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.