Friday, July 6, 2018

10 Lessons I Learned While Hiking

10 Lessons I Learned While Hiking
By Matt Vangjel

Recently, my wife, Jena, and I were hiking the Face Trail up to Table Mountain just outside
Grand Teton National Park. This trail had been recommended to us by my fellow Mirari
trumpet player, Alex Noppe. He told us it would be a challenging hike, but that the view
made it worth it. When Jena and I realized how cloudy it would be by the time we got to
the top of the mountain, she made a joke about how it parallelled the career of a musician.
So, thanks to her, on the way down my brain started applying many of our experiences on
the hike to being a musician, student, teacher, and human. In no particular order, here are
some of my thoughts.

1. You can never be too prepared.
This one seems pretty obvious and easy to apply to ourselves as musicians. The thing I want to stress here is, are you even close to being what some consider “too prepared?” Sometimes we think we are prepared but it turns out there are some very obvious things that we’re missing (like an extra pair of socks). So, what are you missing in your preparation? Are you satisfied with being prepared “enough”? What if you’re wrong about what “enough” is?

2. Belief in yourself is more powerful than you know.
Many of the reviews of the hike I read in preparation, especially the ones posted in May and June, mentioned that the hikers had had to turn around because they lost the trail in the snow. For some reason, though, Jena and I had no doubts. Alex had said we’d be fine, we both had hiking boots and are relatively fit people; “we’ve got this,” we thought.
It is possible that if we had known just how hard that hike was going to be, we would’ve said, “you know, maybe not today.” We even had a point where we thought about turning
around, but we agreed that neither one of us would be the one to say uncle. We did
successfully complete the hike, which means we could do it. But how many times do
we just *know* that we can’t do something and so we don’t even try? Sometimes all we
have is believing. Sometimes that’s all you need.

3. Use the tools at your disposal.
We talked to someone who had successfully completed the hike and who gave us the
confidence to take on the challenge. But the most important tool we had was our
phones. We had the trail on our map app and a blue dot (thank you, GPS) that kept us
heading in the right direction and helped us not to stray too far from the trail.

Again, this is an obvious parallel. Your phone is a recorder, metronome, tuner, tone
generator, and more! All of those applications help keep you on track. How many times
a week do you ignore the metronome and just tap your foot? How many times do you
get a pretty good sound and assume that you’re in tune? What if the consequences were
as dire as losing your way on a strenuous and dangerous hike? Maybe they are.

4. Expect snow.
Something you should know about reviews on hiking websites and apps is that some of
these people might as well be professionals. “A bit of snow” to one person is like a blizzard to another (Minnesota vs. Louisiana). We assumed there would be maybe ankle-high snow. We were very wrong. We could see snow at the top of the mountains, so why did we think there would be so little?

What warnings are you receiving and possibly ignoring? I am aware that I just recently
said our blind faith and belief in ourselves was what propelled us forward and helped
us to be successful. But if we had heeded the warnings, we definitely could have been
more prepared (see: Lesson 1).

5. Let music inspire you.
About half a mile from the top, I was sure that I was dying. I had to stop about every ten
steps and rest for at least a minute. Every time I rested, up to my knees in snow, I was
reminded that I had standing water in my shoes, up to my ankles. Needless to say, for
someone who lives at sea level in a very warm climate, 10,000 ft. and 40 degrees was
not exactly comfortable. It was at one of these moments where I was gasping for air and
trying to tell myself I could make it that I turned to Jena and said, “I might need some
of that inspirational music now.”

Jena has a playlist she uses before races and auditions that helps her feel powerful and confident (think Summon the Heroes and Fanfare for the Common Man). Besides beautifully
fitting the scenery around us, it helped us push on.

Sometimes when we’re in the practicing trenches, it’s hard to remember why we do
what we do. Stay inspired every day by listening to great music. It doesn’t always have to
be John Williams and Aaron Copland, but they do have great trumpet parts.

6. You will fall (fail). Fall well.
At one point on the hike, I slipped on an icy log and fell into the snow. I was inches away
from having my leg stuck under this large log and probably broken. I was very lucky, but I
did not fall well.

