Advice for performers on working with composers

Collaborative performer and musicologist Heather Roche wrote on her blog detailing some Advice for young composers about collaborating with performers, especially groups of performers.

It’s an informed and well written article with some great advice that should definitely be followed to the letter by any composer entering into workshop or collaborative situation, and hits a nerve for me as I think back on my own successful and less successful workshop experiences.

At the moment there’s a culture of composer “opportunities” aimed at young and emerging composers, headed up by large arts bodies such as the HCMF, Sound And Music, the PRSF and various orchestras and new music groups. Heather’s article got me thinking about what advice I could give from the other side of the isle. Although I am no longer a “young” composer, I was once!

I aim to make this constructive, and not moany. It’s too easy to complain about your own bad experiences, and I’ll try just to present some rational behind why composers are how they are.


I guess I should be out in the open and say that it’s rare for a lot of composers to reach a deadline. There are performers that set the deadline early to compensate for this, and I suppose that this is fair game.

It’s down to a number of factors, not least of which is teaching yourself the profession as you go along.

You can insert your own arguments here about not rushing creativity, and you have to bear in mind that if the composer is workshopping with you, chances are they have never used your line up.

Composers also have to do a substantial amount of extra work making their scores readable and presentable. It all adds up.

My advice for organisers is to be realistic about timescale, and the nature of material the composers are submitting. If there is to be a performance, then the workshop needs to be at least a month before the performance, so that last minute problems can be resolved.

If it is a workshop, be prepared for materials to be late and sometimes badly prepared. Your average composer has several projects on the go at any one time and has to prioritise the polished, proof-read work for the actual performances.Speaking of which:

First performances suck

First performances almost never do the piece justice. It takes a good couple of performances for the work to get under the performer’s fingers.

So much importance is put on the premiere of the work in a grandiose setting that the quality of the performance gets lost somewhere. It’s natural that this is the case and more experienced composers tend to know what to expect.

Consider putting on at least two performances, no matter what your feelings are about the piece. Funding organisations such as the RVW Trust make it a condition of their support.

Equally though, although a composer will soon get wise to this and take every performance with a grin and a firm handshake, for a young composer who has put his heart and soul into a piece, this can be crushing.

Performers – go easy on them! If a more experienced composer gets grumpy, feel free to take him to pieces.

Don’t hate me! I need you to like me!

For young composers, building up a network of musical peers, encouraging commissions, especially internationally and among the bigger arts organisations is of paramount importance. So much so that it can turn the often already-socially-awkward into nervous wrecks.

In such states mistakes are made, wrong things are said and bad impressions are made. It is the way of it. It not only affects their attitude and their approach, but also their composition, and the biggest mistake that composers often make is trying to over-compensate for this, stop writing what they want to write, and start writing what they think *you* want them to write.

My best advice for this is not to judge a composer by these first fleeting impressions. Sure, some composers are able to make a good impression from the off and this can lead to some good things, but try not to write people off this readily. Imagine meeting them in a bar a year later and chatting about the weather.

Organisers – for your funders, you may have to make a Big Deal out of the thing you are doing, but it would help composers if you lowered their expectations as to what may result from the scheme. Whether any performance anywhere leads to any commissions or other useful things is as random as the weather.


Performers – composers workshop things usually because they do not know if it will work. Expect to have to do unusual things. A good example of a performer gripe is feeling that they are not being heard. Ask the composer if you can be heard and if the dynamic is right if you feel this is the case.

Often the composer is after something specific. Do not get upset if what the composer is asking is not possible, or you are not comfortable with it.

The best approach is to tell them nicely why, and engage in a friendly debate about it. Getting angry and pontificating about it can come across as patronising, and I do not consider it to be constructive.

Notation, notation, notation.

In my mind, this is the main way in which performers hijack workshops when they feel that there isn’t enough to talk about.

That may be unfair, but I’ve witnessed workshops where a whole session has been taken to berating a composer for bad notational skills, and then an adjacent session praising a composer for *good* notational skills. In neither session was any meaningful work done on the music itself.

The best composers workshops are I think composer led, as there is more chance of something positive coming out of it for the composer (whom it is arguably for).

Performers – it is a good idea and perfectly right that the composer should know when there is something wrong with the notation. Ideally, the best way to deal with this is to clear up only the bare minimum essentials in the workshop itself, and then afterwards, over a coffee, going through any other points that you feel you need to get off your chest.

Praise is nice, but keep it short.

Who pays the piper?

Although, nowadays, you’re a fool if you go into composition expecting it to be a paid job, it’s worth remembering that although the opportunity *is* a good thing for the composer, they rarely receive any remuneration for their work.

This affects several things. The most noteworthy is exactly how much time they have to spend on the composition itself. Usually, composers have to work really hard to support their work, and really hard on the work itself.

Bare this in mind when it comes to deadlines, and demanding part re-writes or anything else. I make no assumptions about what you are paid, but whereas it might seem like hard work to get a piece a month before a concert, have to practice hard and spend your time workshopping, it’s probably 2-4 months less work than that which the composer has put in, and you’re much more likely to be paid, even if it doesn’t feel like a lot.

Who’s doing what, and for whom?

Composing opportunities are for the composers, right? Everything is done for their benefit, and to promote them. Wrong. Everyone benefits from these things. Performers – it may feel like your average paid gig, but to the Organisers it’s “Promoting talented new performers in the New Music Field” and “encouraging growth and networking through workshop events”.

To the ensemble leaders, it’s a prestigious event and lots of exposure. To the organisers, it’s a way of attracting large amounts of funding, especially when the EU is involved. Although it may have “composer” stamped on the title, don’t kid yourself that composers are benefitting any more or less than you, which brings me to my next point:

We’re all in the same boat

It’s too easy to fall into the “Us” and “Them” attitude. Composers are often performers too.

It’s crazy to think that you may know a composer from college who occasionally calls you up to ask advice about technique, or try something out, and yet you might greet a similar inquiry from a nervous composer in a workshop with scorn.

Imagine how you would feel trying to get one of your favourite mainstream composers (whom you don’t know) to write a piece for you, and you’re about halfway to how we feel about the ice wall that often exists between composers and performers.

New performers need the exposure just as much as composers do, and the chatting up has to happen on both sides of the isle if you want to get composers to help promote you.

If you’ve got to the point where it’s just money for sitting in a room playing something, then perhaps you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.

I think that just about covers it for now. Let me know what you think and if you feel I’ve been unfair. I enjoy debates 🙂

Cover Image: Me rehearsing material with Trio Atem. Photo by Nik Morris

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