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A message from Joseph Gentry Stephens

Greetings fellow composers, conductors, and choral music fans,
Since I am new here, I thought I would introduce myself.  I am writing to you from my small office/studio in my home among the Pine forests of Bradley County, South Arkansas.  I have been composing in some form or fashion for most of my life, however, you have probably not heard of me or my music until now.  A percussionist since the age of ten, I spent my early musical career in marching and symphonic bands as well as jazz bands.  A student of drummer, Dave Daily and band director, George Gamble, I graduated high school as an All-State Percussionist and went on to the University of Arkansas - Monticello where I switched instruments as I became more interested in vocal and choral music.  I graduated in 1995 with a BA in vocal performance and then earned a Master of Music in Choral Conducting (1997) from the University of Northern Colorado studying with Dr. Howard Skinner and Dr. Galen Darrough.  After some time in the academic and sacred music fields I decided to abandon music as a day job and have since worked a "straight job" five days a week.  I compose on my time off and holidays and have, like Borodin, dubbed myself a "Sunday Composer".  I've taken a few composition lessons here and there with Sy Brandon and Edie Hill, but have otherwise not really studied composition formally.
In 1999, I created the website Stephens Music to distribute my music worldwide.  Earlier versions of this site existed prior to 1999 as I began to see that the internet would change the game completely.  My music has always been free to download, print, and copy and all scores are licensed by BMI.  That is not to say that I don't seek to be published by other publishers.  In fact, I have three pieces being reviewed currently by a well known choral publisher although, it has been ten years or more since I have submitted anything.  I usually adhere to the idea that if a piece is good enough it will catch on and someone will eventually take notice.  Again, the internet is the key player and great equilizer that allows such a thing to happen.  
Currently I am writing a large work called A Mass for the Children of War for SATB Chorus and Strings.  It utilizes text from the Liber Usualis, The Declaration of Independence, John F. Kennedy, Carl Sagan, William Blake and Joseph Gentry Stephens.  I am about halfway done with it and if you are interested in hearing some of it you can go to my website and hear synth/instrumental versions of the first two parts.  I don't think I am going to reveal anything more about the MASS until it is finished and will release all five parts/movements at one time later this year if all goes well.  My other project on the drawing board is something I am calling Two Japanese Poems.  It is a two piece set for unaccompanied SATB chorus with the titles ORCHID and NO MIND by Taigu Ryokan.  
I enjoy looking at the music of other composers and welcome you to do the same.  As you have time, take a look at my website and tell me what you think.  Also here is one of the pieces I am trying to get published.  I give you my UBI CARITAS for SATB Chorus sung by Carlolus Rex of London.  They changed a note at the end but I forgave them because the recording was so well done.  Special thanks to Jack for creating this forum and community and to everyone else at ChoralNet.  I've been watching this site for many years and can honestly say it gets better each year.  
Thanks for your attention and time.  
Joseph Gentry Stephens
on March 2, 2013 1:51pm
Hello Joseph, and welcome to this community.  I've just had a listen to your Ubi Caritas, which I liked very much, but what I'd like to discuss with you (and any others who may care to join in)  is your method of free distribution of your music via the Internet, and how successful you are finding this as a means of getting your music known and performed more widely.  It would appear from your website that you have been very successful in having your pieces performed in many countries, and I think that the Internet certainly provides a lot of exciting possibilities.
if I may also introduce myself: I am a 'small time' composer, mainly of choral music, and cannot really call myself a professional composer, although I have had a few small pieces published.  I live in Birmingham, UK, by the way, and am now semi-retired.  Having something published can be a mixed blessing, as I have found with the one orchestral piece I've had published by Faber.  This is a Christmas Overture, and while I was thrilled when Faber took it, it has led to some people saying that it has put it out of the range of many amateur orchestras, because publishers (in the UK at least) will only hire out the score and parts, and I'm told that orchestras often don't have sufficient funds for this. Tbc
I imagine that many part-time or 'hobby' composers are not over concerned about drawing an income from their work.  What is much more important to us is getting our work performed!  This is certainly my position, although I'm aware that some people in this community may think differently, particularly if they derive a substantial part of heir income from composing.
The Internet is a wonderful means of networking, and through it I've been lucky enough to link up with a number of people who have been kind enough to perform my music.  And of course this community, as you have observed, is also a great resource.
on March 2, 2013 2:09pm
[Sorry, I'm having trouble with my iPad, which wouldn't allow me to finish the above comment!]
What I wanted to ask you is 
1 how successful you have found this method of distribution to be (ie free downloads & free copying)?
2 what other ways you have used to let people know about your music (or has it been mainly/entirely through your website?