Later, when we were hiking down the mountain, Jena fell. Well, it didn’t look like a fall,
it was more like, she started to fall and then sat down. She fell well. We do the same thing
when we’re performing. It may seem like a defeatist mentality, to practice failing, but think
of it as practicing recovering. The other part of failing well is not flailing about and getting
yourself into an even worse situation. Sometimes the best thing to do is to accept the fall
gracefully and artistically recover. You’ve heard people do it before, make it part of your
preparation as well.

7. The view at the top isn’t always clear.
It took us five hours of grueling hiking to get to the top of Table Mountain. Once at the top,
you are so close to Grand Teton that you feel like you could throw a rock and hit it. By all
accounts, the hike is worth it for the view at the top. Except, when we got there, the
clouds had rolled in and we couldn’t see the peaks of the three tallest mountains or anything
behind them. All that work and no payoff! We laughed about it and hung around long enough
to eat some food and wring out our soaking socks, but the clouds only got thicker and the view
was more obstructed. So, was it worth it?

Setting goals is hugely important. Sometimes our goals are visible and tangible, and
sometimes they’re not. Either way, we have an expectation of how we will feel, what we will
sound like, what people will say when we achieve certain long-term goals. This is dangerous
because sometimes it’s cloudy at the top. Sometimes it’s not the postcard picture you thought
it would be.

Your biggest success may not be as “big” as someone else’s. Does that matter? Does that
diminish what you’ve done to get there? Of course not. You’ve heard it said a bunch of
different ways but in this case it’s definitely about the journey. It’s being able to look back
and say, “it wasn’t always fun or easy, but I did it.”

8. The way down is hard work.
So what happens when you get to the top? You can’t stay there. You’ve got to come back
down. You can either jump off the mountain and plunge to your death or you can hike down.
It’s true that the hike down goes a little faster and it is less strenuous in some ways. But it’s
not easy by any stretch. It takes work to get down safely.

We have to work really hard to achieve anything—it’s like a constant uphill climb
(maybe there are a few plateaus but they are small, relatively speaking). Once you achieve
your goal there is no coasting, there is no quitting practicing because you’ve made it. You
still have to work just to maintain some level of movement and to not tumble down the
mountain too fast. You don’t want to lose all you’ve worked for so quickly. You could go
ahead and not do the work—just don’t be surprised at how quickly you end up back at the
bottom (with a lot of bumps and bruises too).

9. Get your head up and look around.
There were moments where I felt like all I could do was keep my head down and will myself to take another step. We get like this in our practice and in our journeys to progress. We get so focused on the step right in front of us that we forget to observe the beauty around us on our way to that goal.

If you are learning a piece, changing the way you play, just starting an instrument, it
doesn’t matter.
Pay attention to those beautiful things that happen every day in every practice session. It may be one note that makes your ears perk up, and that’s enough. Appreciate it and store that away in your memory. It’ll help you take that next difficult step and help your potential become your reality.

10. Sometimes you’ll leap, sometimes you’ll crawl, and sometimes you’ll stand still.
Know when to do which.
This is the hardest thing to do when you are in unfamiliar territory. As musicians we are
always striving to get better and pushing to be the best we can be, so standing still and
crawling seem pretty depressing to us. However, it’s crucial that you do them from time to
time. Standing still lets us get our head up, get away from the grind, and appreciate the beauty
around us (or check the GPS to make sure we’re still on the right track). Crawling is, at times,
the only way to continue to move forward because if you jump at the wrong time, you end up
stuck in the snow, under a tree, with your leg (almost) broken.

The more you go through uncertain terrain, the more you are able to recognize which rocks
are stable enough to put your weight on or where the snow is most shallow. You’ll still be
surprised from time to time (fall well and recover) but you will have a better idea of when
to jump, crawl, or wait and that prevents you from wasting precious time and energy.

