Composing for Middle and High School Choirs A Conversation with Laura Farnell and Reginal Wright – Part 2

Mark Rohwer • ChoralCornerMay 2024 • May 5, 2024

Describe the publishing process for you. Is there anything about it you think conductors or teachers might not be aware of? 

Farnell: Once a piece is completed in Finale, I will submit it to the publisher for consideration. Something that was surprising to me, is the length of time from the initial conception of a piece to the actual availability. Once a composition is written and submitted, months may pass until an editor or editorial board review it. Once accepted for publication, a contract and “proofs” are generated. When proof corrections are complete, the piece moves to the printing and recording phase, and then is finally available for purchase. This process takes many months, even a year, and involves many people. Finally, directors and singers might be surprised to learn composers generally receive 10% of the sales of pieces. The other 90% pays the salaries of the editors, engravers, marketers, business personnel, marketing costs, etc. I wanted to highlight that to remind everyone to purchase enough copies for each singer in their choir. If a piece of music costs $2 and a director purchases only five copies and then photocopies the remainder, the composer receives only $1. 

Wright: For the most part, publishing has been good to me. I am still learning the ins and outs of the business, though. The standard percentage for the composer is 10%, therefore things like photocopying lessen the number of units sold, which hurts everyone involved in the process. This results in higher costs for printed/downloaded music. 

How would you advise conductors or teachers go about finding, perusing, or studying your work, or the work of other composers? 

Farnell: The internet has made so much music so accessible, even overwhelmingly so at times! But it’s a wonderful resource for recordings and more. I think finding the right “fit” of literature for your choir and their ability level might be the most important step in setting up an ensemble for a successful performance. Another important factor is to select music you personally enjoy. If you aren’t excited about a piece of music, motivating your singers to enjoy it will be especially challenging. 

Wright: The internet is wonderful in allowing not only the ability to learn about composers, but also the ability to communicate with living composers. Most composers would be more than happy to do a workshop or Q&A with choirs via Zoom for free or for a small fee. Also, most composers have personal websites where their entire catalogs are listed and available to sample or purchase.

What would you say to a conductor who wants to alter ranges, reduce parts, etc., in a piece that you’ve composed? 

Farnell: In adjudicated choral contest setting, I’d advise against it. But I have certainly altered other writers’ compositions and arrangements to make them work for my singers more times than I can count! I suppose some composers might not like the idea of people altering their work, but I personally view this practice as a compliment. I think, “Wow! Someone likes my music enough to spend time adapting it to use in their situation.” That said, if you find a situation-specific need for, say, a treble version of an SATB piece already in print, I’d encourage you to reach out to the composer or publisher with the idea. Sometimes these suggestions highlight a need or spark an idea that results in a new voicing or composition. 

Wright: Have at it! My primary goal is for the choir to be successful. In many cases, if they contact me, I could help with that in terms of lowering/raising keys or suggesting alternate voicings. 

What advice would you give to a conductor who has purchased a piece you have composed? 

Farnell: I think my advice would be similar for any piece of choral music: study the piece so you can help your singers find the patterns as they learn, try to help your singers find an emotional connection or learn a lesson from the message of the text and music, and enjoy the learning process. 

Wright: First, work to make the music your own. Next… TEXT, TEXT, TEXT! The words of the song are everything to me. Last, please look for every detail within music. This includes dynamics, syllabic stress, articulations, and suggested tone, and so much more. 

What would you say to other choral artists who are interested in composing? 

Farnell: “Please do!” The creative process is such a beautiful and uniquely human one, and sharing what is in your heart and mind with others is such a gift! I especially encourage directors of developing choirs, and most especially tenor-bass changing voice choirs, to try to create art that can be used with that age group. I’d also say to find ways to have choirs perform your pieces and to ask directors and colleagues you respect to peruse your work. Finally, be intentional about finding the appropriate publishing “niche” for your submission. Just because a composition is not selected for publication does not mean the piece isn’t a good one! Perhaps the piece needs some adjustments. Or perhaps the piece itself is great, but the publisher has already filled their catalog slot for the “2-part slow winter lyrical” piece for that season. 

Wright: Write as much as possible. Share your music with others. Ask friends to perform your works. Publishing isn’t the end-all, but it will allow you to get your music into places you otherwise wouldn’t be able to access. Be willing to take suggestions and change accordingly.

Reprinted from ChorTeach with permission of ACDA.

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