Advertise on ChoralNet 
ChoralNet logo
The mission of the ACDA is to inspire excellence in choral music through education, performance, composition, and advocacy.

Please share tips on how to successfully commission a choral work?

Would those of you who have successfully commissioned a piece of choral music please share some how-to tips for novices who may be interested in taking advantage of the special Commission Project now in progress (see but are unsure about how to work with a composer, and just need a little help and advice (and encouragement)?
Thank you--and best wishes for a terrific choral season!
Replies (11): Threaded | Chronological
on August 12, 2012 6:51am
I've only commissioned once, Julia, so I'll say at the outset that I'm no authority on this at all.  However, I think the most important thing is to discuss with the composer all of the parameters of the commissioning up front, including:
Length of the piece, text, voicing, level of difficulty or complexity, deadlines, cost, possible publication of the work and dedication if published.  In your discussion with the composer you can negotiate these items to your mutual satisfaction.  If there is a level of trust between you these can be worked out verbally, but if you're not sure, I suppose you could draw up a "contract" with these things in writing.  (I hope some composers will respond to you inquiry to let you know if written agreements are the norm or the exception.)   
I'll add that in my case I discussed some parameters with the composer (somewhat informally, or so I thought), and a couple of months later received a manuscript of a piece that was voiced much more thinly and was much less challenging than I had anticipated (or had discussed with him) for my university ensemble.  After tactfully pointing this out to him, he submitted another piece within a few weeks which we subsequently rehearsed and performed (and which has recently been published).  We had no written agreement, but in this case I think the integrity of our discussions, and of the composer, carried the day and all turned out well.  In another circumstance it might not have.  I guess you'll have to use your best judgement there.
I hope and trust that more veteran commissioners and commissionees will respond to your request, as I'm sure they'll have more detailed tips on the ins and outs of commissioning.  
Best of luck with your project.
Applauded by an audience of 3
on August 12, 2012 9:27am
I've done some commissioning over the years and I've found that composers are human too! (:-)  It helps them to have clear guidelines, which I always spell out on paper/email.  I give the general parameters of voicing, length, performing forces, texts, deadlines, fee, etc  Sometimes there are more parameters than others - recently we commissions a piece specifically for a cocnert about Love.  Sometimes I let the composer have free rein, sometimes i just say secular or sacred.
Then I tell them about the group, what they can handle.  SATB, can do divisi, do not want double chorus (at least not much), fine amateur singers but no high C's, bad at complicate rhythms... Sometimes I send a recent cut or two.  The more clear I am, the more i like the result.
Sometimes this fails, esp if one is part of a consortium and the guidelines aren't really for your group, i nwhich case you cross your fingers.  We commissioned through a consortium a piece years ago that was MUCH too hard for us and we've never done it.  Recently we commissioned a 10-15 minute piece that way which turns out to be 25 minutes - now I have to adjust the rest of my programming!  So on the whole it pays to be clear about what's REALLY important to you and allow the composer as much freedom as possible within that.
Good luck!  It's SO well worth doing!
Applauded by an audience of 4
on August 12, 2012 7:06pm
As someone who has been through this process more than a hundred times (albeit from the perspective of composer rather than the commissioning body) I would like to second the notion that lots of specific information helps ensure that the eventual results will be a good fit for the ensemble involved. In more than twenty-five years of composing professionally (and more than a decade of doing so as a full-time occupation) I can think of only two occasions when I inadvertantly delivered a score which did not suit the choir. In both cases the problem was caused by the fact that the director and I had not thoroughly and carefully communicated our expectations.
I am in the habit of using a written letter of agreement and I believe that most of my colleagues do the same. It might be possible, in the case of a composer and conductor who have known each other well over a long period, to make a success of a verbal understanding but I frankly think that represents a risk which, since it can be easily eliminated, probably ought to be.
I have also done a few commissions for consortiums. These have some obvious advantages, primary among them the fact that each ensemble can participate for a fraction of the cost of an individual commission. It does, however, present the composer with the challenge of trying to write something which can be found useful across a sometimes frighteningly broad range of levels of technical competence.