11. Bonus Lesson!
Don’t just sit in a practice room and surf the internet and think it’s going to make you an
interesting musician. Go do things that challenge and inspire you. You will be amazed at
the lessons you learn and how they apply to every aspect of your life. We are storytellers!
You can’t tell great stories if you don’t have any.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Auditioning for Music Schools: Tips from the Other Side of the Room

It’s early January, so for me, that means another season of listening to college auditions. Few things provoke more anxiety in young musicians than the prospect of only having fifteen minutes to (supposedly) secure your future. So from the perspective of someone who’s listened to a lot of auditions over the past decade, here are a few suggestions to help in your preparations:

1. First Impressions Matter. I’m going to give away a secret here. The vast majority of the time, I can make pretty accurate evaluations about a student’s musical abilities within the first ten seconds of hearing them play. Those ten seconds tell me if you have a good sound, musicality, if you can play in time and in tune, and what your major strengths and weaknesses are. The rest of the audition serves to either confirm or contradict those initial impressions, but the truth is that most of the time, my initial observations prove accurate.

Here’s the good news: You can practice for this! How many times have you started the first ten seconds of each of your pieces? It’s very easy—you could do it twenty times a day in the practice room and in front of teachers/colleagues/random people. Practice these initial impressions until they become so automatic that you can start your pieces in your sleep.

If you want to know how your initial impressions come across to others, record yourself. Listen back immediately and ask the following questions:
  • How does it sound? Is my tone full, clear, and resonant? Listen to your most favorite players and ask “how is their sound different from mine?” 
  • Is it musical? Would someone (not your parents!) pay money to hear you play this? Someone that doesn’t know your instrument or the piece? Again, listen to your favorite players and ask “what are they doing differently from me?” 
  • Is it in tune? Put on a tuner or drone pitch and check for reference. 
  • Is it in time? Put on a metronome and see where you rush or drag. 
2. Sound and Musicianship Are Your Primary Goals. Remember that you’re auditioning to study music—that automatically implies that you have a lot of growth and development ahead of you. I’m not looking for fully-formed prodigies in my studio. If you’re that good coming out of high school, you should be auditioning for jobs, not college! So I’m listening for potential as much as polish.

Two of the things that often take the longest to develop in young musicians are also the two things which will define you as a player throughout your career: sound and musicianship. These are way, way more important than being able to play the highest, the fastest, or the loudest. Make sure in your audition preparations that you are focusing on always playing with a great sound and always playing with compelling musicality.

The best way to gain musicianship is to listen to great musicians. Do you have a favorite player? Have you listened to her or him play many times over? Can you hear their sound in your head? If not, you’re not listening enough. Remember to listen to players on other instruments than your own. This can be a part of your practicing—listen for a few minutes in between playing passages. It gives you a chop break and helps to reinforce great concepts of sound or musicianship.

Finally, one of the best ways to work on these concepts is by playing fundamentals. Fundamental practice should probably be at least 50% of your practice time, right up to the day of your audition. If you need help on developing a great fundamental routine and figuring out how to practice i, ask your teacher. Or contact me—I’m always happy to give suggestions!

3. Select Repertoire That Makes You Sound Your Best. Really hard music played in a mediocre fashion is not nearly as impressive as anything else played well. Don’t try and game the audition process by picking music that you are “supposed to play” or that the panel “wants to hear”. Pick music that highlights your strengths and minimizes your weaknesses (of course, you are constantly working to shore up weak areas in your practice, but you don’t have to spotlight them in an audition). Make sure that you are always asking yourself “does this make me sound my best?”

Here’s an example of something I hear a lot. The Hindemith Trumpet Sonata looks easy on the surface—it’s not fast, the notes aren’t difficult, and there aren’t that many of them. But that piece requires tremendous endurance, breath control, and musicianship, traits which many young musicians haven’t yet developed. Virtually every year, someone chooses this piece to play in an audition for me. Most of the time, they don’t have the chops to make it through. Pick your repertoire carefully!

