Competitions Are For Horses

horse raceEvery lesson with Shulamit Ran at the University of Chicago would begin with her sitting at the desk reading through my new score, internally listening to my music as I anxiously would look around the room. Invariably, my eyes would land on the handwritten sign behind her desk on which was written “’Competitions are for horses, not for artists’—Bela Bartók.” I would be simultaneously heartened and saddened every time I saw this wisdom, which also reminded me of Charles Ives’s famous statement, greatly strengthened by the fact that he uttered these words to the Pulitzer Prize committee in refusing their award, that “prizes are for little boys.”

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.

My immediate instinct when responding to the student was to repeat the mantra that I learned from one of my previous teachers, which he reiterated at nearly every lesson: “Competitions tell us more about the judges than about the pieces entered.” While I personally have found this statement to be both true and hopeful—for me it implies the necessity of applying for as many things as many times as possible in order to find the right jury for my works—I thought that by itself it might serve to limit the student. Instead, I found myself dispensing more practical advice that perhaps might be useful for the gentle readers of this column.

1.) Yes, composition competitions are very important. You should enter as many as possible. If you keep winning them, you should aim for higher-level awards. Enter ones that you believe you cannot possibly win (as well as ones that you believe you should win)—it’s the only way to ensure that you will find your proper level. Unless you’ve won the Pulitzer and the Grawemeyer, there are always more prestigious awards for which you can try. If you’ve won either the Pulitzer or the Grawemeyer, then you certainly don’t need my advice (but thank you for reading).

2.) Join one of the many organizations like American Composers Forum that publishes listings of available competitions. Read the listings carefully and make certain that your piece is a good match for the written rules. If they ask for specific instrumentation, only submit if your work exactly fits their criteria. Follow their guidelines in terms of length. Your bold art will find a more willing audience if it’s sent to the correct location.

3.) If you are a student who can afford to travel to them, you should apply for summer festivals that offer music composition as a field of study. They can be very expensive but also very useful. Spend some time to find festivals with faculty who you believe best match your aesthetic predilections.

4.) Competitions are a very good reason to have the most beautiful scores possible. They generally receive at least 10 and as many as 100 or more applicants for every prize awarded. Therefore, they look for excuses to dismiss scores. Sometimes they will use improper notation as a reason to stop looking at someone’s music.

5.) Remember that every winning piece will be excellent in some way, but many excellent pieces will lose. The judges for each prize generally change from year to year, as do the entered works, so keep trying for the prizes that are important to you. Winning a competition means that your good work luckily met with a panel that could recognize its innate worth. Losing a competition means that your good work met a panel that didn’t recognize its inherent beauty. Neither success nor failure in competitions should change your perception of the value of your own music. Treat both success and failure lightly.

6.) Yes, entering competitions is important and winning them can be a boost to your career. However, your real job is to become as good of an artist as you possibly can become. You will never be able to control the results of competitions (there is a lot of luck involved in your piece finding the proper panel), but you can always control how much you grow as a composer from one piece to the next. Some of the best composers working today had little success as students and only found their true compositional voice at a later age. Competitions should never be your goal. Your goals should always be about artistry.

9 thoughts on “Competitions Are For Horses

  1. Kyle Gann

    Fact-checking police, sorry. Ives didn’t refuse the Pulitzer (I think only Sinclair Lewis has done that). He hung the certificate on his wall and divided the prize money between Lou Harrison and John Becker. And in an interview he was quoted as saying, “Prizes are for boys.”

    Reply
      1. Kyle Gann

        Sorry, David, I was a little more brusque than I intended. But it seems like composers have so many misconceptions about Ives that he can hardly be mentioned without some mistake being made. Ralph Shapey, also at U. of C., had that Bartok quote in his office as well. I wonder if Shulamit inherited it.

        Reply
  2. R. David Salvage

    This is very sensible. But I would tell your student two more things.

    After you win a competition, realize that as the years roll on, there will be many others who win the competition as well. You will be one of many who have done the same thing.

    You need to find that thing only you do. Depending on what this is, entering competitions may well not get in the way of this search. But, say, if you want to write for a particular group of instruments again and again, or write pieces that are very long or very short, competitions might get in the way.

    Let’s also acknowledge that one doesn’t have to chase down competitions to be functioning in a competitive environment. You enter a competition to get into a school; you enter a competition when you apply for a job; when someone agrees to play your piece or asks you to write something for them, you have, in effect, won a competition. Competition is all around us–unless, of course, we don’t put ourselves out there at all.

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  3. Armando Bayolo

    David, you are such a wise teacher. This article makes me even prouder to know you and count you among my friends.

    Mr. Salvage has it right, too. A certain degree of humility is important AFTER you’ve won a competition too. Many more composers will win after you and the luster of your prize will diminish with memory, but it is always humbling to see the company you join of past winners when you win an award.

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  4. Phil Fried

    “…You enter a competition to get into a school; you enter a competition when you apply for a job; when someone agrees to play your piece or asks you to write something for them, you have, in effect, won a competition. Competition is all around us–…”

    Its interesting that our desire for achievement is so often in conflict with our aspirations.

    Reply
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  6. Aaron Grad

    Great article as always, David! A former teacher of mine, Randy Woolf, gave me another bit of advice around competitions that has served me very well. He encouraged me to apply to all the free competitions that made sense, and avoid any with an entry fee. It’s nuts how many competitions there are advertising a first prize of something like $500 (or nothing!) and charging a $25 or $50 entry fee. If we composers want to subsidize each other, we should do it directly, not through the all-too-capricious lottery of competitions. I am encouraged by how many competitions are moving to PDF and MP3 submissions, since printing and shipping costs add up even for competitions without entry fees.

    Reply

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