The Choral Commission: An Interview with Composer Ruth Elaine Schram

March 24, 2009

Ruth Elaine SchramThis spring will be the second time the 8th Grade Choir at Learwood Middle School in Avon Lake, Ohio will commission and premiere a piece of music written by composer Ruth Elaine Schram. In a recent interview with Michael Lisi, Learwood Middle School vocal music director, Ruthie, as her friends call her, discusses her long, successful career and the process of writing music on commission.

Michael Lisi: How long have you been composing choral music?
Ruth Elaine Schram: The real answer to that is forever! It has always been the way I expressed myself even as a child. I was always singing or making up music as I walked around or went through life. As far as a real song actually written down, that is the result of a funny story.

I grew up in Lafayette, Indiana. One day when I was 12 years old, I walked home from school for lunch to a typical scene of my mother sitting at the piano playing hymns. My mother turned to me and asked what I wanted to hear next. Frankly, being 12 years old and getting a little tired of it, I sarcastically replied, “nothing.” So my mother said, “Oh, this is nothing,” and started cheerfully doodling around on the piano. All of a sudden this song just came to me and I said, “no, this is nothing,” then started singing this little song, “nothing can harm me when Jesus is near!” That is what I consider to be my first song. At that point I became more proactive about remembering the songs or writing the words down or documenting the chord structures that would come to mind.

My first song to be accepted for publication was called “Jesus, Be My Hands.” I was singing in a church group in 1986, and had written this song that our ensemble performed in church. The director (my brother, John Gage) sent a recording of it to Brentwood Music in Nashville. They sent me a contract, but really didn’t do anything with it. However, it got my foot in the door to work on other projects with them, and I ended up with songs on the (now multi-platinum) Mother Goose Gospel series, among other works for children. In 1988, my husband and I started mailing songs off to print companies. Jean Anne Shafferman (then of Shawnee Press) was the first editor to see one of my works and deem it worthy of publication. We sent her a children’s musical that I had written for Shades Mountain Baptist Church, and she told me that she didn’t actually publish musicals for children, but loved this one piece called “When Jesus Was a Little Child,” and thought it would make a delightful two-part octavo for treble voices. So both sides of the market opened up for me about the same time with Brentwood on the consumer end and Shawnee on the print side. As of today, I am approaching 1,600 pieces published.

ML: How many of your pieces have been composed on commission?
RES: I’ve composed approximately 35 or 40 commissions. About 60 percent of those are sacred pieces and 40 percent are commissioned by schools. I’ve done some that haven’t been published due to the specific nature of the commission. Fewer and fewer commissions are being published. To really be marketable, a composition must be broad enough that anyone can latch on to it and perform it. Sometimes the specific nature of a commission or the event the piece is being commissioned for limits the potential uses of the piece. Unfortunately, publishers are not able to invest in a piece that does not have broad appeal and marketability.

ML: How often do you work directly with the groups that premiere your compositions?
RES: Often a church will commission me to write a piece for a specific event or in honor of a particular person, and the commission is funded by a spouse, family member, or designated gift. Depending upon where the commissioning organization is, how the commission was funded, and whether or not my schedule will allow me to participate, I sometimes get the chance to be a part of the premier performance. From time to time, a church will ask me to come if they really love the song and feel I have captured the spirit of what they were going for, if not to actually conduct the choir premiering the work, to be present for the premier performance. In some cases, my presence is kept a surprise to the honoree, as is the commissioned work.

There are several schools that, as part of the creative process of commissioning me to write the song, have asked me to come be a part of the experience and work with the students. One of my favorite ways to work with the commissioning organization is to invite them to contribute ideas for the texts. Some of my favorite works have been written this way, including “Make My Life an Alleluia” and “The Sky is Crying on the Sea.” Both of these works were published by the Lorenz Corporation.

ML: Could you share one of your more interesting commission experiences?
RES: I had one school in North Carolina that invited me to work with the students on the compositional process. We really got into the nuts and bolts of the creative process. The teacher had seven or eight different classes she met with during the day. Each class composed a song that was eight, twelve or sixteen measures long. I just walked them through the creative process. How do you write a song? Do you want to start with the melody or the words? If you want to start with the words, what is our theme or topic? Are we going to sing about love, springtime, flowers, et cetera? One by one the students would raise their hands and throw out ideas. After we had decided on our theme, I guided the students as to how we were going to bring that theme to life. Then we had to think melodically. I asked if we should start in the middle of the staff and go up, start in the middle of the staff and go down, start low and come up, start high and come down. I wanted them to think about how you write a song and how you make the decisions about what ends up on the printed page, how you make the music match the text, how you think through the process and create a new work. Each student had a piece of staff paper on which to transcribe the song as I wrote it on the board, following their decisions one by one. One of the things that stuck with me is that many of the students were singing their new song as they left the classroom. And all the songs were so different! It was an amazing experience for me and hopefully a memorable one for them as well.

