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Compose and conduct?

I am wondering...
How many of you are composers "only?"  And how many of you are composers AND also currently conducting your own choir?
If you are a composer without a choir, are you still able to get your works performed?  If so, how?
Thank you.
Replies (9): Threaded | Chronological
on February 4, 2012 9:20am
I am one who falls into the "composer only" category.
For a bit over a decade now I have made my living as a commissioned composer, without a "day gig" of any kind. Nearly all of my choral output is written on commission and nearly all of it finds its way into print in the catalog of the small publishing company which I established in 1991.
I suspect that I am not typical of the membership here, but you did ask! ;-)
Dan Gawthrop
on February 4, 2012 9:21am
I am "only" a composer, and have been composing since 2009 (at age 55 I am a late bloomer, and am trying hard to not become an early gone-to-seeder).  I have never been a conductor, but have sung (alto) in some very good choirs with excellent conductors in years past.  I do not know the magic secret to getting one's works performed, and to my knowledge none of mine have been performed yet.  I do have my own website, launched just last autumn, and I "announce" my new pieces here on ChoralNet in the "New Print Publications" forum--the most recent one is "Sleeping in Serenity" announced just yesterday morning.  I also respond to conductors' requests for repertoire suggestions if I feel that any of my pieces may fit their requirements (the often strained relationship between conductors and composers in this area has been a topic of late here on ChoralNet).  Once in a blue moon I'll receive an email from a conductor saying that he or she likes a certain piece and hopes to perform it.  This gives me encouragement to keep trying.  And I have found two or three other composers here on ChoralNet who have become valued mentors and are helping me to improve.
Composers who are also choir conductors, and composers who currently sing in a choir and have a supportive conductor, certainly have an edge when it comes to having a piece premiered, but from many posts I've read here on ChoralNet most of them have just as much difficulty as anyone else in getting other choirs to perform it.
We living composers are not only competing with each other, but are competing with the vast literature in the public domain that, if I understand it correctly, is free to copy and free to perform (no performance fees).  This, I think, has become an even greater consideration in the current horrible economy.  
Here is a discussion that in my naivete I began last May; you may find some interesting stuff in there:
I wish I knew the magic secret to getting one's works performed--not just for the first time, but many times after that.  Now, back to composing...and hoping.   
on February 4, 2012 9:47am
I am a "composer only." But I am fairly often asked to guest-conduct my own pieces since people know I have a conducting background. Although I have wanted to make my own choir(s), I am pretty busy composing/guestconducting, and don't have enough free time to do so.

When I was a college student, one of my friends who is in his 90s and a very famous composer in the field of broadcast music/world music said to me once "Sato-san, don't just compose. Find the performers, get to know them, and compose what they need or like. Record the performance, and make it available for everyone. Market research, product development, and advertisement, these are what you should do. If you do every process well, then performers would start to look for you.”
on February 4, 2012 10:11am
I am a composer who also is a writer (about 31 years as a newspaper music critic in Seattle), but not a conductor. For me what has made it difficult to promote my compositions has been the conflict of interest issue: you can't write about a group that also has performed your work. Now that I have left my full-time critic job, however, I am free to go ahead -- but I don't need to tell this community that it is not easy to get your music performed!
on February 4, 2012 10:18am
I'm both, but started as a conductor: first as a church choir conductor with no real training except for singing in some very fine ensembles over the years, and later (and at present) as the assistant conductor of Cantaré Vocal Ensemble, and founder/director of GoldenTones, a senior choir.
It was only when I went back to school (at age 51) that I started composing and that happened only because I was "browbeaten" into it by a professor who saw a little piece I wrote just so I'd have something to use in a project for a music technology class (the course boiled down to how to use Finale).  I agreed to trying it for one quarter, with the provision that if I didn't like it, I wouldn't have to take any more composition classes.  I loved it, and the rest, as they say, is history. Graduated in 2006 with a triple major in composition, conducting, and vocal performance.
All but one of my "school" compositions were performed by the various school ensembles, and everything that I've written since has been performed or is scheduled for premiere later this year.  Not all compositions are performed by choirs I conduct, although most are premiered by groups in which I sing (I also sing Alto 2 in Cantaré, and until last year, sang with a local women's choir in Bellingham, WA).
Singing in an ensemble is a super avenue to performance opportunities for your pieces, not to mention the sheer joy of singing great choral music.  My compositions for Cantaré came about first because we wanted to do a concert featuring people who were born or died in 1809.  One of them was Charles Darwin, and there was really nothing already published at the time that fit.  I told the director that I'd like a shot at writing something; he was skeptical, but said he'd look at it.  I wrote the first of the four Darwin pieces, he liked it, and we performed "On Darwin" on that concert. It didn't hurt that I'd sung with Cantaré since 2005, and the director had a pretty good handle on me as a musician.
If I were a composer not involved in a choir, I would probably attend as many choral concerts as possible and meet the conductors personally.  I'm speaking now as a conductor: the LAST thing I'd want after a concert is someone pushing their stuff on me, especially if what they're selling isn't even in the ballpark of what my group(s) want/need.  Approach conductors of groups who might fit your music -- in terms of style, difficulty, "edginess," etc.  Explain that you're a LOCAL composer who would like the opportunity to show a few select pieces to the conductor sometime.  Have a business card with pertinent info, write on the back the date of the concert, etc.  Follow up with a friendly email ("nice to meet you at the concert [date/time], looking forward to hearing you again, let me know if you might be interested in seeing something of mine that might work for your group ... ").  That's how I'D want to interact as a conductor.  But definitely show up in person and HEAR the group and MEET the conductor.  Don't just blindly email me when you don't even know who we are or what we do.
Other conductors may have different feelings about this, though ... it's kind of a personal thing, I think.
Lana Mountford
Assistant Conductor/Composer in Residence, Cantaré Vocal Ensemble, Seattle, WA
Director, GoldenTones Senior Ensemble, Seattle, wA
on February 4, 2012 3:52pm

