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Advice for the Emerging Composer: Competitions

October 25, 2009 at 12:15 am UTC

Ah, composition competitions; there are hundreds, maybe thousands, every year, all over the world. Should you enter? Should you not? I’ve entered a lot of them over the years, and based on my personal experience the answer is yes. Competitions are a good thing, and offer a number of benefits to the emerging composer, as long as you know what those benefits are. To wit:

Exposure. Most of the time the judges in these contests are prominent conductors, or administrators, or publishers, and these are exactly the kinds of people you want to hear your music. Even if you don’t win (you won’t win – more on that later) you might leave a terrific impression on a single judge or the entire panel, and they may begin to follow your work more closely. Several times I’ve lost a competition and had the judges call me to ask if they could program my ‘loser’ score.

You’ll finish the piece. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a competition that is looking for “sketches” of a piece; they all want a finished product, ready to perform. This is great for you, because the application date  becomes a concrete deadline to motivate you to complete your masterpiece. Then when you don’t win (seriously, you won’t win) you’ll have a finished work ready to shop around.

It will steel your will and prepare you for a career filled with rejection. Did I mention that you won’t win? In the last 18 years I’ve probably entered a hundred competitions and I have never won anything. Nothing. I lost the ASCAP Young Composers award three times (in three different years I entered When David Heard, Lux Aurumque, and Cloudburst, lost with all three). I lost the Dale Warland Singers competition, where I entered a never-performed piece called Water Night (although Dale decided to publish Water Night in his choral series, and the ‘winning’ piece from that year remains unpublished). Just last week I received a very nice letter from the good people at United States Artists, informing me that while my application was well received (all that interesting music you’ve written!), it didn’t merit an award.

But here’s the thing: I’m glad I’ve never won. It makes me feel like an outsider, makes me feel misunderstood, keeps me hungry, all the things that are essential tools for being a composer. You’ll be better for losing, because in your heart you’ll know you should have won, and the injustice will help drive you forward.

That’s an important point to remember: it is injustice. Composition competitions are hopelessly biased. The juries do their best, but they are just human beings looking at a lot of scores, all through their own personal opinion of what constitutes a ‘good’ piece. (Years after a student competition at Juilliard I was told by a jury member that they had rejected the score to my string transcription of Water Night – without even listening to the recording – because it looked too ‘simple’ to be a sophisticated piece. I remember thinking, “but the simplicity is the whole frickin’ point!”).

Don’t worry about winning. As a composer you are going to get turned down a lot, by conductors, by music publishers, by critics; it’s all just part of the gig. Entering competitions and not winning is a great way to get used to the lifestyle, the drive to just keep writing, forging ahead. For me, it’s been a way to develop an ‘inner-compass’, a sort of quiet confidence that it doesn’t really matter if I win or lose; the work alone is it’s own reward.

Finally, and this is a big point: I never enter a competition that requires me to submit my application with a fee. Fran Richards, the extraordinary Vice President & Director of Concert Music at ASCAP, passionately advances this philosophy, and I couldn’t agree with her more. Don’t ever pay to be a part of one of these competitions; they are lucky to be getting an application from you.

So go out there and apply, dear friends, with head held high. Send them your very best work and prepare for rejection. You never know who might hear it, or how it might influence your career, now or ten years from now. And just think: at the very least you’ll have a beautifully engraved piece that you can turn around and send to the next reject… er, competition.

  • Colin Read

    Thank you, Eric.

  • tessyeggerman

    Wonderful suggestions, and words from the wise. :) Thanks!

  • Andy J

    Where are some good places to look for competitions? I am an ametur composer and I occasionally get the chance to write some stuff. Having competitions to help me finalize pieces would definately help me to get better at finishing projects.

  • http://www.ryanyouens.com Ryan Youens

    Nice comments Eric.

  • http://clairewestbrook.blogspot.com Claire

    Thanks for the encouragement.

