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Hello Composers.
I am wondering if anyone would like to share their thoughts on composition contests.
Over the years I have entered my share, winning a few and "losing" more than a few.  For the most part, I consider
even the misses and near-misses to be positive, in that I have often used the entry deadlines as a source of motivation.  Plus, a few
of my contest submissions have been performed and published, so the effort truly was not wasted.
There is certainly a philosophical question here:  how does one really judge one piece of art over another?  I judged a contest once at a local university, and man, it was tough!
How should a composer react to the rejection?  I suppose this could be applied to the quest for publication as well.
What about ENTRY FEES?  I try not to let my cynical nature come to the surface on this, but it seems that some organizations put
on contests as means to generate a little extra capital.  Am I wrong?
Has anyone ever experienced what they perceive to be a "fixed" competition?  Perhaps the winning composer is obviously affiliated with the organization... this has happened to me, and it tends to get under one's skin.  But, really, how do you cry foul without looking like a sore "loser"?  it's not the loss I find difficult to endure:  it's the wasted effort and expense (especially if there is an entry fee).  
Have you had a particularly good outcome from a contest?  I think my best outcome came from one I did not win, but eventually led to a commission from the sponsoring ensemble.
OK, is that enough?  I know, we should be composing and not fiddling around on the computer, but I agree with Jack's dad (all work and no play...).
Cheers, comrades.
Replies (12): Threaded | Chronological
on October 27, 2011 2:14pm
Hi Bob--As a composer who is nearly 55 years old yet only started composing a couple of years ago, the only thing that really makes me mad is that the vast majority of composition contests (at least the ones I've found) are for "new and emerging" but YOUNG composers, with specific age limits.  I suppose that 99% of "emerging" composers are young, but I've met a few people like me here on ChoralNet who are "late bloomers" and unable to enter the contests simply because of our ages.   
on October 28, 2011 6:45am
I completely agree with you.
"Emerging" is such an amorphous term in the first place.  
It is used in the church world now to describe contemporary (sic) worship.
Emerging from what exactly?   But, I digress.  
 It almost seems unethical to me (ageism?), but I suppose if it's your party you set the guest list.  
Perhaps it is thought that only experienced, seasoned and successful composers would win all the contests if they were allowed to compete with those just emerging.  
However, there are contests that are not limited by age.  I suggest you check out  organizations like The American Composers Forum, where you can find listings of "opportunities":
Now I am going to emerge from my desk chair and get some work done at the piano!
on October 29, 2011 8:48am
Bob, there are many international choral composition contests without age limits! (with or without entry fee). The first time that I have sent a choral score of mine to a competition was 10 years ago when I was 41 year old, from them to now, 2011, I did not stop to sending my scores reaching the final stages of twenty of those competitions and wining several prizes. Practically all of those competitions I have found them surfing the web… Google is great! Make a good google research and you do will find!  For example here you have a simple and non exhaustive today google search:

Good luck!
eduardo andres malachevsky
Composer & conductor
on October 29, 2011 9:27am
Thank you; I will check there again.  I must admit that the first few times I went there and read the first 15-20 or so choral competition contest descriptions that popped up, all with strict age limits, that I simply gave up looking...
on October 28, 2011 6:45am
I don't know that organizations use entry fees to raise extra capital, but many of them do use the entry fees to fund the awards.  Some people find objection to this practice, because you have a situation where most of the contestants, who end up losing, fund the very few who do win.  Inevitably, when I speak to people who have these objections, they think that running a non-profit and funding a project like this is merely a process of "writing a grant," and then money will fall from the sky. This is silly, it is incredibly hard for arts organizations to raise money, especially small arts organizations who are the ones who inevitably start up competitions like this.  If they didn't charge a fee, there simply would be no competition, and no opportunity for composers. So the people who are raising objections to entry fees are arguing to reduce the opportunities available to composers, in a very direct way.  Is that what we want?
In fact, I was the director of an organization who started an international song competition.  We were just getting off the ground, and didn't yet have the fundraising capability to fund the awards, and we didn't have the all-important 3-5 year track record that most grantors want to see before they will even consider your application.  So we instituted fees.  First of all, when you institute a fee you get a much better overall quality of entrees, since people will only send in their best material.  If you don't charge anything they will send whatever they have in their closet, and that puts a huge burden on the adjudication process. But moreover, if you charge a fee, you get to have the competition in the first place!  Our entry fees, as it turned out, pretty much covered the award amounts, but we had to do additional fundraising to fly the winners out and present the winning pieces in a recital.  Our plan was to get the competition going on the basis of the fees, and then raise money on the basis of the success of the competition to lower the fees and raise the prize amounts, and we did just that.
The bottom line is that nobody is holding a gun to anybody's head and making them join a competition that charges a fee to fund the prize money.  We are all adults, and if we are confident of the quality of our work, and the possible benefits of winning a prize outweigh the risk of losing the $25, then we can choose to participate.  We can also choose not to participate, and it won't be the end either of our fledgling composition careers or of the world.  If there were no competition that charges a fee, we simply wouldn't have that choice to begin with! So I just don't see why there has to be a controversy over this matter.

