Composer Competitions: Myths and Facts

Colin Holter’s recent observations about the composer award racket and subsequent Chatter comments presented a variety of viewpoints regarding what continues to be a hot-button issue—one that often touches on the most sensitive and personal aspects of a composer’s musical identity. As such, it is a topic that is frequently clouded over with emotion, bias, and outright misinformation. And central to these discussions is what appears to my mind as a false dichotomy between a myth and its counter-myth, each representing equally unhealthy attitudes:

MYTH: Composition competitions are uniformly fair and trustworthy; ergo, they “mean something” and the status they confer in some circles is a reliable barometer of musical skill and creativity, even of future success. Any critics of this position are simply sore losers, flamers, etc.

COUNTER-MYTH: Composition competitions are essentially rigged, and as such ought to hold no value for the “true” creative, who hovers aloof above the fray. Furthermore, individuals who are successful on the competition circuit must have only been able to do well because of covert complicity in the corruption, and thus their achievements in this area are devoid of value.

This kind of rhetoric has become terribly overheated, stoked by parties on all sides who have cast much of their self worth (and self respect) into the sacrificial bonfire. But it seems to me that these extreme positions actually share some of the same fallacious assumptions, beginning with the notion that success in open competitions can be maximized by “saturating the field.”

While it’s certainly true that you have to enter the game to have a chance of winning, there seems to be widespread agreement that by applying to as many competitions as humanly possible, a contestant could significantly up his or her chances of success. This is a variation of what statisticians have labeled “the enumerative fallacy”—in short, believing that the overall chance of a coin coming up heads in an iterated series of flips is any different than in the case of an isolated instance of coin-flipping.

Since these competitions aren’t coin flips, let me describe the same fallacy operating in a situation that isn’t (quite) a total crapshoot—college applications. I remember a friend of mine in high school who was very bright and was very serious about getting into one of the “top schools” in her field, and so she applied to all the ivy-leagues; she got rejected from every one of them, and was pretty surprised to boot. I’m sure in her mind she could have easily envisioned any one of those ten schools rejecting her, especially since the competition among applicants is so fierce; but somehow she had thought that all that furious essay writing had purchased some kind of statistical security that just didn’t exist.

So sure, applying to something does at least offer you a slightly better shot than not applying, for that particular application. But it doesn’t follow that flooding the market will have any discernable impact on one’s overall success rate.

The other thing to keep in mind is that employing such a “saturation approach” mentioned above would consume an awful lot of time—time better spent composing, listening to music, or meeting with performers. So when applying to any kind of competition it’s of utmost importance to take the cost/benefit ratio into account—what is the potential benefit to undertaking this application at this time in my career versus the cost in time, energy, and materials? To this end, I would advise those who would like to get their feet wet to start with simple applications for competitions without entry fees that have the potential to make a significant impact at the current point in one’s composition career: ASCAP and BMI young composer awards, for example, which each cost nothing other than postage to enter, have one-page application forms, and offer cash to the winners.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself here, because another big assumption that needs to be answered is that entering competitions is in fact a “good thing” for one’s career as a composer in the first place. Sure, it’s not bad to win, especially if winning confers some kind of tangible benefit such as a performance, commission, or money. But as several posters have alluded to, awards themselves don’t really confer any special status, although the whole time I was in school everyone acted like they did. No matter what kind of music you compose, you need to win over people more than anything, and I can guarantee that most performers, conductors, and series curators could really care less about a composer’s list of awards, long, short, or nonexistent; they are going to be much more interested in who else has performed or commissioned your work, and of course what your most recent finished works sound like. Even in the academic world, I imagine that most review committees would be more concerned with a candidate’s performances, recordings, and publications than awards. In fact, it seems like the only people who really care about the game are the ones caught up in playing it.

Lastly, the vast majority of composer competitions won’t give any kind of feedback at all, and it’s true that some are neglectful even of sending out those familiar rejection form-letters we all love so much! Speaking from personal experience, I have only received written “feedback” from one competition ever, which was a small, statewide competition. The comments were uninformed, pedantic, and betrayed a deep-set bias for the kind of music the adjudicator(s) wanted to see (excerpted below):

“…parallel fifths throughout; applicant does not have a grasp of traditional harmony”
“Much of [the violin part] is over-marked with ponticello; are you sure you weren’t really envisioning a less abrasive texture?”
And my favorite:
“Think back to the melodic styles that first inspired you to take up composing.”

