How to start securing music commissions for your chamber ensemble

When I started playing many years ago, there were only so many bass trombone solos available, and that was true for trombone quartets, choir, duets, pretty much all literature for the trombone. If it wasn’t at Robert King Music, it probably didn’t exist. I didn’t know anyone that was getting a commission written, nor did I know many composers. My how that has changed! I have been involved in many commissions in the past ten or so years, everything and anything, including more than once for the Contra Bass Trombone! It’s a different world. It’s great that more repertoire is constantly getting added. 

If you’re thinking about getting a commission started, as an individual, or group, and you don’t know where to begin, maybe I can help. Or maybe, you think it would cost too much. Again, let me see if my experience can be of benefit. 

First off, look around you. Whether you’re still studying music or you’ve started your musical career, there are probably people you know, and may work with, that are composers. Sometimes it’s a colleague that likes to write compose or arrange on the side, as a creative process, or whatever. Get a sample of their work, and if it strikes you as something you like, start a conversation with them. It might be that this is the only time you’ll be able to afford them, before they hit it big and get both too busy and too expensive for you. See if they’re open to the idea. I’m always asking people about things, playing on a concert, writing a piece, whatever, and I’m not afraid to hear the word no. You can’t let your concern over possible rejection stop you. It may take ten “no’s” to get to one “yes”. This is, by the way, true for life in general. If he missed twenty shots in a row, Michael Jordan was looking for the ball next time down the court, ready to take another. Short term memory of failure, can lead to long term memory of success! Finding others in your everyday arena, it’s a good place to start. 

Another place to look is at composers that have already done things for your instrument. The fact that they have already done something is probably a safe bet that they’d be open to more. Just be aware, some composers get to be the “darling” of a particular instrument and can get over exposed. It’s easy to get stuck writing the same style when you stay with the same thing a lot, and the audience can tire of hearing another tune by so and so again. So use your judgment on that. Or maybe they’ve written a lot of solo material, but never written an ensemble piece including trombones. It can be four, five, six, or more. Just that can change their frame of reference, and open up the ideas to flow in a new direction for them. It’s worth a try. 

A great thing to consider is a group commission. By getting a small, or not so small group to contribute, it opens you up to the possibility of doing something with less financial burden, perhaps something you’re just not prepared to take on, and spreading it to many folks. And it also could open up the possibility of getting a “name” composer who’s fee is higher, and making it possible to get a composition that would otherwise be beyond your reach. If you lead the commission, you can put your name up top on the marquis, so to speak, and still get recognition for both having the idea, as well as doing the leg work that it takes to make it all happen. 

As far as what you look for in a composer, try not to get in their way too much, of tie their hands by putting a bunch of restrictions or your own ideas into the process. Get good people, and let them do their thing. When I commissioned The Arch Rhapsody, by Jim Stephenson, I wanted a little something in it about St. Louis, where I lived and worked. I told him that, and that was all. Just something like, can you reference St. Louis somehow? I thought perhaps he may throw something in there similar to Scott Joplin, a one time St. Louis resident, or maybe even the blues, something that is often associated with St. Louis. Wouldn’t you know, he came up with something related to the Arch! What could be more St. Louis! And from the very first bar, he made awesome connections to the town we call The Lou! 

Another consideration, something that is with a different instrumentation. Martin Kennedy wrote something for percussion and Bass Bone that is very unique, and I was able to include an amazing colleague of mine. Will James was the Mallet Man, and the piece, Distant Channels. Check it out, it’s out there in the inter webs! You can design something, or again, just suggest they NOT use the old format of piano and trombone….again! Although they should probably consider at least a version for that, as it will make getting it performed a lot easier.

So as much as it’s fun to get really creative… banjo, timpani, children’s chorus, and contra bass trombone is not likely to get many performances. Having now said that, I can’t help wondering, what that would sound like? (If six months from now I see a new piece for that grouping, I’ll know where that idea came from) 

If crowd funding isn’t dead, that’s another option worth mentioning. But I really don’t know how receptive the community is to this idea these days. I know at one time it could be very successful, and perhaps, with the right idea or approach, it can still work. I just have some doubts. Again, anything can be worth a try. But whatever you do, please don’t send your funding request my way! I think I’ve done my duty to the trombone rep over the years. I can’t even tell you how many commissions I’ve been part of now, but it’s quite a few. And my money is earmarked for other worthy causes now…..I mean, there’s a whole craft beer industry that needs my support!

So those are a few ideas, and I’m sure that’s leaving some others out. Be creative, be bold, be brave. If you dare to ask, sometimes the universe will help clear the way, and you’ll find that your wildest dream may come true. I didn’t end up playing quarterback in the NFL, or joining the group Chicago (rock band, not symphony!) but I did have one night a few years ago, when I stood in front of the SLSO and played a tune that was written for me, with the screen above stage showing photos from the construction of the Arch in St. Louis, which was pretty cool. It all started with an idea, and the ask. Who knows what you can do? Open a can of courage, and find out. 

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