3 Do fellow composers ever object to you making your music freely available?
i would certainly consider doing the same if I felt it would make my music more widely accessible, but I wouldn't want to upset fellow composers who might feel this was devaluing our art. (And could you explain to an ignorant Englishman what BMI stands for - presumably not the British Medical Institute!)
on March 2, 2013 2:25pm
I have never had a fellow composer complain to me.  I think there are a lot more composers out there doing the same thing.  The more hands you can get your music into the better.  And pardon me...but you ARE a professional composer.  Don't devalue yourself.  BMI is Broadcast Music Inc.  They pay royalties for live performances.  It's not much but its worth doing.  You can use them or ASCAP.
Short answer:  If you don't have a website that has your music available to download whether for free or charging a need to start building one now.  There are ways to do so online that are inexpensive and easy for the beginning webmaster.  Don't worry about what other composers think about it.  We are Solitary Eagles and keep our eyes on the horizon.
on March 2, 2013 3:20pm
That's good to know. This community ran a 'commission new music' project a few months ago, and some of our colleagues expressed concern that we were offering to compose a piece for free (or a small amount), with the promise of a first performance and recording.  But I gather this proved a great success for some of the participants.  
Thank you for your reassurance: what I meant is that I'm not a professional composer in the sense of earning a living out of composition - far from it!  I suppose technically I should agree with you, as I have received a few royalties and had the odd commission, but I wanted to emphasise that getting paid is not a major consideration or motivation for me, although it's nice to have your work recognised in this way.
BMI must be the equivalent of the PRS, I suppose (Performing Rights Society) in the UK.
By the way I do have a website ( which includes samples and recordings of some of my music.  I must give it a facelift sometime, and will consider the idea of making some of my unpublished stuff downloadable (for free!). Do take a look if you are interested.  And thanks for your encouragement!
on March 2, 2013 6:05pm
Hello, Joseph.
With a nod to "six degrees of separation", Sy Brandon was also one of my composition instructors.  (I'm guessing you've studied with him since he "moved west"?)
So...welcome!  You've already got connections here.
on March 3, 2013 1:19am
Hello Joseph. I am in agreement with a lot of what Gordon Thornett has said in response to your introductory posting. As an enthusiastic amateur, hobbyist, composer, I am only too aware of my limitations and every day is a big learning curve. If something I have composed resonates with someone enough that they want to perform it then brilliant! If I were to get paid for my efforts then I would consider this a bonus but, at the end of the day, music is nothing if it is not performed!
I was lucky enough to have my first ever effort, a setting of 'Totus Tuus' for ladies voices, performed by my wife's choir in the Frauenkirche in Dresden. This was during a public performance slot (allocated to visiting choirs) in front of members of the public and the response was great, so I just kept on composing.
I have recently posted two more SSA settings on Choralnet which are free to copy and use. 'O Nata Lux' has already been performed as part of a sung mass in Denver, Colorado, and 'O Magnum Mysterium' looks to be heading for at least three performances later this year. 
That I can create something, at the age of 62, in my house in Hampshire, England, that reaches around the world is priceless.
Kind Regards
Applauded by an audience of 1
on March 5, 2013 4:58pm
Greetings, Joseph!
You may want to make friends with Steve Campagnoli, a member here on ChoralNEt. He is a hobby-ist composer and has a passion for distribuiting copositions free of charge and is looking for others to join with him in his website - offering a hub of some sort for directors to access.
I am a late starter/ hobbyist in this arena (last 2 years) and have been fortunate to have a few pieces performed this past year, some for free and others for 'hire.' I'd rather have it performed over anything else. I'm convinced that going the way of self distribution is a hugely viable option for many of us out here. I compose for the creative outlet and it thrills me to spark any interest, paid or unpaid.
Thanks for your introduction to us all! I look forward to exploring some of your music when I get the chance.
on March 5, 2013 6:15pm
Great to connect with you all.  I'm not sure I consider myself a hobby-ist since I am seeking to get performances everyday and I am as relentless as possible in marketing myself to every choir on the planet as well as publishers, promoters, musicians of any type and their dogs too.  I'm more of a Semi-Pro (In the style of Will Ferrell's Semi-Pro Character, Jackie Moon...;) or perhaps Third World Famous.
on March 9, 2013 12:15pm
Just to say that, following Joseph's lead, I've taken the plunge, and am offering a few of my pieces free of charge to anyone who's interested - testing out the waters, you might say!  I've advertised three choral settings for Palm Sunday on ChoralNet.  So far I've had some very encouraging positive responses, and have sent out some pdfs to a number of choral directors.  If only one or two of them end up using them, or recommending them to others, I shall be pleased, as the only performances they've had so far have been from my own chamber choir!
I should add, perhaps, that having decent recordings available on YouTube has helped to generate interest. I've also asked people I've sent the PDFs to to give me some feedback if they do end up performing any of them.  I'll be happy to report back if and when that happens!  So thanks to Joseph and others who have suggested this approach...
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