4. Finally, Ace The Intangibles. Going back to this idea that college teachers are looking for potential over polish, do everything that you can to show in your audition that you are the kind of student that will make their studio better. Here is a partial list of qualities that I love to see in my incoming students. The best students are:
  • Curious
  • Determined
  • Hungry
  • Team players
  • Confident without being cocky
  • Thoughtful
  • Kind towards others
  • Interesting
  • Organized
  • On time
  • Enthusiastic
Without going overboard (or putting on a false persona), how many of these qualities can you show during an audition? There will undoubtedly be time to talk with the panel—this is your chance to show that you are the kind of student that they definitely don’t want to pass on. One further thing with this: you will certainly have an opportunity to ask questions about the program during your audition. Just like in a job interview, have a couple questions in mind to ask. Make them well thought-out, intellectual questions that you can’t find the answers to just by going on the university’s website!

Hopefully this is just a bit of useful insight into the other side of the university audition process. It’s not as scary as it might initially seem, and do remember that you are evaluating the school as well. So test out these tips in your preparations, try to enjoy the process a little bit, and as always, remember to breathe!

Alex Noppe 
Trumpet Professor, University of Wisconsin

Sunday, October 2, 2016

What Speaks to You?

What Speaks to You?

It’s the beginning of the school year, and I was going to talk about setting goals or organizing
your schedule, but some crazy things have happened in Baton Rouge this summer. You have
probably heard or read about the shooting deaths of both Alton Sterling and law enforcement
officers and the historic flooding that wiped out over one hundred thousand homes.

Thankfully, I was not involved or even near any of the shootings and my house escaped any
damage from the floods. But I know people, and know people who know people, who have been
affected by these events. Having lent a hand to a couple of households damaged by the floods
and volunteering at church, I can tell you some really amazing stories about the people of
Louisiana. I was floored by how many people came from surrounding areas, and New Orleans
especially, because they knew people needed help. My eyes get watery just typing this. It’s
beautiful to hear people say “y’all had our back during Katrina and now we’ve got yours.” There
is nothing like a natural disaster to bring out the hero in all of us.

No matter how hard a day I might have had, perhaps even in spite of it, when I see people being
selfless and coming together it helps remind me that there is so much beauty in the world. That
is what speaks to me. That is what moves me. That is why I am drawn to music. All kinds of
music. In order for music to even happen, people have to come together, support each other,
and work toward a common goal. It’s one of the reasons we grow such strong bonds with other

My students and friends can probably tell you that I think there are two things that can save the
world: better education and music (or visual art, literature, film). It is so amazing to me to be an
educator and watch kids from every race, nationality, and economic background get together
and make music. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor or what color you are once you have an
instrument and a common goal. You want people to enjoy what you’re doing, to be entertained
and, most importantly, to feel human. Everything else goes away.

I know plenty of people who are not moved by music and that is okay. It usually makes me want
to play my favorite recordings for them and see if I can get them to feel what I feel, but it’s okay
if they don’t. They will usually say, “but I really love cooking/reading/film/art.” Great! If you don’t
know or feel like you don’t have anything, find it. It is what keeps us going and helps us to
bounce back from failures or the horrible and depressing things that happen around us. It’s what
helps us see the light and the beauty in the world around us and to not give up hope. So, before
you get swallowed whole by your undoubtedly busy schedule, find the pieces, memories,
movies, or meals that speak to you and enjoy them. Revel in them until you feel recharged and
ready to tackle tomorrow. Your sanity and your humanity depend on it!

What Speaks to Mirari

Part of what makes Mirari what we are is that we are human and we laugh and cry together and
care about each other. Being in a group where the members are spread across the country is
hard work and it takes so much advance planning and individual sacrifice. We can sometimes
get bogged down in administrative or financial tedium and by the sheer act of attempting to unify
five individual opinions and ideas. Then we play together and everyone remembers why we do
this. Making music is what allows the individuals in the group to come together and share
something truly special. I think I am safe in saying that making music together with people you
care about, for people you care about, is what speaks to Mirari.

