Susan LaBarr: Choral Composer of the Month

“Counterpoint is not scary.”

Getting to know composer Susan LaBarr and how she works.

How did you get involved with music, and when did you begin composing?

I have sung in choirs and played the piano since I was little. I’m fortunate that my parents were always very supportive of my music, and there was no question about majoring in music in college. At Missouri State University, I started as a piano performance major, but realized after two years that that wasn’t quite the right path for me. I ended up getting a Bachelor of Arts in music with a geography minor and a Master of Music in Music Theory. I had some choral arranging classes and lessons during my time in college, but it wasn’t until after college that I really began composing. I had a few opportunities to arrange and compose some music for the choir at my alma mater, and that’s really what started my composition career.

You acknowledge your time studying with Alice Parker as having a major impact on your “compositional voice.” What did you find most influential from your time studying with her?

Where to begin with the wonderful Alice Parker? Over the past five years, I have studied with Alice in her composition workshops, heard her speak on multiple occasions, and had her stay in my home twice. Every time I get to hear her speak, I learn something new. The main way that she has influenced my compositional style is by teaching me that counterpoint is not scary. She talks about how each individual voice part should have an interesting line with complete textual thoughts. She showed me how counterpoint doesn’t have to be approached intellectually or mathematically, but simply by responding to the melodic line and using pieces of what the melody has already done. It not only makes the texture of the work much more interesting, but it is more easily readable and fun to sing. I can look back at my early works and be a little embarrassed by some of the part writing compared to what I can do now (and I’m still learning!). I know it is all a learning process, and I am proud of where I have come from, but I am also extremely grateful for the opportunity to keep learning new technique.

Is there a method you use to motivate yourself to write new music? What is your process for writing music?

What do I use to motivate myself? DEADLINES. Really, I don’t think I would ever finish without a deadline! I get really inspired when I hear an incredible live concert or when I hear other composers speak at conferences. That sort of thing makes me want to work harder.

One of your new choral works, My Very Own, is recently published by Galaxy Music. It is a musical setting with texts adapted from The Song of Solomon and Ruth. What drew you to these texts? Tell us about the inspiration for this work.

My Very Own was commissioned by two friends of mine, Brian and Allison Murray, for their wedding. They loved these two texts and asked that they be worked together into one piece that would be sung by friends of theirs from their college choir at the University of North Texas. I loved this commission because it was a chance to pare back to the basics–because there would be a small group of singers without much rehearsal time, it really needed to be uncomplicated. For me, when I have those sort of parameters, I feel like I am able to have a lot more success. It causes me to put exactly what I mean and exactly what is needed down on the page, rather than just putting down anything I want. I have to make actual musical choices about how the chord should be voiced and approached, and it makes the construction much stronger. This is a sweet piece that brings back some really wonderful memories.

What advice would you give to aspiring composers?

I would tell young composers to listen. Listen to teachers, listen to conductors, listen to other composers’ works, listen to choirs, listen to pop music, folk music, modern music. Never assume that you know anything! Go into every situation (especially receiving critiques of your music) with a completely open mind and realizing that the person looking at your music might know more than you. Take it all in. Then, go back to your score and take what you want from what you have heard. Stay strong in your convictions, but be willing to try something else. Also, have your music performed before you send it for publication or to other conductors. Ask to use your school’s choir for ten minutes for a read-through, or put together a group of friends to sing something together. It will tell you everything you need to know about your composition. Be willing to revise and rework.

What can you be found doing when you’re not writing or editing new music?

When I’m not working with music, I am usually at the park with my three year old, cheering for the Missouri State University Bears at a football or basketball game, or eating or cooking something delicious.

Susan LaBarr (b. 1981) is a composer and choral editor living and working in Springfield, Missouri.

In 2015 and 2016, Susan completed commissions for Seraphic Fire, the National ACDA Women’s Choir Consortium, and for the Texas Choral Director’s Association’s Director’s Chorus. She served as the Missouri Composer Laureate for 2012 and 2013, and has been Composer-In-Residence for the Tennessee Chamber Chorus and the Chattanooga Girls Choir (Tennessee). Her arrangement of Quem pastores laudavere appeared on New York Polyphony’s 2014 Grammy-nominated album, Sing Thee Nowell.

Susan has sung professionally with the Tennessee Chamber Chorus and CORO Vocal Artists. Central to Susan’s musical vocabulary is the knowledge she gained from studying with Alice Parker at her home in Hawley, Massachusetts, where she attended the Composer’s Workshop and Melody Studies Workshop in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Susan attended Missouri State University in Springfield, where she received a Bachelor of Arts in music and a Master of Music in music theory. Susan, her husband Cameron, and their son Elliott reside in Springfield, Missouri, where Cameron is the Director of Choral Studies at Missouri State University and Susan works as Editor of Walton Music.

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