Commissioning New Music for Choir
(an introduction)

Commissioning Music for Choir - Michael John Trotta

Commissioning Music for Choir

Commissioning Music for Choir:  Discover the three things choral directors are most interested in when considering commissioning new music for choir.  Fifty choral directors were asked what they most wanted to know about commissioning.  The answers might surprise you.  Similarly, you may find that they have the same questions as you.

As you explore this topic, you will find the following in this guide:

First, an introduction that explains the power of collaboration and building a legacy.
After that, a survey of issues facing music education.
Following that, a summary of the benefits of commissioning new music.

The main section of the post answers the three most frequent questions:

Lastly, you will find a summary of the most important things to remember when considering a commission.

Introduction

The Power of Collaboration

Above all, as musicians, collaboration is at the heart of what we do.

Even more, being interested in what matters most to choral directors is an important part of the process of collaboration.

We surveyed over 50 choir directors to find out what they wanted to know about the commissioning process.  Among the many questions, the following is a list of the top three responses, in order of importance.

Top three things choir directors want to know about commissioning new music for their choir:

  1. What is involved in the process?
  2. How will the composer interact with me and my choir?
  3. What resources do I need to take part in a commission?

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Additionally, questions included a host of topics, including copyright issues, requisite ability of the choir, length of time it takes, as well as benefits for the choir and the community, and many, many more.

This post was created to answer each of these questions.  Before getting to the answers, let’s remind ourselves of the important role music plays in inspiring community and building legacy.

Inspiring Community and Building Legacy

The highest form of work that Choral Directors can do is to inspire community and build a legacy.

Because there are so many things that directors are tasked with, sometimes it seems as if they will never get around to their musical and artistic goals.  It is helpful to remember the reason that you chose music, or rather that music told you that the great sense of community comes from being involved with something greater than yourself.

Point of Inspiration

A traveler came upon three men working.  He asked the first man what he was doing, and the man said he was laying bricks.  He asked the second man the same question and he said he was putting up a wall.  When he got to the third man and asked him what he was doing, he said he was building a cathedral.

They were all doing the same thing.  The first man had a job.  The second man had a career.  The third man had a calling.[i]

Directors have the opportunity to instill in their singers the idea that they are doing far more than showing up at rehearsals and trying their best, but that they are also sharing the amazing power of music, improving the lives of the community, and learning valuable life skills that are transferable to many other areas.

As a result, one of the easiest ways to see this is to observe the impact that a dynamic music program can have on a community.  When a group is achieving its best, its members are simultaneously building a legacy in several communities.

Impact of an effective music program on the community.

First, they are creating a legacy within the community of the choir itself.  They are developing a set of principles, behaviors, habits, and actions that they will pass on to those who come after them.

Secondly, the group has an impact on the institution with which they are affiliated.  This happens through concerts, community service projects, performing at events, and more.

Thirdly, they have can have a positive impact on the town or city in which they reside.  This is where the power of community ripples out to affect more than just the organization, but the whole town or city.

All of this this can be extended to the state, regional, national, and international levels through touring and collaborations.  The impact of each individual community and ensemble comprises the legacy of a particular group.

Issues Facing Music Education

In 2017, professors at Kent University[ii]identified some of the top issues facing music education, as follows:

·      Justifying the Necessity of Music

·      Motivating Students

·      Involving Parents

·      Addressing Funding Issues

·      Adapting Teaching Strategies to Meet Student Needs

·      Optimizing New Technology

These issues are very real, and there are amazing educators at every level working hard to use the power of music as a resource to meet these challenges.

Allowing the community to take part in the creation and performance of a new work is a powerful way to highlight the importance of the arts, motivate students, involve parents and the larger community, find creative solutions to address resources, and adapt to meet the needs of a diverse body of students.  In addition, it provides way to use new technology to bring people together from all over the country and around the world.

The good news is that commissioning new music is a wonderful way to highlight the importance of the arts, experience how choral singing improves lives, and illustrate the life changing power of taking part in the creation and performance of new music.

Benefits of Commissioning New Music:

·     Highlight the importance of the arts

·     Experience how choral singing improves lives

·     Illustrate the life changing power of music

You can learn more about the benefits of commissioning new music here?

[i]Huffington Post 0/18/2016

[ii]https://musicedmasters.kent.edu/top-8-challenges-faced-by-music-teachers-in-2017/

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1.    What Is Involved in The Collaboration

There are two main parts of the commissioning process: Roles (who takes part) and the Process (how each role takes part). These work together to create something that has never and could not ever be created without this interaction.

