Compose for Youth Orchestras!

While many composers dream for a chance to hear their music played by a symphony orchestra, it remains an unfortunate reality that all too few will have the chance to do so. For American composers in particular, managing to get a new work for orchestral forces performed (or even read) can be a daunting task, to say the least; and while it’s true that a few major orchestras have made vigorous commissioning of new music a priority, the field has become so saturated that few organizations are motivated to take the risk of working with a neophyte. How, then, is a composer intent on gaining experience with orchestral writing to ply his or her craft?

To this end, I can’t recommend youth and school orchestras enough as potential collaborators for less-established composers hungry for experience. I make this recommendation, first of all, because it’s how I cut my own teeth, and I count my experiences composing for youth orchestras to be among those that best prepared me for making the transition from student to young professional. All together I’ve composed four works for youth orchestras: two for the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra, one for orchestra and chorus commissioned through the New York Youth Symphony’s FirstMusic program, and one for massed strings written for the Suzuki Association of America. Each of these experiences was rewarding in its own way, but I’ve tried to distill them all into some general comments:

  • Unlike professional orchestras, the ultimate artistic directorship of youth orchestras usually rests squarely on the shoulders on the conductor; this means that there’s no board or artistic staff to wade through, and you might actually be able to accomplish something by meeting with the conductor—even if you don’t necessarily have any clout as a big-shot composer. In addition, many youth orchestras see experience with contemporary music as something beneficial for their members.

  • Technically, many youth orchestras are on par with regional or community orchestras; in fact I recall the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra as actually sounding significantly better than the adult nonprofessional ensembles in the area. And since the young performers aren’t paid (and in many cases pay membership fees themselves), they’re all playing presumably because they want to, and in general they may be more open to trying new things than any other kind of ensemble.

  • The operational schedule of most youth orchestra would seem to be ideally suited for composers. Most will put on a few concerts each year, with ample weekend rehearsals beginning at least a month or two before the next concert. When I received my second commission from the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra, I ended up composing a largely graphic score full of extended techniques that a professional orchestra never could have put together in the 25 minutes or so they would have allotted for rehearsing it; the same piece was rehearsed by the youth orchestra for about 25 minutes each weekend, with a grand total of twelve rehearsals plus sectionals. I would have never been able to attempt something so adventurous and detailed had I been composing for a major orchestra, so the idea that writing for young players would be “limiting” is hogwash—quite the contrary, I’ve found that with professional orchestras the limitations imposed by scant rehearsal time vastly outweigh any supposed benefits in the ensemble’s technical skills.
  • Right now as school gets underway, the youth orchestra season is just beginning and it might be time to get that old (or newly completed!) unperformed orchestra piece in shape to show to your local conductor. If you’re looking to develop skill and reputation as a budding orchestral composer, it’s probably a better plan than cold-mailing a stack of scores into the aether.

    4 thoughts on “Compose for Youth Orchestras!

    1. philmusic

      “..I can’t recommend youth and school orchestras enough as potential collaborators for less-established composers hungry for experience.”

      I like your posts. Really I do. Its just that here I think your tone seems directed at a classroom of the select few rather than the many thousands who might read these posts. The fact you have been commissioned 4 times in this area is a marvelous thing but I wonder how many of us can duplicate it. Yes I know that visualization can be the key to success, but there are many different kinds of success aren’t there?

      Of course you have to tell the truth. Its just a matter of tone. Actually if I have a bone to pick about this it has mostly been with the posts of the performers, whom seem unaware that, most likely, they will never perform our music.

      The assumption that we are all fans and not supplicants.

      Stymied at that.

      Phil Fried, philfried.com,who swears hes not bitter

      Reply
    2. philmusic

      It is my observation that most doors open when a phone call from third party smooths the way.

      Cold calls don’t work.

      Phil Fried, philfried.com,who still swears hes not bitter

      Reply
    3. rtanaka

      Actually if I have a bone to pick about this it has mostly been with the posts of the performers, whom seem unaware that, most likely, they will never perform our music.

      For those people who don’t have institutional support to rely on (which makes the most of us here, I think), the way to get pieces performed is to make friends with performers who are interested in performing new music. They can be a rarity but if you look hard enough there are some of them around. Provided that you are respectful of them and their approaches to performance-practice (which imo is a type of training that seems to lacking in most composition education programs), they’ll usually ask to work with you again.

      Personally I’ve been cut off from the sorts of avenues that they told me might have been viable while I was going to school, but I’ve been lucky enough to have a few of my pieces premiered recently because I have a circle of friends that have strong motivations to create and perform new music. They play my piece, maybe then in return I might perform theirs, or have their piece performed in a concert that I’ve organized, etc. That’s kind of how it works — I don’t think a lot of them really expect monatary compensation, but you do have to at least be able to offer something in return somehow.

      If you want to write for orchestra, probably the best place to start would be community orchestras or student orchestras (not necessarily one of those top “youth” ones) and just go with that. Cold calls don’t tend to work with established ensembles but a lot of music directors in smaller schools are willing to look at new scores since it would be a good experience for the students and performers. I think it’s important to be realistic about these sorts of things, even if it means having to adjust to certain contexts and skill levels that may be less than ideal at times.

      Then there’s always the option of performing your works yourself, which more and more people seem to be doing these days anyway. That’s mainly how I stay busy these days, since it makes putting on a show a much easier task.

      Reply
    4. rtanaka

      Course, maybe the real issue isn’t about the music but about prestige — granted, youth orchestras might be a “step-down” from professional ones, but they’re still a highly visible ensemble since they’re supposed to represent the future’s best and brightest in music. Getting commissioned by one is still a very high honor; looks good on your c.v. and it’ll give you some bragging rights among some circles, maybe. I don’t think this place was really meant to be where struggling composers gets professional advice and it seems unrealistic to expect it to fulfill that function…I use this site now mostly to get an idea on what the east coast is thinking and promoting.

      Though I do get the feeling that a lot of composers have a tendency to take things for granted and it shows in the types of gestures that they write. It might not be outright incompetence (though that happens more often than it should) but most often it comes in a sort of bland, unfocused approach that comes with knowing that there will always be a “next time”. Maybe some of them ought to be starved a bit to instill that sense of urgency — or maybe if they felt like they had something important to say, they would treat the process with more respect. At that level the composer should be asking what they have to offer to the ensemble rather than the other way around.

      Reply

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