Beyond playing together, we share our passions and ideas with each other. For some of us it’s
running or yoga and for others it’s musicals and singing at the top of our lungs in the car. Each
tour we are all very excited to share new music that we have stumbled across, and our group’s
travel playlist changes ever so slightly each time we’re in the van together. I’d like to make you
part of it and show you the video below. Some will say it’s cheesy, and perhaps that’s true, but
right now this is something that speaks to me and I guarantee you I will make everyone listen to
it on our next tour. Good singing, great production, an interesting arrangement, and, most
importantly for me, a beautiful message.

Maybe this will speak to you too? If not, good luck on your search!

Sunday, September 4, 2016

10 Tips for Success [in your First Year] in Music School

Whether it's your first year or your fifth year, these tips from trumpeter Alex Noppe will set you up for a great year of exploration, learning, and growth!

1. Go to class and do your homework 
Most students that fail classes do so because they don’t show up and they don’t turn in assignments. Too many of those end up paying for 5th and 6th years of college! Don’t let one missed class or assignment spiral into many more.

2. Use your professors for help 
That’s why they’re here – they like teaching and helping students!
Never be afraid to ask questions, whether it’s about class material or anything else.

3. Use your fellow students for help
As much time as you spend around the faculty, you’ll spend way more around your peers. Learn from them. Ask questions. Practice with them. Most older student love to help out freshmen with advice and ideas.

4. Practice. 
A lot. Every day! This is your job right now – to become great at your craft. Nothing else is nearly as important. You don’t get to take weekends and holiday breaks off from practicing any more. The best thing you can do is actually put your practice times in your calendar, and plan on multiple shorter sessions throughout the day. Mental fatigue leads to poor practice and very few people can remain mentally focused on one thing for hours at a time.

5. Use the little breaks in your schedule
Most music majors have tons of shorter classes and rehearsals, often with 20-40 minute breaks between them. You’d be amazed at how much you can accomplish in those short breaks, whether it’s a hyper-focused practice session, theory homework, or meals.

6. Be a good person to everyone around you 
This one is really important. Music school isn’t a competition – it’s collaborative and we all can get better together. Your reputation building begins right now, and many of the connections that you make while in college will be critical to your professional life down the road. Don’t gossip. Don’t cut people down. Assume that anything you say about somebody else will probably get back to them. Both positivity and negativity are extremely contagious, but positive people have happier lives!

7. Try out new things 
One of the best things about college is the incredible variety of opportunities and experiences that you will encounter. This is the best time to explore new fields, take new classes, learn new skills, and do things that will challenge you. I can guarantee that you will leave college a different person than when you started, and you never know what unexpected opportunity might set up you on the path towards the rest of your life.

8. Be smart about money management 
Remember that you have the rest of your life to work a job. This might be your only chance to be a college student. Save money on the things that don’t matter so much (fancy coffee, expensive cars, the newest cell phone) so that you have it for the stuff that does (extra lessons, a study abroad trip, high quality instruments). Small amounts of student loans are probably worth it if it means that you don’t have to spend your precious practicing/homework time working a minimum wage job.

9. Be healthy
Go outside. Drink more water and fewer energy drinks. Exercise. Don’t eat Taco Bell for every meal. Try to find some time to take care of yourself.

10. Remember that your worth as a person is not measured by your music 
In music school, you’ll experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, sometimes within the same 5 minutes! You’ll have successes and failures, but you don’t have to define yourself by either. Every audition or performance is only representative of just your music making at one specific
snapshot in time, not a value judgment of you personally.

As music majors, you get a tremendous opportunity to spend a few years (or your entire life) doing
something that is deeply meaningful to you and those around you, and making our society a better place to live in. Enjoy it – it’s going to be an exciting ride and tons of fun. Have a GREAT year!!

Friday, August 14, 2015


Every now and then I need a little boost or inspiration to help get me back on track.  I thought I'd share some of my favorites:)

I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!

Always a good reminder:)

A great way to start a Monday! 
One of my favorites...

A decision worth making!

New way to look at bravery:)

Something to be mindful of....

Sleeping Bear Dunes Bay off of Lake Michigan:)
This needs no explanation:) 
A great quote to remind me what my job is when I'm performing.

Great perspective:)

I've always loved this quote.