Roles                                                     Process

(who)                                                                     (how)

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Furthermore, commissioning a new work is an example of the best of what can happen when people work together on a goal that is greater than the sum of its parts.  Let’s take a look at these two main parts in more detail.

Roles

To clarify each part of the process involves one or more of the following roles:

Commissioner

Composer

Conductor

Performer

Audience

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Process

Additionally, the process has four main stages:

Vision

Writing

Rehearsal

Performance

Overall, the process and the roles work together in a dynamic way, informing each other in the process of creating a new work.

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In addition, each role can be described as follows:

Commisioner

This term can refer to the conductor or choir, the institution with which the choir is affiliated, or a group representing the institution.  The commissioner’s responsibility is to have a vision for the work, understanding the spirit of the project, and providing or facilitating the acquisition of the resources for making the project happen.

Most often, an individual or group of individuals acts as the representative for the institution that is affiliated with the choir.  This may be the conductor of the choir, the president of the choir, or a group or individuals affiliated with the choir.

Anyone can commission a piece of music. There is no special criteria needed to begin the process. Every commission is written to be completely unique to the needs of the commissioner.  Large universities might ask to write music for their special events. A small church choir in a tiny rural town might commission a work as a dedication to its director.  Even individuals might personally commissioned music to honor a loved one or special occasion.

If you have a vision for a musical collaboration, you have everything you need to begin the process.

Composer

The composer’s main responsibility is to discover the essence of the commissioner’s vision, immerse themselves in researching the text, and translate that into musical ideas.  The process involves a wide variety of steps, from interaction with the commissioner, to research, text setting, sketching, orchestration, engraving, editing and proofing, to the final delivery of the score and parts.

Conductor

The conductor’s role is to provide musical leadership and turn the composer’s notation into a living, breathing, musical work.  The conductor provides a layer of meaning and, in many ways, has the broadest perspective of what the collaboration means to the institution, the choir, and the community in which the collaboration takes place.

The conductor’s years of musical training and expertise are used to convert the musical ideas into an experience for the choir and the community.

Performer

The performer is responsible for having and instrument that will perform the written music, and musical training that allows him or her to express the intention of the work.  The performer should be able to add personal expression of what the work means to him or her, and the community in which the piece is being performed.

Audience

The audience is the group of people in the community who are responsible for making space in their lives to attend the performance.  They are able to interact with the live performance of the work by being able to relate the music to their own ilves.  After experiencing the performance, they find that they have been changed for the better and have learned something about themselves and the world around them.

It is only when each of these roles fulfills their responsibility that a new musical work can be created.  The new musical work is the sum of all of the people who come together for the purpose of sponsoring, writing, rehearsing, and performing the new work.  This in turn inspires the community, the commissioner, the composer, conductor, choir and larger community.

Each stage of the process can be summarized as follows:

Vision

The commissioner contacts the composer and starts a dialog about what a collaboration could achieve for their community.  The composer responds and uses an intake form to gather more information about what is most important to the project.  The composer provides a proposal with several choices, all of which will effectively distill the essence of the vision into a musical work.  The commissioner selects the choice that best meets their needs.  An agreement is reached between the commissioner and composer.

Writing

The composer translates the essence of the commissioner’s vision into musical ideas.. In addition, they research text, artwork, and historical documents to inform the thematic elements of the work.  Furthermore, the composer revises, edits, and proofs the work in consultation with the commissioner.

Rehearsal

The conductor and performers prepare with work in consultation with the composer.

Performance

The community gathers to experience the final product of the commissioner’s vision, the composer’s musical ideas, the conductor’s artistic vision, and the choir’s expressiveness.

You can find a detailed guide about the process here. 

The amount of time each stage takes varies by project, depending on length and scope, but may fall within the following ranges: Vision (1-3 Months)

Writing (1-18 Months)

Rehearsal (1-11 Months)

Performance (1-30 Days)

Total Project (A Few Months – Several Years)

Ready to get started on your vision for a new work for your choir?

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Tell me about your vision

2.  Interaction Between the Composer, Commissioner, Conductor, Choir, and Community

Certainly, interaction is at the very heart and soul of everything we do as musicians.

