Supersize Your Composer Residency

Supersize Your Composer Residency

Philip Rothman
Photo by Jake Lipman

Considering that I spend the vast majority of my time holed up in a modest New York apartment, it may seem a bit of a stretch to call me “composer-in-residence” anywhere besides my kitchen. I did, however, venture outside long enough to be the Eugene (OR) Symphony’s resident composer this season, and spent two weeks in that community courtesy of the Music Alive program, a partnership between the American Symphony Orchestra League and Meet The Composer.

Although the actual amount of time I spent in Eugene was rather brief, the symphony and I set up the residency to give the impression of a longer presence. I made two separate trips across the country; one week each in November and February. In the interim period, the university wind ensemble and the local youth symphony each performed a piece of mine, and although I wasn’t present at those performances, I spent a good amount of time conducting rehearsals with those groups in November while they were still learning the music. I also set up a composition project with an Advanced Placement (AP) Music Theory class during my first trip, and they were diligently working on this project in my absence.

It sounds like a lot, but none of this happened overnight; rather, it was the result of much planning and communication over a period of many months. A composer residency can be an amazing opportunity to grow as an artist and connect with the music community outside the studio door. And with a bit of planning, the headaches and frustrations that can accompany such a venture can be avoided.

  • Know the residency team ahead of time—reach out by e-mail and phone periodically, perhaps six months in advance, so they understand your skills and you understand their expectations.

Music Alive organized a weekend-long planning session prior to the start of the residencies during which all nine composer/residency pairs involved in this year’s round met in New York. Much of my time was spent with Paul Winberg, the symphony’s executive director, brainstorming ideas and just getting to know each other better. I already had a good relationship with Giancarlo Guerrero, the music director, from a previous performance he did of my music.

This communication proved to be invaluable. Often I hear stories about disastrous composer residencies where the orchestra (or other sponsoring institution) throws together a schedule of activities for the visiting composer, without even considering what that composer’s individual skills are. This lack of prep work is can result in awkward situations—a composer who has stage-fright being suddenly thrust in front of an audience of thousands and asked to speak extemporaneously about his music, or a composer with zero teaching experience scheduled for several school visits and master classes.

  • Make sure you convey your strengths to the residency team, and ensure that they have your latest press materials. This prepares you and the team for interviews, meet-and-greets, and pre-concert talks (anecdotes about how you got started, your influences, recent work, bio, program notes and background on the programmed work(s)).

When planning the residency with Eugene, I was sure to be clear about my particular strengths and weaknesses. I am effective working with high schoolers and college students, but I wouldn’t know what to do with younger kids (same goes for the playability of my music). I am an able conductor, but my instrumental performance chops are rusty. Public speaking is no problem for me. We built a residency around these skills so that I could be most effective. The next composer who may be microphone-shy but is a virtuoso performer and accomplished elementary school instructor would have a totally different but equally effective residency as long as the individual’s qualities are considered.

  • Actively engage the residency team regarding your schedule, and sketch out the main events day by day so you can make suggestions or they can see areas that need supplementing. Don’t be afraid to take ownership of your projects—it’s much better for you to be busy than to sit watching soaps in your hotel room!

Each orchestra’s unique situation must also be considered. The goals of this residency were to build and grow relationships within the community. In Eugene’s case, this meant more involvement with the university, the radio station, local public schools, and the non-profit organization that runs the youth symphony and the AP Theory class. Since the symphony had a full-time staff of only four, however, I was required to get involved at a very hands-on level, even from 3,000 miles away. Of course, the symphony was always kept involved and in the loop, but I was able to forge many relationships on my own before I even set foot in Oregon, which made it easier to work once I arrived. At that point, I had already taken ownership of my major projects, and I worked directly with the key people to ensure their successful execution. A large orchestra with bigger marketing and education departments, however, might prefer to have its staff do more of the legwork.

