Colonial Legacy: MacDowell Colony Executive Director Cheryl Young

The Application Process

MOLLY SHERIDAN: Could you venture a guess as to how many composers have actually spent time at MacDowell?

CHERYL YOUNG: Since 1907, there have been over 800 composers and that’s an awful lot considering the size of the field is very small although it continues to grow. And when you look at the range of style of those composers within that group of 800, it is a very diverse group of composers, especially now. I think that the world has opened up, even at MacDowell, within the field. The field is more welcoming to new ways of composing music. And now at MacDowell, with our panels that do the selection, we take between 20 and 30 a year. We have 13 pianos on the property, 8 of which are in studios. So at any given time we can have up to 8 composers. We tend not to have that many. It seems as though we have 4 or 5 within a group of between 20 and 30 artists. The variety is variable between jazz and atonal and whatever, all the different styles. And we have international composers as well. And we’ve changed what we ask for in the last ten years.

MOLLY SHERIDAN: What are some of those differences?

CHERYL YOUNG: We ask for a work sample and that’s the most important component in an application. The panels like to listen to the music, so you need a recording of your music. Most people will send a cassette or a CD. Some people will burn their own CDs. We also ask that you send a score. Some people don’t write down their music, so they would need to indicate that if they’re not doing that. And what the panel will do is listen to the music and sometimes read through the score. They can’t listen to entire pieces often. They’ll listen to segments of it. We ask people to cue it up to where they’d like the panel to listen. We used to say send a small piece, a chamber piece, and a large piece if that’s what you’ll be working on when you’re up there. We’ve now retreated a little bit from that, not to characterize it in any way. We don’t want to imply that we’re only interested in chamber works or operas or more traditional forms, so we leave it wide open. But it does help them understand where you are in your level of accomplishment and also in your level of talent. If you haven’t had any professional training and what they’re listening to is amazing, that helps them make a decision. It’s not whether you’ve been published. It’s never been that way. Half the people who go up there have never been before and for that half that has never been there before often it’s the first time they’ve had any type of residency. It’s because we’re well known and we’ve been around for so long, so often we’re the first place where people apply. What’s remarkable is that you’re able to get in, even when it’s so competitive. I think it is because the panels are anonymous, so even in the small world of composing where everyone knows everyone else, I think the panels feel they can judge the applications based on the work sample. And there is no limit to the number of times you can come. So you could come three years in a row, and in the fourth year you don’t get in and you think, “Oh dear, what could have happened?” Well, a couple of things could have happened. First of all, the panel could have changed. In the three years you were getting in, that was that panel because our panels rotate completely every three years. The other thing is the work. We ask you to submit a new sample each time you apply. You can’t get in with a past sample. You might have created a really great work three times in a row and the fourth time it just wasn’t as strong. And then the other variable is who you are applying against. If the pool is extremely strong, as it is in the summer when we get half of our applications… We get 1200 applications a year and half of them are for the summer session. When the pool is really strong, you’re odds of getting in lessen. What we encourage is for people to apply over a lifetime. If you don’t get in the first time, come back after one, two, three years… If you can, apply for a different session. If your life is such that you have more flexibility, apply for a session that is less competitive. It just increases your odds. In terms of references, we ask for references but to be honest I think a lot of people have access to references and the panels do not weigh them as much as they do the work sample. They may look at them, especially if you’re unknown, to see what the reference says, but I can just tell from the way the panels have been working all these years that they really don’t weigh them that much at all. What we really use it for to determine whether you’d be appropriate in a community setting and that’s really how the questions are worded. Would they be a contributor to the MacDowell community: personality-wise, work style-wise, and so forth. So some of the panelists don’t use the references at all. They don’t even look at them because they feel it should be based on the work sample.

MOLLY SHERIDAN: Are all the panelists you use necessarily musicians or is it a mix?

CHERYL YOUNG: The panelists are set up by discipline and some of the panels have a mixture of artists and people who are in the field. Says, writers and an editor or two. But for composing, it’s strictly composers. The panelists do not need to have been MacDowell fellows. We don’t just have an insular circle of people. But, again, because it’s anonymous, they really feel as though they can judge their conscience and we rotate the panel so there’s always a slightly different mix. And we have some safeguards in place. We have what we call an admissions committee, which is made up of board members in the field. They work to select the panel chairman and the panel chairman then selects the panel that would be participating. There is an approval process of checks and balances that’s always happening. Then, also we stagger the panel, so the chairman would inherit one or two panelists from the prior chairman, so it can’t really be stacked.

MOLLY SHERIDAN: It’s like the government!

CHERYL YOUNG: Exactly! We’ve been working at this for a very long time. I think we’ve got one of the fairest processes, if anything can be fair.

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