Lots of ideas and creative dialogue have been exchanged since the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) announced the pairing of 10 emerging composers with established art song composers for its Mentoring Program for Composers this past October.
Designed to encourage the composition and creation of new works, this is the third time NATS has offered the program. Mentee and mentor pairs meet individually about once a month online from October to June. Depending on the needs of the mentees and their interests, the mentors help review their work and provide guidance about the nuances of writing for voice. The program is free, and there is no cost for composers to apply.
Vocal composers Lori Laitman and Tom Cipullo serve as co-advisors, and both are participating again as mentors. As the cherry on top, each mentee composer has been commissioned to write a new work for a digital concert in June presented by Cincinnati Song Initiative. Past mentees also have had the opportunity to present their works as part of NATS events at the chapter, region or national level.
The 2022-23 pairs:
Mentee Jordan Knapp, paired with mentor Steven Mark Kohn, has found the NATS program to be very valuable.
“My experience with my mentor, Steven Mark Kohn, has been excellent,” Knapp says. “He has been quick to respond to questions, very flexible about meeting times, and checks in on my progress regularly. The comments he offers are always insightful and he is always clear that they are just opinions and suggestions, that I should trust my instincts if I don’t feel the same way. He has also offered information about ways I can be paid for my music and advice about networking as a composer.
Kohn, too, has enjoyed being a mentor.
“It has been a pleasure working with Jordan Knapp,” Kohn says. “Jordan has pretty clear ideas about what he wants to do, so I act more as an extra set of ears and a dramaturg. We discuss storytelling, clarity, and various editorial considerations. I find his instincts quite good.”
Mentor Richard Pearson Thomas expressed similar sentiments about his mentee.
“I am having a great time working with Kian Ravaei who is both talented and personable,” he says.
Likewise, mentee Kian Ravaei said his experience has been “wonderful.”
“He [Richard Pearson Thomas] has provided amazing musical advice — leveraging his decades of experience as a vocal composer — as well as invaluable career advice,” Ravaei says. “This program has immense value, especially for someone like myself who is lacking in real world experience with vocal music, and needs to rely on the experience of experts. I would encourage any composer with a passion or curiosity for vocal music to participate. I'm looking forward to continuing to share my drafts with my mentor, and hear the music of the other fellows at the virtual concert.”
In the coming months, the Cincinnati Song Initiative will record a song from each composer mentee and share these 10 world premieres in a digital concert in June. This will be the third year for the “Let it Be New” collaboration between NATS and CSI. NATS will post the concert date and details when available.
Kohn knows the concert benefits the mentees in more than one way.
“Having a target recital date and venue is also of great value,” he says. “This enables us to encourage the composers to join ASCAP or BMI, so they can begin monitoring their performances. I am looking forward to hearing everyone’s work. Last year’s recital was a great pleasure to see.”
Mentee Mikeila McQueston, who works with mentor Tom Cipullo, is looking forward to the “Let it Be New” concert as well.
“I can’t wait to hear the exciting things my colleagues have been working on over the past few months with their mentors,” she says.
She is pleased with the program and finds it gratifying.
“I’ve admired Tom Cipullo’s music for years, so it’s surreal to be working with him in this program,” McQueston says. “He often challenges me to write a passage five different ways and not to settle for the first idea that comes to mind. It's an exercise that's simultaneously freeing and like trying to solve a puzzle, and the results have been very rewarding thus far.”
Cipullo is also mentoring Spicer Carr, who has nothing but good things to say about the program.
“Tom has been a delight to work with, and incredibly insightful,” Carr says. “Not only has it been a dream to work with such a prominent member of the field, but it has been incredibly affirming. Tom is one of the most supportive mentors I have ever had. His main concern is not correcting or ‘fixing’ my music, but rather helping me find my voice. He has encouraged me to lean into what makes my music so unique and to not shy away from writing ‘beautiful music.’”
SiHyun Uhm appreciates the support and encouragement of her mentor, Nkeiru Okoye.
“Working with a mentor has opened up interesting ideas and thoughts I would not have otherwise,” Uhm explains. “It feels like I have someone who has my back. Nkeiru supports me no matter what and cheers me along the way. I also had a chance to meet her in person and attended Lori Laitman's concert.”
The opportunity to receive feedback and bounce ideas with an experienced art song composer can be invaluable for an early-career composer.
“NATS Mentoring Program is definitely an excellent program for composers like myself,” Uhm adds. “We write music based on our influences, experiences, thoughts, feelings, and judgments. However, with a third person's perspective, we get fresh insights and learn immensely from them.”
For the second half of the program, Uhm is looking forward to writing new pieces and getting together with other composers and composer mentors.
“I feel like the NATS Mentoring Program builds a great support group of lifelong peers of musicians,” Uhm says.
McQueston learned about the unique NATS program through past participants and plans to pass on the word to others.
“The nature of this program is very different from a summer intensive or a single masterclass,” she explains. “Because of that, we have the time to internalize and apply feedback from our mentors, and our mentors get to journey with us through the entire composition process from inception to premiere.”
Mentoring aside, getting a commission is a big win all by itself.
“Even beyond the supportive community of NATS mentors, composers, and teachers, the simple fact that it comes with a commission for an art song is hugely valuable,” Knapp explains. “It rewards composers for producing high-quality work, shows that NATS has confidence and respect for the chosen mentees, and helps to increase the repertoire for singers, with new art songs from composers of widely varying styles and experiences. I will definitely encourage other composers of vocal music to participate.”
Another benefit of the program is that these commissions bring the opportunity to work directly with new singers and receive their feedback.
“As we enter the second half of the program, I am most looking forward to working with the performers on my piece,” Knapp says. “In my case, it was a lot of hard work to produce one little art song, and I’m absolutely in love with the work I’ve completed. Having the support of my mentor and the commission really pushed me to produce something excellent. However, working with performers is where the piece always starts to come alive, and it’s a rare opportunity to work with performers I’ve never met before. Typically, my pieces are written for specific performers, and I will play the piano parts myself. I’m also excited for the final concert to hear the work everyone else has been doing, which I'm sure is of outstanding quality.”
Carr agrees that performance provides an exciting element to the program. He’s looking forward to listening to his music as well as receiving advice from singers.
Speaking of advice, he has some of his own to give other composers interested in this NATS program.
“I would encourage any composer of vocal music to apply,” he says. “I applied for three years in a row and finally got in on my third try. So even if you don't get in the first round, try, try again!”
NATS is proud to offer programming that supports rising composers of new art song. In addition to the Mentoring Program for Composers, NATS holds the Art Song Composition Award each year. Most recently, NATS named Rene Orth as the 2023 first place winner. The association will accept entries starting June 1, 2023, for the 2024 Art Song Composition Award with a submission deadline of December 1, 2023. The contest awards more than $3,000 in prizes to the winner composers and provides the winners with performance opportunities. The NATS Art Song Composition Award competition is led by Carol Mikkelsen, coordinator, Lori Laitman, advisor.