Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Outer Artist - Part 5: Getting Out There

Fifth in a series on the "business" of being a composer...

When I was a student, I thought the trickiest part of a composition career was learning my craft and navigating through my degree programs. As formidable as those endeavors seemed to be at the time, they pale before my continuing efforts to build a successful career as a professional composer. Like every creative artist, the composer has a deep desire to create Art and share it with an audience. In the pursuit of that lifelong endeavor, the real trick is to get that next performance, to obtain that next commission, to somehow - once again - have a composition heard by an audience or easily accessible via professional recordings. Never mind pushing oneself to the so-called “next level,” even merely sustaining a career takes considerable ongoing effort. While we all wish to make a comfortable living simply by composing Art Music, “success” in a composition career is rarely defined by income. While awards and accolades are one measurement of success, a better indicator for me is how visible composers are within the field and how widely their music is recorded and performed. Awards are subjective. For me, “success” is not driven solely by income statements and trophy cases but by how well I am able to participate in the cultural and artistic life of my community, my country….heck, even my planet!    

To achieve any modicum of success in sharing music with a wide audience, I believe a composer must work from a solid foundation as detailed in the previous entries in this series. After all, the music must be compelling in some way or why bother learning it or listening to it? Assuming one possesses the talent and the compelling voice, a big question yet remains. 

What do I need to do in order to get my music “out there?” 

This is the concern that seems to really preoccupy most composers. Just how does one go about getting more opportunities to write music and hear it performed? Well…this wouldn’t be much of a blog if I didn’t at least try to answer questions I pose. I have six strategies for getting compositions “out there” that have helped me along the way. To keep this post manageable, I’ll present the first three strategies here and the rest in the next entry to this blog.

1. Write for your friends.

Performer friends are always your best initial resource. This is true for the student composer as well as the graduate out in the world with some type of degree already hanging on the wall. While still a student, many of your classmates are performers who might be very willing to at least look over a piece. Also, the student friends you have today could become important professional colleagues and advocates in the future. When school days are behind you, friends are area professionals or (if you have landed a teaching position of some kind) faculty colleagues. 

Don't forget about the pro-am artists out there. These so-called “professional amateurs” are dedicated performers, often with high-level training and wonderful musicianship who have non-music or non-performance “day jobs.” Some may even have had past professional experience. Remember, many people probably regarded the composer Charles Ives as only an insurance agent during his lifetime. Keep your eyes and ears open.

Old & new friends: my pal, Jon Whitaker, fellow
trombonists Christian Paarup, Matthew Winter &
Russell Ballenger & the Mana Quartet  (Thomas Giles,
Michael Hernandez, Dannel Espinoza & Cole Belt.
Photo taken after their premiere of my work,
"eight shades of metal."
Whether your relationship is with a classmate, colleague or pro-am artist, it is important to be a friend yourself. Don’t be “that” composer who only selfishly views performers as objects; means to an end. Develop real relationships with people. Attend your friends’ concerts and recitals. Support their artistic expression in any way you can. When you feel comfortable enough to ask them to look at your music  - or better yet, if they ask you for a piece - collaborate with them. Dedicating a composition to performers is only the very least you can do. Besides just typing in a dedication, allow your friends input into the creation of the work. Ask questions. It’s been my experience that performers know much more about their respective instruments than can be gleaned from an orchestration textbook. They also usually enjoy sharing their knowledge and expertise. 

Most importantly, respond to their concerns and suggestions. This doesn’t mean you need to check your artistic integrity at the door simply to snag a performer. If your music is unidiomatic for the instrument or just plain near impossible to play, work with the performer. Explain your motivations and compositional choices. The performer may come up with a solution that works better idiomatically and still fulfills your artistic vision. Be open and flexible to that possibility. If, however, the music demands to be performed exactly the way you have presented it, I have found that performers will nevertheless be happy to try and make your music work to the best of their ability. Your openness, however, to their concerns and explanations as to why you might need to stick to your guns in a particular situation will be met with much more acceptance when the player is consulted and respected.

Finally, your music notation must be immaculate. The time and effort you put into preparing a gorgeous and clearly notated part gives the performer a good indication of your level of professionalism, how seriously you take your creative activity and how much you respect them. Great looking parts also save a lot of precious rehearsal time!

2. It’s not just a hoop.

This strategy is directed specifically to any composition students reading this blog. There are many maddening hoops that students must go through in order to earn their degrees. The higher the degree, the more onerous and sometimes more pointless the hoops become. A composition recital is not one of those hoops. Students who treat the recital as merely one more item to tick off their “to-do” list are missing an important opportunity. Unless you become truly “famous,” there will never be another time that an entire concert will be devoted exclusively to your music. So first and foremost, enjoy the event! However, in planning your recital, think carefully about how the pieces you write for a graduation requirement will still help you in the future. Create a diverse offering of compositions using as many different instrumentations and/or technologies as you can. I always tell my students that the real value of the recital is not the evening itself but the portfolio of scores with well rehearsed and performed recordings of the respective compositions that remain well after the applause has faded away. Spend the necessary time to organize the recital correctly. Don’t wait until the last minute to secure players or begin rehearsals. The documented recordings you get from the recital may well be the only recordings you will ever get of some of the pieces. These recordings are critical when sending pieces off to contests or other opportunities. As an example of how “student” pieces can be of importance later, I don’t need to go beyond my own catalog. Check out Three Gestures for Solo Cello or the mixed ensemble piece, Mnimosinon. These were both pieces written for my doctoral recital at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Due to good recordings from the recital, outstanding professional performers later became interested in performing the works and the pieces eventually found their way onto my debut recording, Aegean Counterpoint. If I had not taken the recital extremely seriously as important for my career (not just my degree), I may not have had the pieces for this recording.

