Competitions Are For Horses

I’m thinking about composition competitions at the moment for two reasons. First, Paul Mathews’s beautifully written article for NewMusicBox, “The Cycle of Get.” Second, one of my students last week asked me for my help in learning more about appropriate competitions.

The Kindness of Strangers

At times the world of new music can feel like a charming town in which everyone is working towards the same goals and is willing to help out strangers in order to share the music they love.


When we choose our aspirations wisely, we can better enjoy traveling along our career paths. We are better able to distinguish between true setbacks and temporary diversions. I find the best goals are those that allow for me to be easily sidetracked.


I think that it’s emotionally unhealthy to set goals that lie beyond the realm of what we possibly can control. We can create art that more clearly expresses our ideas, but we absolutely cannot predict how that art will be perceived by any specific audience. I think that it’s important to place our goalposts carefully so that we always will be striving towards creating a better product.

Voice or Schtick?

When we have a specific schtick—for example we paint unicorns and rainbows—it can be comforting to those people who enjoy our art. From piece to piece they know what to expect, greatly reducing the chances of disappointing a commissioner or viewer. But I prefer the aspect of the music world that allows me to create work in a range of different media with a variety of expressive focus. I hope that outsiders view my music as expressing a voice, emanating from a single perspective, but I accept the risk that they might not.


As I mentioned last week in this space, over the winter holidays I experienced a period of relatively severe burnout that left me unable to complete any task requiring more than a modicum of intellectual commitment. One of the chores that I set for myself in order to feel somewhat useful was the digitization of my entire music library.


At unpredictable intervals I enter periods in which I remain inexorably and unequivocally incapable of work. Sometimes a glut of good fortune can leave me working beyond my constitutional capabilities. Then, suddenly and without warning, I realize that my sources of energy have been reduced to mere embers. I find myself in the state of burnout.

Rules for Writing

In 2010, The Guardian published a series in which some of the most prominent contemporary writers in the English language gave us their 10 Rules for Writing Fiction. Some advice appears to speak directly to the craft of fiction itself, but can easily be translated into music composition terms.


The best performers I know are also inveterate perfectionists; before they would agree to venture onto the stage, they have a clear picture of their ideal performance. Paradoxically, our human frailty will never allow any of us to achieve that singular vision. Adding to the difficulty of the musician’s life is the fact that their view of exactly what constitutes the Platonic ideal performance will inevitably shift.