Is there such thing as “grant music”? Jennifer Higdon



Jennifer Higdon
Photo by Candace DiCarlo

I believe that there are definitely certain kinds of pieces that will increase your chances of being a grant recipient. I base this statement on my experiences sitting on grant panels (I’ve sat on a lot of them). It may be one of the most educational things that a composer can do…sit for two to three days and go through several hundred applicants and try to decrease the number of applicants from 400 down to some smaller number, say like 12.

I’ll give you an example of why your selection of what music to submit is important… Pretend that you’re on a panel that has three days to judge 400 applications for a grant or a prize. If a panel works straight through each day, with a small break for lunch and very small breaks to run to the bathroom, you can assume that you’ll achieve (under the best circumstances), about seven hours of judging (and it’s best not to push this, because the ability to concentrate and think clearly, which every applicant deserves, decreases rapidly by the end of the day). Seven hours equals 420 minutes in a day of judging. If the panel has three days, that’s equal to 1,260 minutes (over three days) of judging for the 400 applicants. This comes out to (divide 400 applicants into your 1,260 minutes of available time) three minutes and 15 seconds to consider the music of each applicant—a startlingly low number!

One has to wonder (and we all wonder this at various times) how anyone can judge any music from such a tiny slice of a bigger picture. It’s a good and fair question, and the answer is, well, it really is not an optimal way to get a sense of any piece of music. Unfortunately it’s really the only way to do a panel with a large number of applicants…and hopefully, and as is often the case with such a large load, there are several panels to whittle down the pool so that those scores which need a longer look get a chance to be seen for more than three minutes. But keeping all of this in mind, think about what you as a judge would be able to remember in a pool of 400 applicants over three days…what would stand out? By Day Three, what would it take for you to remember an applicant whose music you looked at during Day One at 2 p.m. (for three minutes)? You’ve looked at probably 200 other applicants since then and in order to be remembered, the particular score from the day before yesterday would have to have made a serious impression to be recalled. Miraculously, it is a regular occurrence that pieces do stand out.

The thing that makes the biggest impression for all panels is originality in terms of a composer’s voice. This is an impossible thing to describe in words (if I could, I wouldn’t be writing musical notes, I’d be writing words all the time), but I bet everyone has had the experience of hearing something that they were utterly taken with…something that will be remembered on Day Three, even if you heard it on Day One. In a pool of 40 applicants, when someone does something differently and does it well, if the other 39 have music that sounds a lot alike, there’s no way not to notice that one individual.

There are other things that you can do to increase your chances…I sometimes tell my students to make sure they submit contrasting pieces if they have the option of more than one work…fast and slow, loud and quiet. A panel likes to see flexibility, and writing music that’s slow requires different thinking and problem solving than what you encounter while writing fast music.

I’ve also found that longer works, which take a good amount of time to develop, don’t do as well in panels. I’ll use a piece of mine as an example: my “Concerto for Orchestra” is a 35-minute, virtuosic tour-de-force for a big ensemble. This work has had more success than I could have dreamed possible… premiered two years ago by the Philadelphia Orchestra, it has thus far been played by 11 orchestras (with three more orchestras doing it in the next couple of months); the Atlanta Symphony and the Milwaukee Symphony both programmed the work on their opening concerts last season; and the work has recently been released on a new CD by the Atlanta Symphony (Telarc). This year I submitted this piece as part of an application to five different competitions/grants and I was rejected for every single one.

I think the piece is strong as a musical composition but I think it’s too large a work for panels. In fact, for the grants where I have had the most success, I have submitted fairly short works (and I always submit an excerpt, carefully chosen to make the most out of those three minutes). Many wonderful pieces take awhile to unfold and it’s rare that a panel is set up so that all of the pieces can be listened to in their entirety.

So of all the works you have written, do you have something that makes a quick and impacting impression? This should be the first thing you ask yourself when putting together a grant proposal (or applying to a competition). Many composers have written music with the idea that a particular piece might stand out in a large applicant pool (some of my more off-the-wall pieces were written with this idea in the back of my mind). I don’t think you’re sacrificing quality to do so…in fact, I look at it like a compositional challenge. But this also means that should you not receive a grant or a prize, it is most definitely not a measure of your worth as an artist.

I often wonder how Beethoven or Mozart would have done in competitions. The system is not ideal, nor is there any ideal way to judge such things (everyone is constantly trying to improve this process). So the composer/applicant has to ask him/herself the best way to get through the process as it currently exists. While nothing is guaranteed, there are ways to increase your chances in the grant pool.