And finally....


Thursday, June 4, 2015

Stay the Course

10,000 hours. That’s how long “they" say you need to work at something to become a master. I have been practicing for over 15,000 and I don’t feel like I am a master. Maybe I should quit? Hahaha, no way.

If you have read my previous two posts, you have noticed a trend (kudos for being able to recognize a trend over 11 months). I am constantly thinking about how we as musicians and humans improve. To me, this is of the utmost importance. Setting and achieving goals is great and totally necessary but what happens when you achieve those goals? Where do you go? What if you only have long term goals and you are finding them impossible to reach?

It’s all about the journey

I recently read an article in an airline magazine about a guy who is putting the 10,000 hours theory (please know that that is all that it is) to the test. He had never played golf and decided he wanted to master the sport in 10,000 hours. His plan was 6 hours per day, 6 days per week. I hate to disappoint you but, at the time of the article he was only through 5,700 hours so we probably won’t know the outcome for another few years. For him, 6 years has turned into 8 years. But I digress! Or do I?

There was a great point in this article and that was that the subject of this experiment will never view himself as a failure because this journey has been transformative. His family and friends agree. He ran into some challenges that got in the way of his project and instead of trying to become a master of golf, his new mission was simply to finish the project. This is the point upon which I would like to focus.

Let’s forget the fact that he started as a beginner and a day after this interview took place he shot a 74 on a pro-level course (most courses have a par between 70 and 72)! Let’s focus on the fact that in trying to get to 10,000 hours and mastery of something, his biggest challenge is staying the course even when 6 years turns to 8 which may even turn into 10. This happens to all of us to some degree, I believe.

Wha, what happened?!?

It is easy to be into something when the learning curve is steep and we are quickly getting tangibly better. But at some point we reach a level where the change isn’t so obvious and the curve has all but leveled off. Our choice when we reach that level (or imagined plateau) has a huge impact on our future.

The process becomes tedious, emotionally draining, and downright frustrating. The cool thing is that all of that happens because we are better. I use the phrase, “I had my ears opened,” when I talk about my time in grad school. What used to be good isn’t good enough anymore.

Push record AND play (not at the same time though, unless you’re using a tape player…)

This is why I love technology. Recording yourself is easier than ever and it can help give perspective. I often hear people say, “I used to be able to do this much better, didn’t I?” Thanks to modern technology, you can be your very own fact-checker. Chances are, you are wrong. IF you happen to be right, then you need to reexamine how you are practicing.

I record almost everything I do. But even more than that, I record myself playing standard solos, excerpts, or etudes and, yes, I actually do listen to them. Many people skip this step which completely defeats the purpose of recording in the first place. Before I even go back to listening, most of the time my thought after I play something is, “huh, it was never that easy before.” That is an awesome feeling and it helps let  me know that I am doing the right thing. Also, when I am going through a rough patch, it is good to go back and listen to recordings and remind myself that I am a good trumpet player.

I do the same thing with Mirari recordings. We often perform pieces for more than one tour and so I get to review recordings after each tour and see where I am and what needs work and also recognize that we are creating awesome music. That helps me become a more confident performer. That helps me stay the course even when the going gets tough.

Things to remember (you could try doing them too!)

I can boil this whole post down to a handful of points:
1- Put your time in. Do everything you can today to be better tomorrow.
2- Record yourself often.
3- Listen often and figure out if you’re on the right path.
4- Acknowledge and celebrate progress. If you don’t, you might be on the fast track to burn out.
5- Persevere through the tough times. Just keep moving. Sometimes it may be forward and sometimes it may feel like you’re going backward. The important thing is that you don’t stop moving. Adjust your clock, set more goals, and keep moving.

Best of luck!


Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Commissioning Process…Where to Start??

The idea of bringing a new piece of music into the world, or having someone write you something specific, is a very exciting notion.  A notion, that up until a few years ago, I never thought would be a reality.  Commissioning or hiring a composer seemed to be a daunting task….who do you ask?  How do you find composers?  How to you pay for the piece?  As a quintet, Mirari does quite a bit of commissioning, which is decided on and paid for by the group.  As an individual it can seem a bit harder to pull off.  Through sharing my individual experiences commissioning new works, I  hope to shed some light on  what can seem like an intimidating process.

