Tips for Beginning Composers
Before being a full-time choral composer, I’m a fan of choral music. I want to constantly discover new things. So, I’m going to write down what I wish I had known when I started in this profession 10 years ago. After giving it some thought, I believe it all comes down to observing, listening, and providing. Because as composers, our ultimate mission is to provide something valuable for the community, for choirs, and for conductors. But how do we know what is “valuable”?
Now, let’s take a look. First, let’s talk about observing. In various classes, I’ve mentioned that when I compose, I always listen as if someone else wrote the music. I ask myself, “If I had to pay a high ticket price and this music started playing, how would it make me feel? Would it be believable to hear something like this in a grand theater, a film, or a documentary? On the other hand, if I were a singer, is it beautiful enough for me to invest months rehearsing it every day? Would I feel happy singing it?”
If my answer is a hesitant yes, I don’t hesitate to delete sections. I have too much to lose if the product isn’t good. It’s also important to remember that there will be a conductor dealing with the patience of 80 people. By the way, the conductor has a career and reputation to uphold. A poor decision could cost them the membership of several singers and lead to negative concert reviews. So let’s be observant and only provide something that benefits all parties involved. Our goal is to provide well-being in the form of sound, experience (ever felt like saying, “Wow, now it’s time to rehearse my favorite piece”?), and making our music successful with the audience so that the choir can attract more and more people.
In summary, if your life’s mission is to provide well-being, this is one of the professions you could pursue.
Now that we’ve reflected on why observing is important and the consequences of not doing it wisely, we need to listen. Here comes the most common mistake. So this is the scenario, we composers, we are excited and eager to showcase our music to the world. Filled with enthusiasm, we begin writing an email to a director. Wait! Which conductor? Well, the first one we come across on YouTube when you search for “Choir Conductor.”
So, you start an email of 5000 characters saying, “Hello, my name is… I wrote this piece that I’ve attached below” (For some reason that nobody can explain yet, you avoid including the MIDI or an audio reference)… and after a lengthy description, you conclude with “I can’t find a choir to perform it, and I want you to do it and record it.” As you can imagine, that email won’t get you anywhere.
It is so far from the mission of providing well-being that it will probably go straight to the spam folder and stay there. Your entire process must provide well-being, even the email. So let’s go back to putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes. And there’s a beautiful exercise which is to think, “What would be the best email I could receive? Wouldn’t it be good news? In other words, wouldn’t it be wonderful to suddenly receive something that improves your life?” Surely yes. So, why don’t you try to do that? try sending an email with the absolute and honest intention of improving the recipient’s life.
Unfortunately at this point, unless you have a million dollars to donate, let me tell you that it’s very difficult to know how to improve someone else’s life. The first step would be to get to know them and understand their interests. For example, when I’m approached for a commission, my first question is usually along the lines of, “What are you most passionate about in life?” Let me tell you that It’s a question that always sparks passion in the other person. They tell me everything that matters to them, even personal matters. And believe me, I take notes attentively. Somehow I want that person to relate the piece to what they are most passionate about. If you look at it in perspective, they will surely conduct it with that same passion, and that energy will resonate in every part. Even in the audience.
If you don’t have a first commission yet or you don’t know a conductor, please put on your list the directors you would love to help. People you think you can contact and who would make you happy to see them even more successful than they are. That is to say, which directors would you give the moon to if you could? Now you will understand why this question. Let me give you an example, years ago, I was passionate about the work of Phillip Swan (I still am); I couldn’t believe what he and his choir were doing. When we finally started collaborating, I tried to give him the best of me in each piece as a thank you for the hours of music he provides us. And since I usually work like this, the vast majority of the directors I collaborate with, I want to give them the best of myself. Also, they almost always end up being my friends and on occasions, we even send each other Christmas gifts.
So when you have that list, believe me, you will want to hang on every word from the person you admire. When you write or talk to those people, it won’t occur to you to write a long email. It will be more about what you want to know about them and how you can help them create a meaningful concert. In other words, for a second imagine that you can talk to a super star or Jesus Christ himself, would you start telling them about your life, your works, or would you use that time to listen to their words, experiences, and desires? It will probably be better to ask and listen.
Now, maybe you’re lucky enough to have already written an email, made a call to a university, or met with one of the directors on your list. You have a decent idea of the concerts they will give the theme that will address the upcoming concerts. You might even know what they are most passionate about.
This is when you have the opportunity to help. This is the real stage of providing. In other words, if you truly have the creativity to weave together all the passions and connect them with the concert’s theme, you can provide maximum happiness. You can offer something unique. There are millions of beautiful pieces about winter that cost $2 per copy. But a piece that tells a personal anecdote and correlates it with some aspect of winter? That’s where our mission lies! That’s when we discover whether we are psychologists who listen or composers who transform other people’s words into a musical narrative. Create a special piece that provides well-being and connection.
Have a great writing season, my dear colleagues!