Many composers would differ with me in my quest to involve the representative in the composition. Most of the time, I find the involvement of the representative very helpful. I realize that the composer is not right all the time, and I also know respect for one's colleagues in the profession is a good thing. My ears are a product of my musical journey. The melodies and chord progressions I hear are the result of many years of hearing...and being…and doing this "music thing."
The final decision to include or not include something is my own. I must make and own that decision, but I really do enjoy having others feel a part of the entire process. I want the rep to feel ownership of the product as well. Feeling ownership ensures that the composition is approached with a "team work" attitude, and it fosters a sincere desire to make a quality performance the goal.
I understand the necessity of being a positive part of a huge circle of contributors to music education. We are not "islands"…we need each other in our profession. I love the idea that I might create a product that is studied in a choral classroom. It is a sobering thought, but…it is a thought that permeates every piece of music I write. I have a responsibility for creating an artistic product that contains elements worthy of inclusion in the education process.
When I write a commission, I keep in mind the same three questions I use to evaluate the artistic value of all of my work:
1) Will the student be a better musician for having studied this piece of music?
2) Will the student's love of music be enhanced in the study of this piece?
3) Is it worth a teacher's budget and time?
If any of these questions yields a "No," why should I continue? Many files have been "deleted" on my screen. If the piece did not reach me, why should I put it out there for you?
I like involving others in the creation of the commission: text, length, voicing, instrumentation, structure, knowledge of inspiration, etc. A composer, however, should make the final choice in regard to the music. However, to receive feedback of a "strange-sounding" place, is very helpful. My husband Bill comes to my office frequently to listen to passages that I have created. He gives me feedback about any passage that sounds a tad "off." I could dismiss his comments, but I have found that editors said the same thing. So…I listen to my husband, knowing that his fresh ears are the norm, and I work from there.
We can involve many musicians in the commission process. However, a decision of some sort must eventually be made. We are all products of our journeys in music, and the degree in which we want to involve others must respect that we have traveled different paths to success. Partners on the journey? The composer's choice….
Thursday, January 29, 2015
Monday, January 26, 2015
Another huge factor in my personal writing of a commission has to do with obtaining all the information necessary about vocal sounds/ranges/abilities, etc., so that when I write, the choir's strengths are maximized. When possible, I want to actually hear the choir sing in performance in some manner: You Tube, compact disc, formal concert, rehearsal, mp3 recording, etc. As a composer, I need to always hear the choir in my mind's ear. In my opinion, the most successful commissions I have written were commissioned by choirs whose sounds were familiar. I want to know everything about the vocal sounds of the choir. I want to speak with the choral director in a private conversation, listening carefully as the director talks about the choir's sound. It is in these conversations that I can confirm or dismiss some of the vocal characteristics I think I am hearing in a recording. If I am lucky, I will obtain other pertinent information as well.
Listed below are some of the main facets of my experience that contribute to writing appropriate vocal parts in a commission:
1) Number of singers - In most choirs, there are unequal numbers in various sections. The strengths differ: some choirs are small, other choirs might be larger, and have a very strong men's section (Bass and Tenor). However, some may have one tenor...a very good tenor…in fact, a solo tenor that the world would be fortunate to hear, etc. By design (audition), some choirs might have absolutely equal numbers per section. Some might have an incredibly strong soprano section, with a very marginal alto section, and a solo tenor extraordinaire, and three basses. You get the idea…I must know the musical make-up of the choir in regard to what might be possible…I must know how to bring forth the very best presentation of choral performance from the ensemble.
The aforementioned information is crucial. It totally structures the commission. If the above personnel might be true, I could write a composition with a tenor solo, using the soprano section as a focal point at times in the more difficult passages. I might focus the less challenging material in the alto section…find a passage in the basses' ranges that will allow them to shine forth at some point, making them "known" as a viable part of the total sound. I must know the ensemble, bring forth their strengths, and make sure all sections are contributing to the overall positive effect of the performance.
2) Range - I need to know the upper and lower range of every section of the choir. I need to know the capabilities of each section, so that whatever I decide to do with melodic and/or harmonic movement, results are artistic and vocally successful! I need to know what every section can do well, and I write accordingly. If there are limitations, I must look to prominent sections for the best ways to present the musical material. Know where your "go-to" sections are located in the choir…then keep that in mind when writing the composition. Make the piece happen!! Make "it" happen with good decisions by the composer…good decisions that make sense!!
