Running a Numbers Game

To date, as a composer, I’ve never had very good luck with competitions. I haven’t sent my music away to too many of them, but (not counting a three-minute pop song in the Squeeze vein that netted me a sweet gift certificate a year or two back) I’ve yet to win one. One problem I keep telling myself it’s time to overcome is my fragile musical ego: If I don’t circulate my pieces, I’ll be spared the bitter sting of rejection. Another is my hesitation, given the changes my music has undergone in the past few years, to saturate the new music adjudication community with a product I won’t be willing to stand behind in another few years’ time.

The reality, of course, is that competitions are a numbers game, and if you want to win some, you just have to flood the market: Throw piece after piece against the wall, and some of them might eventually stick. I’m half-remembering Charles Wuorinen’s story about finding rejected scores in his mailbox and immediately repackaging them and mailing them right back out again—that’s probably the best way to do it. By the same token, though, I know a few composers who’ve succeeded despite (or maybe because of) their refusal to hop on this humiliating merry-go-round. Is it possible to break into the new music world at 30, fully formed? Is it better to wait to be noticed than to shamble, cap in hand, toward the doorsteps of organizations to whom you’re entirely replaceable?

It’s easier, certainly. But I doubt that it’s better. In the absence of frequent performances, feedback from competitions (even if that feedback is nothing more than a thumb up or down) might be the only feedback one can reliably expect. Although I’d be the last to suggest composing for the juries of competitions, monitoring such verdicts might furnish a more concrete answer to the question at the end of the previous paragraph. Perhaps you’re the kind of composer who’s just not going to win competitions. Did Cage get an ASCAP Foundation Morton Gould Young Composer Award? (Seriously, did he? Maybe he did. It just seems unlikely, given that the program began in 1979.) On the other hand, if people are receptive to your work, why not get it in front of as many eyes as possible? And to answer that question, of course, you have to hit the post office. It feels dirty, frankly, but I think it might be time to buy a bunch of padded envelopes.

10 thoughts on “Running a Numbers Game

  1. Jay.Derderian

    I too have lost many-a competitions. I don’t really mind all that much… but it still would be a nice addition to the ol’ resume. The cash couldn’t hurt either.

    Everyone that I’ve talked to who have won all said that it doesn’t really amount to much in the long run. I guess it would be nice to win, and I still send out my scores with hopes, but I’m definitely not going to hold my breath.

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  2. rskendrick

    the hidden job market
    I think there are a lot of ties between looking for a job and looking for commissions or venues for your work. It’s good to send resumes to advertised jobs, and sometimes that strategy can work. But you are competing against a lot of others that have also seen the job advertisement. The best way to find a job is through a network – where you can find jobs that aren’t advertised. The competition for those jobs is significantly reduced, so you have a much better chance of getting the job. Likewise in music, a professional competition that is advertised will likely have 100+ entries…and it’s a good strategy to throw some pieces in the mix, in case you win. But it’s also important (more important in my opinion) to focus on building relationships with performers – a professional network of performers. And from that network can come performance opportunities, good recordings, and commission opportunities. Would you rather have a $1,000 award from a competition or a $1,000 commission from a chamber group? To me, it doesn’t matter – I’d be happy with either one!

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  3. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    There are competition composers, of course. You see the list of prizes and know a lot of tickets were bought to win one of those lotteries. Some music is good, some terrible, and you wonder, whaaaaaa?

    I agree that the ‘network’ approach is best. You get feedback and a way to improve skills, or even avoid ensembles that don’t have your personal sense of adventure.

    I do occasionally submit to competitions, though, perhaps one or two a year, just to see if I’ll ever win one. Nope, not once since I started sending stuff 40 years ago. :)

    But seriously, competitions offer no feedback; even entry-free competitions are throwing money away.

    Here’s an example. The Ridgewood Symphony had a call for ‘fanfare’ scores last year. Several composers whom I know submitted, including me, a 30-plus-years-ex-New-Jerseyan who thought it might be a good opportunity to see how the old Garden State was doing these days. Even with no entry fee, it cost some $25 in postage, photocopies, CDRs, and packaging. A few months later materials were returned to the composers with no note, no announcement, not even a thank-you … much less any sort of feedback.

    So submit if you like; you might win the lotterie-de-goût — but you won’t actually get feedback unless you do win and get to work with the performing ensemble. To me, time is much better spent actually working with ensembles first!

    Dennis

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  4. teeram

    I do agree that networking is probably the better way to go; but I just wanted to add that, in a way, I think entering competitions is a form of networking. Of course the difference is that you have to win in order to establish contacts (and I’m hitting a dreadful 1 for probably 18 or so in my life…sheesh!!)

    For the most part I send my scores out and expect to lose; although, occasionally, I do get my hopes up (and nearly always get burned as a result). But I do think it’s at least good practice for meeting deadlines and finishing up scores and stuff.

    I suppose that the important thing is that your pieces get played, whether it’s in a stuffy concert hall or by some friends in a park. I believe Bartok said: “Prizes are for horses, not artists.”