For example, if there were no commissioner, there could be no composer.  As a result, the conductor would not have anything to teach the choir. Furthermore, the audience would not have anything to listen to.  Surely, what a sad world that would be!

But this is not the case, and there are many wonderful groups commissioning many wonderful composers.  As much as a high degree of interaction is built into the process of vision,  this interaction also guides the process.  Moreover, the consultation with the conductor and composer influences the musicianship of the choir.  Consequently, this translates in its performance to the audience.

Additional opportunities for interaction vary according to the needs of the choir and the availability of the composer.  There are two main types of interaction, formal and Informal:

Formal

Basically, formal interactions require a much larger amount of planning, energy, and resources.  For one thing, they most often involve the composer traveling to the location of the choir.  Access to a living composer is a great benefit, as it allows all involved in the project to come together to create something new.

Clinics

One-time rehearsal between the composer and the choir.  It involves the choir performing and the composer responding the choir’s performance.

Composer Residencies

Extended periods of interaction that can range from several days to up to a year where the composer works with the choir, but also may work with other groups and give keynote presentations.

Guest Conducting

When the composer is invited to conduct the premiere of a performance or a group of works centered around a specific theme, genre, or composer.

Guest Appearance

The composer attends a performance without any musical responsibilities.  This often involves a meet and greet after the concert, or a reception to meet important contributors to the project.

Key Notes

Talks from 30-90 minutes, centered around a specific theme.

Example topics:

  • Creativity
    • The Anatomy of Creativity: From Inspiration to Publication
    • The Power of Story: Text, Meaning, and Music Making
  • Composition
    • Dynamic Collaborations: The Process of Collaborating with a Composer
    • Creating the Resources You Need: Funding Collaborations and Commissions
  • Composer Masterclasses
  • Conducting/Performance/Rehearsal Technique
    • Your Perfect Choir: Turning Your Vision into Reality
    • The Integral Choral Conductor: Developing Choral Artistry
    • Empowering Ensembles: Peer Modeling & Peer Leadership in the Rehearsal Setting
    • Starting Where You Are: The Inspired Conductor

Informal

Generally, informal interactions are much easier to plan, as they require less planning and resources because they can take place virtually.

Virtual Clinics

Clinics usually take place via Skype, Facetime, or Google Hangout.  They are usually 25-50 minutes in length and focus around a specific piece or musical idea.

Social Media

These are opportunities to share rehearsals and performances with the composer online as well as live streaming options, with which the composer can interact in real time.

Emails

Emails provide the opportunity for groups to interact.  They also allow both parties the opportunity to have time to respond.

Phone Calls

Phone calls, with or without video, are an easy way to say hello, ask a question, or have a brief interaction.

3.   Creating the Resources you Need (AKA How Much Will it Cost?)

How is the cost determined?

Length

Generally,  the length of the work is simply how long the piece is.  Therefore, the cost is much different for a three-minute work than for a 40-minute, multiple movement work.

Scope (Accompaniment and Orchestration)

Certainly, an unaccompanied anthem takes much less time to compose than a 7-movement work for full orchestra.  As a result, work that takes longer, costs more.

Overall, the amount of time a composer needs to set aside to give to each work is an important factor in the process.  Consequently, the forces needed contribute to the overall cost.

Timeframe

In addition, works that need to be completed in less than 6-12 months may carry an additional fee, depending on the availability and schedule of the composer.

In-Person Appearances

Furthermore, if there are any in-person appearances as part of the project, costs will increase.  Under those circumstances, the cost of both a stipend for the composer, and travel and lodging, need to be included.

Popularity and Reputation of the Composer

Another key factor is the stage of career of the composer.  For instance, a composer who is just getting started will charge less than an established composer. In another case, an established part time composer may charge less than a full-time composer.  An established full-time composer will command the highest fees.  To put it another way, this composer’s livelihood is dependent on the fees received from commissioned music.

Where Does the Money Go?

Surprisingly, the full-time composer is subject to expenses and taxes beyond that of an employee.  This being the case, approximately one-third of the commission fee goes to paying federal and state taxes.  One-third covers the cost of conducting business (website, marketing, advertising, administrative help, etc.), and the final third is what the composer keeps as income.

For example, for every $1,000 in a project, the composer keeps, $333.

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Choosing What to Pay?

