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New Music Advocate Fred Sherry on Commissioning New Music

Cellist Fred Sherry shares with us his fundamental dos and don'ts when commissioning a new work

Commissioning the work of a living artist, be it an instrument maker or a composer, can be something of immense interest and fun. Aside from seeing the artistic endeavour coming to fruition after a period of time, we are also keeping our classical music industry alive. However, when commissioning new music, there are certain pointers that we should note so as to not unintentionally offend the other party.

The Juilliard School and Mannes College of Music cello pedagogue and new music advocate Fred Sherry shares his opinion on the topic.


New Music Advocate Fred Sherry on what we should do when Commissioning New Music


Multiple choice question. A commission is:
a) scary. b) an adventure. c) good for your career. d) part of the job. e) a lot of work. f) great for your playing. g) a chance to free yourself from following other players’ ideas about performance.

1. When searching for your composer, don’t jump on the latest prizewinner. Commission him before he wins.

2. Make sure you know the composer’s music so that you can say something intelligent when approaching him. Do not say, “Could you write me a piece just like the one you wrote for Ms. X? I really liked that one.”

3. Try to make direct contact with your composer keeping the managers, publishers and music administrators out until you have developed a relationship with him. (Of course, some composers insist on having a representative to start the ball rolling.)  The dialogue will be different depending on the type of piece, i.e. ensemble, solo, concerto; and the occasion, if there is one, such as season opener, holiday, memorial, 20th anniversary of your group.

This conversation could happen:

You: I play in the _____ String Trio and we would like to commission you.

Composer: I would love to write for you, how about a piano quartet?

You: Well, uh, mmm.


Composer: I would love to write for you, what are the financial arrangements?

You: We’re working on that.


Composer: I would love to write for you, but I have three pieces to finish before I write yours.

You: I will check with the group/conductor/ manager of the theater/ foundation executive.

4. Whoever hammers out your end of the contract should include, at least, the following items: due date, period of exclusivity, right of refusal for the first recording, copying costs, length (this does not have to be precise), and money (hopefully not your problem–traditionally the composer gets half up front and the other half on delivery of the score).

5. Once you have a rapport with the composer you can ask gently how the piece is going. Composers are thoughtful people and usually don’t mind answering serious questions, although some like to be left alone and can show anger if there are too many inquiries.

6. When preparing for the premiere, it is good to invite the composer early on in the rehearsal process. You may have questions or you may have discovered mistakes or ambiguities, but always tread lightly!  If you wait until the day before the concert you won’t have time to digest new ideas.

7. At the premiere, do not forget to invite the composer to take a bow; you might want to know where she is sitting rather than gesturing wildly to the whole audience. Perhaps she should bow before you do?

8. What happens if you don’t like the piece? After struggling through the first performance, don’t make up a lame excuse like “my mom/manager/girlfriend won’t let me play it again.” That won’t work. If the audience doesn’t like the piece, that is not necessarily the composer’s fault!

9. Take pleasure in the whole process, especially the search for your composer, and you will be rewarded. 




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Fred Sherry has introduced audiences on five continents and all fifty United States to the music of our time for over five decades. He was a founding member of Tashi and Speculum Musicae, Artistic Director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and has been a member of the Group for Contemporary Music, Berio's Juilliard Ensemble and the Galimir String Quartet. He has also enjoyed a close collaboration with jazz pianist and composer Chick Corea.

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