At my previous institution, I taught a senior capstone class. The class could be about any topic in performance, theory, or history, which left it pretty wide open. I felt strongly that the students should have a class on what I called “silenced voices,” a class that went back and covered the same survey timeline and geographical regions of their music history classes, but focused on female voices. I knew they would be astounded at all the composers/performers/patrons they didn’t cover in history– and I was right. But I also knew they would want to know why these musicians hadn’t been covered in their class, or why these musicians only received a small “hey look! A woman!” box. We looked at history through the lens of gender, but also talked about the factors in the various societies and cultures that would prevent anyone who didn’t have access to money or power from becoming a musician in our history books. Preparing for this class was where I first learned about Florence Price– whose Symphony in E Minor is a piece everyone should be familiar with. I remember listening to this in my office as I was working on other things, and I found myself at the end of the symphony, just sitting in my chair and enjoying.
One of the issues my students ran into was a lack of information about and access to music by composers who hadn’t been intentionally preserved in our written histories. Each student picked a composer in the first two weeks of the semester; they researched this composer and prepared a piece to perform for their final– which was a lecture-recital. I found that scholars of these composers, or scholars that researched composers/concepts adjacent to them, were incredibly eager to help in any way they could. Sometimes, however, finding the music posed the biggest obstacle. Was it published? Who published it? How long would it take to arrive? What is the cost? And there were many times that my students ran into dead ends in their research. But each dead end was an opportunity to ask questions.
Music publishing. We need to talk about it. Many conductors get their music from JW Pepper. I get it. It’s easy. And, Pepper has this MyScore feature, right? So composers, by paying a $100/yr, can “self-publish” their scores on the site (which means their scores are searchable on Pepper’s site, which creates easier access to it). Except Pepper keeps 50% of any downloads. Yup. So, let’s say you purchase 40 ePrint scores from a composer using MyScore for $2 a score, then the composer actually gets $40, and Pepper gets $40. What if you want hard copies? Then Pepper keeps 75% of the purchase price, according to their website blog here. Composers can still publish on their own, however, so it might be best to reach out directly to the composer to purchase their music. I haven’t been able to find how much Pepper pays the composers who sell their music on the site (and not through MyScore), but in speaking with some of my composer-friends, Pepper keeps between 50-75% of the profit. I’m not saying to not use Pepper, but if you have the time and ability, I really want to encourage you to look for other purchasing options.
I wanted to share some of my go-to websites when looking at music. I spend about two weeks every summer creating large lists of potential musics for my choirs to sing. Some of the first websites I go to are MusicSpoke and Graphite Publishing. These sites are more equitable than Pepper. I also like to check out Hildegard Publishing Company and earthsongs. I find the Hildegard and earthsongs websites to be a little more cumbersome, but I know this and am able to dedicate a little more time to searching. Of course, I look at CPDL and IMSLP. I also take another look through Dr. Marques Garrett’s list on his website Beyond Elijah Rock: The non-idiomatic choral music of Black composers. This list also includes the publishing company, a link to the composer’s website, or other information to purchase. If I’m looking for something specific (voicing, genre, language, etc.), I might check out the Choral Works Database on the Institute of Composer Diversity.
There are also some composer websites or composer foundations I like to check out. I do this in two steps: living composers and non-living composers. Some of the composers that I seek out include: Remel Derrick, Mari Esabel Valverde, Amy Gordon, Zanaida Robles, Brittney E. Boykin, Jocelyn Hagen, Sarah Quartel, Saunder Choi, Rosephanye Powell. This is, of course, not an exhaustive list, but a starting place (drop some of your favorite living composers in the comments!). Non-living composers might include Margaret Bonds, Julia Perry, Florence Price, Barbara Strozzi, William Grant Still, and a host of others. It can be more difficult to locate published compositions at times– but it’s always worth sending out a few emails to foundations or universities that hold copies. Then, there are times that I just don’t have the budget to purchase compositions or gain access to the compositions. Sometimes, the compositions are in manuscript form, so you have to reach out to archives and there is no guarantee of access. These are the moments I get the most frustrated. But I find that if the music is printed, there is normally a way to get it.
Some of this is about advocating. What music am I looking for? What voices are represented and whose are missing? What topics are missing? What styles? What do my singers need to continue to learn about? Do we have any unique resources in our community that might influence the music I choose? How do these music selections fit into the longitudinal learning plan? What can my singers teach me? And then, once I have the answer to those questions, I can better advocate for the music.
The point: as a conductor, I have to be proactive about searching and learning. The goal is equally learning the music and gaining access as much as it is programming. Set aside time to search and learn. Create goals. Ask questions. And don’t give up.