I've had many different experiences, musically speaking, in my life (pianist, jazz-pianist, broadcast music composer, educator, arranger).  But I've never been a conductor, if we exclude some early "experiments". Now, at 48, I teach Ear training at the University School of Music in Lugano (Switzerland) and I compose choral music. I do both activities with great joy and enthusiasm. 

My choral works are performed each week by fantastic choirs in many countries (by the way, this evening the Antioch Chamber Ensemble sing my pieces "Pater Noster" and "I am the Rose of Sharon" in New Jersey ;-) and I feel very fortunate about this.

I think that the key to get our works performed is, first of all, the quality of the stuff that we "produce".  If our music is good (it can have a beautiful melody, fantastic harmonies, a particular rhythm, a splendid text, a "surprise-effect", a convincing structure, something magic or really special in it, or, even better, all these things together!) I'm sure that a conductor will notice it, soon or later.

Of course, as Kentato Sato writes, without an intelligent advertisement, it will not be visible at all :-(

Kind regards to everybody!

Ivo Antognini 

on February 5, 2012 12:38am
Dear Ivo,
that´s the most complete brief pragmatic description of the way how to succeed! You are right.
I am conductor and composer in one. I have two vocal bodies (acappella choir and acappella group (5singers)). I have published American Spirituals Songbook (17 songs) last year and preparing others (have over 100 of them ready to be sung).
I have a few works remembering victms of holocaust (SATB) and also  acappella oratorio Sermon on the mount (SATB).
I would be happy to start co-operation with choirs anywhere...
Best regards to all of you
Marek Slechta
on February 5, 2012 8:36am
Personal connection counts for a huge amount. One composer I know, who does conduct, arranged for a demo recording of some his recent material. He sent out personal invitations to singers he knew or to friends of friends inviting them to take part. We weren't paid but were given a very nice lunch. He got:
  • recordings for his website that allow people to get an idea of his pieces quickly;
  • numerous singers, mostly belonging to other choirs too, with a personal feeling that these pieces were somehow special to them.
I've been recommending his pieces happily and sincerely ever since.
Even if you can't conduct, a friendly conductor might agree to assist in return for a case of wine or something similar. An accompanist would deserve a bit extra too. Make it legally clear how you will be using the recordings. The event does involve some outlay, but you do get to keep the recordings for ever and listen to your pieces whenever you wish.

on February 9, 2012 2:51am
I presume, Nigel, that you make the gift of wine after the performance?  :-)
As a conductor and would be composer I am in the happy position that I can get my choir to sing what I produce.  However, I do have a conscience about this.  So I am fairly reticent about putting my work forward.  The choir does not exist for my personal musical gratification and glorification.  However I do allow myself to have them to sing one or two of my pieces in the choral year, and I gauge that this is not excessive.
As to getting works performed, apart from the excellent point made above, I can be useful to plan ones compositions to time with seasonal events, viz Easter, Christmas, Independence Day, whatever.  This strategy works well enough for me.  It means, in effect, being six months ahead of the target event.
Another suggestion is to compose/arrange for voices other than the standard SATB.  My SSAA arrangement of the American national anthem seems very popular coming up to 4th July, and also during the football (American) season.  TTBB and SAB compositions are sometimes called for on some of the forums I visit from time to time.  Original compositions ( as against arrangements) seem to be relatively scarce, from what I can gather.  Perhaps this is a window of opportunity too.
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