During my own career in the freelance music world, switching roles between performer, composer, and conductor has opened a diversity of opportunities I wouldn’t have dreamed. In a world that is increasingly emphasizing the importance of specialization, I’ve become an advocate for musicians being as versatile as possible in their creative work. At this year’s national ACDA convention I had the opportunity to sit on a panel with like minded artists including Karen Thomas, David Conte, Eric Banks, and Steven Sametz who have also not been content to put themselves in a single box. The panel was about ‘composers who conduct and conductors who compose’, and we had a fascinating discussion about the benefits and challenges of playing these dual roles and how it has changed our perspective as musicians.
Here are my five main take-aways from that discussion, with some of my own thoughts on the benefits and importance of working in both sides of the creative process.
1. You’ll be a better composer
The idea of how a piece of music comes together on paper and it’s practical manifestation on the body of a choir can differ significantly. How many times have you been in a rehearsal and the conductor says “Let’s add an eighth note lift at the end of this phrase” when it’s not written into the score? All the practical aspects of how a piece turns out are going to be better understood by those who actively work from the podium. You’ll learn more about how to write for the voice by hearing singers of different ages and experience levels tackling a variety of passages and get a full understanding of vocal registration and what each part of the voice sounds like, too.
2. You’ll be a better conductor
A colleague once told me that the only way to truly prepare a choral piece is by being able to sing every part of it yourself. While that’s great advice, no one knows a piece of music better than the composer, and conducting your own music will bring a new level of life to the piece. Just as important, I can’t count the number of times I’ve created special arrangements of a piece for a group. Experience as a composer will also give you greater confidence and versatility in rehearsals when the need to edit a piece on the fly becomes necessary to get the best possible performance.
3. It will help all aspects of your career
One hand, as they say, washes the other. As a composer, being able to program your work offers huge opportunities. Not only can you ensure regular performances of your own work (and related performance royalties….) but you’ll also have that most precious of commodities: recordings of your piece. Nothing helps promote your music like having a quality recording to share the full beauty of your piece and demonstrate it’s performability to other ensemble leaders. As a conductor, your compositional work can bring you opportunities as a guest conductor with ensembles performing your work, and as a clinician at festivals and conferences.
4. you’re missing a huge creative opportunity
Most composers would trade a kidney for the chance to have an ensemble readily available to try out new ideas. Sometimes they have to go through painful applications processes or pay a fee to have a choir do a reading of their work, but as a conductor you’ve got a ready set of guinea pigs for whatever creative notions you have. This opportunity to experiment should not be missed.
5. The choir will love it
One of the things I hear most from a choir when they do a new piece is how much they enjoy having the composer as part of the process. For those who sing in ensembles that regularly perform the conductors work, not only do they enjoy participating in the creative process, they take pride in knowing they sing for a conductor who can do it all. It’s also an opportunity for your singers to gain the kind of understanding of a piece that only the composer can provide, and since you work with them regularly, and not just as a guest for one or two rehearsals, you can go much deeper into the music than usual.
What are some of your reasons for wearing both hats? I’d love to hear your comments and questions below!
Director, See-A-Dot Music Publishing