This is a post from National Symphony Orchestra bassist Jeff Weisner. Jeff also teaches bass at The Peabody Institute in Baltimore and co-authors the blog PeabodyDoubleBass. Click here for all of Jeff’s doublebassblog.org posts.
I’ve worked with and around lots of composers, in a variety of capacities. Throughout my school days, I played on various student composers’ recitals, and also knew and went to class with many student composers. The person who has been the music director of my orchestra for 12 years, Leonard Slatkin, is a major advocate of new music and has a strong relationship with many composers, so I’ve been able to observe them as an orchestral musician for years. I spent a summer at the Cabrillo Music Festival in California, one of the premier new music festivals in the USA, where we worked with many composers, some with major careers and some just starting out. And I’ve commissioned several new works for bass. Plus, I even have some composer friends.
Composers are in probably the most difficult “career track” that anyone can choose amongst the many difficult career tracks of classical music. There are thousands of bass players out there who make a majority, if not all, of their income from playing or teaching bass. That isn’t to say that they all are playing exactly the music they want to play, or that they are playing at the level they would like, or with the students they would like to teach. But, they are basically doing the thing that they went to school and worked hard to be able to do. The number of full-time composers is very small by comparison. Outside of the area of film and TV composition, it gets dramatically smaller. Most composers are pretty much assured of having their passion and primary study area be, at best, a sidebar to whatever their “day job” will be. Often that job is still music-related; sometimes it isn’t.
The main point is that composers are, generally, speaking, horribly under-employed. They seldom have enough opportunities to use their compositional skills and training. And they don’t have many opportunities to connect with new audiences for their music. So it doesn’t surprise me that in almost every situation I’ve encountered, composers have been interested, gracious, and even grateful when I’ve approached them about writing something for bass. For them, it’s the rare opportunity to work with someone who is proactively interested in what they are doing as composers rather than having to beg or cajole someone to play something of theirs. It’s also a chance to get their pieces heard by a new audience outside of the relatively small group of new music aficionados who probably frequent their performances. And, it’s a chance to write for an instrument starved for repertoire, which means they improve their chances of the piece being performed more than once.
While working with them, composers have always been understanding of any issues about a piece that I’ve brought to them. They truly want to write a piece that will work and be playable on the instrument, and are willing to listen and learn. I’ve seldom had a composer insisting to me that I play something that is not playable. Any composer with that attitude will soon discover that no one will want to work with them, and no composer can get lots of performances from sheet music sales alone – composers need commissions and premieres to survive. Even very successful composers that I’ve worked with to spoken to have always mentioned that they are always grateful and thankful for anyone willing to put in the time and effort to learn their music!
So don’t be scared of composers: They won’t bite, and they need you as much as you need them.
In my last post, I’ll suggest some places for you to look for and connect with composers who might be interested in working with you to create new bass music.