Why Commission?

Commissioning a new piece of music can seem like a daunting or confusing task, it definitely seemed that way to me.  On top of that, for many people, the idea of commissioning a new piece of music is expensive.  As musicians ourselves, and especially when early in our careers, we’re not exactly rolling in money…but I’ll get to that in a bit. One reason to commission is to simply bring new music into the world.  The tuba (the instrument I was commissioning for) has a relatively small body of music, especially when compared to  instruments like the violin or flute.  It was only in the past 50 years or so that the tuba has been taken seriously as a possible solo instrument, with composers writing for it in a solo setting.  As a result the compositional options seemed endless.

Another reason to commission, which didn’t occur to me at first, is composers (for the most part) WANT to work with performers, and the performer-composer relationship is a unique one in the music world.  Unlike performing musicians and conductors, composers don’t have the same opportunities to collaborate with other musicians.  In addition, commissions are one way that composers earn money for what they do…just like performers earn money by performing, composers earn money by composing.  As a musician I like to support fellow musicians in their craft.

Who to commission?

Unless you already have an idea of whom you’d like to commission, the first task is finding the composer.  This can also seem daunting at first, because unless you know a composer and his or her music well, you may be unsure as to whether you’ll enjoy working with them and be happy with the end product.

The internet is a super useful tool for this.  The first time I commissioned a piece I started my search by going to a number of different composer websites and listening to samples of their music, trying to get an idea of what each composer and their music was about.  Since this was going to be someone I was going to be collaborating with, I also wanted to make sure that the individual wasn’t going to be a pain in the behind to work with.  Once I started narrowing my list I spoke to people that knew the composers on a professional or personal level to get their take on the composers as people.

I considered a variety of composers from around the country, taking into account their location, their musical language, what instrumentation they had already composed for, and their current popularity and success.  I wanted to commission a composer that was clearly well thought of but not too big of a name for cost reasons number one, and also because I wanted to promote a composer that wasn’t well known in the tuba world.  I didn’t want another work written for tuba and piano, so specifically looked for composers that worked frequently outside that box.  In terms of location I hoped to find a composer within driving distance to have the ability to work with them in person.  Finally, I thought it would be great if the composer had already composed for tuba in a solo or chamber setting, as then they would be more familiar with the instrument.

What about the $$?

Just like there are a variety of ways of finding and working with composers, there are also a number of ways of funding a commission.  Commission fees vary based on a number of factors, including composer experience, your personal relationship with that composer, length of the piece, and complexity of the instrumentation (i.e. it’s cheaper to commission a piece for a solo instrument over a concerto with orchestra).  I found that most composers charge a certain fee per minute of composed music then adjust that based on the other factors mentioned.

Young and up and coming composers want to get their music out there, and as a result often have a much lower commissioning fee and are a great way to go if you are on a tight budget.  I commissioned a work for trombone, tuba, and recorded sound with fellow Mirari member, Sarah.  The composer (Inez McComas), Sarah, and I agreed on a unique commissioning arrangement.  Inez considered herself to be an up-and-coming composer.  As a result, she believed it was more important and more valuable for her works to be heard in performance than to receive a monetary fee.  With this idea in mind, Inez suggested that for each minute of music composed, Sarah and I would owe her one live performance.  The piece she composed, called “The Middle Pigeons”, ended up being 7:15, and as a result we owed Inez at least 7 live performances of the work. 

A quick side note about another way to find and fund a commission, and that is having the composer find you.  After performing a duo recital a student composer approached Sarah and I, asking if she composed a piece for the duo, would we be willing to program it in future recitals.  She has composed a few pieces for tuba before and plays horn herself.  We said yes, and since then have been in contact with her regarding the nature of the piece, typical audiences, and extended techniques that we or are not capable of, our personal ranges, etc.

Besides the up and coming composer route there are many other ways to fund a commission, and my other personal way of funding a piece was through a consortium.

