Composer/performer dating advice: no, they're not rejecting you

This post is dedicated to:

  • anyone who's ever felt sheepish about self-promoting
  • anyone who shudders at the thought of sending a cold e-mail
  • composers who want more performances of their music 
  • composers who are the shy, retiring, and/or polite.  

Okay. So you've got some really fantastic pieces that aren't being performed. You're trying to get that performance train a-rolling, but it feels stuck in the station. Don't lose heart! Before you get discouraged that performers are not all throwing their panties (and commissions) at you, here are some important things to remember about them. 

1. They're extremely busy. This one is obvious, but it's important to keep in mind, so that you don't take it personally if you're being "ignored" by performers. Most performers have to turn over an extremely high volume of gigs just to survive. Their work rhythm can be frantic, with back-to-back rehearsals and a lot of driving. (For a sobering take on what it's like to be, say, a regional orchestral freelancer, check out Jason Heath's Road Warrior Without an Expense Account.) Don't be sad that they haven't commissioned you or programmed your work yet. It's mostly because they haven't had time to think about it. 

Takeaway: don't interpret performers' silence as a lack of interest. 

2. Most performers operate on an "inbound request" model. Sure, some players are go-getters who start their own ensembles and series. But most players wait for the proverbial phone to ring, check their calendars, and say yes or no. They're used to people reaching out to them -- and it's not necessarily a bad sign that they haven't yet reached out to you. 

Takeaway: be proactive in setting up performances and opportunities. 

3. Performers genuinely need help finding good music to play. Many players would be excited to be part of a premiere, or to discover your awesome duet for two alto flutes at precisely the moment they need it. The problem is that (a) they don't always know where to look for new repertoire, (b) they don't spontaneously think of you in their moment of need. In order for them to find you and your music, you must be profoundly discoverable. You must be visible. You must place yourself in front of them and say, "Hello! I may have some music that you would like." 

Takeaway: Whether online, in person, or a combination of both, you must show your face often and remind performers of your existence. Also, reaching out to performers about your music, done right, is not harassment. It might even be helpful!

4. Performers want to feel seen and appreciated. It's amazing how rare it is that a composer takes the time to say to a performer, "I really admire your work for ________ reasons. I attended the _______ thing you recently launched, and it seems really exciting. I'd love to work with you!" This simple sentiment — I admire you, I have an interest in your work, and I'd love to work together — goes a long way. Especially if it's spoken from a genuine, collegial place.  

Takeaway: Pay attention to what performers are doing. Keep your ears perked up for shared interests and opportunities to connect. Develop an understanding of who they are, and take the time to express why you think a collaboration would be fruitful. (This is also known as "striking up a professional friendship.")

5. Performers want to feel engaged in the creative process. Making one's way in the world as an instrumentalist can sometimes feel like being a hamster on a wheel, churning out performances and moving on to the next. Performing a living artist's work is, at its best, a chance to step out of that monotony and be part of creation. The first time I prepared and premiered a new work, in the presence of a living composer, changed my life. (Thanks, Dr. Slayton!) It was so exciting to hear his insights, see his face light up when something went well, and know that I was bringing his creation to life. Ultimately, this is still one of the biggest things motivating my participation in contemporary music. 

Takeaway: bring performers into the creative fold, early in your process. If you've got some sketches for a new idea, share them with the person whom you'd love to give the premiere. If you'd like feedback on a draft, take your favorite saxophonist out to lunch. Treat performers as the smart, generous experts they can be, and you may see them turn into allies, advocates, and friends.