  • http://www.youtube.com/xoclkox Courtney Lea

    Wow, this was very insightful and I'm glad I read it.
    Though I've never really composed a piece (fully anyway), it fits in perfectly with my situation when I auditioned for 4 years for All-State in High School and NEVER made a recall or got in! I felt so hopeless and I felt it was my voice to blame and I almost quit singing afterwards. But THANK GOD my musical peers and teachers told me that these things are UNFAIR and it gives (as you said) INJUSTICE to talented people.
    It's nice to hear this from a person such as yourself and hearing even your rejections (that shocked me quite a bit actually lol) to something like this.
    Thank you for the inspiring words and encouragment!

  • Ran

    Eric, YOU ROCK ! ! !

  • http://www.coloncleanseadvice.net/ Ran

    Eric, YOU ROCK ! ! !
    Oops…forgot to say great post! Looking forward to your next one.

  • http://www.jscottmckenzie.com Scott

    Great post, Eric.

    I must disclose, however, that I was a winner of a competition (not THE winner, A winner; important distinction). You know what I won? No money, no recording, no travel expenses, but one world-class performance of a three-minute piece I had the privilege to fly halfway around the world on my own dime to (I did get to conduct). Was it worth it? You betcha.

  • http://hotwaterishot.blogspot.com Matt

    Thanks for the advice Eric. I'm glad to see that this series hasn't died! Do you think you could tag all the "advice" entries so that we can see them all together? I really appreciate the lessons you have to share (especially the business side).

    Matt

  • Kristopher

    Best.

    Post.

    Ever.

  • Mike Anderson

    This is a really excellent post! Thanks for the advice!
    Were your conceptions of the music industry any different when you first started working at this?

  • http://www.curtismacdonald.com/blog Curtis Macdonald

    this is a GREAT post.

  • http://www.facebook.com/blair.chadwick?ref=profile#/blair.chadwick?v=info&ref=profile Blair

    Hi Mr. Whitacre!
    I came across this flute beatbox video that you should most definitely see. I immediately thought of you when I saw it. If you haven't seen this guy perform Inspector Gadget on his flute, you're missing out! There might be a 30 second commercial before you get to see him, but hang in there…it's worth the wait.
    Sorry to leave you a comment not pertaining to your blog post; I didn't know of any other convenient way of sending you this. Enjoy! http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x16hdk_flute-bea
    (I REALLY hope I'm the guy that gets to introduce this to you…I'll FINALLY be cool!)

  • Pingback: inspiring reads | curtis macdonald

  • Peter

    Sorry, I don't have a Twitter account, but I wanted to reply…

    "Was anyone at the BYU Singers/King's Singers' concert last Wednesday? Dying to hear how 'The Stolen Child' sounded…"

    It sounded amazing. Ronald Staheli did a few weird things with the dynamics, like some subito piano moments that weren't in the premier, and I'd have to be able to listen to it again to decide which of the two I think better. The BYU Singers were marvelous as always, and the King's Singers were absolutely perfect.

  • http://steved.110mb.com Steve Danielson
  • http://www.myspace.com/pink717 Ashley Jensen

    Brilliant!!! I loved this post. I can't agree with you more. I got sucked in reading your post. I took a lot from it and will take it with me when I audition for something.