We don’t necessarily think of the composer as the connector among all these different community groups; we may first look to the music director, musicians, executives or board members to fulfill this role. Yet in many ways a composer-in-residence is uniquely suited to this task. There is a good balance between being a special outsider while logging enough time in the community to become a familiar face. Also, as composers our work is largely already done—we don’t have the pressure of rehearsing or practicing immediately prior to the concert, which frees us to be available and involved during that time. And composers bring a different, often unseen, face to the process of music creation, which leads to new ways of perceiving the music.

  • Consider a balance of “breadth vs. depth” in the projects you undertake. In other words, have one or two substantial projects that anchor the residency which involve a large degree of planning and interaction, supplemented by other, less time-consuming endeavors that allow you to engage the community in a broad way and increase your visibility.

The AP Theory project was a terrific example of linking the symphony’s constituents and fulfilling the charges of this residency in an organic way. After consulting with the class instructor, we set up a project whereby the students in the class would compose a short piece based on a given theme. The theme was from a piece I wrote when I was 19 years old, Overture for Our City, which most of the students were already rehearsing in youth orchestra. To integrate the project into the class curriculum, we talked about all the tools at the composer’s disposal to vary a theme: augmentation, transposition, inversion, retrograde, etc.—things that they would be studying throughout the year. This way they could put these things into practice via an original work of their own.

Stressing that I got my start writing for my friends, we limited their choice of instrumentation to the instruments that their classmates played (and also a maximum of four players). This resulted in everything from a traditional string quartet to more eclectic combinations. The students worked on their compositions from November through February, and when I returned, we arranged a recital of the pieces in a rather folksy format where I interviewed each student in front of the audience (we were inspired in this way by the radio program From the Top). This recital took place in front of an enthusiastic crowd at the concert hall, instead of the more traditional pre-concert lecture, one hour prior to the Eugene Symphony concert that included a piece of my own.

This did not happen by magic! There were many e-mails, phone calls, and changes of plan along the way, but it succeeded because we were working to find the best experience for everyone. It happened with the full support of the symphony but with a minimal outlay of resources on their part. No extra musician services were required; no extra setup or production costs were involved. We weren’t creating an extra project that would squeeze instructional time, since the project ultimately was enhancing what was already being taught. All the students were offered complimentary tickets to the symphony performance.

  • Be the “special visitor” in the classroom by bringing CDs (play clips of your work or relevant influences), and “talk without the chalk” —kids have questions and want to know about you, not the circle of fifths.

While the AP Theory project involved a good deal of advance effort, I was also scheduled for several school visits with no advance prep, ranging from a semi-rural high school band to a community college theory class. I had initially planned detailed lectures involving the inner workings of my music until I had a conversation with a composer friend of mine before I left for the residency. He reminded me that I would be the “special guest” at these schools, and that the students could always learn about things like augmented-sixth chords and modified rondo form from their regular instructor. He advised me instead to “talk without the chalk,” and instead engage the students in a more general conversation about my life as a composer, what it’s like to work in New York, with a professional orchestra, and how I get inspired as an artist.

His advice worked like a dream, as I was able to have a more natural exchange of ideas with these students than I would have had if I were simply lecturing. This general idea was also applicable whether I was giving a radio interview, speaking with adult groups, or even speaking to the Symphony board or guild. It did require more flexibility as well as an ability to quickly size up the audience and “go with the flow” than a traditional prepared lecture, which is something not everyone may be comfortable with initially. With experience it gets easier, though. I certainly felt like I was learning and growing in these roles even as the words were coming out of my mouth.

  • Follow up after the fact—take note of what was accomplished and what could be improved. Also make sure to get copies of all press, recordings, etc. related to your visit.

Participating in a residency that involves more than just composing can be out of the comfort zone for many of us. A poorly thought-out residency can be dispiriting. But when done right, it can be enriching for composer and orchestra alike; one can only hope that the successful residencies encourage more performers and presenters to plan them as an essential part of their ongoing activities, thereby creating more opportunities for all composers.


Philip Rothman is a freelance composer and arts consultant in New York City. He was formerly Director of Grantmaking Programs at the American Music Center.

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