I believe that it was the late Dr. Neil Humfeld, former Trombone Professor at the University of Texas at Commerce, who had a requirement that all his students giving recitals needed to contribute in some way to expanding the repertoire of their instrument. They needed to do an arrangement of something currently not available for that instrumentation or have a composer write a new piece. He was trying to instill in all his students the idea that performers have a responsibility to expand the repertoire for their instrument and to support the contemporary creators of music. As a performer, conductor, educator and composer, I wholeheartedly agree with his philosophy and throughout my career have embraced this practice.

I was exposed to the value of commissioning projects during my undergraduate years at Ithaca College where Kappa Gamma Psi, the music fraternity to which I belonged, annually commissioned a composer to write a piece to be performed by some of the students at its spring recital. It was a very exciting time for us, knowing that we were contributing to the growth of the literature and working directly with the creator of the music.

When I began teaching public school in Bath, N.Y., I wanted to experiment with the idea of commissioning as applied to elementary band. In 1967, I decided to approach Elie Siegmeister, whom I met at Ithaca College when he was commissioned by Kappa Gamma Psi and with whom I later studied. When I first approached him with the idea of writing for elementary band, he was intrigued, as he had never before been commissioned to write for young performers. We requested a five-minute piece for which he would supply score and parts and attend a rehearsal and the concert. This meant driving 500 miles round trip plus the cost of motel rooms, all for a fee of $250! The resulting piece, "Ballad for Band", was an excellent addition to the intermediate level band repertoire. The students were inspired to perform at an increased level of musicianship and developed a sense of understanding for a more modern musical language.

When I began my career as a university professor, I created a unique project as part of my twentieth century music class. Each member of the class contributed $10 to a fund used to commission a composer to write a piece for the instrumentation of the class. The class was involved in selecting the composer, contacting him or her, writing grants for additional funds, writing a letter of agreement, and rehearsing and performing the piece. My wife and I also commissioned and premiered about a dozen works written for us to perform at the close of our faculty recitals.

Today I am mostly involved from the composer and arranger end. How many times as performers or conductors have we wished we could contact the composer and as him/her what they intended? We can’t do that with composers who are no longer living, but we can do that with composers who are alive! The process of working closely with composers enables us to understand the composer’s intentions and grow in our ability to interpret music. In addition, having a composer attend a rehearsal and performance and talk to the performers and audience gives everyone involved a further understanding of the cycle of music, from creator to interpreter to listener.

Hopefully by now I have interested you in working closely with a composer whether by commissioning a new piece, or by giving and existing piece its premiere or additional performances. The next question you may have is “How to I go about finding a composer to work with?” One of the places to start is with composer organizations such as:

American Composers Forum American Composers Forum
National Association of Composers, USA National Association of Composers, USA (NACUSA)
Center for Promotion of Contemporary Composers The Center for the Promotion of Contemporary Composers
American Music Center American Music Center
Society of Composers Society of Composers, Inc.

These organizations have links to where you can sample the composer’s works and find contact information.

Another way of having performers and composers come in contact with each other is for news groups and list serves to fully embrace composers as part of their membership. The orchestralist for example has this as part of their description, “ORCHESTRALIST is an international forum for conductors, composers, players, and their colleagues in the orchestra business. Discussion on Orchestralist ranges over a variety of topics of interest to orchestra professionals. Those encouraged to participate include: (1) conductors of professional, college or community orchestras that perform standard repertory (including choral-orchestral music and opera); (2) musicians who play in such orchestras; (3) composers who write music for such orchestras. Also invited to participate are publishers, administrators, board members, scholars, patrons, and artists-in-training.” Too many lists have a policy of no commercial advertising or self-promotion. With the state of the publishing industry concentrating only on items that sell well, many composers are making their music available via the internet. The prices they charge are just trying to cover their expenses and they cannot afford commercial advertising rates. Often, news groups serve as the only means of informing performers of the availability of their music. It would be nice if all news groups welcomed composers in the manner that the orchestralist does so that performers and composers can easily communicate with each other.

Lastly, many performers are concerned about the finances of working with composers and commissioning works. In an ideal world, all artists would be paid what they are worth. But in the real world, composers are often more anxious to get a performance of their music than to earn a lot of money. To help with linking performers with composers, there are several grants available:

Meet The Composer Met Life Creative Connections Grants MetLife Creative Connections | Meet The Composer
American Composer’s Forum Encore Grants American Composers Forum
Co-op Press Fund Grants for Performers Co-op Press Grant Programs

I apologize for the length of this post, but I hope that I have convinced the performer and conductor members of this group, no matter your level of accomplishment, to seek out and work with a composer of your choice. You will be creating an invaluable educational experience and adding to the repertoire. It is a win-win situation for all involved.

Dr. Sy Brandon
Professor Emeritus
Millersville University of PA