  • http://www.malachevsky.com.ar Eduardo ANdres Malac

    I was really surprised reading that you, Eric, never won anything in the composition competitions that you have sent your scores… But, is it wining competitions what it matters? or what it really matter is that our music be sung? Let me share my experience with your friends of this blog, experience that comes from the lucky (lucky?)side of the game…
    I am a pretty lucky winning composer; since 2001 when I have sent for the fisrt time one of my choral scores to a composition competition until now, 2009, seventeen times (17 in 8 years!) my pieces have get to the final stages of several contests around the world winning all kind of prices (very probably I am the most awarded Argentinean choral composer nowadays. You should think that as a natural consequence of those prices my music is well known and sung a lot: WRONG!!! Have you ever heard about Malachevsky and his awarded choral music…? I don’t think so.
    Wining competitions doesn’t really means that our music will be spread around (as your music does, Eric). Of course, winning competitions is a very important personal success, helping you to be confident with what you do, to meet and get in touch with distinguished composers and conductors (the ‘Jury’ of our music), to travel…, and so on; but, most of the time as a result of your award your music is sung once (if it is sung) and never more again… Your nhonored and inspired composition will sleep long and silently waiting to much to be awaked once again… Even if you propose your wining piece to a publisher, he will probably say (if he answers you) ‘Not thanks’….
    I am not sharing this to discourage composers to send their well written and inspired scores to composition competition –not way! : do it!!!, but do not expect too much (even if you win).
    I might guess that Eric did not win any competition, because of his simple writing style (even if it may sound complex) that I found myself A VIRTUE TO BE AWARDED! But to bestow a prize the honorable Jury contest usually is VERY critical to simplicity… (look as well to Arvo Part and see how many competition of this kind has won!…).
    In all these last year, I have spent my composition time to write music to win competitions…, and I did win, once and again! and I am of course very happy and proud with that, but my experience teach me that if you really want that your music be interpreted and sung, write thinks suitably (and short!) enough to good amateur choir; music that your friend conductor will say ‘It looks great and accessible to my singers!’ (and let aside your more complex stuff for commissions or contests…); with those pieces maybe you will not win a prize but you will have more chance that spread your inspiration more easily! (and this is a very precios true prize!). Eric is a great champion of that and you should learn from him! He, smart guy, makes use of all the ultimate technology to achieve his goal (the virtual choir is a pretty good example!) and we, awarded or not awarded composers, should take his example if we really want to spread around our inspired and well written music.

    Eduardo Andres Malachevsky
    Argentinean Composer & Conductor http://www.malachevsky.com.ar

    Ps. If you are curious about my choral music go and visit my web, there you will find some recordings and videos.

  • http://hotwaterishot.blogspot.com Matt

    Eric,

    To answer your question from Twitter, I was at the BYU Singers/King's Singers concert last Wednesday (actually I was in it *blush*). "The Stolen Child," was great! Everybody loved it to death, even people who are not really fans of choral music were raving about how amazing the piece is. It turned out to be many people's favorite piece of the entire night.

    It was so amazing to sing with the King's Singers and to sing this piece with them. So cool. I lived in Ireland for a while so the Yeats text is particularly meaningful to me.

    Great job!

    Matt
    Baritone
    BYU Singers

  • JC

    How would I go about getting an arranging license for one of your pieces? I would like to perform (and possibly record) my personal arrangement of Lux Aurumque for marimba quartet late next spring. It's a beautiful piece and I find that the marimba texture fits it well.

    Thanks for any info or suggestions you may have!
    -Jonathan Carr

  • Lane

    To anyone who would help a fellow musician
    Is there an email or way to conctact Mr. Whitacre? I've been dramatically influenced musically by him, and was just wondering, thank you.

  • Lane

    Concerning the article, so true! Not that I can relate at my age but it seems like it would be like that. It's great that Mr. Whitacre takes his time for this kind of stuff, and…in a way stands "defiant" against whatever judges him. Thanks for the article, very inspiring!!!

  • http://www.myspace.com/brucebabcock Bruce Babcock

    Eye opening to see which pieces did not win. Great advice. I've actually won two competitions – thirty years apart. I'm not due again for another 28 years.

  • http://www.sethgarrepy.com Seth Garrepy

    Eric,

    I couldn't agree more with your statements! Having talked personally with Fran over at ASCAP, I can hear her saying what you mentioned above– and I agree wholeheartedly with her.

    Your advice to composers on rejection is very true. I have been rejected, but I have been fortunate to also meet with success. It's in those times when that "big break" happens, we you are reminded how precious few those moments are. I applaud your sage wisdom and that you shared it with us all.