I think it’s fair to say I “learned something” from these comments, although that something wasn’t at all what the judges intended. And here’s a bigger lesson: the piece in question never did win any kind of award, but it’s now become one of my most-performed compositions. Apparently, all those double-stop fifths and sul pont. markings didn’t dissuade performers from playing the piece, and I’m glad that the piece’s earlier rejection in competition-land didn’t influence me to stop believing in and promoting it, right here in the real world.

Are all composition competitions fair? Of course not, but a vast majority of them are. But there will always be certain pieces of music that do not do well as competition fodder, whatever their real musical merits, just as there will always be pieces that do extraordinarily well in certain competitions without garnering much interest from performers, etc. Composers need to detach themselves from the myriad myths surrounding competitions in order to see them for what they really are: opportunities, or rather a certain kind of opportunity. There’s nothing “dirty” or inartistic about sending a particular work to a competition; after all, they’re going to give it to someone, so it might as well be you. But competitions are just one kind of opportunity, and it would be a mistake to put all of one’s eggs into such a flimsy basket, both musically and emotionally. Ultimately it is those individuals who choose to create their own opportunities who will likely enjoy not just the ephemeral success of an award, but the fulfillment of a career based around their own values instead of someone else’s.

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17 thoughts on “Composer Competitions: Myths and Facts

  1. philmusic

    Applying for grants awards etc, are part of a composers professional activities. There is an expectation that composers or any musician wanting to be professional will take part. This is tradition. So, it could be said that many musical folks, including composition teachers, expect their students to apply and some to win – greater the reflective glory for them, their school, and their institution.

    What happens if you turn down an opportunity? What happens if you refuse awards? What happens to folks or students who are “unprofessional?” For whatever reason? It may be good. May be not.

    The world goes on doesn’t it?

    Oh, there is one thing that bugs me about competitions–the style police and misleading advertising.

    Many times I have applied for “music composition” grants that were judged by “sound artists.” Since, oddly enough, I can apply in both categories but can only chose one this can be perplexing to say the least.

    Phil Fried, PhilFried.com OperaBob.org

    Reply
  2. danvisconti

    Hi Phil, I’m glad you brought the issue of “misleading advertising”, which is not only annoying but also seems to contribute to other problems of bias: if the “official” rules are misleading or inaccurate, then there’s an important gap to be exploited by an unscrupulous person, or even a scrupulous person who just happens to be better informed.

    In general, I would like to see a lot more competitions divulge exactly how the adjudication process is structured, right there on the application. Entrants need to be able to understand exactly how their work will be evaluated in order to make the best choices on how to prepare their entries.

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  3. June

    As you mentioned, those comments are from a small-scale — and, I think, very atypical — judging process.

    Most judges really care about fairness and about the enormous task of picking one or a few winners out of what’s often a uniformly outstanding sea of finalists.

    (I think the biggest issue is that there are SO MANY first-rate entries because there are just so many first-rate composers working today. This means a vast number of excellent composers lose in every case, so they are left disappointed and wondering why and thinking about the reasons.)

    I’ve sat on several panels now for relatively low-budget but high-prestige awards (where each panelist would get like $100 to $200 range for the day’s work). Those experiences really affirmed my faith in competitions. We each argued passionately for the finalists we believed in, and the argument was at a really high level, like the discussion in a grad-level seminar at a conservatory/university. None of the obvious and reactionary style bias of whoever wrote those choice quotes. :)

    Blind judging is the norm in European competitions and is becoming ever more common in the U.S. I will also tell you judges who care about the process are good about stepping back and not commenting or voting if we recognize an applicant despite the pseudonym. That’s been an explicit part of the rules in every blind competition I’ve seen.

    Now, the real issue for me as an entrant is the entry fees. Ouch. I have had a good relationship with competitions, good luck, but I pass over most because money is so tight for me.

    I think that issue leads to resentment among many composers — the feeling that those of us who already have money are much more likely to win a lot just because they can enter a lot more.

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  4. rtanaka

    Beware of any competition that require entry fees. In many cases, the commission already knows who’s going to win, but they do the “contest” as a matter of a formality.

    Then they use the entry-fee money to pay the composer (usually someone they know) while the process itself gives the event an air of meteocracy. It’s actually pretty brilliant in a sort of cynical, self-serving sort of way, but then of course the quality of music suffers as a result. Don’t get played like a sucker if you suspect something’s going on — these things tend to happen anyway, but entry fees are usually the biggest red flag to look for.

    Competitions have always been a problematic thing in American culture in general, but it seems like a lot of the problems are accentuated in the art music world. It first started as a way to showcase talent in the post-WW2 era when there was dire shortage of musicians, but now that there’s an abundance of them it seems like the whole process has turned into a parody of itself. Even a prize like, say, the Pulitzer, doesn’t carry much weight in the eyes of the general public, even though a lot of people will happily take their recommendations in the areas of fiction and journalism.

