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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(although Dale decided to publish Water Night in his choral series, and the ‘winning’ piece from that year remains unpublished).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.


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