There are shitty parts of every awesome job. Brilliant engineers have to sit in hours of bureaucratic meetings. Ice cream truck drivers have to deal with screaming children. Fire fighters…well, that one’s kind of obvious.
For composers, there are only two jobs that I can see as “bad.” One is making parts. It’s gotten easier over time, but it’s never fun, and always feels like a waste of brain. The other one is the subject of today’s post: soliciting ensembles to play your work.
Some composers have it really good: they have a never-ending stream of groups lining up to play their stuff. For the rest of us, though, we’ve gotta hustle to get our music out into the hands of musicians and out of the MIDI mockup purgatory that our pieces can rot in.
(Sorry, computer. It’s not you, it’s me!)
The Internet has made the task of solicitation infinitely easier to do. These days, a composer is just a click away from emailing the Kronos Quartet their latest piece (which is completely mind-blowing, when you think of it!). The only problem becomes how to approach an ensemble in such an impersonal environment as the Internet.
When trying to describe this process to people who aren’t composers (read: my mom, wondering what I do on the computer all day!), the closest analogy I’ve come to is that of online dating. In fact, most of the hoops we jump through are scarily similar. And like online dating, there are people who do it well, and people who…don’t.
Both soliciting ensembles and online dating use the same basic steps:
Most online dating platforms insist you come up with a blurb about yourself, and stick up a few photos. Composers have these, too: our website (and our Facebook, our Twitter, our LinkedIn [but seriously, who’s checking that?!], etc.). The composer’s website exists to direct web traffic to a nice blurb about how you are the best composer on the planet, with links to compositions, awards, blogs, et al. Your online dating profile exists to convince people that you are a nice person. Or at least attractive. Or at least you won’t put on your date’s socks and murder him/her.
Photos in online dating are…complicated. You are obliged to show your face, and if you can, a body shot to let people know what they’re in for. Usually, these photos are manipulated by camera angle, Photoshop, etc., to make the subject look as good as possible. Composer photos work the same way, constructing an idealised portrait of yourself. They paint you as someone who usually wears their best concert clothes at the piano to compose. “Oh goodness,” you say, “You’ve interrupted me pouring out my emotions in neatly written notation in pen at this piano!” Nobody wants to see the honest composer photo of me in my bathrobe, shoving Captain Crunch in my mouth while staring at a computer screen. Real composing is not that sexy. Ask my fiancée!
This is where the analogy begins to split off, depending on gender identity and orientation. I’m gonna stick to heterosexual dating, because it’s what I know. If you would like to contribute the experience of another group, comment away down at the bottom!
As a het guy, messaging in online dating goes like this: write message to prospective date, and wait for response. Now, as any het girl who had been online dating knows, the quality of most messages is…well, what quality would you call four words and a dick pic? Still, there are those of us who slave(d) over every syllable of these messages, sent them off, and then waited with bated breath for any sort of answer.
And this is where the similarity to composing comes in. Women receive thousands of messages online. Most of them are of dick pic quality. There are some messages that are awesome, but get lost in the slush pile of all the other terrible messages. As a composer, you never hear back from your call. The only thing worse than hearing, “No,” is hearing nothing at all.
In online dating, no response is not-so-secret code for “not interested.” Online, most guys take the hint and move on. Some don’t, to hilarious/terrifying results. Sending twelve other messages chiding the person for not responding isn’t doing you any favors, as a composer or as a date! I’ve never done it before personally, but I’d love to hear a story of a composer who just wouldn’t take no for an answer!
The moral(?) of the story here is that soliciting ensembles takes the same kind of thick skin that it takes to get out there and date. One of the toughest lessons composers have to learn is how to bounce right back and try again. Rejection, especially the kind you willingly subject yourself to, is the worst part of our job. Hands down. It never gets easy, but it gets less hard.
The other moral is to think about how you would like to be approached by someone if you were an ensemble. That kind of empathy might be the difference between a commission or being quietly blacklisted by three or four new people!