3) Vocal Quality - If I find there are vocal qualities in your choir that resemble voices in the Metropolitan Opera, I might want to write something that "showcases" their abilities. Several solos? Prominent sectional writing? How can I make those voices "work" in the midst of "standard" sounding voices? Alternating sections of homophonic/solo presentation, with other non-solo homophony at other times might be another option.
Does the entire choir consist of standard-quality voices? I might want to write a commission of primarily unison/2-part vocal voices, with a more complex accompaniment.
Is there at least one incredibly strong singer in each section? If so, I might want to write a commission that uses a homophonic choral foundation, with the addition of a featured quartet in refrains or repeated sections. Use those strong, gifted voices in your choir in creative ways!
As you can guess, there are a zillion ways to bring forth the strengths and abilities of an ensemble. However, a composer must do one's homework to listen and discuss all of these aspects with those who know the voices the best…the group's choral director…then make a decision.
4) Other Musical Abilities - A group's performance can also be a window into their grasp of ideas in areas such as breath support, the production of vowels, the use of consonants, proper intonation, etc.
Breath support: If a group has a difficult time in singing long phrases, then I would likely write shorter phrases, with definite breathing places, instead of long, arduous phrases that require a keen understanding of "staggering the breath." YES…we need to teach those things, but I will probably write for the things I know a choir already does well. There is generally a reason choirs sing as they do. Some choral techniques might have been stressed more than others. Let's say….diction might be the primary focus of a choir director. If the choir director is an instrumentalist, it might be that the teaching of proper vocal breath support is something that the choir might not demonstrate as proficiently as a person who actually understands more about the voice than their teacher. My experience: I came through the public school ranks as an accompanist, and when I finally wanted to audition for Robert Shaw's Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, I knew I needed help! "Thank you, Betty Jane Grimm at Florida State University!" She agreed to assist me in getting prepared for that audition, and I made it! Singing is not my strength, but I am a choral director. I had to really dig for any vocal knowledge obtained in the area of vocal technique…it…can…be…done!
Vowels: I might find through listening to the choir that correct vowel production is lacking. I would need to keep this in mind when considering range. How can I keep the sound out of the "chest" and are focused more in the vocal mask? Taking the basses too high on closed vowels would likely not be beneficial in assisting singers in creating a warm, beautiful tone. There is no need to write such that a singers' limitations are propelled into the forefront. I try to write commissions with weaknesses minimized and strengths maximized. It makes for a more positive experience for all involved…make the performance a good memory!
Consonants: A choir's ability to produce clear, crisp consonants is paramount to conveying the text. That said, anything that does not allow one to clearly hear the text might need to be avoided. The size of the choir, vocal and musical abilities, and the skill with which they have been required to habitually demonstrate clear consonants...all affect textural options…the complexity of the accompaniment. If the texture is too thick, singers with limited vocal consonant skills cannot be heard through the accompaniment. For example, if I realize that these skills are limited, I might use some a cappella singing in some sections, so that the voices can be heard clearly, but not too much a cappella singing if the choir is challenged with intonation issues. These types of abilities or the lack thereof can be heard in the pre-composition stages. One's ears are "the friend" in preparation for writing.
Choirs who are skilled in exploding consonants might enjoy an involved accompaniment…brass, organ, strings, woodwinds. An important question: "Is there a particularly strong instrumental solo performer that you might want to include?" For example, I submitted a piece to a high school choral director, and wrote for a solo cello/keyboard accompaniment. However, there was a wonderful violinist on his faculty, and the choral director asked if I might write something for solo violin instead. I write for the best person available to the choir director. If I write for a specific instrument, I want to make certain the instrument is available to the choir. That is, I write a viola obligato part…if the choir can get a violist!! Makes sense??
At this point, I would highly recommend my book From Concepts to Concerts. It focuses on teaching choral concepts. I wrote this as a "handbook for early days of teaching" type of experience. I truly wish I could have found a book just this one for my days at Habersham Central High School in Georgia. It would have made my students' lives so much more pleasant and meaningful.
Proper Intonation: This is probably the most sophisticated concept of all considerations. There is generally a reason most choirs sing with correct intonation (posture, breath support, vocal awareness, etc.). As I prepare for writing a commission, I listen to the intonation of the group who will be singing my piece. If students sing below pitch, then a cappella singing must be kept to a minimum. I would also try to select brighter vowels, higher range (keep it out of the chest), and I would likely incorporate unison singing in a larger amount, for an energy boosts. The tempo would also likely be faster, with a driving energy toward the final cadence. I would probably not include many ritardandos, if intonation problems were evident. However, if the singers sing above the pitch, I might make different choices.