Funding my commission of Asha Srinivasan, Professor of Composition at Lawrence University, was a much different process.  During our initial meeting, she and I agreed on a commission rate of $3000 for a 10-minute work.  She based this on her per minute rate.  Keep in mind though, that many well known composers will charge upwards of $1000/minute.  Remember….just like we as performers have to make a living do what we do, so do the composers!  Think about high-level performers charging a high fee…composers are the same.  Our product is performance, while theirs is the music they produce for us to perform.

Back in the early stages of finding and selecting a composer I had an idea that whatever the commission fee ended up being would be too much for me to cover all on my own.  $3000 was indeed more than I personally had, so I decided to establish a consortium of tuba players.  I had heard of consortiums before, but had never participated in one.  Initially I had hoped to create a consortium with a minimum of eight other members.  From May through June of last year I contacted around 40 tubists, explaining the project and the consortium, trying to determine the level of interest in a project like this from each potential member.  I received a positive reply from seven individuals.

All of the administrative and emailing work was time consuming, and as you can see, in the end I received a positive reply from less than a quarter of the people I contacted. At first I thought, wow, what I waste of my time, contacting all of these people.  But even though I didn’t receive a monetary contribution from every person on my contact list, making those contacts did have value.  Many of those that I contacted I’ve never had any connection to before.  This consortium has allowed me to connect and network to musicians around the country, something that could prove invaluable in the long run.  And with the seven that did participate in the consortium, I’ve established and/or continued to build a stronger relationship.

Each member of the consortium contributed $250 and in return they received a copy of the work and participation in an exclusivity period of one year following the premiere.  I created a consortium agreement form for each member to sign and return with the $250 fee.

Besides paying through performance or establishing a consortium there are numerous other ways and options to fund a commission, I’ll go over a couple others.  First, grants.  When I began exploring options to fund Asha’s commission and my CD project I met with the grant librarian in the Memorial Union Library….and was completely overwhelmed.  Through my meeting with her I learned about the giant databases where you can search for grants for an endless variety of purposes.  After a day of sifting I decided that for searching for, and the even more rigorous process of applying for grants, was too much for the scope of that project.  That said, the grant library is a fantastic resource where I learned a great deal.  I hope to someday soon get my feet wet with grant writing, as it is an enormous resource.

Another funding option is using Kickstarter, an Internet and social media based source to fund creative projects.  I created a Kickstarter project to help fund my CD recording process, but it can also be used to fund a commission.

Connect, Collaborate, Build Relationships

One major difference between working on a piece you’re commissioning and most other works is the fact that the composer is alive.  I know, this seems very, very obvious, but it is a fact that is often overlooked. In the past I’ve played a great deal of pieces where the composer is still living (due to the young age of the instrument) but I’ve never made any effort to contact the composer.   The first time I made a real effort to contact a composer was for my first CD project, URSA.  For that project I made some sort of contact with every composer, and if possible, I strongly encourage other musicians to do the same.  Building a relationship with a composer beyond the notes on the page can add a new element of depth and understanding to the meaning of a piece. 

If you have the opportunity to work with a composer on one of their pieces, DO IT!  And keep an open mind.  The composer wrote the piece hearing it in a particular way, so they will most likely have suggestions for you, which will hopefully aid in your understanding and preparation of the work, but at the same time, if they also are keeping an open mind, they may adjust the music to reflect something they like that you’re doing.  A few months before recording the title track of my CD, I had the fabulous opportunity of working with Libby Larsen, when she came down to Madison from the Twin Cities to work with pianist Kirstin Ihde and me on her tuba concerto.  Throughout the coaching Ms. Larsen made a number of suggestions to Kirstin and me, but more than once, when she heard something that we did that wasn’t marked on the page, that she liked, she marked it in her score to later give it to her publisher for a future publication of the piece.  Once again, composers want to work with performers!

When commissioning music that relationship becomes even more personal.  Working with a composer through a commission becomes a true collaboration, one that can be incredibly rewarding for the composer and performer alike.