Prolific classical music composer Rick Sowash achieves a sweet harmony in giving away his work

Over-the-Rhine resident also a successful author
Prolific classical music composer Rick Sowash achieves a sweet harmony in giving away his work
Posted at 8:00 AM, Feb 12, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-12 08:00:32-05

CINCINNATI -- What do you with a product you've poured your creative energies into, that sounds really great, but that you can't find a market for?

Give it away, of course.

After many attempts to make money from his music, that's the answer Over-the-Rhine composer Rick Sowash came up with.

Sowash, 67, has been writing music since he was 12 and a middle school student in Mansfield, Ohio. He writes mostly for small groups of instrumentalists because he can't afford to hire a symphony orchestra to perform his works.

He writes easily accessible instrumental music in the tradition of 20th century American composers such as Aaron Copland. Someone called his music "folky, but not hokey," Sowash said.

But there's a very limited audience for classical music nowadays, and an even smaller audience for new pieces in that genre.

As soon as he was old enough to have any common sense, Sowash said, he knew he couldn't make a living writing music. Over the years, he's supported himself in varied ways, most notably by telling stories.

"Probably the two things I love the most are good stories and good music," he said.

He's made presentations based on his book, "Heroes of Ohio: 23 True Tales of Courage and Character," to 2,000 Ohio schools, charging $950 a day and often selling 300 to 400 books per presentation. He's sold about 40,000 copies altogether.

For many years, he also made presentations to county boards, trade associations and other groups in need of an after-dinner speaker, for which he charged $500 and also reaped some book sales.

With the money from his speaking engagements, he said, he bought a three-story building in Over-the-Rhine. He and his wife live in the first floor, and they rent the upper floors.

His Rick Sowash Publishing Company publishes the books he's written, the sheet music for his compositions and the 16 CDs of his music he's produced.

To get his music heard, he's tried to sell the sheet music. he's pressed his friends to attend concerts and he's coaxed radio stations to play his pieces. He's had some success at the latter -- his music is regularly played on WGUC, Cincinnati's classical music station.

When he produces a new CD, he sends it with a cover letter to all 165 classical music stations in the country. Most of the music directors, many of whom Sowash has cultivated relationships with, are pleased to get them and air them.

He's also shrewdly titled his pieces to make them radio-friendly. For example, a father once gave him $1,500 to write a piece he could play with his children. Knowing that there are few classical pieces connected with Father's Day, Sowash titled it "Father's Day Suite." It gets lots of play, nationwide, on Father's Day.

Sowash has done a good job cultivating a radio audience, something that many contemporary composers haven't focused on, said Carson Cooman, composer in residence at The Memorial Church at Harvard University. In fact, Sowash and Cooman met via email after Cooman heard one of Sowash's pieces on local radio.

In October 2013, Sowash began sending a free Sunday morning e-mail to friends and fans like Cooman. Each one features one of his pieces, with a link to an MP3 of the piece and a PDF of the score.

Sowash finds this way of sharing his work immensely satisfying, he said, and his audience is growing. He started with about 130 locals, and now he has 600 readers all over the world.

There's no advertising in the emails, and Sowash doesn't ask for money for the music, but people sometimes send it anyway. About three years ago, he decided that since all 400 of his pieces came to him free of charge, he ought to give them away.

"It's a smart thing to do," Cooman said. "There's not a lot of money to be made in charging for it."

Though he doesn't get money for it, giving his music away often leads to good things.

"I'm very much a ‘cast your bread upon the waters' guy," Sowash said, referring to a Bible verse: "Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days."

"As I put my gifts out there, the universe sends them back to me in other forms."

Sometimes the forms are tangible, as when a grateful member of a chamber group in Slovenia, whom Sowash had supplied with free music, put Sowash and his wife up in his home for a week's vacation.

Or when Cooman recommended that the Harvard-Radcliff Chorus perform one of Sowash's works, and Sowash sent the choir director the score for free.

The university paid to fly him to Harvard for the concert in December, Sowash said, which was one of the best moments of his life. "I'm still feeling a glow from that," he said.