AS YOU CAN SEE, there are many, many vocal considerations that a composer must address before writing a commission. I cannot accommodate all aspects of concern, but through listening to a choral director's description and a choral group's performance, I can prioritize a list of things that might enable me in writing a successful commission for a special group of singers. As always, the goal becomes that of writing a piece of music that contributes to a singer's love and enjoyment of choral singing. May we all be fortunate enough to achieve that goal!!
Saturday, January 24, 2015
COMMISSIONS: PART II (Structural Considerations)
After the text has been determined, I begin to think about the structure of the piece. What should be the focus of the piece? Should the piece convey reflection, celebration, gorgeous lush (I think my friend Beth Shugart gave me that phrase), whimsical fun, cleverness, or a combination of several? How should I convey the chosen text? Is there a common theme? If so, how do I introduce it, develop it, and create unity in the composition? And…some would say, "Most importantly"….How do I end it? The ending is generally my greatest struggle, but it all comes down to how I want the listener to feel, once all has been said and done.
Structural considerations actually become concerns of the compositional process. When I write a commission, I want the person commissioning to have some input into the process. So…I talk this through with the representative….telling the person what I'm thinking….discussing the general "flavor" …verbalizing the overall musical journey. This discussion takes place after I have written down the text in an orderly sequence. That does not mean that I must stick to the plan in a rigid manner. Sometimes the music demands my flexibility as much as those commissioning the artistic product. I will "strike through" some phrases, retain or omit other phrases (if possible), combine ideas….whatever I must do in order to achieve the desired musical/artistic effect…and continue the energy of the composition.
As a general rule, I have found that in structural content, "less" is "more." Say what you want to say, don't say it too long…..move on to the next thing….remember the first thing….end it…say, "YEA!!"
In my early writing, my endings went on and on….so I shortened them…then it was suggested that I might not be saying enough in the endings. You get it….it is all "relative, but true" for whomever the listener might be. It is all right for that person, in that moment, with that person's expectations, etc.
In writing commissions, you are working within a representative's concept of how he or she might want the commission to be remembered. After discussing the overall piece with the representative, the composer should be able to draw that conclusion. There are many ways to write a piece effectively. As I said earlier, when a person is purchasing the first performance rights…it is my opinion that I should do whatever they want me to do…if possible. As for my perspective, I have often heard the great poet Maya Angelou say that a person might not remember what you said, but they always remember how you made them feel. I have actually had times when the honks and tweets of my own computer actually made me cry….because I could "hear it in my head" as a wonderful performance. I have never been disappointed with the final product, when such a thing has occurred. It moved me…it moved others…and that is the ultimate goal in all of my writing.
Wednesday, January 21, 2015
EARLENE'S PROCESS: COMMISSIONS
I have no idea as to how other composers might go through a commission process with a representative. I only know my process, and for the most part, I have found that it works quite well. I'll discuss some general factors of my process...then we'll see where it might go from here.
A commission is a piece written specifically for a person or group, based on the desires of a representative who contacts a composer. I have had representatives contact me, and I've been "up to the gills," so I've sent them to other composer friends who I have thought might connect and do well with the commission project. However, most of the time, I have enjoyed working with the representatives to find a schedule where creating the musical product is possible.
Because a commissioned choral work is for a specific group, I have frequently had a difficult time publishing many commissioned works. In order to compensate a composer for the work of creating a commissioned choral work, establishing a commissioning fee is the normal process to follow. A commissioning representative is not purchasing the piece (I suppose one might do so…I've just never known of anyone who does this type of thing), the fee purchases FIRST PERFORMANCE RIGHTS.
Because in my earlier commission-writing, I have had representatives who have not understood that concept, I have developed a contract for clarity. It only takes one negative experience, and one learns to officially establish expectations and policies. I have had no problem with understanding, since the contract was developed over a decade ago. Here is a sample of the contract I use for commissions:
Personal theory: "If a person is paying me to do this project, then I should do exactly what they want, to the best of my ability." Other composers will write for "chorus at-large," and write a piece that may indeed be for the larger choral community, but also a piece that is appropriate for the commissioning ensemble. "Whatever works" is the best way I have of describing my journey through this facet of composition and arranging. Clarity is the most important aspect of preparing to write the commission. You will also note that I require "up front" payment. The check is held until the work is completed, but I have learned through past experience that such a request is wise.
