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Elizabeth's Guide To Commissioning Music

 Why do people commission music?

Commissioning a new piece of music is more than a financial transaction.  It is an undertaking of vision and trust, in which the music lover invites the composer to walk down a certain path, and the composer welcomes the music lover into the creation of a new work of art.  Inevitably, the new composition grows from a meeting of curious and passionate minds, taking a trajectory which would not occur without the impetus of the commission.

New music is commissioned for many purposes.  I have been commissioned to write music:

  • In memory of a beloved relative
  • In honor of a “Teacher of the Year” in Connecticut
  • For the premiere concert of a new choir in New York
  • For the calling of a new minister in North Carolina
  • For the doctoral degree concert of a conductor in Toronto
  • On themes such as Social Justice, Community, Spring, Free Thought, Gutsy Women, and Music.
  • For occasions such as Dia de los Muertos, Graduation, Thanksgiving, Easter and Christmas.
  • For the dedication of a new middle school in Wisconsin
  • For the anniversaries of a children's choir in Austria, a men’s choir in Wisconsin, and a women’s choir in Minnesota
  • A variety of other significant life events


What form will the commission take?

The needs of some commissioning parties is very specific:  Teachers have asked for music that will help them teach improvisation.  Schools have asked me to write music in collaboration with their students.  Theaters have asked for music for their plays.  Churches and choruses have asked for music on very specific themes, such as social justice, spring, and music's Patron Saint Cecilia.

Other times I am invited to let my imagination soar.   (“Just go for it.  Surprise me,” said Eugene Rogers — and I did!)  Keeping in mind the basic parameters of the commission — duration, difficulty level, instrumentation and circumstances of the premiere, I go ahead think big, often going in artistic directions that are surprisingly rich.


What steps should I expect to take when commissioning a new piece?

Every commission is different, but most of them involve steps such as these:

1) Find a composer you want to work with

2) Explore your expectations

3) Define the parameters of the commissioned piece

4) Negotiate a fee

5) Put it in writing

6) Keep communicating

7) Have trust in each other’s musical and personal integrity


Find a composer you want to work with

This sounds straightforward, doesn’t it?  But this is an important and not-to-be-skipped step.  Take the time to make sure that you and the composer are both enthusiastic about working together.  If you are secretly wanting to commission Ron Doe Brilliante, and the composer is secretly wanting to write for Magnifichoir, there are bound to be disappointments all around!

After you find a composer whose music you are drawn to, you might want to do some more research.  Contact the composer and what kind of commissioning work the composer has done in the past, and whether he/she might be interested in writing for the musicians you have in mind.  The composer may want information about your musicians, including attending a concert, listening to a recording or perusing music that you’ve had success with in the past.

Feel free to ask for references, and don’t be hesitant about contacting those references.  Was the composer a joy to work with?  Was communication clear, and was the composer sensitive to deadlines?  Did the composer show a commitment to the music, your audience, and your joint vision?

If you get this key part right, many of the other pieces - including funding - will fall into place. This may sound like an idealistic philosophy, but I've found it to be true many times!


Explore any spoken or unspoken expectations you and the composer might have

Think about what kind of piece you want.  Why are you commissioning the piece?  Are you wanting music that celebrates something specific, or are you wanting to give the composer more freedom, offering a blank page and saying “Here you go, artist, think big!”

There may be unspoken expectations, which you’ll want to be aware of.  Are you looking for a particular style of music? Do you want music which challenges, comforts, questions, affirms, or invites laughter?  Are you looking for a “crowd pleaser”?

One expectation to particularly watch out for it whether you are looking for a piece of music that’s similar (or nearly identical) to something else a composer has written!  It’s fine to be upfront about wanting a piece that’s similar in length, difficulty or spirit to another of a composer’s pieces, but it’s important to keep in mind that composers don’t tend to “write the same piece twice.”  You are bound to be surprised by the piece in some way or another, so keep in mind that this is an adventure!


