Blog: Thoughts on Composition Contests

1/24/11 - Thoughts on Composition Contests

To Enter or Not?
My goal in entering composition contests and calls for scores is to achieve two things: to get other professional musicians to see my music, and to win whatever the prize may be - money, performances, recordings, immortality, a puppy, etc. Every contest that I enter is met with the same basic assumption that I WILL win; if I do not feel that way, I do not enter the contest. Why go to the trouble of printing scores and standing in an endless line at the post office if you don't feel that you have a good chance at victory? The reality of this is, of course, that I am going to lose almost every time I enter. But the power of positive thinking is in effect, and can be mighty difficult to maintain as the rejections pile up. My teachers repeatedly urged me not to put too much stock in contest wins or losses, and I try to keep in perspective that not winning does not equate to bad piece. It all boils down to this principle - my music does not exist unless it is being performed (or heard on recording) and contests offer a chance at performances that may not be available within my current network of friends and performers.

Preparing Your Entry
This is an integral part of the contest process, and beyond the scope of this post which is already long enough. I will be doing another entry at some point on my thoughts on how to effectively prepare a score.

Staying Organized
This is a two-step process for me that involves internet bookmarks and a Word file. Generally I do a quick search for opportunities Monday through Friday, and once a week spend quite a bit of time looking through various email lists and ensemble webpages. When I find a contest that remotely interests me, I add a bookmark in a specific browser folder organized by due date. Then I put the name of the call, due date, and score(s) I plan to submit in a Word file also organized by date. This process results in far more bookmarks than I actually enter, and the list is culled when I have time. For contests I have entered, the bookmark goes into a "Waiting on Results" folder and gets a checkmark in the Word file. When the results are finally posted - if ever - the bookmark is deleted and the result noted in the Word file. This helps me keep track of what scores I have sent, as well as any positive results for CV purposes. If this sounds a little obsessive, please feel free to sign me up for the next A&E special as long as it pays six figures! Kidding aside, I take these opportunities very seriously and dedicate a lot of effort to doing things professionally.

Return to Sender
I used to not include return postage on my scores, but that has changed in the past year or two. It requires minimal effort to include a SASE in the packet (unless mailing those pesky 11x17 orchestra scores...), and I am always glad I at least have the score back when it is accompanied by a rejection letter. Including a SASE also allows me to start stockpiling scores so that I do not always have to reprint them, or resend pieces that I send out to lots of calls. I finally sent off the last of the Nautilus scores last month! The exception to this rule is noted below.

Composers have suspected that contests are essentially rigged since 1830 - the validity of this paranoia depends on whom you ask. I know this next part sounds bitter and an excuse for why I have not won some prestigious award - and I swear to you that I am not bitter when I say it - but if you watch this cycle long enough you will see these things happen. Is it a coincidence that students who study with or attend the school of Esteemed Composer X are often the ones who show up on the list of award recipients? The amount of nepotism in this business is very high, and something that is to be expected when working with these opportunities. You will not be complaining when it works in your favor - trust me! In my opinion there are several options to combat the potential for a little home cooking in the judging booth - hope the judging process is legit, write so well they have to give your score attention, expect it to happen from time to time, or hope that your professor/friend is on the committee and will pick your work. This is not to say every contest is rigged (or that any are actually rigged at all) but it happens far too often in the major awards given out each year to be happenstance. Get Fox Mulder up in here to look into it - the truth is out there.

Anonymous Scores
There is no kind way to say this - anonymous scores are the biggest waste of time and money in this entire business. If you want to add an air of legitimacy to the judging process, common practice is to require composers to reprint their scores without any identifying marks. Maybe it works but I would rather take my chances against someone's pet piece rather than having to print special editions of my score that are completely worthless should my entry not win. Especially frustrating - I am looking at you again here, BMI - is to put further marks on the score beyond a pseudonym, ensuring that the score is utterly worthless and one-time use. I rarely include return postage on these scores and never on a score that requires anything more than the nom de plume that I have chosen for the contest.