    In the end it doesn’t really matter though…all an award really says is that you were either lucky enough to be born into, or were clever enough to play the politics of winning award x or y. Nobody worth their salt really puts much value into them. What did Ive’s say? Awards are the signs of the mediocre, or something along those lines.

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  5. June

    No, that’s exactly the myth I’m arguing against (and, I think, the article writer is arguing against). Entry fees are not a global red flag and a winner is most certainly not pre-selected in the overwhelming majority of competitions.

    As I said, competition entry fees discriminate against composers whose lives don’t have financial slack, which is a serious issue, but they are NOT indications of an illegitimate operation. Look at how broadly implemented they are. A large number of legitimate competitions have entry fees, and virtually every residency (in the U.S.) and fellowship has them.

    This is such a persistent myth. I wonder whether some of the people who repeat this myth are confusing competitions with academic job searches, where sadly there is occasionally this situation (a pre-selected winner but a need to run the search due to legal requirements or for formality’s sake). I also wonder if this myth has bled over from other fields such as writing and acting (where the constantly-repeated advice to beginners is to never trust an agent, publisher, etc. who asks for any sustantial fee up front, and there are many more young/naive hopefuls and therefore many more shady and exploitive “agencies”).

    Better yet, ask any well-known composer whether he or she has sat on panels for competitions and considers the processes legitimate! The biggest names are constantly approached to be judges. In a couple of decades I hope to be one of those people — I will always consider the responsibility of judging (of helping distribute what very little prize money exists for the arts) to be sacred, and I will always say yes to as many panel invitations as I can. I submit that the people repeating the “entry fees are always a red flag” myth are not people who’ve been personally involved in judging processes. I think it makes more sense to listen to our elders, who have.

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  6. Kyle Gann

    Fairness not the issue
    “Are composition competitions fair?” isn’t really the right question. There’s no reason not to imagine that the majority of them are honestly administrated. The problem is that the judges are all composers. If they’re composers with similar aesthetic viewpoints, only a certain kind of piece can win. If the organization is scrupulous about getting a wide variety of viewpoints, they tend to cancel each other out. I was once on a three-person panel with a composer whose aesthetic was diametrically opposed to mine, and our “yes” piles didn’t contain a single score in common. We ended up awarding the prize to the middle-of-the-road piece that gave both of us the least offense, which I imagine is what often happens.

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  7. dfroom

    I’ve been a panel like the one that Kyle discusses, but more often, panels with people from different stylistic backgrounds had us all working honestly to understand the criteria that would lead to fair judgements about how to separate good from slightly less good, trying to help each other understand our different perspectives. When it works, this allows some pieces to get second or third looks, and allows folks who didn’t like something the first time to come to understand how someone else could think it was wonderful.

    My background as an applicant was to take the scattershot approach — reapplying for things I didn’t get.

    I had a teacher who told me that if he sat on a panel that was judging something I had applied for, if the group generally didn’t like what I did, there was nothing he could do — but if everyone put me in the top five, he might be able to move me up a step.

    Thus, I came to the conclusion that I might as well keep applying until a mix of judges came along that might like what I do.

    I’ve judged anonymous and open-name competitions. I think there is no difference. When I know someone, I always say so — but have never been asked to recuse myself.

    As an applicant, I came to regard the whole process as almost random. As a judge, I have experienced almost exclusively open-minded and serious colleagues who really want to come to a meeting of the minds. And while there are always good things that can’t get awards, every time I’ve done this I’ve come to believe that the awardees were extremely worthy. Thus the random quality of these has to do with the luck of the draw in terms of the mix of judges.

    Last comment — my favorite comment about a piece of mine from a judge (I’ve only gotten comments twice): “this composer should be forced to sit down and listen to his piece.”

    David Froom

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  8. danvisconti

    Kyle, that’s a really good point about the need for more performers, conductors, and critics on these kinds of panels–and it would sure a be a lot more representative of real life, where it is these kinds of individuals, not other composers, who often can make the biggest impact on getting our music a hearing.

    Hi June, you are certainly right that those comments I received weren’t at all representative, but one of the reasons I wanted to post them was that the competition itself was very honestly handled! In fact, a lot of people’s biggest beefs with competitions have very little to with honesty of fairness, so it’s surprising to see the charge of dishonesty so prevalent. There is much mistook for corruption that probably stems from bureaucracy or incompetence instead.