Although it sounds too good to be true, choosing what you pay is fast becoming a popular choice among directors.  For example, when you buy a house, you have to choose what it most important to you.  Not only do you have to choose a location, but also a size and style.  As a result, the price changes.  Similarly, when commissioning a piece of music, you have a chance to choose what is most important to you.

Both empowering to the commissioner and fair to the composer, choosing what to pay allows the commissioner to make a decision based on what level of service is needed.

Tiered Propsals

By providing multiple options, each with different features, during the proposal process, the conductor is helping the commissioner decide what is most important for the project at each point along the way.

First, the composer considers the vision of the commissioner and creates a proposal that includes three versions, all of which will meet the needs of the project.  Next, the commissioner picks one of the options.  Finally, an agreement is reached.

The following serves as an example:

I II III
3 min Choral Work 5min Choral Work 12min Choral Work
A cappella or piano A cappella or piano strings and oboe
Price one Price two Price three

What is Most Important?

Consequently, this allows the commissioner to decide what is most important to the project.  Many times, if the vision of the commissioner is larger than the planned resources, this step will enable the commissioner to decide how to get the best values for their resources.

Typcial Fees

To demonstrate, an article in the 2018 Choral Journal entitled, A Somewhat Brief Guide to Commissioning New Music, the base fee for a composer was broken down in the following way.

Young Composer Established Composer In-Demand Composer
Cost per minute

a cappella or piano

$500 $1000 $3000
Cost per minute

Instrumental Acc.

Additional

$1000/minute

$Additional
$2000/minute
Parts and Score Additional 25% Additional 25%

Using this math, a three-minute work for choir could cost between $1,500 and $15,000.

Does that mean that you need to have tons of money to commission a piece of music?  Absolutely NOT.  One of the best parts about commissioning a piece of music is experiencing the thrill of creating the resources you need.

Creating the Resources You Need

Donors

Even though the choir may not have the money on hand, individuals or organizations that are connected to the choir in some way, and are interested in providing monetary or in-kind support can help the choir participate in a collaboration.  Basically, if they are interested in the mission of the choir and/or the mission of the institution, they are interested in supporting such a collaboration.

To be sure, donors who believe in the mission of the choir and the mission of the institution with which the choir is affiliated, can often underwrite the cost of a project that is important to them.  Correspondingly, the choir oftentimes honor the commissioner by dedicating the work to them or presenting them with a signed copy of the score upon completion.

Fundraising

Typical of choir tours and choir trips both near and abroad, when the choir itself starts a campaign to raise money for a specific need.

Consortiums (Divide and Conquer)

Additionally, having more than one choir create a consortium, where the choirs pool their joint resources for the purpose of co-commissioning a work, allows each group to multiply the investment that their choir is making by the number of other choirs participating.

As an illustration, let’s say a high school choir would like to commission a three-minute work at the cost of $4,500.  If that choir was to partner with 5 other choirs in its district or state, the cost would be $900 per choir.

To illustrate further, let’s say a choir would like to commission a three-movement work for choir.  Perhaps they select a composer who is established and charges $15,000 for the project.  If that choir partners with 4 other groups, the cost would be a much smaller amount of $3,000 per group.  Each choir would get to participate in its own premiere of the work for a fraction of the cost.

4.       Conclusion

In conclusion, three things to remember:

First, All you need is a vision to get started.

All in all, commissioning music is a collaboration of the who (roles) and how (process).  For this reason, your vision will guide the interaction of the roles and process.

Second, You can create the resources you need to support the vision.

As shown above, this can be done without compromising what is important to you.  For this purpose, the scope of your project can be scaled to match your available resources.  As has been noted, this allows you to: engage your community to create new resources, or to pool your resources with other like-minded organizations to create a new work that matches your vision.

Third, Commissioning new music is an ideal way to engage the community.

In essence, commissioning new music allows your community to come together.  First, it highlights the importance of the arts.  Also, the community experiences how choral music changes lives.  Furthermore it illustrates the life changing power of music.

Correspondingly, the community builds a legacy that furthers the mission of your institution.

I would love to hear more about your vision for a new work.

Many thanks for all you do for the creation and performance of new music.

Ready to get started on your vision for a new work for your choir?

Tell me about your vision
Tell me about your vision
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Ready to learn even MORE about commissioning music for choir?

Download the Introductory Guide for Commissioning New Music for Choir and get the following extras:

  • Benefits of Commissioning New Music – Detail
  • Complete detail of the Process
  • Answers to Frequently Asked Questions
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