And the Winner Is ___________

I probably don’t send out as many scores to open calls and competitions as I should, but I try to get my work out there to the extent that my free time allows. If a piece with a comfortable place in my catalog would fit, I’ll send it in; if not (and especially if there’s a cash award) I might even write a piece very quickly just to meet the terms of the opportunity. Some of these pieces, by the way, have turned out to be among the most celebrated in my modest little stable.

Given the simple arithmetic of these cattle calls—many scores will be sent, only one chosen—rejection is par for the course. It never bothers me, though: I reason that even though there are plenty of criteria a panel of judges might consider in choosing a selection, it’s very difficult for someone who is grossly incompetent to come out on top; if it doesn’t go my way, the person who did snag the performance, commission, or prize probably won it fair and square. It’s not a referendum on how bad my piece is but rather on how great someone else’s is, and that’s fine by me. And maybe even if they don’t find something to swoon over in my music, maybe no other applicants will have brought their A games. Why not my piece? They have to give the prize to someone, right?

Apparently not. The judges of a competition I recently went out for have chosen not to choose a winner.

I’d heard of such things happening, but I’d never been stung by it personally. The notification was brief; it gave the impression of hushed embarrassment, as if the writer and reader should both be mortified at having this conversation. My own reaction was to laugh out loud, mostly in surprise: I never expected to long for such a mealymouthed sentiment as “we received a record number of exceptional entries this year, so it was doubly difficult to arrive at a decision,” which was nowhere to be found.

“Someone built a better mouse trap” I can handle; “eff all y’all” is harder to swallow. Without denying that organizations have the right to handle their competitions however they want and can withhold the prize with no legal liability, I’m going to come right out and say it: Awarding no prize is a bitch move. Are you telling me that out of the 30, 50, 100 or more entries, not one was suitable? The judges had no choice but to grab their ball and go home? Maybe some weird situation arose with the adjudication that would squeeze some sympathy out of me if I ever got the full story; none of us ever will, of course. Although I wonder what went wrong with the process in the conference room where they reviewed the submissions, I know precisely what’s wrong with the verdict: If (as the notification suggests) we composers should all be ashamed of ourselves, then so should the judges, who couldn’t even look at a bunch of music sent to them in good faith and decide which score they hated least.

11 thoughts on “And the Winner Is ___________

  1. Joseph Eidson

    I believe we entered the same contest, and I agree it is a total sham. It always stings a little not to win – stings a bit more when the same 3 composers beat you regularly each year! – but for NOONE to win is completely infuriating. It does not help anyone involved and is a huge waste of time for the composers who enter.

    I readily accept that I will receive more rejections than recognition, but to paraphrase Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber, tell me there is at least a chance…

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  2. colin holter

    You called them out with pretty strong language, please finish the job: name of competition, judges, etc.

    You know I won’t be doing that. The submissions and the judges were anonymous, and I think the name of the competition should remain so too. Besides, it’s not the first competition to fizzle out with no winner, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

    I didn’t write this to shame the organizers and judges into reconsidering their decision or sending fruit baskets to all the applicants. I’m just not sure anyone’s ever issued a public reaffirmation that the failure to select a winning submission is just that: a failure. I hope we (as a “new music community,” if you can bear it) can all try to minimize these disappointing misfirings in the future.

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  3. Danvisconti

    Hi Colin, was the possibility of not awarding a winner something they mentioned in the contest rules? My own feeling is that this is shameful practice, but if they gave due warning then (shameful as it may be), it’s really a case of “entrant beware”. Sorry to hear about this situation!

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  4. colin holter

    I’m sure they had a disclaimer somewhere in the call; I just didn’t expect they’d really go there. I’m sure the organization held up its end to the letter; “caveat entrant” is the name of the game.

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  5. Joseph Holbrooke

    “I hope we (as a “new music community,” if you can bear it) can all try to minimize these disappointing misfirings in the future.”

    Seems to me a real community would share information about organizations that produce failures or bitch moves so us composers can make more informed decisions about what organizations to support and what entry fees are worth our while.

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  6. colin holter

    Seems to me a real community would share information about organizations that produce failures or bitch moves so us composers can make more informed decisions about what organizations to support and what entry fees are worth our while.

    Even if that means shooting oneself in the foot or damaging (however marginally) the reputations of the organizers and judges, most of whom probably have nothing to apologize for? You’re asking me a few years too late; in 2006 I probably would have spilled the beans. My feeling in 2011 is that promoting best practices is (usually) a good alternative to being a jackass on the internet.

    If you think I’m being too harsh with my criticism or too cowardly in refusing to name names, you should probably just tell me.

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  7. Phil Fried

    I think this is the reason composers organizations disprove of pay to enter contests. If you want to know which new music ensembles funded their, well lets say, pre-selected intends and themselves with high priced entrance fees from the losers just look at the old competition notices (fees) and then the relationships with their final selections in their programs. A little detective work can do the trick. I will not name names.

    On the other hand, I suppose this is no worse than the guaranteed performances available as a gratuity to college faculty.

    Oh. There was a particular competition in Florida, I think it was a vocal competition that charged high fees and did not award a prize for a number of years–they were finally closed down by a lawsuit. Anyone have the details.

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  8. Lawton Hall

    Was there an entry fee for this particular contest? I know I’ve seen the “judges may elect to not award a prize” caveat before, even on contests that had an entry fee, but I never expected any contest to sink so low as to actually do it.

    Then again, orchestral audition postings or other job postings generally have a similar caveat, especially for principal chairs, etc. If a contest were seeking a piece that filled a particular need or achieved a particular (clearly-stated) aesthetic goal, then it would maybe be more forgivable (less bitchy) to award no prize.

    On an unrelated note — “Taking Rejection Letters in Stride 101″ should be a required course in any undergraduate music composition curriculum. Sigh.

    Reply
  9. Joseph Holbrooke

    “If you think I’m being too harsh with my criticism or too cowardly in refusing to name names, you should probably just tell me.”

    I wouldn’t put it that way. I just think sharing information in support of informed decision making is a better practice than angrily critiquing an unnamed target.

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  10. Phil Fried

    On an unrelated note — “Taking Rejection Letters in Stride 101″ should be a required course in any undergraduate music composition curriculum. Sigh.

    Interesting. Yet perhaps you might be surprised that several recent composition competitions did not even send out rejections letters or even e-mails. So, just like Jr. high school they post the winners on a web site that sometimes wasn’t mentioned in the application. I found out about one rejection by reading an unrelated post right here. I hope this doesn’t become standard practice.

    Reply

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