    Also, I have to throw my cap in and state that it’s not at all accurate that all competitions with entry fees are shams; there seem to be a few that are, though, but this tends to be because they use their entry fees solely to fund the prize instead of pay judges, or are trying to charge an exorbitant entry fee that’s not consistent with the prize. But don’t forget that the judges need to get paid, and for many legitimate competitions without federal or institutional support, applicants’ fees are necessary to hire the panel necessary to hold the competition in the first place.

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  9. philmusic

    Entry fees are not a global red flag. Where is this myth coming from?

    Well June the American Composer Forum tells its members not to apply for such opportunities and I agree.

    Kyle, I know a number of composers grants that are judged by panels that include folks other than composers,performers for example. Many times panels include administrators and gatekeepers. The NEA grants for example included professional types who were not even musicians.

    Some panels may be made up of composers, but I would use that term loosely as I, nor anyone else, has ever heard of them. Nor will. Sorry June. Of course that doesn’t mean anything.

    Kyle the panel you described would be a nightmare for me. I would have had to resign.

    Phil Fried, who talks big. Philfried.com operabob.org

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  10. mdwcomposer

    Dan, while your post is ostensibly about competitions, your comments touch on something that is much more important, and in my opinion, can’t be emphasized enough:
         time better spent composing, listening to music, or meeting with performers

    Competitions are a fact of our musical life, but I believe that they aren’t that important a part. Contact with performers is an absolute must, and much more important than any number of awards. Also, my perception is that there are more competitions and / or calls for scores that are “run” by performers than there used to be – a healthy sign.

    But competitions are just one kind of opportunity – good words to remember.

       — Mark Winges

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  11. rtanaka

    If the competition really is about the quality of the art and discovering new talent, then I think it’s fair to put the burden of finance on the people organizing it. At least to me, entry fees make me wonder about things — 1) whether they’re using the money for something else, 2) whether they lack the ability or motivation to find patron or funding through grants, or 3) if they really can’t be bothered to look at someone’s score without cash payment, it makes me question their commitment toward finding real talent, especially since it should be obvious that most artists don’t tend to have a lot of money.

    As Kyle says, the problem with competitions as an institution itself is that they’re often selected by composers, all of whom have their own respective biases and aesthetic preferences. There’s nothing wrong with that in itself, because we’re all human and we like certain things and don’t like certain things, but it’s definitely dishonest to say that the winner of a competition encompasses styles and aesthetics of all varieties. If you want to win, you have to know how to tickle the senses of those doing the judging.

    At least the competitions that seem to have some integrity are very upfront about their tastes and don’t try to pretend that they’re everything to everyone. Not only is the latter impossible, but it also comes across as arrogant and condescending to those who know they’re out of the loop. (Which is pretty much everyone else outside of the tiny minority that partakes in classical contemporary music.)

    If you do a good job at a show somewhere, someone may tell you so. Awards are just that — some people think you’re doing a good job. Getting recognition is nice guess, but by whom and for what? And do you really need that kind of abstract signifier to feel good about what you’re doing?

    I’ve found that classical musicians in particular are prone to feeling bad about themselves for not “winning” stuff, but a lot of them really need to get their mind out of these outdated models and start defining their own meaning of success. Competitions are for horses, not artists, as Bartok would say.

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  12. Troy Ramos

    Thanks for your article, Dan. I think you make a convincing case that competitions can be a healthy part of a composer’s life but that they also shouldn’t be viewed as the “precious ring”.

    Sometimes it seems like those of us who love new music are constantly fighting for scraps in areas like competitions because so many of us are also rejected in other places where we should actually be welcomed.

    I think that there are so many good composers out there and unfortunately not enough space or resources for them all to survive. That’s probably why this particular debate can get heated or emotional: because, regardless of how we our music is judged by others, we all want to survive as composers without having to become part-time businesspersons in an unrelated field (thanks for that, by the way, “America”).

    And so that quest for competition or commission cash (or future cash possibly resulting from winning awards) can become more about paying the heating bill than the sounds we create (or their performance venues). It’s understandable, I guess. But it helps to get re-grounded after having a discussion like this.

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  13. estem

    When I read great discussions like this one, I reflect on where I would be right now if I didn’t get selected as a winner or one of the winners of a highly visible contest in the early stages of my career. There are a couple that I can point to that did change my direction – or at least made it easier for me to convince others that my music was worth a second look. I recall, after getting selected in one contest, I experienced a domino effect that sprouted other, more significant relationships. I also got nice recordings of my works from some contests, which, as we know, is vital to promoting your music to the world.

    So, when I read discussions on the validity of contests (especially regarding the 1st part of MYTH #1), I often come away torn about their “meaning,” or whether they are good “barometers” for artistic excellence or merit. I admit I have never doubted the validty of the meaning of a contest I won. For the ones I lost, well, the barometer must be broken (smile).

