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