That evening at their Spring Concert, we performed the piece I had written on commission for the school. It was a really neat experience.

ML: Could you discuss the role that text plays in your compositional process?
RES: Words are my life! It’s not about the melody for me. When the words come to me, when the text is complete, the melody is there it’s as if the melody is “embedded” in the text. I am not a musician who sits and writes at the keyboard. I start with the text and during the time I am working with words, little melodies, snippets of melody, portions of melody or at least, if nothing else, a feel, is running through my mind. So, when I get all of the words finished, the melody is simply already there. The only thing left is to put the dots into the Finale (notation software) program. The song is pretty much done in my head when the text is complete. What I do at that point is go to the keyboard and compose an introduction that establishes a mood and a feel for the piece. I then put the vocals down, write the accompaniment, and I’m done.

ML: How has the world of composing for the middle school/junior high ages changed during your career as a composer?
RES: There is much more music available for this age group today than ever before. I think the one person who spearheaded that whole movement was Brian Busch, founder of BriLee Music. He had such a heart for that age group and wanted to see more music, quality music, provided for them. But he just could not get the industry to agree with him, so he started his own company and began to build a repertoire of high-quality works suitable for the middle school/junior high choir. Since then, many publishers have followed his lead and continue to publish pieces appropriate for this age with specific range limitations, thoughtful and meaningful texts, accessible part writing and easy-to-play accompaniments. In recent years, there has been a trend to publish music in a 3-pt. mixed voicing with optional baritone, allowing for an even more flexible application.

ML: Do you have any advice for choral directors interested in commissioning a new composition?
RES: The more information the commissioning organization can provide, the better. When I do a commission, I really want the song to be what the organization is looking for, and reflect them as a group (or the person in whose honor the song is written). I like to get as much feedback and input as I possibly can as to what they are looking for.

The first thing the organization needs to do is decide what style of composition they want and make sure they select a composer that can effectively compose in the genre. I like to work closely with the commissioning organization to make sure the piece I am writing is specific enough for the event. I aim to provide a piece that the commissioning organization will want to perform over and over again. Not every composer is like that. Some would rather work with no parameters or limitations but I want to make sure that what I am writing for you is going to work for you. Whether or not it is successfully published is not the primary goal.

As far as the compositional time frame goes, I work to complete a piece in 60 days I’ve been told this is unheard of and that some composers require a year to complete a commission. But writing music is my full time job! I don’t have to work around a school schedule or church commitments; the only thing I have to work around is my travel schedule and other writing assignments. But usually, I won’t have a problem completing the work in the time frame specified.

ML: What do your future plans hold? Will you continue to compose the same types of music or do you see moving into new areas of composition or performance?
RES: In 2004, the Lorenz Corporation approached me about becoming a member of their “Dream Team” of composers and clinicians. They have been wonderful about giving me new opportunities to stretch in different directions including writing musicals, orchestrations, string accompaniments, and keyboard and solo collections. In 2007, they published a project that I’d been working on for several years, and is one of the most definitive works of my career. It’s called The Living Last Supper, and is a study of Jesus’ last meal with His disciples before His death the basis for “communion” in today’s church. The set is based on the DaVinci painting, which is perfect for a live performance, because all the characters are seated on one side of the table and face in the same direction. The drama is all monologues, so it’s easy for a small church to light and mic. Lorenz gave me the creative freedom not only to write every word of the drama and text, and every note of the music, but to orchestrate it as well. I wanted to create a musical, actually a series of musicals, that even a small church could successfully put on despite limited resources and limited rehearsal times. Most small churches cannot afford a full orchestra, nor could the choir be heard if they did. So this musical is accompanied by piano, and all the instrumental parts are optional strings, winds, and very light percussion, and written at a difficulty level that volunteer musicians could easily play. Because the most logical time to do this would be Maundy Thursday (during Holy Week), it was a risky project for Lorenz to commit to, but has turned out to be a bestseller for them. As a composer, I’ve had more correspondence from churches that have done this musical than any other work I’ve ever written possibly more than all my other works combined. Because the musical was so well received, Lorenz published “The Living Light” that same year for Christmas, and I’m now working on “The Living Last Words,” based on the seven last words of Christ from the cross.

All of my works that are currently available are listed on my Web site, along with sample pages from the scores and, in many cases, audio excerpts of the beautiful demo recordings. Also from the categories on the main page, you can navigate to a list of the publishers who publish my music and links to their sites, as well as links to dealers.

Anyone interested in commissioning a piece, or discussing any of my works, can contact me directly at ruthie@ruthie.com, or via the “contact us” link at my Web site: www.choralmusic.com.

Michael K. Lisi has over 20 years of teaching experience in the Ohio Public Schools. He currently serves as the vocal music director at Learwood Middle School (Avon Lake, Ohio), where over 75 percent of the students participate in choir. Michael can be reached at michael.lisi@avonlakecityschools.org.

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