Composing the Cold Email | Dale Trumbore
November 1, 2016
Reaching out to share your music with a conductor you don’t know can be a little intimidating. The worst that can happen is you get a response saying they’re not interested in seeing more of your music. The best-case scenario? You successfully connect, and that leads to many wonderful collaborations in the future. Either way, it’s worth the small amount of time it takes to reach out.
There are three stages to sending a successful “cold email.” Research the ensemble before you start; send a polite, brief message; and follow up months (or years) later. Here are a few tips at each stage, including advice from conductors who regularly receive unsolicited emails from composers. Follow them, and you set yourself up for collaboration, not rejection.
BEFORE YOU START, DO YOUR HOMEWORK
I strongly recommend contacting conductors individually rather than in a mass-mailing. Before you start drafting an email to a conductor, make sure you know what ensemble(s) they conduct and which music could be a great fit for their style of programming. Look at the concerts they’re doing this season. What are the different themes? What music is on each concert? Do you have pieces that would be a logical fit as part of this ensemble’s programming?
It’s very likely too late for any music you send to be performed this season, but in this first step, you’re learning to approach your own music as a conductor would. This step is crucial; conductors know when you’ve taken the time to research their group and send appropriate music. For conductor Eric Banks, it’s clear which composers haven’t done so before submitting music to The Esoterics, his Seattle-based chorus. Composers sending “scores of sacred Christian music, or pieces with extensive piano accompaniment” haven’t researched what The Esoterics usually programs. As Banks says, “It’s pretty clear that we’re an a cappella ensemble and don’t sing a lot of ‘sacred’ repertoire.”
I’m not a conductor, and even I once received an email from an overeager composer who said he’s “open to commissions” and would be happy to write something for my choir. The very first email is not the time to mention commissioning, and I don’t have a choir! Do your homework. That particularly misguided emailer also addressed me as “Mr. Trumbore,” which leads us to the email itself.
KEEP THE EMAIL SHORT AND PERSONAL
Think of how you feel when receiving an email from a stranger; you probably open it with a certain degree of wariness. When you’re emailing a conductor you don’t know, anything you can do to lower their initial resistance is a good idea.
Address the conductor by name and mention the name of their ensemble, so it’s clear this email is personalized to them. Michael McGaghie, Director of Choral Activities at Macalester College, points out that you should double-check you’ve spelled the conductor’s name correctly, too.
Introduce yourself, briefly; this should take no more than one to two sentences. I suggest including where you live and briefly mentioning any notable accomplishments or other information that could lower any opposition to being contacted out of the blue. That could be specific and genuine praise; if you love one of their performances or recordings, point that out. It could be the fact that you’re both alums from the same university. If a mutual acquaintance has suggested you be in touch, mention that. If that acquaintance will write you an initial letter of introduction, even better.
Next, include links, never attachments, to recordings of no more than three of your pieces that you’ve decided would be a good fit for this conductor. If you have links to scores on your website or a site like Issuu, include those, too. Offer to follow up with PDFs or mailed hard copies of your scores; many conductors, including McGaghie, prefer the latter. “A clean, bound score lands right on top of my piano,” he says, “and it’s easier to play through it. It also means that I’ll keep it, perhaps even in the ‘do this in 1-2 years’ pile. Anything that can lower the activation barrier for a conductor to read the score is worth it.”
Don’t include MIDIs, at least not in the initial email. If a conductor follows up and asks specifically for a MIDI, include it; otherwise, conductors are great at audiating what a piece will sound like, even without a recording. It’s their job to be good at this!
When you’ve finished the email, go back and see if you can take anything out. This was the advice that Jo-Michael Scheibe, one of the busiest conductors I know, had to offer: “Keep it brief.” The shorter the email, the more likely you are to get a prompt response back.
FOLLOWING UP: GIVE IT TIME
Once you’ve sent the initial email, give it some time. If you don’t get a response, wait at least six months and send no more than one more email. You can always pursue other avenues of introduction, such as meeting the conductor in person at a conference or concert, or ask a mutual acquaintance to introduce you.
If you do receive a response, don’t worry about checking in again to ask whether the conductor has considered performing your music. Dominick DiOrio, who directs Indiana University’s Contemporary Vocal Ensemble NOTUS, finds the overeager follow-up email particularly annoying. “Sometimes, the composer is forcing my hand into a pre-emptive ‘no’ to the score, not giving me time to consider it for future programming, a process that sometimes takes 18-24 months,” he explains. “If a composer hasn’t heard back, they can take that as a ‘not yet’ (or after a few years, a ‘no’), rather than pressing the issue.”
Wait for the conductor to get in touch with you. I’d also suggest waiting about a year to pass along new scores rather than following up with every new piece you write. Brandon Elliott of Choral Arts Initiative suggests staying away from the generic “How are you doing?” email in between sending scores along, too. “Let the music you write be the foundation upon which your working relationship grows,” Elliott advises. “Small talk via email doesn’t do that. Your music does.” A conductor knows you’re likely writing because you want something from them, and they’re busy! Kindly and politely get to the point first, and then ask how they’re doing. As you stay in touch, remember that even if a conductor loves the music you’ve sent, it may take them years to find a home for it in the right concert program.
FIND MORE CONDUCTORS
Not sure where to start looking for conductors to contact? You can start by looking at bios and resumes of composers whose music is stylistically similar to your own to see which ensembles are performing and commissioning them. Singers.com has long lists of choral conductors and choral ensembles organized by voice type, and if you don’t know where to start, looking regionally is always a good bet. Start by reaching out to choirs in your area, then branch out to your state.
It’s relatively easy to find an email address for nearly anyone who teaches at the collegiate level. This goes for conductors who lead professional ensembles and also hold university positions; it will likely be much easier to find their university contact than a direct email address through their ensemble’s site.
Many ensembles do have a list of board members that includes direct contact information for their Artistic Director. You can always check to see if that conductor can be reached through their personal website, too. If all else fails, there’s the general contact information for an ensemble; write your email as if you were writing to the Artistic Director, and it will likely be forwarded along. If it isn’t, you’ll likely get a response that indicates what to do next.
The more people you contact, the better your odds of finding someone who really connects with your music. Nearly five years ago, I sent individual emails introducing myself to a little over a hundred conductors. Some of those emails could have been better-written; my introduction was a lengthy paragraph, and I sent too many links. I didn’t hear back from some of them, but I received very positive responses from about a quarter of those initial emails. Those connections have led to at least four commissions, hundreds of score sales, and ongoing collaborations that I treasure.
When it comes to cold emails, the most important tip to keep in mind is this: most conductors are very happy to get emails from composers. Eliza Rubenstein of the Orange County Women’s Chorus, for instance, says she is “always pleased to receive inquiries and sample scores” from composers, and she has “not only learned some wonderful new music, but also made some terrific new friends, through their outreach!” So never apologize for sending cold emails; approach them as a way to share your work with someone who could potentially love your music, but just doesn’t know it yet.