Dr. Larry Nickel – executive editor of Cypress Choral Music – respectfully shares these personal opinions – realizing that music is an extremely subjective art form.
For starters – I’m on your side. I actually lose sleep during these days of decision-making. Music composition is a lonely profession as only few people can relate to what we do and I know what’s it”s like to be disappointed.
Just recently (January 2020) I was turned down on a submission for a choral competition. I was so sure it had a good chance. Even though I’ve developed callouses from so many “rejections” over the years, it always hurts a bit. A composer’s composition – work of art – is closely connected with his/her heart and soul. For me it feels like someone saying my baby is ugly. Hey, my three children were beautiful, no matter what anyone says! (now they have beautiful children of their own)
Cypress Choral Music is a boutique publishing company that features and avidly promotes Canadian composers. We are small in comparison with Hal Leonard, Lorenz, Oxford U.P., Shawnee, G. Schirmer, Alfred, etc. However, our “music from Canada” motto is unique. We publish about forty new pieces each year – close to one fifth of the entries.
Cypress considers a few key areas: 1) the quality of choral writing 2) marketability 3) the balance of needs/genres in our catalogue. (We had several fine versions of Ave Maria sent to us this year while we already have six). There would be little point in tying up a composer’s copyright if we have little hope of sales. (regardless of the excellence of writing)
Too long or too short, too difficult or too easy, practical or impractical, extreme vocal registers or sweet-spot voicing, a hackneyed text, overused text, archaic language, a text that only few listeners can relate to or a text that will touch people deeply, a text that has copyright issues, multi-purpose or seasonal with a small niche, intuitive voice-leading or, adversely, tritones! – (the devil’s interval is unsingable for most people). With 200 entries a publisher needs to be selective. My U.B.C. composition mentor, Dr. Chatman, had a word that became the ultimate compliment for me; “convincing”. In other words, the composition fully realizes/develops the potential presented during the opening motifs.
Don’t forget that we consult with our curators: Dr. Julia Davids, Dr. Laurier Fagnan, Carrie Tennant, Zimfira Poloz and Morna Edmundson. Cypress regularly seeks the advise of choral music professionals; other publishers, singers, conductors and retailers.
Small story: I know of a publisher that turned down the first choral music of Eric Whitacre. Now Eric is one of the most widely performed contemporary composers. That publisher eventually folded – claiming bankruptcy. Hindsight is always 20/20 and that story haunts me whenever Cypress declines to take on a new piece.
Maestro Dr. William Berg once commented, “There are good composers and there are good poets. The chances of both talents residing in the same person are highly unlikely”. Song-writers/poets like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Bruce Cockburn are rare – but they weren’t writing choral music. Wonderful choral arrangements can be generated from great songs – and Cypress has been very successful with good arrangements of the music of Canadian icons like Ian Tyson, Joni Mitchell, Stan Rogers and Gordon Lightfoot.
An exquisite recording is important to Cypress. Please consider that, in this digital internet age, hearing is believing for most directors who are searching for new repertoire. Composers who submit a beautiful recording with their score (to a publisher) have an edge. Cypress hopes to and needs to feature an excellent recording with each score in the catalogue. Frankly, we are quite unable to sell sheet music without audio “evidence”. After all, music is organized sound and not dots on a page. If a composer does not have a good recording of his/her music, a publisher might wonder about how active the composer is in the choral world. Few composers achieve success by sitting by the phone and waiting for something to happen, right? They need to have the courage and self-confidence to approach a choir director and say, “I wrote a piece tailor-made for you and the strengths of your choir. Please, will you give it a try?”
One young composer showed great promise last year. A committee member commented, “This piece shows good potential so perhaps you could advise the composer to join a choir for a few years – and then rewrite this piece with a better understanding of the human voice”. Without a doubt, choral composers who sing in a choir and/or direct a choir have an advantage. Sometimes we get music that is clearly written by an instrumental composer.
Many selections, this year, scored high in the quality category but low in the marketability category. What a dilemma! Clearly, Cypress would not be serving composers well if they were unable to market their music. Our publications need to make the cut into reading clinics. Retailers (such and Long and McQuade) who host these reading clinics generally feature about 30 octavos in a packet, which they feel are marketable (out of thousands of possibilities from many publishers).
Sometimes a stroke of serendipity – being in the right place at the right time – can change the future of a choral piece. For example, Chor Leoni presented an excellent performance of Quick’s arrangement of “Loch Lomond” at an ACDA convention – in front of hundreds of choir directors from across the country. This lucky break has effected the sales of that arrangement significantly.
Other choral music publishers might find your piece more compatible with their catalogues. For instance, there are publishers that specialize in challenging/difficult choral repertoire – publishers that university choir directors might turn to for new music. Oxford University Press and G. Schirmer are two of these. A good way to find a publisher on your wavelength is to sort through a choral library somewhere, perusing scores from various publishers.
a personal story: I mustered up the courage to submit a piece to a publisher when I was 25. It was turned down and I felt so defeated. I tried one publisher after another for several years and eventually I found a publisher who was willing to take a chance on me. The piece sold 50,000 copies during the first year of publication. Eventually I had eleven publishers and approximately 60 thousand singers performed my music last year. I mention this only to say that tenacity and a willingness to learn can reap results. Of course, as a friend told me, McDonald’s sells millions of hamburgers every year but that doesn’t mean they are any good. My personal goal as a composer is to write well crafted and meaningful music with practicality and artistic integrity.
Therefore, please don’t be too discouraged if your submission to Cypress was not accepted this year. Eric Whitacre’s music was initially declined by several publishers. Likewise, author J.K. Rowlings (Harry Potter) was initially turned down by twelve publishers, who are now likely kicking themselves. Einstein was refused entry into the doctoral program of a University. Cypress would love to see your future creations – if you think there is a place for them in our catalogue.
I hope you have found these thoughts encouraging and helpful. Please don’t hesitate to write me. (email@example.com
sincerely, my five cents worth,
CYPRESS CHORAL MUSIC
Dr. Larry Nickel, CEO, editor
Diane Loomer, C.M., founder
1702- 1408 Strathmore Mews
Vancouver, B.C., V6Z 3A9