We live in a civilized world, and part of being civilized is being polite. I wonder, however, if classical musicians have developed the habit of being too polite.
I've made lots of comparisons to the classical music world and the publishing world. Partly, this is because my wife is an author and I see firsthand the process of getting new work noticed, but mostly as a process of trying to understand how the classical music world works (or doesn't). I don't know if I'm any closer to understanding, but some possibilities have occurred to me recently.
As a composer, I am constantly trying to get my music played. There are several conductors who like and perform pieces I've written (even commissioned new works). This is good. Wanting to gain a wider audience, I've sent dozens of scores to other conductors often getting no response --not even an "Thanks, but I'm not interested at this time."
I've been called narcissistic, and perhaps wanting feedback is a form of narcissism. But in the book publishing world, if you send a query letter or a manuscript to an agent or a publisher, 9 times out of 10, you'll get a response. Even a "thanks, but not at this time" is better than nothing at all.
When I don't get a response I'm left wondering: Did the conductor get the score, or did the orchestral librarian (or some other admin) just file it away? Has the conductor been out of town and/or just too busy to get to it? Did they see it but weren't interested (for whatever reason), and in an attempt to be polite, chose not to say anything? The first couple of possibilities suggest conductors are extremely busy and just don't have the time to respond. The last suggests our civilized society believes no response is better than saying no.
Here are some experiences I've had with professional musicians and attempts on my part to get comments from them regarding my music.
I sent a score to a professional conductor who often programs new music. Unfortunately, the only address I have is through this conductor's agent. In the envelope with the score, I included a note asking for an email from the agent saying they'd received the score and it had been forwarded on to the conductor. A month later, after hearing nothing, I emailed the agent asking if they'd received it. "Yes, Chip, it arrived and we sent it on," was the entire email.I'm OK with someone telling me they don't like my music. Sure, I want everyone to love it as much as I do, but I'm realistic enough to know that's not going to happen. Some people like Mozart, some find his music boring. Some people like Beethoven, Brahms or Mahler, while still others think anything written before 1930 is old and stuffy. People have different opinions.
I'd become familiar with a professional musician, if only to the point of saying hello to each other by name in the hall. I'd asked this musician to look over a concerto I'd written. My hope was that he'd like it to the point he'd want to play it, but even just feedback on what works/what doesn't would have been nice. A month later I'd heard nothing. I spoke to the musician again and he said he hadn't gotten around to it yet. Ok, to me that implies he was at least intending on looking at it. Almost two months later I had an opportunity for a portion of the concerto to be performed. This non-professional performer said sections were unplayable. I went back to the professional for clarification and finally got a response. The professional musician admired what I'd written and spoke highly of the craft, yet difficulty of the piece --playable, yes, but only by the cream of the crop. This response was very valuable to me.
I was introduced to a local conductor of a first rate semi-professional orchestra via a mutual professional musician friend. My initial email to this conductor got a response asking for more information about my music. So, I sent more information. A month later I sent a query asking if they had any questions or comments. Another month went by and I sent another query copying my friend --and to date still no response.
One of my lecturers once told me the music education industry has changed dramatically since she was in school. Now, it's important for teachers to be supportive and not overly critical. Ack!!! How are we supposed to learn if we are not critiqued? In my own studies I found the "kind" comments about my music frustrating. I wanted to know what worked and what didn't. The 'nice' comments really didn't help, and the lack of specific critique left me with too many questions. For example: during work on an orchestral work, at no point in time did my instructor comment on the problem of cross rhythms for an orchestra. He/she even suggested it wasn't a challenging enough piece for a professional orchestra to consider. Thinking this meant it would be good for a community level orchestra, I submitted it. During the performance, by a community orchestra that played Brahms 4th reasonably well, my own piece was just short of a train wreck. The conductor told me after the concert, my music is deceptively difficult. It looks easy on the page, but putting it together is extremely difficult. The orchestra spent the same amount of time on my piece (10 mins of performance time) as they did on the final movement of the Brahms (9.5 mins), yet (according to the conductor) they should have spent twice that amount of time in rehearsal to do the piece justice.
On yet another occasion I asked a professional conductor to look over one of my pieces, even offered to pay him for his time. He asked for a bottle of wine, so I gave him a very nice old vine Zinfandel. A month later, no response. Two months later when I asked about it, he got rather testy saying he'd been busy. Three months later when I asked if I could have the score back, (scores are expensive to produce), he acted as if I'd somehow insulted him. A year later and he is charming and friendly as if the event never took place, but he still hasn't commented on the work.
Here are some suggestions I would like to make to conductors, conductor's agents, musical directors and performers in terms of responding to composers:
A composer takes the time to produce a clean score, to print, bind and mail it to a conductor asking for consideration - it would be helpful to let the composer know you've received the score and when they can expect a reply. If you know on first glance you're not going to consider it, say "Sorry, but not at this time." If you don't want to ever get unsolicited scores, say so. If you don't want your personal email or address known, have your agent, your orchestra's admin or a friend (acting like your agent or admin) respond.
Composers take a lot of time writing the music you have received. They spent money printing, binding and mailing it. We also realize that without the wonderful artists willing to play our music, it would never get heard. Similar to the publishing industry, I believe that an more responsive query system will be positive for both conductors and composers. Responding to an honest appeal for consideration can help us to know whether we should continue to send music your way.
On a personal note, I've recently had a spate of great luck getting responses from musicians regarding my piano preludes. Dr. Gail Fischler started it with her review on her blog pianoaddict.com. Erica Sipes said of the Preluds, "Beautiful colors - mesmerizing! Do take a listen." followed by another comment by Jason of Jazz and Liberal politics blog. Prior to that I had a review by Anne Ku on one of my piano duets. Plus I have several commissions in the works and a number of nibbles from others who haven't "officially" put anything in writing but are likely to want something in the coming months.