Calling All Composers: How Not to Lose

Photo by James Cridland. CC-A.
Photo by James Cridland. CC-A.

Dear composers,

You’re probably wondering why I gathered you all here today.

Some of you are probably pretty irritated; you were likely doing extremely important things, and here’s this under-the-radar composer calling you to the internets for a meeting. I’m sorry for the inconvenience; but I promise we’ll be brief.

Let me cut right to the chase: we’ve got a problem with competitions.

I can see some of you already heading for the door. Okay, so it’s not news. We hate competitions. It goes against what it means to be a creative artist to try to be the best creative artist. The time we spend proofing our scores for tiny collisions, double-checking guidelines to make sure we submit by certified mail and not registered mail, and filling out forms that certify that yes, this poet did die in 1803 is all time we could spend writing new music. Competitions are a distraction from making art and a wedge in a community that should be sticking together. And really, they’re unnecessary to making a career in composition if you’re smart and easy to work with.

So, if you’re one of those composers who doesn’t participate in competitions, you can go. Thanks for coming.

The rest of you – the composers who enter competitions – we need to talk. 

So we agree that there’s a place for competitions in the world. Not necessarily because of any inherent good in them, but because, well, who doesn’t like a little attention? We appreciate the money, the publicity, and – even if we don’t win – the opportunity to show others our music. And yes, some of us see them as easy ways to pad a résumé for when we’re applying for positions at Important University.

But there’s a right way to apply to competitions, and there’s a wrong way. And we’ve been seeing a lot of the wrong way lately.

It started a few weeks ago, with this blog by Ben Phelps. Funny and entertaining, yes. Saying what a lot of us had thought at some point, yes. But also rife with backhanded comments about music and composers that win competitions.

Here’s the thing about that: unless you’re terminally cynical, it’s hard to believe that anyone writes music specifically to win competitions. If there was a person that addicted to money, power and prestige, you think for one second they’d be a professional art music composer? But let’s ignore that, and say this instead: no matter what you think of music that wins, it’ll be written by artists who worked very hard on it, believe very deeply in it, and ultimately are just trying to be heard.

Which brings us to this week, when the Michigan-based Donald Sinta Quartet announced the winners of their call for scores. A little homework will reveal that the two winners are fantastic composers… and apparently, as was so brazenly pointed out by one particularly sensitive composer, they’re both women. And they both attend UM, the school where the DSQ is in residence. Cue the predictable conspiracy theories.

Obviously, it’s not my place to say whether or not that had anything to do with anything. It is, however, my place to say this: nobody wins when you whinge about feminism or nepotism in the wake of a competition loss. And nobody loses more when that happens than you.

These virtual awkward moments aren’t new occurrences. I think I was 18 the first time I saw a mass email disparaging an ASCAP Morton Gould winner’s music on the basis that, well, it won an ASCAP Morton Gould. So it goes; we work in a field that encourages us to be bold, sensitive, and keep our nerves close to the skin, so people will get bruised occasionally. But this kind of thing has been happening far too much, composers, and I’m sure I’m not the only one tired of seeing it. I called you here because it seems a few of us could use a refresher on the ground rules for the delicate process of competing with our music. My ground rules might not be the same as yours, but since you’re still in the room with me, I’ll assume that you’d like to hear them, so here we go.

1. Apply to stuffSeriously, be bold and go. It’s not about money, fame, or glorious accolades raining from the heavens. You want your music to be heard, and an award, commission or prize is one way to achieve that. It’s usually free, it’s often easy and paperless. Be brave – the worst that can happen is you lose. Which brings me to my next point…

2. You’ll probably lose. Nobody wins all the time. Everyone gets bad beats. There are a LOT more composers than there are awards, and not everyone whose music is deserving of laurels can collect all the honors they deserve. Jennifer Jolley does a pretty great job of keeping her beats in perspective, and many of us could take a lesson. Losing is a part of competing. Losing is a part of life. Get used to it. That said, you can help your chances if you just…

3. Apply smartly. We’re not talking about geography, or who you know, or your musical esthetic. The best opportunities I’ve gotten with my music were with people who weren’t nearby and had never met me. And no, regardless of what any uninformed cynic will try to convince you, style has nothing to do with whether or not you make it as a composer. What are we talking about? Don’t apply to competitions with exorbitant application fees. Don’t apply if you’d need to change your music to fit their specifications (my wind ensemble piece must have two soprano sax parts to be eligible? Maybe this one’s not for me). And – this is a personal preference one – don’t write all-new music specifically for a competition. Write music, then see where it fits best. And remember, it’s always okay to choose not to apply to something.

4. Play nice with others. This includes the other competitors, the winners of the contest/award, the judges and awarding body. Seriously, just be nice. Everyone who applied wanted to win. The winners weren’t out to get you personally, and didn’t have any undue influence on the judges. The judges likely chose the music they liked best (not necessarily the best music), and did it at an unbelievable expense of time, money and resources on their part. Are there dishonest or pre-won competitions? You bet. If you see one, jot down the name, take the loss graciously, and never offer them your music again. But don’t take to the web or the “reply-all” function to share your frustration with others, most of whom lost just like you did.

5. Celebrate the winners. We’re all in this together. Most competitions, at their core, mean that someone who’s not a musician has a lot of money and believes enough in what we do to support it. A competition is a hint that what we do has value; a winner should be congratulated and should humbly and gratefully accept the honor. If someone wins something and you lose, smile, shake their hands and congratulate them. In all likelihood, you’ll be the winner soon enough.

That’s it. Five simple rules to live by when applying to competitions and calls for scores. They’re easy enough, right? So, let’s agree on them, and get back to what we really should be doing, which is writing music. Thanks for coming. Take some coffee and Oreos on the way out.

And seriously, you guys – I do not want to have this conversation again.

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