Commissioned new music can be daunting to learn. There’s no “ideal,” no accurate representation of what it should sound or feel like other than what’s on the page. But it’s the sort of exploration that can inspire confidence and engagement in an ensemble. Here are three steps to take when learning a new commission, and some ways to integrate these steps into your rehearsal methods.
Step 1: Start Objective
Every commission comes from a subjective, personal place. No director or ensemble decides to commission because they don't care. But when you and your ensemble get the score, considering it as an objective piece of music can be very rewarding.
Always check the piece out before you're with your ensemble, but just barely. It's fun to break the piece down with your ensemble, allowing you all to explore something new together.
Macro to micro
Break it down by form, section, phrase, etc. Starting large can give everyone a sense of what's happening while also limiting the search. From there, it's easier to focus in on other smaller details.
Dissect the components
Once everyone understands the piece as a whole, take it apart harmonically, melodically, rhythmically, showcasing certain motives along the way. Observing little nuggets of information throughout gives artists permission to see it with their own eyes over time, rather than limiting their imagination with a piece that's in the works.
BONUS: Explore a very rough draft
If you really want to inspire your ensemble, showing them a rough draft, even one that doesn't look, sound, or feel that great, can make the final score that much more alive. We're all used to seeing scores as finished products, and often we worry about asking to change things. But from the composer's perspective, it's changing all the time before it's finished. If the composer is willing (and asking is a very good idea), your ensemble can see the piece evolve, and this is one of the most amazing aspects of a commission!
Step 2: Get Personal
Now that you've had a chance to consider this piece from an objective point of view, bring it back to why you commissioned it in the first place in the context of your rehearsal plans.
Consider the text
You might have already covered this with the analysis above, but now would be a great time to consider the text. If you co-chose the text with the composer, talk equally about why the music supports the text and your programming. Take a further step back to consider why this text and setting matter to you as an ensemble and an arts program. Lastly, consider all this while you create your own interpretation of the piece, the first interpretation of its kind!
Relate to the composer's catalog
One of the coolest aspects of commissioning is being a part of a composer's lineage of writing. Take a moment to listen to other works by that composer, exercising the ensemble's ear to identify similar passages or material. Note if there's an identical motive or rhythm, and ask the composer about it if you're in contact (here at Consortio, we believe contact with a composer is the most important thing, so make sure to make the effort to do this!).
Make it your own
As you feel more comfortable with the different components you identified in step one above, challenge your ensemble to think about it from a personal perspective. Since they ideally know the composer personally now, they can add their own personal thoughts into their music-making. It's so much more meaningful to have an individual buy-in as well as a group buy-in.
Step 3: Lead a legacy
A commission is a first. Your performance is also a first, and one that many will look to for inspiration on how the piece should be interpreted. It's a big responsibility and an exciting opportunity!
Be confident in your choices
Don't be hesitant about why you chose to lead here, breathe there, or pull back at the end. This is you and your ensemble making real, new music. The stronger you are in your interpretation, the more of an impact that interpretation will have down the road.
Review other premieres
It's important to consider how and why others premiere new works. For some, it's the excitement of new music. For others, it's in memory of someone or something special. Whatever the reasons you chose to support and create new music, keep invigorating your process by considering how meaningful it's been for others as well.
Follow up afterwards
Just because you're premiere has come and gone doesn't mean your relationship with the composer, the poet, and anyone else you met along the way is over. Keep those connections strong. Make new connections through the ones you made. It's about the relationships you grew as much as it is about the music you made.
In the end, make sure you've made the whole process enjoyable for your artists. Remind them of the value of imagination, good musicianship, and community. You might very well open your artists' minds to the possibility that they can do this too, something we at Consortio believe more than anything else.