No Response: What does it really mean in the Classical Music World?

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'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.

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.

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 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.


    Anonymous said…
    When you think of the amount of time a conductor spends on the score that he has programmed, perhaps he feels that it would take an effort of similar scale to properly review something unsolicited - and this would be a rather large imposition.

    The people in publishing who make the decision to actually put a book into production don't read everything that comes in - assistant editors do that and a book works its way up the organization having been read several times.

    Because the conductor is usually the music director, he has to decide, program and prepare everything - so new works are going to get very little attention in such a system.

    I wonder if it makes sense to send some sort of condensed or reduced score - or a CD realization. Something a conductor could look at or listen to while traveling. Or maybe orchestras should consider having a knowledgeable person assigned to sort through incoming scores with the power to recommend them upward.
    Chip Michael said…

    Absolutely, conductors are under a great strain to keep up with music they're conducting (often several concerts in a single week) plus, preparing new music, schedules, seasons... they have a lot on their plate. I do not want to add to their already full schedule - which is why we need to figure out a process by which composers can actually get their music to the right people in the right way to get seen and yet, not over-whelm the people trying to keep the tasks they have from falling apart.

    You're right again, the publishing industry has something in place to keep the actual editors from being overwhelmed - and it's sad the classical music industry doesn't have that (it should!). But that takes money and organizations are already struggling. So, what can we do???

    When I send a score, I also send a CD of a midi realization, of the best 2 mins (with a note as to where that is in the score) and a full length track if they want to hear more. This is based on a recommendation from Marin Alsop herself (who BTW, is VERY GOOD about getting back to composers).

    What I think is reasonable is for musicians who get a score to take 15 seconds and say they got it. That alone would be a vast improvement and doesn't actually require they look at it. This small step would be an acknowledgement. As DikshaShanu said in a tweet today. "Worse than being rejected is being ignored."

    Maybe if orchestras could have their librarians take on the roll of reviewing new scores, even just 10 mins to listen to the CD and decide it if needs to go further - and reply to the composer.

    Again, citing Marin, she says she gets 6-8 scores a month. Would that be too much for a librarian to review and respond? AND, if an orchestra doesn't want to receive scores, or they only accept them at certain times of the year, they could post that on their website.

    --- I don't know the answer.

    As a composer, I'd like to know the best way to get my music into the hands of people who will actually look at it. AT the same time, I don't want to bother people who just don't have the time --I understand being busy.

    As part of a professional orchestra's staff, I understand the excessive amount of work we try and accomplish already and loathe having someone stack something else on my desk.

    Thanks for the comment... Somewhere out there is a solution!

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