Why commission new choral music? This photo says it all. (+ recording and interview)

In a world of on-demand music activated by buttons and wi-fi and curated lists on smartphones where people then voluntarily lock said phones in a sock to hear a concert, sometimes it seems like live music making doesn’t know what to do with itself. But don’t panic. People are more than button-pushers – we still need to connect with each other like human beings. And anyone who’s had a chance to stand in front of a passionate group like the choirs at Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School (LTCHS) in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada would agree.

Giving students and choirs a chance to make brand new music that brings people together using the basic technology of our voices in choral singing is a meaningful experience that needs to happen over and over.

Hearing “Fly On” for the first time

A few weeks ago I travelled to my hometown of Red Deer to hear the LTCHS Ladies’ Choir and Chamber Choir join forces to give the first-ever performance of a commissioned piece called “Fly On” as part of their aptly-named “Journey Home” concert. I also spent a rehearsal with choral director Lisa Friesen, pianist Erica Ortlieb and the excited students, where I heard the choir sing “Fly On” for the very first time. (Click to hear the recording.)

After the hours spent alone composing, hearing a piece for the first time feels like waking up into a dream you’ve been having repeatedly for months. It’s surreal.

I spoke to the students a bit about being a composer and about writing this piece, then participated in an enthusiastic rehearsal. Check it out:

This is why you should commission new music.
At rehearsal with the LTCHS choirs in Red Deer, Alberta.

About “Fly On” and why commissioning music is important

I wrote “Fly On”, at least in part, as a song for people who have felt misunderstood. Scored for SAB voices and piano accompaniment, its lyrical lines weave and turn over an active keyboard part that fuses melancholy and joy. Beginning and ending with the words “all shall be well,” the piece reminds me that we are not alone, that generations of the past struggled as we do to make sense of the world. (Click to see the score.)

Bringing new music from concept to reality is a rewarding experience and still too rare for many ensembles. This isn’t the first time that the LTCHS choirs have worked with composers, though, so I asked Lisa Friesen, Director of Choirs, to share her insights.

David: Why do you think commissioning and performing new pieces has been valuable for students at Lindsay Thurber?

Lisa: “It’s valuable, because – let’s face it – the genre of choral music is not exactly the most-played list on Spotify today. Sometimes I think students can get the false impression that choral music is something that happened 400 years ago but isn’t necessarily relevant in today’s world. When we include them in this valuable process, they learn that while Bach wrote some pretty incredible cantatas long ago, the choral tradition did not die with him, or Mozart, or Beethoven, etc. I think this experience with “Fly On” had a particular impact because you had strong ties to our school as a former student. My kids were able to recognize that choral music is very much alive and well, and I think this project inspired some to consider a career in music composition.

“Furthermore, it can often be a challenge to select repertoire for my performing groups. Often, I will love the sound or theme of a piece, but learn that it is too challenging or the range isn’t right, or there are too many/too few voice parts. At the same time, I may be able to find songs that meet our musical needs – but I find the tune to be cheesy or the subject matter isn’t a good fit. When I go through the process of commissioning a piece, I get to offer my criteria of range, difficulty and voicing. I can also give my ideals in terms of style or theme – and the beauty is that if we are working through the piece and something doesn’t seem right or isn’t working well, then I have the opportunity to bring that to the composer and say “what can we do about this?”, which is not really an option when I am simply ordering generic music off of J.W. Pepper.”

When I visited, the students seemed really enthusiastic about “Fly On”. What do you think they enjoyed most about the whole experience of preparing and performing a new piece?

“When I first told the students about this project, you could feel the energy in the room. Before they even heard the first note of “Fly On”, there was a very strong sense of ownership. These students knew and understood that for this short period of time, this song belonged to us alone.

“They also recognized the responsibility that we had to perform this song to our highest potential, because this was the first time it would ever be heard by an audience. When the students found out that the composer would be in that audience, it compelled them to work even harder to hone their performance.

“Of course, it was also beneficial that you used text with a theme to which the students could easily relate and the musical phrases and harmonies were written in such a way to complement their developing voices – it highlighted their strengths and downplayed their weaknesses, which made the song very enjoyable for them to sing.”

Do you have any advice for directors from other schools or choral ensembles who want to commission new pieces but aren’t sure how to begin?

“I would say that if you are interested in commissioning a choral work, the best place to start would be in conversation – if you know a composer, talk to them about this process and what you’re looking for. See if they have an interest or if they know of someone who might be better-suited to your needs. If you aren’t connected with a composer, talk with your friends who are part of the choral world and you may be surprised at how many names might come up.

“Find out what sort of budget you might need to make it happen, and then have more conversations. There could be a supporter of your program who would love to contribute to this worthwhile venture. Approach people in your community – it is really interesting to see people get excited about a project like this, and often those people aren’t who you might expect. If all else fails, put together some fundraisers to help you meet your goal.

“In this way, both your singers and your community will feel a strong sense of ownership of the finished result – and it’s a great way to bolster ticket sales. When people find out about this opportunity to hear the world premiere of a brand new piece, suddenly an ordinary choir concert becomes an exciting and exclusive event.

“If you are toying with the idea of commissioning a new work, I would highly recommend that you go through with it, as it is a benefit to directors, singers, audience members, and community members alike!”

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Listen to the recording below or on Soundcloud to hear the LTCHS Ladies’ Choir and Chamber Choir sing “Fly On”, directed by Lisa Friesen. The first sounds you’ll hear come from pianist Erica Ortberg and vocal soloist Sarah-jane Streibel. Click here to read the score. 

Contact me if you want to perform “Fly On” with your choir or are interested in commissioning a new piece.

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