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  5. pthoege

    In my recent experience at a major mid-western music department, professors were teaching how to win awards. Some students listened. Some did not, myself. I noticed that award winners music did not provoke any particular feeling of any kind, and was technically well produced, or scored. No chances were taken. No rhythmic complexity was allowed. Textural complexity was at a minimum: “less is more.” The overall tolerance for artistic mediocrity and sterility was apalling, but as long as awards were brought home, it did not matter. It is obvious that some composers spend their lives learning how to compose purely for winning that coveted award. Some external, extrinsic motivating device that has sound and fury, signifying nothing. Awards are dumbing down the new music by disallowing total artistic freedom by scaring individuals like you, Colin, into beginning to think maybe they have nothing to say. It is, in fact, the opposite. I wound up drinking over this and getting lost in the system of treatment centers in Illinois because of this. Because I discovered that MY personal musical vision is NOT acceptable for competitions, and that I had to write “Saturn Eats His Child” in order to prove I could write Bullshit to keep the academicians happy by showing them I could write “awardable” music: easy rhythms, shallow character, technically well scored, easy to listen to, minimal rehearsals, does not offend. academic music seems to be around 20 years behind what’s really happening out there, in the “downtown” circuit. Read Kyle Gann.

    There is NO art being performed at competitions and Guggernheim and Pulitzer winners these days are just contributing more crap to an over populated scene, making it even more difficult to find the true diamonds in the rough. Conlon Nancarrow, a true GENIUS, never won a Guggenheim. There is only one award worth winning: the MacArthur genius grant. Why? Because self promoting acadmic composers can not apply. Others have to vote for it for you.

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  6. jbunch

    You know the world’s just not really as dark as all that. I hope there is some musical hope for people that don’t win lots of awards (and probably there is). But I think that there is no musical hope for people that don’t get performances, meet and work with players on interesting projects, and stick their necks out there to build something for themselves and for others. The quickest way to get to the kind of musical experience and atmosphere you want is to do it yourself.

    Besides that I want to say that I don’t think Award committees are dark conspiratorial cabals of neo-Romantic or ultra-modernist string-pullers. That’s just the kind of horseshit people say cause they feel like no one has championed their cause for them. Pick your aesthetic…then say that the award committees are bringing you down because they are such conservatrons, etc. In reality I think there is just a lot of impressive music out there (which is perhaps different than saying there is a lot of “good” music out there) and being noticed in a pile like ASCAP gets every year is as hard as can be. I certainly haven’t appeared a blip on that r.a.d.a.r. screen yet.

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  7. toddtarantino

    A quick follow-up to Dennis’s reply: Competitions that have had the courtesy to send emails when the award is announced get an extra thumbs-up in my book. I think it’s unconscionable for any competition that charges an entry fee to not include a little sheet saying “Thanks for your entry. The winner was so-and-so.”

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  8. pgblu

    2 cents
    When I sit down with colleagues at this midwestern university that supposedly drives students to abuse alcohol, we actually lament the fact that students are unwilling to take risks, and are desperately grateful when we see someone with enough courage and vision to do whatever the hell they want to do, and who actually do it.

    Let’s all stop blaming academia for our personal problems. Academia only gets blasted because it’s an easy target. Academia is not at all perfect (and NewMusicBox is a great forum for outlining its specific failings) but without its existence, new creative work will frankly have a much harder time coming to fruition in this country.

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  9. philmusic

    Let’s all stop blaming academia for our personal problems.

    I would like to comment here I really would, but I’m afraid I have nothing nice to say. Pthoege, I feel your pain but Academic insiders are Academic insiders no matter what style of music they offer. Period.

    Whatever my academic career was or was suppose to be I say this: There is not a single person I went to school with that I would have as a colleague.

    So I don’t.

    Phil Fried, PhilFried.com Operabob.org

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  10. estem

    I just posted a response on the discussion about the Myths of Competitions, so, I thought I’d add a little more here.

    Contests should definitely not be used as a measure of self worth or a means of determining whether or not a work is effective. Contests are mere strategies for getting noticed and that’s it. But, like gambling, you should only do it in moderation with the realization that there are other ways to get noticed or your work performed. Nothing should ever replace meeting performers or producers. They are the only people who will realize your work and champion it in the long term. But, it takes a lot of work, traveling, volunteering, etc to get noticed in that way. I found that the latter is harder to do, but gauranteed, while contests are easy (you simply mail your piece and wait), but, less reliable.

    On the topic of writing for a contest. The question I have is “why not try it once or twice?” If your goal is to win a contest and you haven’t had any luck with them and you’re only doing it for the sport of it, why not see if you can win it based on that criteria alone? Think of it like a challenge – have fun with it. I haven’t done this myself, but, it has crossed my mind. Ultimately, we all are going find our niche and write what we want. A composition teacher once told me that the best position to be in as a composer is when you, your listener, and the performer are excited about the music.

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