    I wish you, Hila, and your family a happy Thanksgiving this week.

    Best,

    Seth Garrepy

  • http://j Martin

    Not to bring down the optimism, I would like to express my disagreement. When you lose, it is because the judges did not think your piece was good enough to win the prize. Even though the odds are very much against you winning every time, if your music is good, you should win sometimes.

    Composers should always consider improving their technique especially when given advice from other composers who they respect. To think that you lost because the judges don't know music as well as you do is the wrong attitude to take.

    • Kevin Smith

      Dear Martin,

      With all due respect, your post is absolutely rubbish! Yes there has to be a certain level of technique and skill, that I agree to a point, but most of these composers winning competitions is because of WHO they know, not WHAT they know. THAT IS LIFE! Is it any coincidence that most of the composers who win the Morton Gould all came from the “elite” schools, such as Juilliard, Yale, Princeton, etc. Or will you argue that composers not winning from less “elite” schools are getting an inferior education? These results from competitions are arbitrary, whether its taste, style, bias, who knows who, what coffee beans was roasted earlier that day. I know many composers whose technique and artistry is excellent, but he or she is not getting attention because of not knowing the “right” people or not having the financial resources, since this vocation is primarily for the independently wealthy with trust funds. The pop world is centered on vanity, connections, ego. The classical world is guilty of the same game. And many people believe some excellent composers are not getting opportunities, where young composers at the top of the game do not have any technique, skill, or let alone talent, but they are ability to network as a pro, so they are labeled as the “next Mozart”. And besides, there is a lot of “crap” out there in the concert world, successful composers who are writing god awful self-indulgent complex music, who are deemed technically advanced and writing “good music.” In regards to Mr. Whitacre, its surprising that he has put up this post, if he has experienced a lot of rejection, since he is a great composer, but always siding with the underdogs. So in conclusion, your post is crap. It’s WHO you know, not WHAT you know.

  • http://hotwaterishot.blogspot.com Matt

    Does anyone know any other competitions without an "application fee?" It seems that almost every competition I find, there's an application fee.

    Anyone?

    Thanks,
    Matt

  • andrew violette

    I, like you, Mr Whitacre, have never won anything—not a grant, not a prize, not an award—and I recommend young composers to apply for these things only if they have the time.

    When I was in Juilliard, studying counterpoint with Otto Luening, he happened to be on the committee for a certain award and recommended I apply. I did and, of course I didn't get it. Later, I met him in the hallway of the hallowed halls of big J and he said, "Why didn't you get your score engraved? They wouldn't even look at it." "Oh," I said, nonplussed, "I thought they judged on merit." He rolled his eyes and gave me a look, "Silly boy!"

    It was then and there I decided I would never enter a competition again because I realized it just wasn't worth it monetarily. For all the time I would spend entering I could do a few gigs and make the same amount of money. I thought, "Why should I let my work be judged by these academic hacks?"

    It's pathetic when a composer puts on his bio the things he's won. Are we nothing but vultures for the little government funding set apart for the arts? Ridiculous. Get a menial job, make the money, put it towards concerts and CDs and never look back.

  • http://www.uwsp.edu/athletics/mbb/06-07/schedule.htm Schedule

    You you should edit the webpage name Advice for the Emerging Composer: Competitions – Blog – Eric Whitacre to more generic for your webpage you write. I liked the blog post however.

  • Daniel Routh

    Thanks for this Eric!

    I will be submitting a piece to the Anthem Competition here very soon!

    -Daniel Routh

  • Mary DeLia

    I just read your "Advice for the Emerging Composer", and honestly, I was so thrilled to have found someone with as much insight as yourself. You may be my new favorite person <>.

  • Steven Kudlo

    Fascinating response from Malachevsky. I’ve only placed in a contest once, but it was a complex composition. I’ve always thought there was something interesting about heavily chromatic music, which it was. I wonder if multiple contest wins can be parlayed into more frequent performances (of which I have none.)? I really enjoyed your blog article, Eric! Thanks.
    Steve.