3. The best cold calls are never really cold.

Any professional conductor or performer will tell you that possibly the least effective way to get them to perform your music is to send unsolicited scores. Most unsolicited scores either find their way to some out of the way stack of music in a closet or simply thrown out. Performers and conductors tend to work with composers they know and like on either a professional or personal level. Without this connection, the unsolicited score becomes a very hard sell. So how is a composer expected to get their music in front of new eyes and into new ears? When conductors and performers ask for scores, of course. And they ask for new music quite often. A quick perusal of The Composer’s Site alone will find nearly 300 listed opportunities for composers at any one time. I firmly believe that composers should take advantage of as many of these opportunities as possible on an ongoing basis. However, composers should also be aware that the very high odds are that most submissions will result in a rejection letter. I know a thing or two about those (see my blog from December 8, 2010, entitled “Dear Composer…”). The truth is, one can reasonably only expect to be successful or even moderately successful (coming in second, or getting the dreaded “Honorable Mention”) a small percentage of the time. Maybe I'm a masochist, but I have actually charted my success rate over the years. My submissions are selected or recognized about 10% of the time on average. Thus for every award listed in my C.V., there are nine rejection letters. If you wish to get your music “out there,” you must submit your work regularly. The more you submit, the greater your odds become of something positive happening. 

As a very personal aside, I also do not have a problem with opportunities that charge entry fees.  Many of my colleagues will no doubt disagree with this position. There are plenty of “free” submission calls out there but also a significant number that require an entrance fee. I am always prepared to spend a little for score calls. There are often legitimate reasons why an organization may need to charge an entry fee. The most reputable organizations often spell out what the fees cover. I enter fee based submissions on a case-by-case basis. If the entry fee seems reasonable, I pay it. If it it seems excessively high to me, I’ll take a pass. The comfort zone for payment will, of course, vary with composers and their personal situations. The point is, I do not automatically purge all fee based submission opportunities from consideration. Also remember, like many “free” app purchases on your phone, there can be “in-app” purchase requirements later. Some organizations sponsor free submission to opportunities but if a composer is selected, mandate that the composer join the organization to receive a performance. This usually entails  a year-long membership obligation and a membership fee. Other ensembles will not cover travel and lodging expenses for composers who must travel to hear a prize winning performance. Whether upfront or at the backend, composers should be prepared to pay something to submit works. Composers also need to  be prepared for disappointment much of the time. I haven’t met the successful composer yet who does not have trunks of rejection letters, multiple bruises to the ego in various stages of healing and some really thick skin.

Yet, when a submission is successful, it’s not just a new item to place in the C.V. The success of the submission usually results in an accompanying performance of pre-existing music or the opportunity to compose a new work for musicians who up until the time of the score call did not even know your name. Moreover, if you present yourself professionally and are able to start a relationship with the musicians involved in the initial score call, it can lead to additional opportunities in the future. Remember - writing for your friends is always the best way to go. These friends can be your school chums or are new faces met through a successful submission process. The rewards of success in a submission both in terms of the initial project and potential for future collaborations are so great that I believe they warrant frequent submissions to all opportunities. So one must submit, submit and submit again.

Composition students often complain to me that they cannot submit to various opportunities because they lack the proper pieces in their respective catalogs. I always remind them that their composition recitals are the perfect vehicle to remedy this situation. If, for example, a composer finds dozens of score calls for choral works but cannot enter due to the fact that he or she has never written for choir, let this be a significant factor in deciding what types of music to include on a recital. The recital is a requirement anyway. Let it work for your future career as well as your short term degree requirement needs. This strategy is critical while you are in school. Once out, unless a composer has a large catalog of diverse works, it becomes more difficult to take advantage of opportunities. I think it is a risky gamble to write a piece specifically for a contest. As mentioned earlier, the high odds are that you will not be successful. Then the piece written becomes orphaned and its chances of ever being heard diminish steadily over time. If you must write on spec for an opportunity, at least have a back-up plan for a performance of the work. Going back to the choral example, do you know a decent choir in your community that might be willing to perform the work? Do you have friends in the group that can advocate on your behalf? Can you secure a performance? If the answer is yes to these questions, proceed with the piece in confidence that your hard work will at the very least result in a performance and (hopefully) a decent recording that you can then use for future submission opportunities.

You may have noticed that the three strategies presented above deal mostly with relationships. Building and maintaining positive personal and professional relationships are absolutely critical for success in getting one’s music “out there.” A solid network of relationships is the result of nurturing existing friendships and making new friends via score calls. It doesn't come quickly. True long term success in the Arts is certainly not for the impatient or the insincere. In the end, like most things in life, "success" ultimately boils down to how we treat one another.

Next time, I’ll turn to my remaining three strategies: thinking like a presenter, thinking like an entrepreneur and becoming really visible in the field. I hope you’ll hang in there with me! As always, if you find any of this useful, please feel free to repost or forward to other interested parties. I also welcome comments on anything I’ve scribbled down here!