I have commissioned over 30 new pieces for solo trumpet, trumpet and electronics, and chamber pieces for various groups in which I perform. (E.g. I am the co-leader of eGALitarian Brass and a member of Spark Duo). I’ve been fortunate to commission Niloufar Nourbakhsh, inti figgis-vizueta, Cassie Wieland, and Ruby Fulton – just to name a few. As a freelancer, I have premiered many new works with orchestras and other groups across New York City. I also have released two solo albums featuring new music by many incredible composers including several pieces of my own. I’m very passionate about encouraging my students and friends to find new repertoire for their instrument and I’m grateful to New Music USA for allowing me to share this process with you.
In this article, I am going to cover how to commission new music and where to find new pieces. If you have never commissioned a piece before, this article should be a good place for you to start. If you are already commissioning new pieces as a part of your musical practice, perhaps you will learn something new that you can incorporate next time. Let’s get into it.
How to commission a new work
- Pick a composer who is most appropriate for the type of composition you are looking for
Make sure the person you are considering is great at the specific type of composition you are looking for. Some questions to ponder when making that decision – have they written this kind of music before? Do they typically write for my instrumentation? Do they have the time to spend on a new work?
- Be specific about what you want (ex. A 5 minute trumpet and piano work)
As with any relationship, it is difficult to end up with what you want if you aren’t clear about what you are looking for. Be specific about the instrumentation, your technology capabilities, the length of the piece, etc.
- Make sure you have an adequate time frame in mind for the commission.
Once you have a performance date in mind, make sure to allow for enough time for the composer to write the piece and to workshop the piece with them. You don’t want to push the composer to finish it in a hurry and you don’t want to run out of enough time to practice it.
- Draft a contract with all the important details (pay, deadline, recording rights, exclusivity period for performance or recording, etc.)
Without a contract, it is easy for things to get lost, delayed, or misunderstood. Even if you are a student, this is a great time to practice drafting an agreement with your guidelines, and ensuring that everything will come together as you had planned. Want to make sure you don’t miss anything about best practices when commissioning? Check out this guide from (the New Music USA legacy organization) Meet the Composer: https://newmusicusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/Commissioning-Music-A-Basic-Guide.pdf.
Deciding on the fee:
If you are in a position where you can afford to pay for the new commission either through a granting organization or your own budget, New Music USA has a very handy calculator to figure out the best fee to agree on. This formula takes into account the style of music, the instrumentation, and the length of the piece and presents you with a professional level fee estimate. If you are commissioning a piece last minute or with any time crunch involved, it is always best to add more to the fee if possible.
If you are just starting out and are unable to come to a traditional agreement with financial compensation, you could discuss an alternate agreement with the composer. While many established professionals may not agree to this sort of agreement and I certainly don’t want to encourage anyone to work for free, it can be difficult both for early career composers and performers to find paid opportunities where everyone is compensated fairly. In these cases, perhaps in exchange for writing the piece, performers can commit to providing the composer with a high quality recording that can be used to further promote the work as well as guarantee that there will be several performances of the piece throughout the year which will at least enable the composer to collect performing rights revenue.
Why should I commission a new work or play music other than the standard pieces?
- Commissioning new pieces is more rewarding. After commissioning a new work, you receive music that you specifically are interested in, that is crafted for you and your strengths, that nobody else has played or even heard before.
- Commissioning new works is more meaningful. It shows your audience where your priorities lie and what your interests are. This is an opportunity to build a new repertoire for your instrument that is representative of diverse voices.
- Commissioning new works makes you unique. Nobody can play a piece that was written for you better than the way you can, because you set the standard for how it should go. Performing new repertoire or finding gems of the repertoire that are performed less often separates you from other people who play the same instrument.
- Commissioning new works is more impactful towards future musicians. You are adding new repertoire for your instrument that will exist forever for others to perform and learn from. This is a great opportunity to fill gaps in what is truly needed in your musical corner of the world – whether that is a new work for trumpet and drum set or an opera for clown and chamber ensemble.
How to build a recital program:
I recently turned thirty and I realized that I had performed almost thirty recitals as a soloist. I love playing new music and building new programs. When building your recital or chamber program, there are many things to consider.
Perhaps you are looking for music by women composers or music by composers from New York City. Your theme could even be something like fanfares or music for springtime.
- Requirements for your program
When I was a student, there were always detailed recital requirements where you needed to include one Baroque piece on every program or one piece written after 1950. Pay attention to these requirements when putting together your program. If not, you might end up needing to do an extra recital.
- Time of year or setting
Is this program happening around a certain holiday? Is this performance in a church or a bar where the programming could be different than your school’s recital hall?
- Equipment / technology –
Are you performing in a place without a piano? Do you have a speaker to play pieces with electronics or will the venue have one you can connect to? Have you tested your electronics prior to the performance?
- GuestsWho will be joining you? If this performance is 100% just you, it would be wise to choose repertoire you can play for an hour with minimal breaks.
- Length of performanceSometimes we are tasked with putting together a 60 minute program and sometimes we are asked to play two pieces on someone else’s program. How much music do you really need for this event?What to play? For a standard solo recital, that could look like this:
2 big pieces = 30 – 40 minutes total
1 chamber piece = 10 min
2 smaller pieces: 10 min
In order of the program, that could translate to:
1 smaller piece
1 big piece
1 smaller piece
1 big piece
1 chamber piece
I have seen many cases where people try to program the three hardest and most taxing pieces for their instrument and then pay the price for it by being too tired by the end of the program. Alternating larger works with smaller pieces will definitely help make sure that you don’t program the most tiring works in a row for your entire program.
If you are not able to commission a new piece but still want to play new music, then it is time to do some research. Ask other musicians who play your instrument for their suggestions on repertoire. You can also ask your teacher or other mentors for their suggestions as well. After that, you may have to do even more research and be a bit more specific about where you are looking for new music. Listen to albums of performers you admire and see what they recorded. Check out your instrument’s conferences and see what composers and new pieces were featured or recognized. Lastly, find new works in various repertoire lists for each instrument. (See below!)
I put together this list of resources on finding new repertoire. There is something for every instrument on there and a few great general new music resources. I hope you find some new music to incorporate into your programming soon.
General Repertoire Resources:
Black Music History Library – collection of books, articles, documentaries, series, podcasts and more about the Black origins of traditional and popular music dating from the 18th century to present day.
Brass Repertoire Resources:
Woodwind Repertoire Resources:
String Repertoire Resources;
Underrepresented Composer Database For Viola
Repertoire for Unaccompanied Solo Violin – Compiled by Rachel Barton Pine and Dr. Megan E. Hill for the RBP Foundation
Repertoire for Violin and Orchestra – “Compiled by Rachel Barton Pine and Dr. Megan E. Hill for the RBP Foundation. . . . This list is currently limited to works for acoustic violin and traditional symphony or chamber orchestra.”
Composer/Performer Database from Bass Players for Black Composers. Site includes links to scores and media.
An annotated catalog of works by women composers for the double bass– Rebeca Tavares Furtado’s doctoral document. Annotated catalog begins on page 34.
Percussion Pieces by Black Composers – Percussion solo and ensemble music; also includes links to other resources and the ability to suggest additions.
Percussion Ensemble Works by Women-Identifying Composers – “Compiled/hosted by James Doyle, an open document of percussion ensemble works by women-identifying composers. Detailed instrumentation lists.” (PAS)
A Seat at the Piano – Promoting inclusion in piano repertoire, this is a deep resource for pianists, pedagogues, and curious music appreciators to explore.