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d43MmUkUhDc Kerri Powles

    I too am simply amazed at you not winning any competitions! Your amazing. I play your music a lot, and my daughter has had the pleasure of having you conduct one of your choral pieces (Sleep) to her Cardiff University Choir.
    I also compose my own music, and would love to be pointed in the right direction of some competitions please…….can you help?
    Keep the beautifull music coming Eric.
    Thanks. Kerri

  • http://www.stephenpbrown.com Stephen P Brown

    I continue to grapple with music-based competitions, especially the fee part. If there is no entry fee, how is the admin of a competition supposed to be paid for? On the other hand, as long as there is no entry fee entrants should really not expect much in the way of prizes. I notice Scott’s comment above (Oct 09) that supports that. Tis a tough balance, like everything in the financially-misconstructed Western performing arts. Fundamentally, being rejected in competitions is essential character-building and motivation: that I DO agree with!

  • http://www.crt.sojar.voglar.si Crt

    For example: My string quartet no.1 won a prize back in 2002 and remained unperformed. The Bird Tango for three piccolos and piano was composed in 2004 for relatively little noticed concert but today it has become an international hit. So I could not agree more with Mr Whitacre. But I keep trying to apply my opus for competitions though… And getting rejected 90% of time.

  • http://www.saunderchoi.com Saunder Choi

    Such inspiring words! Thank you for this!

  • http://kiwicreate.net Jack Ballard

    Excellent points all in one place. Nice to hear someone reinforcing my own opinion and experience. One more thing: I’ve found that a competition’s guidelines are a great motivator to write a new work I would have never otherwise considered (“hmmm, a four-movement piece with harp, panpipe, violin and finarfel, what a great idea”)!

  • http://justinsaragoza.com/wordpress/ Justin Saragoza

    I have to agree with you Eric. I’ll be 60 next summer and I’ve yet to win a competition. I finally started to take the advice of not entering if a fee is required as it seems to me it’s primarily a money generating cash cow for the competition. I do notice that by keeping in the circuit opportunities do come along from time to time. I recently entered a small ensemble piece, didn’t win, and it managed to end up published in a collection despite it all. The details of how it all happens are like casting leaves into the wind. If i ever win one, I will take the money and run..

  • http://chipmichael.com Chip Michael

    Eric,

    We spoke several years ago when you conducted the Lamont Chorale in Denver. I’ve been following your career (and music) since. As a composer, I resonate with everything you say here.

    GREAT ADVICE

    Thanks for being not just a great composer, but a real person who wants to share your talents and experiences with others.

    Regards,

    Chip

  • http://twtrsymphony.instantencore.com TwtrSymphony

    For those composers looking for yet another competition – we have a Call for Scores:

    http://twtrsymphony.instantencore.com/web/page.aspx?title=Call+for+Scores

    There is NO cost. We are creating a CD of new orchestra music. So here may be your chance to get your piece recorded – and then, into the hands of hundreds of professionals around the world.

    There is no guarantee your piece will be selected, but as Eric says, Enter!!!

  • http://www.dolphinkazoo.com Brighton

    You are right, but you shouldn’t be right. This process has its benefits, but there are much better ways of generating great new music. We don’t treat other talented people this way. Plumbers don’t enter a contest to see who gets paid – they ALL get paid and the better ones get paid more. We are being abused, forced to work for free because of our kind natures. The random “losers” of composition contests are often, as you point out, very good at what they do. So this is nonsense. A better approach would reward ALL of the talented people and ensure they are able to eat and continue working.

  • Fiona Frank

    Thankyou for taking the time to give support to other dedicated composers.
    I love your music.

  • http://www.oliverrudland.co.uk/index.php Oliver Rudland

    Für den ist alles verloren,
    und Meister wird der in keinem Land;
    denn wer als Meister geboren,
    der hat unter Meistern den schlimmsten Stand.

