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Grow Your Own Repertoire – a beginner’s guide to commissioning new work

  • June 11, 2014

My favorite source for new repertoire is my choir’s own community. Having directed choirs at several skill levels and in various locations, I have learned that almost any choral community is standing in soil favorable for the cultivation of local repertoire. Accepting this assumption will reveal its possibilities; pursuing those possibilities will nourish the sense of identity and purpose shared by your singers and their audience members. Here is how I found myself beginning:

In 1990 I founded a hometown treble chorus, one of whose purposes was to discover and celebrate the musical creativity of Everywoman. Hearing that a local businesswoman I knew had turned in a promising composition for a theory class she was taking on the side, I asked to see the piece, and on its strength I commissioned her. Although she felt unqualified, she accepted, ultimately delivering a challenging and satisfying piece that has remained in the group’s repertoire. This was the first time, but not the last, that we performed repertoire created by a community member who had never identified as a composer; and following this, even experienced composers began to gift us with their pieces.

Based on other strategies that have worked for me, I offer the following suggestions:

  • Commission a new piece from a composer who has some connection with you, a singer, or a supporter.
  • Inaugurate any commission project by publicly dedicating significant seed money from your own pocket. Sowing this intention will reap others’ happy participation.
  • In selecting a composer, consider:

-someone who is also an ensemble singer.

-someone whose works you have enjoyed as a performer.

-someone familiar with you or the group who can choose a text that speaks to your interests or concerns.

-someone who can write to your singers’ strengths and weaknesses.

  • If your choir is situated within an educational institution, you can grow local repertoire for free; your investment in student composing is part of your pedagogical contribution to the school.
  • Invite students in any composition classes to submitpieces for your consideration.
  • Ask to see anything a choir member might feel compelled to write for vocal ensemble.
  • If you program a student work, consider whether that student is also capable of preparing the piece in rehearsal and conducting it in performance.
  • Also free of cost: pursue any urge you might have to create for your own singers; no one knows their voices and musicianship better than you, and the result could be a surpassingly organic experience for everyone.
  • Invite the community (singers, audience) to submit texts they would like to see you set.
  • Identify locally cherished songwriter/performers and peruse their repertoires for material that lends itself to choral arrangement.

To invite people to sing together is to help them offer the best of themselves to others and to receive others’ best. Inevitably, someone party to that exquisite communication is moved to contribute to the language being shared. When the opportunity to do so is open to the singers and their audiences, beautiful pieces are born in unexpected places and performed with unequalled commitment.

Kristina BoergerKristina Boerger explores the vocal ensemble art from all possible vantage points.  She has directed groups at every skill level ranging from the 7th-grade choir at Washington Jr. High in Kenosha, WI, to Chanticleer. She has taught choral conducting and literature in the liberal-arts college and to master’s and doctoral students at the Manhattan School of Music and the University of Illinois. Her commissions have been recorded on the Tzadik and Harmonia mundi labels, and her own compositions appear in the catalog of Boosey & Hawkes. As a chamber singer she has concertized nationally and abroad and recorded for Pomerium, Early Music New York, Bobby McFerrin, and more  Having researched and written her magnum opus on the politics of music and cultural identity, she now serves as editor for authors developing scholarly articles on choral music. She will drive several hours to attend a concert of good vocal ensemble music well sung. For details, please visit:  www.kristinaboerger.com.

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