    I think conductors and terrific groups/performers do need to know that you have been through “the filter” before they take a chance with your music (Lord knows you need to give them a good reason for not playing Beethoven for the 100th time). And, for those of us who do not start out with the luck of being referred to by a famous musician, contests are the second most potent option for unknown young composers to get through the crowd.

    ON THE OTHER HAND, some of my best commissions have come from simply e-mailing a group or an artist on MySpace. What’s difficult to determine is how much of a role my “bio” had in their taking a chance with my work – or, at least spending the time to listen to samples of my music. It would be interesting to hear how others view the “connections” between contests and subsequent work with better artists – if there any connections at all.

    Erich Stem

    Reply
  14. estem

    I forgot to mention a funny experience I had with comments and competitions. For one competition I applied to, the performers of the group were asked to write comments: One player remarked:

    “I think you accomplished something difficult… a piece with only color-changes, no perceptible melody, that doesn’t grow boring. You kept the interest up…”

    Another player (from the same group) wrote:

    “Needs a little more variety – or the audience will go home.”

    How’s that for consistency? :-)

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  15. mclaren

    No one seems to have figured out the main purpose of these competitions. It’s exactly the same purpose as the TV show Survivor — to delectate in watching most of the entrants get destroyed, leaving the lone survivor bruised and demoralised.

    The single biggest problem in contemporary music remains the superabundance of excellent composers. Not just good composers: people significantly better than, say, Mendelssohn. You can name 20 or 30 American composers who qualify without even pausing for breath, and it’s getting worse as the population grows.

    The solution?

    Crush ‘em. Drive ‘em out of music. Grind ‘em down to hamburger. A competition offers the most economical method of destroying composers’ self-esteem and discouraging ‘em from continuing to make music. The truly sadistic frisson of course involves getting the entrants to pay for their own humiliation and degradation. It puts you in mind of that scene in the Terry Gilliam movie “Brazil” where Buttle’s family got a bill for his torture. If a competition gets really lucky, they score the big hit: a contemporary composer commits suicide or drops out to become a janitor. That’s the ideal outcome. But thinning the herd remains the central purpose of all competitions, just as in the reality TV shows, and grinding down their spirit remains the central focus of the exercise. The central message of the TV shows like Survivor boils down to: “You’re all scum. You’re little people, of no significance. The elite in our society never need to go through this. Look upon America and despair, like the insects you are!” Same deal with the composer’s contests, except they don’t make you eat bugs. That’d make the whole process a little too obvious.

    Once the number of contemporary composers gets reduced to a manageable level, music critics and the people who schedule compositions for orchestras and musicologists and performers all have an immense burden lifted from their shoulders. They no longer need perform the brutally hard work of using their minds and their intuition to choose from among hundreds of equally excellent contemporary composers: instead, they can turn off their brains and drift downstream with the Pulitzer prize committee.

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  16. rtanaka

    Wow, and I thought I was cynical…I obviously don’t put much thought into them but I don’t think most competitions in themselves carry any malicious intent.

    By its nature competition excludes rather than includes, but that’s just the nature of the system. It’s not somewhere you go to if you’re, say, searching for new ideas or are looking to broaden your horizons. What you expect from the result is something reflecting the particular judgment and tastes of the committee, hopefully showcasing something highly refined. I think there’s some value in that, but only if the process is meteocratic and is free from political appropriation.

    But that’s an ideal — human nature won’t allow for that, especially if the institution becomes too big or too successful. (I remember when Bang on the Can used to have an open call for scores, but it doesn’t seem like they’re doing that anymore — that’s too bad, I guess.)

    I think that the problem with a lot of competitions is that a lot of them don’t really know what they’re trying to accomplish by organizing such an event. I mean, the “openness” of it all might have a nice ring to it, but when you leave things undefined that’s usually when things become the most vulnerable to politics. Worst case scenario, you basically have friends scratching each other’s backs — the same ol’ people getting the same ol’ awards for years on end, manipulating the system to boost their CVs and resumes. Why even play music then, huh? At a certain point, it doesn’t seem like it even matters.

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  17. rskendrick

    it’s all about relationships
    I think entering competitions is important, but I think we need to, as composers, get out of the studio, get to more concerts and socialize with performers as much as possible. Not a hard sales pitch, just having a drink and talking casually. Over time opportunities will arise from friendships. At a recent music conference, the vast majority of the composers were hanging out with each other at a bar, but only myself and another composer were hanging out with the performers. I turned to her at one point and said, “I think we’re the only ones at the right table.”

    Ralph Kendrick, Iowa Composers Forum

    Reply

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