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"So long as the human spirit thrives on this planet, music in some living form will accompany and sustain it and give it expressive meaning."

Aaron Copland, London Times, November 27, 1980.

Designing Your Project

Why Do It?

Traditionally, commissioning music has meant some kind of long-distance relationship between the composer and the commissioning organization. The music organization contracts a composer to write a piece, sometimes for a special occasion or on a particular theme. The composer writes the piece and delivers the score. Perhaps s/he might be present at rehearsals or the premiere.

But the model on which Continental Harmony is based assumes that the community would like the work of the composer to extend beyond the enjoyment the audience may experience in the concert hall. The American Composers Forum believes that the process of music creation and performance can serve as a catalyst for a deeper community engagement with issues of importance. These issues will, of course, differ from town to town.

Every community can benefit from the strengthened social bonds and vision which come from a musical celebration of the unique features of landscape, history, and culture which characterize a place. And individuals find great satisfaction in finding outlets for their creative potential through working with a composer and/or performing a new work of music.

But a community may be facing more urgent issues, issues that would benefit from the coalition building which accompanies a well-thought out and successfully accomplished composer residency and community celebration.

  • Perhaps the people need to cooperate on matters of economic revival.
  • Maybe the populace needs to focus on problems of environmental degradation, resource use, or planning for a sustainable future.
  • Perhaps there is tension between or among ethnic communities or generations.
  • Maybe there is a disconnect between longtime residents and newcomers over the community’s future.

A community celebration which includes important stakeholders will contribute to establishing connections and a spirit of cooperation which will persist beyond the performance itself. Having the unique creative vision of a composer at the community’s disposal through a process of residency and the creation and performance of a new work of music, one which speaks to a particular locale, is a powerful tool for civic engagement.

But. . .

Planning and carrying out such a project is extremely demanding of time and money. The benefits are great, but so are the costs.

Planning the Project


Before any specific planning takes place, groundwork will need to be laid with relevant community constituents to assure their interest in such a project.

  • Consider collaboration with existing community organizations whose missions are consistent with the goals you wish to achieve. Successful collaborations increase the interest in and ownership of a project, because each organization has its own resources and constituencies.
  • A planning team broadly representative of the issue or theme to be addressed needs to be put together.
  • If the lead organization is a performing group, the chances of successful community-wide involvement are greatly increased if partner organizations are involved.
  • If the lead organization is not a performing group, it is extremely important that the music director/conductor of the performing organization is brought on board. Or if a new group of performers is to be created, your team needs to include someone who can organize such an effort and communicate with various community musicians.
  • A theme and occasion which will be meaningful to the community’s people needs to be identified.
  • A date and venue not in conflict with other community events needs to be identified. Or if the project is to be a part of an established community observance (such as a July 4th celebration or other annual festival), the organizers of that observance must be involved from the beginning so that a project outside usual community practice can fit in.

The actual shape of the project will usually evolve through a committee process. Specific cultural sensitivities or modes of operation in your community for such work should, of course, be observed. Several months need to be allowed for this initial visioning and planning if the committee is diverse and composed of volunteers from throughout the community.

Finally, dedicated leadership from a relatively small group of individuals is necessary to keep the process moving, to maintain coalitions, and to see that delegated tasks are completed.

Preparing a Budget: How Much Money Do You Need?

In some communities, all the costs except the composer’s fee and travel might be donations of time, equipment, or products. In others, a substantial cash outlay may be necessary to carry out the project.

Paying the Composer
  • The composer will receive a fee for his/her residency and composition. For Continental Harmony in the year 2000, these fees ranged from $7,500 to $12,500 for the commission and up to 4 weeks of residency. The size of a composer’s fee varies greatly according to: the length of the piece, the length of the residency desired, the number of separate instrumental and vocal parts to be included, and the reputation of the composer. At the high end, an established composer might get $1000-per-minute of finished music. On the other hand, a short piece by an emerging composer might be acquired for substantially less than $5,000. For guidance on appropriate fees, contact Meet The Composer, Inc.
  • A travel allowance to subsidize the composer’s trips to the community should be included.
  • If the composer’s copying costs are not to be included in the fee (this is a matter of negotiation with your composer once s/he is chosen), some amount for copying should be included. The larger the piece, the more the composer will have to pay a copyist; this may range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars.
Administrative Costs
  • Staff time
  • Office, telephone, postage, supplies, etc.
Carrying out the Residency
  • Housing, transportation, and food for the composer
  • Informing the community of residency activities: advertising, invitations, refreshments, rental of space, etc.
Putting on the Performance
  • Sound & lighting equipment and technical assistance
  • Venue preparation and/or usage
  • Recording (see The Premiere for more information)
  • Musicians
  • Conductor
  • Advertising/promotion
  • Performing rights license fee
  • Copying parts
  • Special equipment or instruments
  • Ushers, stage hands

Raising the Money
National sources:
  • Your community might be eligible for a 3-year Meet the Composer New Residencies project.
  • Your project might fit into the continuation of the American Composers Forum’s Continental Harmony program.
  • Americans for the Arts’ Animating Democracy Initiative funds arts projects which engage the community in serious civic dialogue.
  • Chamber Music America funds several programs that may coincide with your needs.
  • Competition for money from large national foundations is stiff, but several are interested in combining the arts with community development. We suggest you review the guidelines for Rockefeller, Pew, Wallace, Kellogg, Knight, and others who have an interest both in community and the arts.
  • The National Endowment for the Arts is also a possibility, although again competitive.
State and Regional sources:
  • Your state arts board.
  • Your regional or local arts boards.
  • Philanthropic/corporate foundations whose program priorities focus on a particular state or region. For example, the McKnight Foundation funds arts projects in Minnesota; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation is interested in northern California, the Otto Bremer Foundation funds projects in towns which have Bremer banks, etc.
Local sources:
  • Your community may have a community foundation which gives grants for arts projects.
  • Important businesses in your community may be willing to sponsor your project in return for recognition and a chance for their employees to participate.
  • Your local Chamber of Commerce, Economic Development Authority, Tourism Board, etc.
  • Your city government, or its departments (parks, housing, etc.).
  • Your school district.
  • And the tried and true, private donations.

Any of these sources of funds will require that you submit a proposal. In clear and compelling prose, a successful grant proposal will explain the vision of your project and how you plan to carry it out. You should also include materials which indicate your organizational ability to complete the project successfully: qualifications of project staff or volunteers, budgets, etc. And you should include sample materials from similar projects you have completed (programs, evaluations of previous projects, press coverage of your organization, etc.)

Making your application into an attractive and professional presentation is important. Competition for scarce funds is always increasing. How your proposal looks is a direct reflection on your organization.

But once you have raised the money, now you need to begin the process of finding a composer.

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