To Composers and Publishers: Bare It All For Us

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My first click-bait title. Aren’t you proud of me?

As a conductor or librarian, it can be very difficult to find new repertoire for your group. We have certain modern composers who reach “celebrity” status by virtue of everyone wanting to perform their music and it helps to drive them deeper into the public consciousness. As this occurs, more and more pieces become part of our ensemble’s heritage and traditions, dotting concert programs for the rest of their history.

One good example of this for choirs would be the music of Eric Whitacre. People had such profound reactions to his music that there was a cultural explosion throughout the 2000s, which raised its influence to the point where choirs worldwide began to seek this music out. Whitacre is only one of the many “superstar” composers who’s names reach almost mythic status and helps to sell their music to a broad base.

Some of us also travel around with our groups to festivals, competitions and the like, and we get the opportunity to hear others perform. Myself included, conductors frantically seek out concert programs at these events in order to take the names of these newly discovered pieces home to their own ensembles.

And of course, conductors talk to each other and share notes.

With the exception of these main examples of music spreading socially, the traditional way of finding new music is through catalogues and other print-based materials. Conductors pour over pages and pages of information about new music and try to make their best guesses based on who wrote it, the listed difficulty, and many other factors. However, there’s always an element of risk when you buy a new piece of music for your choir or band that you haven’t seen or heard of it not living up to your expectations. This can be especially devastating to school teachers who are operating on very tight budgets.

It is only in the past couple of decades that the majority of these catalogues have come with CDs to help conductors make more informed decisions. As good as this system is, it still doesn’t provide the opportunity to see a sample score and is nowhere near as efficient as using our society’s main source of research, the Internet.

I find myself using the Internet almost exclusively to do repertoire research for my choirs. I am very grateful for the advent of music publishers who place listening tracks online, whether they are recorded or simply MIDI representations. It has been a especially pivotal tool in choosing repertoire for my church and community choirs.

I’m also a huge fan of brand new music. The number of new composers out there is growing every day. I try to seek out music that has recently been written because I feel we often get stuck in the past when it comes to repertoire selection. We stick to these traditions that are comfortable and familiar but if we want this young, burgeoning community to thrive, we need to make a point to showcase new rep, and not just when we commission a new work for our group.

All that being said, it can be frustrating that in 2015, with all the technology we have at our fingertips, there’s still a lot of music for sale online that has no way to listen to it or view it.

This is a YouTube video of a piece called “Frozen In” by Dale Trumbore. I posted it on Facebook after I discovered it, commenting on how pleased I was to find such a good resource. I was shocked to see this video sponsored by Hal Leonard, as their website has not been historically helpful in trying to find repertoire. You see many examples of listening tracks that only play the first 30 seconds or give you the first couple of pages of the score. There’s risk involved in these as well and I have been burned many times by thinking a piece would be sufficient when it wasn’t. However, after seeing this, it really gave me hope that we’re moving in the right direction.

A special shout out to two choral publishers who have consistently offered full recordings and full PDF “water-marked” sample copies: Carl Fischer and our own Canadian Cypress Choral. I can understand the argument of music publishers that if they put up the entire score online for view or even download, people will simply take it, copy it and not pay for it.This is always going to happen in our profession. I’m not saying it’s right (because it’s as wrong as you can get) but it seems to me an inevitability. Without PDFs online for download, the same people would simply buy the minimum ~6 copies from the publisher and then duplicate the rest to suit their needs.

The risk of having music used illegally has and always will be an issue but I don’t think that utilizing technology to help conductors make better choices is going to necessarily grow that risk. Those types of people will always find a way to do it on the cheap.

This is my request to composers and music publishers. Take a lead from Carl Fischer (who, by the way, has been doing it this way for years) and Cypress Choral. Put up a full viewing copy of the score, and if you must, block our ability to download it but I still want to see every page. Find a choir to sing through the whole piece and then put it up right next to the visual (or better yet, combined like the example above). These new composers will get far more opportunity to shine if conductors are able to do more effective research and my guess is that you will sell a lot more music.

Sheet Music Plus Classical

Building a Family

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I cannot believe that it’s been over a year since I’ve written on my blog, but I promise you, I have a very good reason. I’ve been busy.

Just before the 2014/15 season of the Coastal Sounds Community Choir, my wife (and fellow Artistic Director) and I decided that it was time to grow our little organization into one that could service the singing needs of more people. This included more permanent projects for different demographics, and building on our “occasional” projects so that people could take part in activities that didn’t require a night of their week all year round.

Thus, we evolved into the Coastal Sounds Choir Association.

One of the CSCA’s biggest benefits is its locality. The Town of Conception Bay South has a very strong artistic community (music, dance and visual art), helped along by a plethora of music schools, dance studios and other community-based programs. Considering it’s the second largest municipality in all of Newfoundland, it’s a great pleasure to offer musical activities to the local residents to save them the trouble of travelling to St. John’s or farther (even though St. John’s is only 20 minutes away, folks really love to stay in their town, hence all the schools and studios).

The plan was to build on the recent success of two new projects that were done in the past two years. The first is the Christmas Cantata Project, which premiered in 2013 with just my own singers from Coastal Sounds and Topsail United Church, and then was opened up to all interested singers the surrounding areas in 2014. We’re now on our third Cantata and it’s become one of the most popular parts of the musical year in CBS, for both concert-goers and singers. Singers enjoy the opportunity to take part in a “spread-out” rehearsal schedule (this year, over five Saturdays) because it can be difficult to commit to another weekly activity, especially for those who work long days or have young families. The Christmas Cantata Project has received such positive feedback that we intend to keep it an annual tradition for our Christmas concert.

The second is our Summer Music Program, which was originally organized by just Beth and I, but was rolled under the umbrella of the CSCA during the expansion. Over the past two Augusts, we have held an Adult Choir Camp for singers who wanted to receive an accelerated choral education but could also not commit all year long to a permanent choir. The program accepts singers of all musical backgrounds (like the Coastal Sounds Community Choir, our flagship project) and aims to just get people singing, to get them interested and show them just how much fun it can be. The Adult program continues to grow year after year and we hope that we can expand it to youth in 2016.

And finally, we created a second permanent project, the Aurora Women’s Choir. We held auditions for interested members in September 2014 and started with 19 singers. This year, we’re up to 28. Even though the choir’s only been together for just over a year, they’ve had wonderful growth in both capability and opportunity. Aurora won a Gold Standard at the 2015 St. John’s Rotary Music Festival and in July 2016, they have been invited to represent the province at the UNISONG Choral Festival in Ottawa. It’s awesome to think that we’re only getting started and the more repertoire research I do, the more excited I get about all the wonderful music there is for women’s choir. After working in Barbershop and men’s voices for a decade, it felt right to explore the other side of things as well.

We rebranded this year (a HUGE thank you to WaterWerks Communications for their hard work) and I invite you to our website to check it all out. One main focus for growth in 2016 is a new project called the Con Fuoco Youth Choir. This choir is intended to be a comprehensive choral education for young singers aged 12-18. Auditions will be scheduled soon so watch our website and Like our Facebook page to stay up to date.

It’s been an incredible year and I am overjoyed at the idea of getting more people involved in choral singing. It has obviously changed my life and will change yours, too. Come to our 2015 Annual Holiday Concert and see all the smiles for yourself.

Sheet Music Plus Classical