I believe I can speak for most of my colleagues in saying that we genuinely desire to provide something which will turn into a positive experience for the ensemble and the audience at the premiere, as well as adding to the permanent repertoire in a manner which will shower credit upon the commissioning body for their forward-looking vision. Of course if it adds to our own reputation, that would also be a welcome benefit.
To conductors of all types of choirs I would say, "The experience of having a piece of music created specifically for your singers is one which can deeply enrich their musical lives and enhance the experience of being in your choir. They deserve to know from their own first hand experience that all composers are not, in fact, dead!"  ;-)
Dan Gawthrop
Applauded by an audience of 6
on August 14, 2012 9:31am
Many thanks to each of you!  I'm sure you have encouraged some not-quite-sure-about-it choir directors to take the plunge!
on August 15, 2012 6:08am
I'd add one more thing, Julia.  If the composer doesn't live too far away from you and has the time and inclination to do so, having him (or her) come to work with your ensemble in the final stages of preparation for the performance can be an exciting experience.  To get tips on the nuances of the piece from "the horse's mouth" (wish I had a better way of saying that) is an exhilierating experience for your singers and for you as their conductor.  And it underscores the idea that composers aren't all dead, and that music creating is a living, breathing process.  (In our case, the composer made a subtle change or two to the score after hearing the group sing his piece.  Interesting!)  
Applauded by an audience of 3
on August 15, 2012 7:42am
Thank you for adding your great suggestion!  And perhaps for those farther away from each other, a video call or two (or three?) during rehearsals could be very helpful, too, if circumstances permit. 
It is one thing for a composer to listen to any piece in progress by playing it on a keyboard or listening to the computer-generated sounds of Sibelius or Finale or another notation program, but these are all a very poor (and often misleading) substitute for real human voices singing a piece.  I wouldn't be surprised if most composers would make subtle--or even not-so-subtle--changes to their works if they were able to hear them sung during the composing process.  I often wish I could have a choir "on call" while composing; I would snap my fingers and they would magically appear and sing a troublesome passage or two that I could then improve.  Ahhh, my kingdom for a holodeck!
Applauded by an audience of 1
on August 16, 2012 6:03am
The story is that Eric Whitacre frequently visited a local (high school?) chorus while working on Cloudburst.  He'd try some ideas for new effects, then come back the next week with revised ideas.  (I'm weak on details, but had this from a prof at UNLV who knew him when.)
Many of us sing with community or college choruses, which offers an opportunity for hearing our work - if the conductor is willing and the privelege is not abused.  Still, those tend to be trials of almost-finished pieces.  A woodshed choir would be a dream come true.  A commissioned piece provides a little extra chance to tweak, since all parties involved have a personal stake in the piece's success.
on September 7, 2012 9:39am
I have commissioned both well known and upcoming composers for my choral mission is to provide a performance avenue for NEW American Choral music.
I love the collaborative effort between the composer and myself and usually have found each song challenging, exciting and rewarding both for singers and composer. Last year Michael McCall and Michael Frassetti, both from Phoenix, composed songs for the Carolyn Eynon Singers.  In honor of Arizona's 100th Centennial, Frassetti set a Grand Canyon poem for SATB, Tenor solo and beautiful piano. My singers LOVED the song and so did the audience. We performed it a 3 venues and received outstanding reviews.
McCall wrote a Holiday song and this year, with a DMA Tuba Student at ASU  has composed a fresh take on 12 days of Xmas for SATB, piano and tuba and narrator. The singers are again challenged and excited.
I praise the composers who are contributing this fantastic opportunity to write for choirs. We at Carolyn Eynon Singers look for new music and only perform American compsers in Phoenix.
Carolyn Eynon Sept 7, 2012
Applauded by an audience of 1
on September 8, 2012 5:30am
Although I realize Julia's question was for conductors who have commissioned, let me mention a couple resources that commissioners and commissionees may want to check out:
Good luck to all involved!
Christopher J. Hoh
on September 9, 2012 3:38am
oops, that's "thread" not "threat!"  sorry.
on September 9, 2012 8:51am
you sure? (:-)
  • You must log in or register to be able to reply to this message.