Does the commission always work out for me? No. Just recently I was forced to terminate a commission process, when I realized that my style was likely not a style that was compatible with a choral group's preferences. I was delighted to submit other names as possibilities for the representative, but my mental focus was too "cluttered" to be able to come up with creative material I loved...I was uncertain that the choral group would enjoy my work. It was clear that I was not "the person" for this task. My musical journey is personal, and it may or may not fit with the compatibility of some ensemble styles. Other experiences have been wonderful for me, and I think I was able to give the group a worthy product.
As a choral music writer, I cannot begin without the text. I have had a great time putting texts together for commissions, and I have had many different processes toward text-selection. Sometimes the representatives have no idea as to where they want to begin, so I just start asking a few questions. For a youth choir, I heard a statement such as, "Well…they really seem to do well with nature themes." So…I wrote a piece with original material based on God's Grandeur (poem by Gerald Manley Hopkins)…then went into the familiar hymn This is My Father's World….but changed the words to "This is God's wondrous world" (gender sensitivity)….then found that I could put the two together, etc. The piece became The Grandeur and Glory of God, and it was totally fun creating this piece!! It took some "thinking"….it took some "time"….but….the product was one that "spoke." That's where we're headed….find a text that speaks to all….including the composer! I must stay interested and engaged throughout a commission project, and it generally takes quite a long time (few months)…so….make the text interesting, so that everyone benefits, and everyone is always getting my best effort as well.
In another commissioning project, a poem was requested from a church member, and coupled with My Faith Looks Up to Thee, became a 25th Anniversary anthem. In yet another situation, a celebration of "being," when a church sold its property, and moved to a new church…in a new location….with a new pastor…it just seemed fitting to "sing a new song"….and the title of the piece was Psalm of New Beginnings. I was also delighted when Don Neuen's Hour of Power Choir sang this piece for the first service in their new location as well... when they moved to Shepherd's Grove. The piece eventually came around to congregation participation in the familiar hymn tune to Come, Thou Fount. The congregation had submitted poetry and "ideas"…phrases of who they wanted to be in this new place. The first verse consisted of a combination of their words and my words, based on the information I had gleaned as I spoke to the representative and other church members. Most of the text centered around the "new" theme. I selected most of their phrases, and created the second verse. Lastly, my husband was a former pastor of this church (Central Baptist in Lexington, Kentucky), so I had him put the last verse together about future directions and moving forward with energy and passion. It worked….the congregation sang their socks off!!
For public schools, the task is a bit more difficult. Some choir directors want choral arrangements based on favorite folk songs…or they may find a poem based on a certain characteristic of an individual they are honoring…or….in both sacred and school commissions, the representative may have no idea as to what text they would like. So…I may suggest a few. I keep a notebook of many, many texts. Some people suggest copyrighted poetry, and the hoops through which they must "jump" are outrageous at times. If you have an "in"….a person you know who might make it easier (a poet's spouse/friend of the poet), life is good. Sometimes you have an entire Foundation, as in the case of Thomas Merton's words. Luckily, the board was terrific, but there must be an agreement between the publisher of the work(s) and the publisher of the music. So….I love to set public domain material. It is just easier to make it happen.
Hopefully, this blog entry has assisted you in thinking about future commissioning possibilities. Find the composer whose style appeals to you….then….find a good text. Part II will cover other considerations for commissions.
Enjoy your day!!
Wednesday, January 14, 2015
I have often been asked about selling my work online…why?…is it working?…how do you do it? The answer is partially professional, but mostly personal. Why? I have published with national publishers since 1994, and I just wanted to do something different. In addition, my husband is more flexible in summer in his work, but summer is the "big push" for publishers. Our schedules just weren't "fun," when it came time for being with a loved one for a summer afternoon of relaxation. There had to be a way I could enjoy both aspects of my life…..so…..I went about "creating it."
On a spring evening in 2010, aboard a recumbent bike, Earlene Rentz Online Publications, LLC, was formed. A thought occurred to me, "With all the technology in the world, is it so far-fetched to think that I might be able to sell my work totally online?" I could pace myself….work only for myself….and our lives would be much more compatible for my husband, our families, and me. I began thinking about it….really thinking creatively and diligently. I had to know exactly what I wanted my business to DO…and I had to know HOW to do it.