Pay to Play
This point is expanded greatly in Tom Dempster's recent blog post, so I will keep it brief. Eighth Blackbird ran into a huge backlash from the composition world when they charged a $50 entry fee for their recent composition contest. They have since realized the error of their ways and the contest relaunched with no fee, to great success. Let me put it this way - charging a fee assures that the majority of composers who enter already have the means to support themselves financially. You are often rewarding those who have received prestigious grants, commissions, and won other prizes that contain a significant monetary reward. I am still looking for an academic job to provide a stable income rather than relying on projects and commissions, but my basic principle of contest fees will still apply even when I am cashing those sweet professorial checks. If a contest requires a fee, I think long and hard on if I actually want to enter it. I choose these fees carefully - my requirements are that the price is worth the reward and the ensemble is known to me. If you are charging $50 for a reading of excerpts or the top prize is something like $300, no thank you. A $15 fee - near the top end of what I will pay - that may net $1000 and a performance/recording from a well-established ensemble is exactly what lures me into entering this type of contest. For 2011 there are exactly three contests that I will enter that require a fee, and two of them offer significant rewards to the winner. A huge rude gesture goes out to contests that require a fee and then have the audacity to not even bother to print a letter announcing the winner when they return your score - I will never, ever enter anything associated with that establishment again. Fool me once...

On Winning
The best advice on this topic that is easy to give out and hard to practice is to send your scores and forget about it. Communication with composition contests is second only to job searches in that it is almost complete and total silence. It is a rare contest that adheres strictly to their deadline - if one is given - but every time I do receive timely updates or announcements it makes me want to participate again with that organization. Judges get swamped just like the rest of us, but you are less likely to hear good news if you haven't heard anything weeks (or months) after the deadline. My experience has been that contests will almost always call you with good news shortly after the deadline if you provide a phone number, but every once in a while I have gotten an email that wasn't a rejection. If you win and are asked to provide parts and/or more scores, get them printed and shipped off to the group ASAP. It will depend on the contest if travel and lodging are provided or expected out-of-pocket from the composer, but I urge you to make every effort to attend the performance if it is not required outright. Hearing your music live is the ultimate goal of this business, and feedback from performers and conductors is extremely valuable. Practice at home to eliminate those awful, awkward composer bows as you rush to the stage, and prepare any pre-concert remarks you may be asked to give at the gig. There are few contests that immediately change your life or career trajectory (Pulitzer, Grawemeyer, MacArthur Grant probably fall in the "Exception" category here), but extra money in your pocket never hurts and you will feel validated that your work was recognized by someone else besides your immediate family as having some worth. Congratulations - a winner is you!

On Losing
I was incredibly spoiled in my concept of composition contests - I won the first contest I ever entered as a lowly undergraduate. I saw the call, wrote the piece, they sent me a check and a letter of congratulations. This is how I thought it worked, and boy did it hurt something TURRIBLE the first time I lost.

Why did this happen? I am supposed to win these things! This is the best piece I have ever written - WAY better than that last piece of crap that won - and how could they not recognize my greatness?

All of these thoughts and more go through my head when I receive a rejection letter, although the frequency of the rejections does help lessen the sting a bit. Each rejection comes with a different set of responses depending on your realistic expectations in the contest, but it always hurts if even just a little bit. In my opinion, if rejection ever stops hurting, you are doing it wrong. Sometimes you can look up the piece(s) that beat you and scoff at how terrible they may be (or what you can learn from them if they are better than yours), which is a bit cathartic. My Twitter friend Jennifer Jolley has a nice blog where - among other things - she posts her rejection letters, and a good deal of these same letters have also graced my mailbox.

There are a great deal of lessons to learn from not winning a contest: did you not follow the basic directions, did you miss the deadline but try to sneak it in, were you ineligible (too old, not a student, etc.), did you send a MIDI and everyone else had live recordings, are there horrible misprints in your score, could your entry have looked better, and - probably the most logical of all - sometimes it was just not meant to be. Just like everything else in life, entering the contest circuit means you will be faced with rejection. Do not let that keep you from your goals, and try to take something away from each experience. And you never know - sometimes you just might get a rejection and then wind up with a nice performance if the committee liked your work! You are good enough, smart enough, and doggone it, people LIKE you!

Final Thoughts
There are mixed feelings in the business about the validity of composition contests - either the judging process is flawed and the results don't matter, or they are a valid step in your career as a composer. I feel that they are worth the time and effort if it results in my music being performed and helping to spread the word about my creative activity, and so far my experience has been just that. Rejections are to be expected, but when a win comes it feels like all of your hard work has finally paid off and someone - no matter how small the award may be - has taken notice of your work. I will encourage my students to enter free contests while they are studying with me in the hopes that they, too, can start to spread the word about their work. If you made it all the way to the end, it is my hope that this was an enjoyable and insightful take on composition contests. As always, comments/questions/complaints welcome via email, Twitter, or Facebook.