    - Richard Wagner

  • Theresa

    This advice totally changed my outlook, thank you!

  • Daniel Reeves

    Hey Eric, I just saw this post. You were mentioned on this podcast, and I was wondering do you remember my entry from the Abby Road Anthem competition? I understand if you don’t.

    http://www.marchingroundtable.com/2013/07/08/episode-222-roundtable-unplugged-required-elements-in-a-show/

  • Guest253678

    This is brilliantly inspiring and made my day. Just lost my first ever competition, and your words have really helped. Thank you.

  • robcomposer

    Hi Eric, and everyone, really inspiring article, but I have to disagree with the point you make about fees. My ensemble, American Modern Ensemble, has three competitions every year for three different age groups (up to 21, 18-35 and all ages). It takes an enormous amount of time, energy, work and infrastructure to mount competitions. Even though we charge a relatively modest fee, it in no way covers all of the costs involved, and certainly doesn’t cover the prizes awarded.

    Let’s take this apart: we need to pay judges, pay for the application service, hosting, pay for our time, web design, the artist fees (up to twelve musicians, plus conductor), the hall, recording, rehearsals, rehearsals space, postage, advertsing, and of course, the prizes – the list goes on. All of this, by the way, at New York City prices.

    Do I wish we didn’t have to charge a fee? Absolutely, In fact, the first few years of our competition, we didn’t, but soon realized that regardless of the prizes (and we do receive enough grant money and donations every year to cover those), we were losing a LOT of money just to keep the competition going.

    Oh, and as an aside: I have frequently programmed works that didn’t win the competition, so not winning doesn’t mean you won’t get recognized, whether by AME, or the judges.

    So… if anyone out there who’s reading this wants to endow our competition, we would be more than happy to make it free, believe me, but until then, this is where we stand.

    • http://ericwhitacre.com Eric

      Rob, thank you so much for this. Completely understand your dilemma, and THANK YOU as well for offering this competition – such a great resource for composers from AME, a truly world-class ensemble.

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  • russedav

    The unjust judges and juries and those to whom they were unjust will have an interesting time in the hereafter where the first are last and the last first and all injustice is rectified, hinted at and seen in Eric’s Alleluia.

  • Ashley Ruano

    Mr. Whitacre
    I just started composing and I am looking for competitions. After reading this article and listening to your music for a few years, I am motivated even more to keep composing. As a novice, I understand that winning is unlikely, but it will not stop me from trying. This article has provided some good advice for me as a beginner and as an aspiring composer. Thank you…

    • http://aimeesmithmusic.weebly.com ComposerAimee

      Ashley, You should totally apply to competitions. I started about a year and a half ago and have had both a premiere across the country as well as in Europe since. You should really check out the website http://www.voxnovus.com. They have multiple series to choose from and are expanding exponentially. Both of my recent premieres were through them.

  • Pingback: Take Mr. Whitacre’s advice and ENTER THAT COMPETITION! | A Different Musician

  • martyb

    Well said. I won a national competition soon after starting composing. I assumed I would be inundated with requests to play my music, and of course, commissions. What was worse, when I entered subsequent competitions and did not win it greatly affected my confidence, making me think I was a one-hit-wonder. The fame and fortune never came. The confidence came when I realised that I wanted to compose because I love composing, rather than to win competitions. I have won two national competitions since, but never an international competition.

  • Steevie

    Very interesting article, I just discover this discussion because I was searching for contest to participate (cinematic music)
    If anyone could give me information I would be very pleased
    Anyway the best for u all!

About Eric

Eric Whitacre is one of the most popular and performed composers of our time, a distinguished conductor, broadcaster and public speaker. His first album as both composer and conductor on Decca/Universal, Light & Gold, won a Grammy® in 2012, reaped unanimous five star reviews and became the no. 1 classical album in the US and UK charts within a week of release... view full bio