Define the parameters of the commissioned piece

Some basic parameters include:

  • Instrumentation or Voicing
  • Duration
  • Difficulty Level/Performance requirements
  • Text or Poem (if applicable)
  • Timeline (including dates for delivery of score and parts, important rehearsals and performance)
  • Level of Composer Participation – workshops or talks, attending rehearsals or premiere, conducting or accompanying the performance
  • Commission Fee Schedule (usually paid in 2 or 3 installments)
  • Dedication of the piece


Negotiate a Fee

Negotiating a fee is often the last step in the process.  It’s easy to start feeling anxious about the fee, but try to keep that anxiety at bay!  If you and the composer really want to work with each other, financial hurdles are often not the obstacles we fear they are.

Once you've found a composer you'd like to work with, and mutually fleshed out the project’s scope,  you’ll want to be thinking about what the ideal fee for the commission would be.   Fees vary widely, depending on the composer’s levels of experience and the resources of the commissioning party, but one starting place for determining a commission fee is Commissioning Music: A Basic Guide," a publication of New Music USA.

The composer will also be thinking about what a fair commission fee would be.  He/she will be thinking about many aspects of the job, including preparing the score and parts, participating in rehearsals, and communicating with musicians about all aspects of the composition.  Other parts of the job may include finding and obtaining permission for text, or preparing and giving a workshop or talk in connection with the premiere.

When you discuss the commission fee with the composer, you'll each have a clear idea about what feels fair and possible for you.  There's a good chance that the two numbers will be quite different, but don't worry about that – it happens all the time!  There may be some negotiating, but that's just part of the process of making sure everyone's needs are met.

Searching for additional sources of funding is common at this stage.  Creative Connections and Meet the Composer can help cover the cost of the composer participating at rehearsals, attending or performing in the premiere performance, or giving a brief talk, formal lecture or workshop in conjunction with the concert.  While these fees are not a substitute for a commission fee, they can provide more compensation for the composer’s time and work than the commissioning party is able to provide.

At times, other creative solutions can bring a commission fee in line with the scope of the project. For example:

  • Shorten the piece.  Perhaps an 8-10 minute piece may become a 5-7 minute piece.
  • Co-commission the piece with another similar soloist or ensemble. Composers love additional performances!
  • Perform the piece at a national conference or convention.
  • Record the piece professionally and allow the composer to use that recording for his/her own promotion.  This is always welcome!
  • Announce the commission in a music journal, or agree to promote the piece among your professional colleagues.


Put it all in writing

Getting the terms of the commission down on paper is a vital part of the commissioning process.  The Commissioning Agreement/Contract includes all the details of the commission that are known at the time the document is signed.  Not only does this document make clear the rights and responsibilities of all parties, but it also becomes the working document for the project, insuring that everyone’s on the same page.

No contract is ever perfect or set in stone, nor does it need to be.  What's important is that the contract represents everyone's best efforts to create a trusting relationship, communicating specifically and openly along the way.


Keep communicating

This is important for everyone, at every step of the process!  It’s not too much to expect that the composer will respond promptly to your concerns along the way.  And the composer may want to be kept in the loop about how the rehearsal process is going, or whether any questions about the score are coming up.

If at any time one party runs into difficulty fulfilling the terms of the commission – if financial troubles arise, or if the delivery of the completed composition is going to be a few days late – let each other know right away!  If you’ve built a little slack into your contract, these issues won’t be insurmountable, but the loss of trust between parties may be hard to repair.


Have trust in each other’s musical and personal integrity

Commissioning music is a process of putting our dreams into each others’  hands:

  • The commissioning party asks for music, specifying a finite number of parameters, and then allows the composer to go away and create something brand new.
  • The composer hands a completed and proofread score to the musicians, and then allows them to learn and interpret the music in their own way.
  • The musicians pour their energy and musical talent into a score, and then trust that that score offers a compelling artistic vision.

Commissioning music is a dance that calls on everyone to imagine, listen, stretch and trust.  So do your best to offer and accept that trust, knowing that the final product will certainly be different than you imagined.  (Hopefully it will be better than you imagined!)  For me, commissions have made it possible for me to be a composer, offering me not only funds but also – perhaps just as importantly – deep creative engagement with other lovers of music.

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