Cataloging the Fail: A Cathartic Scrapbook

Composer Fail Example

The other day a young composer friend of mine was eagerly awaiting a letter of acceptance or rejection from a prestigious summer program. Alas, this person was rejected. I instantly received text messages sharing the sour news.

“Well, I didn’t get in.”
“Screw them.”
“I guess. I’m really bad with rejection.”
“Um, so was I. Trust me. Rejection ruined me in my early twenties.”
“I’m worried that might happen to me.”
“Dude, you’ll be fine.”

Ultimately this person will be fine. We all will be fine. However, while I easily emit an air of aplomb, I was recently reminded of how crushing these rejections were a short decade ago.

Lately I’ve been reflecting more and more on how I’ve dealt with rejections and supposed failure as a young composer. Because I now teach at a small liberal arts college, I constantly see and interact with a sea of undergrads. Their habitat involves Instagram and Snapchat, dorm rooms and drama, and this younger generation is still bright and bubbly and young and vulnerable as I was. And because of their presence, I am reminded of how I dealt with what I perceived as devastating defeat upon experiencing rejection.

I first experienced composer rejection as an undergrad, which is where I believe all of us composers experience our first twinge of adulthood angst. I was attending one of those undergrad composer recitals; I believe I was actually performing piano for one of the pieces. I remember hearing during the concert that one of my young composer colleagues received the BMI Student Composer Award that year. We were all happy for him. We all thought we had a chance of writing a good chamber piece and winning this award. We modified and edited our music and eagerly submitted our scores.

And then nothing happened.
And then I was rejected.

I wouldn’t say my first rejection was crushing—it merely materialized. I was disappointed. But I was young and resilient, and I thought I had plenty of time to submit a winning piece.

The next year I realized I hadn’t written many pieces and so therefore I had an abysmal selection from which to submit something. However, I found something to submit, and submit I did.

And I was rejected again.

This was starting to disturb and discomfit me, especially because I was nearing upperclassman status and also because other upperclassmen in my program had started to win these young composer awards. And these upperclassmen were in the process of obtaining good recordings of their work and applying to good graduate programs. I truly felt I was not only failing at composer competitions but also failing at writing music, meeting a recital requirement, fulfilling graduate school admission criteria, and therefore failing at life. (Such is the thought process of an angsty young adult.)

If I were failing at life, I might as well make the best of my situation. I certainly received another BMI rejection letter, and this time I decided to get crafty since apparently my music wasn’t as artful as it should be. My hornist roommate gave me a sheet of acid-free paper imprinted with soccer balls and I clumsily cut-and-pasted my rejection letter onto this sports-themed paper.

And this is when I realized that my roommate was far better at scrapbooking than I was (the resultant project wasn’t that great, if you’re curious) and that maybe I should stick to writing music instead. Except that I felt like I was failing at that, too. And admittedly the whole point of scrapbooking my rejection letter was to prove to people, including myself, that this rejection letter did not deflate me. Except it did.

At this point in my life I knew that my original pristine plan of applying to grad school and becoming a successful composer was absolutely not going to work out. Or so I thought.

And here’s where I want to step in and point out that there is no perfect plan or perfect system that allows for guaranteed success. As an adolescent, I thought the composer comp way was the only way to become a successful composer. I had no idea different routes were available to me, and furthermore I had no idea that I had to create them myself.

The good news is I eventually realized that I’m a composer. We’re all composers. We’re creative beings. We’re destined to construct musical worlds and trajectories and ultimately scenarios of our own composer existence. And, maybe the younger we are, the more we need to be reminded of this—that we must take charge of our creative selves and curate our own artistic future.

*Jennifer Jolley
Jennifer Jolley teaches music composition at Ohio Wesleyan University and co-founded the North American New Opera Workshop (NANOWorks Opera). In her spare time, she procrastinates by blogging about writing music.

10 thoughts on “Cataloging the Fail: A Cathartic Scrapbook

  1. Bunita Marcus

    Thank you Jennifer for this wonderful description of what many young musicians go through as they work their way out into the music world.
    Always remember to be objective and do the stats.
    1) How qualified are you for the position? 100%? less?
    2) How many applicants do you think there will be? 100? 2000? 10,000?
    3) How many applicants will there be who have your qualifications or better?

    From this you can get an idea of how likely it will be that you will get the award, job, or commission.
    When you see that there are may be 1000 applicants, and at least half of them as qualified as you (assuming you are 100% qualified), you will see that you odds of winning are at best about 1 in 500, and could be even less. So taking these odds personally would be a waste of time. It’s a lottery–sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you don’t. Just have a Plan B, C, D, etc. and you will have all bases covered.

    Bunita

    Reply
  2. Erin Rafferty

    Love this! I’m personally keeping little souvenirs from every audition I take (and I don’t have an orchestral job yet so OBVIOUSLY, I’m also failing at them). If they give me a little slip of paper with my candidate number on it, for instance, I keep it and stick it on the inside of my audition binder. (If I don’t throw it away in a fit of annoyance, of course.) It’s both motivational and a reminder not to take rejection too hard–there’s always next time.

    And you’re so right about opportunities, in the end–the only ones we can REALLY rely on are the ones we create for ourselves. Awesome piece, Jenn!!!

    Reply
    1. Ross Bauer

      Thank you for your post. Your equanimity is an inspiration to composers young, old and middle aged. I especially like the last paragraph. We’re all composers. And we are the only ones who can write the music we write, so if we have something to say, we should say it.

      Reply
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  4. Sugar Vendil

    I love this! Inspiring post. I’m not a composer but I lose more grants than I win so I know the feeling. Now you make me wish I kept them all my rejection letters!
    This: ‘…we must take charge of our creative selves and curate our own artistic future.’ Absolutely.

    Reply
    1. Jennifer Jolley

      Thanks Sugar. I wish I kept all my rejection letters too! (Trust me: as soon as I find my first rejection (on the soccer-themed paper), I am totally posting it. Maybe it would work for #tbt?)

      Reply
  5. Bunita Marcus

    John Cage also told me to save all bad reviews–that they would be very funny someday. He was so right. I love laughing at some of my crazy reviews. I remember a review of a performance of my string quartet The Rugmaker by the Kronos. The reviewer said my piece did not have a single musical idea in it. At first that sounded horrible. But then I asked myself, “What does he mean by a musical idea?” And when I realized what he seemed to be referring to–I was delighted. I totally agreed with him. I would never have these sort “musical ideas” in my work! Absolutely not.
    This was a compliment–the review just didn’t know it.

    Reply

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