After I had the basic idea formulated in my mind, I called my webmaster from the recumbent bike. I told her I wanted to sell my work, be paid for it, have the customers immediately receive their music, send the customer a receipt, and be notified of the sale…without having to leave my computer. I wanted to write music. She said, "I have no idea, but I will check this out and do some research, and I'll get back to you."
She called 2-3 weeks later, and said she had found a company specializing in the sale of artistic products in several types of files…PDF files were included in that list. In addition, this company worked cooperatively with a payment company (there are several types in the technology world). Following purchase, the payment company would send a confirmation message to the first company, and then the first company would send the PDF file to the consumer. Easy enough…I must say, it has never failed me…wonderful job by both companies. So…I sell PDF files of my music to customers.
I also had to decide about copyright issues. In recent years with other publishers, some collections and congregational participation have allowed for copying. So…I decided to have a set price for each file of my work, based on the complexity of the product. I determined that it made sense for voicings to determine the price, with a statement at the bottom of the page to allow for reproduction. One set price would allow a choral director to make multiple copies for their choir only.
Some advantages of online publication: 1) Immediate product delivery, 2) Individualized additional voicings, 3) Individualized desired keys, 4) Individualized accompaniments, 5) Use of foreign languages (based on access to language resources). Custom-made arrangements and compositions are now available to the choral music consumer! This "world" is timely, and allows music educators to request material, based on their current demographics, instead of general choral populations. It is exciting, and it is the world in which we live.
For those of us who are participating in online businesses, online advertising and social media are the ways in which we get out information. The old fashioned "word of mouth" works beautifully, and sharing the "good news" through music organizations is also effective.
There are some situations that have "evolved" since having begun my company in 2011…most having to do with payment. In the beginning, purchase orders were more popular than actual credit card purchases. I gladly worked with these customers, though the process was a bit slower. I have recently asked choral directors in my sessions about payment using credit cards, and found that it is very unusual to find that same impediment these days. In most sessions, 100% say that they are able to use credit cards, and be reimbursed from their school systems or booster clubs. Wonderful! I can spend my time writing music!!
Do I enjoy my online business? Love it!! Love it!! Love it!! I write the things I want to write…my heart is the inspiration, not-so-much "the market." For 20 years, I wrote the things that were accepted by publishers, and I am totally grateful for that experience. In fact, because I love the folks so much in "the business" (they have been good to me), and because I would love to assist my lyricists in their "journey" with established publishers, you might find that I occasionally write for another publisher. However, the truth is that sometimes I did not get to write the things I wanted to write, for all sorts of reasons (mostly determined by the market…writing is a business). I really want to write the things I want to write….for the next 20 years!! Life is fragile, and I want to know that I have said everything I want to say in the ways I want to say them. I also want to use my time in the most efficient way possible.
Of course, it is expensive to have an online business, if you assign the computer work to others. Again…I want to write music, and I do not want to spend my time in computer or website issues. Fortunately, I have someone who is working with me, understands my business, and knows exactly what needs to be done, so life is good. However, because I use technology, and technology is always changing, I must make adjustments as well.
I do not have the most sophisticated online business in the world. However, I have an online business that will do what I want it to do. Everything is working properly. I am continuing to write music, and my music continues to sell…increasing sales each year. My goal is to add to those existing titles, knowing that my life is happier and more compatible with the most important person in my life.
If you are interested in creating your own online business, go online to www.earlenerentz.com, and spend time exploring the ways in which the business works. Feel free to ask questions regarding the site (not everything has been covered in this blog). I am happy to share general information regarding the process.
Wednesday, January 7, 2015
Susan Thrift taught middle school and high school choral music in Texas for 16 years, until her retirement in 2011. Currently, she serves as Minister of Music in her Waco-area church. She enjoys writing music for church and school choirs, and in addition to her publications with Earlene Rentz Online Publications, she has pieces published with BriLee Music and Shawnee Press.
Susan is a specialist in knowing the needs of many choral directors in "the field," as they prepare for special events like festival and contest. She realized a need for a cappella 2-part choral music, and that is exactly what she has done for EROP. When we published it, we actually added an optional accompaniment, but My Shadow is specifically written to be performed a cappella. Her writing is always creative, incorporating challenge, beauty, and sophisticated choral elements that assist in developing music intelligence in middle school and high school singers.
Welcome, Susan Thrift! We love having you as a writer with Earlene Rentz Online Publications!!