicSpoke blog.

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