I was going to hold off a few weeks on this promotional solution, but a recent experience convinced me to move it up in the rotation.

As anyone who follows me on Facebook or Twitter knows, I recently had a half dozen of my a cappella choral works recorded by an excellent choir in the Midwest, and I’ll be making those commercially available under my own label once the recording guys are done working their magic.

I sang with this choir, the Illinois State University Madrigal Singers, from my first semester as a freshman at ISU in 2000 until I graduated in 2004, during which time the group commissioned several works from me. Since then, the ensemble has continued to commission me and perform older pieces of mine regularly, and over the past 12 years I’ve built a very strong relationship with the choir and its directors.

By working so extensively with the choir, I’ve gotten a number of opportunities that I wouldn’t otherwise have had: they frequently perform pieces of mine at festivals and conferences, which exposes my choral music to a much wider audience of listeners and potential performers; I’ve gotten some excellent live recordings; and over the past two weeks, they toured parts of Europe, performing my music on a number of exciting concerts.

By pairing with a performer or an ensemble, you greatly increase your chances to be seen and heard. As with composers who create collectives, each composer and performer brings their own audiences to the table, and provided that both of you are promoting the collaboration, each stands to gain a significant new following. By making the collaboration last for years, you’re increasing the likelihood that the performer’s or ensemble’s fans will come to have a deeper understanding and appreciation of your work, and hopefully follow your career, as well as increasing the likelihood that your followers will become long-term fans of the performers because of the dedication they’ve shown to your music.

These partnerships, of course, don’t spring up overnight. And they take nurturing.

I always view them as friendships with a musical component.

As with any relationship, these collaborations are subtle, nuanced things that require attention and reciprocity, as well as genuine mutual respect and good feeling.

There’s no one path to creating them, but I can say with certainty that there’s no forcing the connection.

In my own experience, you find performers – who are often friends to begin with – that are kindred spirits, and the professional relationship develops from there.

Possibly the easiest time and place to make these connections is during your formal education – any school that has a composition program will undoubtedly have performers running around, many of whom you’ll probably share classes with. (Obviously, this situation favors younger composers – those of us who are out of an academic setting won’t have the same access without seeming like creepy Uncle Touchy with his windowless van and promises of candy.) In this setting, it’s generally simpler to connect with performers with whom you may build years- or even life- long connections.

For those of us out of school, things get markedly more difficult insofar as most performers we meet are just as busy building their careers as we are, and we may not immediately fit into their plans for world domination success. As a result, we have to be more creative in our approaches to finding performers, and at the same time be more careful and tactful.

In my own experience, the performers who I’ve collaborated with typically have started as friends who I met outside of academia – usually through other friends or former teachers. Without exception, I have always viewed each of them as friends first, which I think is the key to the longevity of our personal and professional relationships. Which is to say: while I may have wanted them to perform my works early in our friendships, I never expected it, and never allowed it to be an ulterior motive in maintaining the connection.

I know I tend to push this idea a lot, but it’s at the heart of my personal philosophy of navigating the concert music world: the strongest connections are personal ones.

Also, when I’m interested in collaborating with a new performer, I never ask them to perform my music and expect them shoehorn it into their repertoire. Instead, I invite them to perform on a program that I’m producing (always paid!), or I ask them if they would be willing to record a piece of mine (again, paid!). I try to approach these situations with the mindset that (contrary to popular belief) performing my music isn’t the highest priority in someone else’s life – especially if we don’t know one another well -, and being paid for a gig might be a good incentive to learn the piece (and hopefully come to like it during the process).

Of course, I’m (maybe a little overly) cautious out of concern that I not come off as pushy. And “pushy” is not “me”. (Although I have been described once as “affably pushy”, which I can dig.)

But we’re not really talking about how to get performers to perform your music. </tangent>

By building collaborative relationships with performers, you not only gain the benefits of cross-promotion, you also get the benefit of creating an intensely personal body of work for that individual or ensemble, which can be incredibly rewarding. It’s a great opportunity to learn the ins and outs of a particular (set of) instrument(s), and the quirks of the performers. David Del Tredici often says that his vocal music would be infinitely simpler – and consequently less interesting and rewarding – if he hadn’t had the opportunity to work so extensively with Phyllis Bryn-Julson, who could sing with absolute ease the incredibly demanding vocal lines he’d concocted. I think my own choral works would be less interesting if I’d not had such an excellent choir to work with over so many years.

And again, for those composers with hangups about being able to talk about their own work, you can spend your time talking about the performers you’re working with, and the joys of your collaborations, to make things easier on yourself.

I write the Composer’s Guide here, taking time away from my composing to do so. If this post helped you in any way, please leave a tip or a small donation on the way out. If you can’t afford to donate, please pass this chapter along to someone who you think might get some help from it.

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