Like Julia, I too wish that there were more competitions for "older" emerging composers.  In our competition we had a category for student composers, one for emerging composers (no age limit), and one for established professionals.  
on October 29, 2011 11:31pm
Thanks, Eduardo.  As another older emerging composer I appreciate your research and encouragement.  I too entered some competitions, but decided my energy and money was better spent creating new pieces and working with groups who program my music rather than subsidizing other composers and organizations I don't know.  Having helped run a no-fee competition a few years back, I do not accept that an organization has to charge the composers a fee in order to limit entries or manage the volume.  If the board and donors are not interested enough in a competition to fund it properly, then the organization should probably focus on other projects.  If the conductor insists, s/he should probably look for another position.  That's just one curmudgeon's opinion!
on November 6, 2011 10:25am
I was digging around in the tagged items for our community and found this post by Phillip Copeland that speaks to your question and includes Eric Whitacre's opinion. 
on November 6, 2011 1:53pm
I think Mr. Whitacre's opinion is interesting, but I think students and emerging composers should always be cautious about following the advice of somebody at the top of the heap. Mr. Whitacre's position on competitions is certainly valid for a famous composer who doesn't need the modicum of opportunity that winning a composer competition might bestow. But it isn't necessarily valid advice for somebody who is just beginning their career.  Moreover, I'm sure Eric Whitacre didn't get where he is by making a habit of eschewing opportunities, even ones that might cost $25. 

The bottom line is that it costs thousands of dollars for an organization to put on a competition of national or international stature.  Throw in a performance by professional performers in a quality venue, prominent publicity, and travel money for the composers, and you're talking about a program that costs someone tens of thousands of dollars or more.  There seems to be a lot of naivety out there about what it's like to run a non-profit these days, and how difficult it is to raise even a few hundred dollars, let alone tens of thousands (and in the case of a composer competition, we're talking about funds that need to be relied upon year after year).  
I see this controversy over entrance fees not just as a tempest in a teapot (clearly it's that), but also a symptom of a kind of dysfunctional starvation mentality within the community of composers.  This is not what we need to be debating, and we shouldn't be turning the lens of petty criticism towards our very allies - organizations endeavoring to further the cause of composers and new music.  Again, if these organizations didn't charge entry fees, then there would be FAR fewer awards, honors, commissions and performances of new works.  I pose this question to all of the "carmudgeons" out there: is this truly what we want?  Especially since nobody is holding a gun to anybody's head to submit their work to a competition that charges a fee to offset expenses, do we really need this infighting over entrance fees?   In the words of a great 20th century American philosopher, "can't we all just get along?"
on November 6, 2011 5:29pm
"The bottom line is that it costs thousands of dollars for an organization to put on a competition of national or international stature."
Happily granted. But those exceedingly few situations are not really under discussion here. The composers who have raised this issue are thinking about the dozens of secondary and (more often) tertiary level ensembles of little or nor reputation who seem to be hoping to benefit from having a winner they can promote to their own advantage. Worse, they want to do it at no cost to themselves and have inappropriately settled upon the very souls whom they claim to intend to honor, from whom to solicit the needed funding. There seems to be a lot of naivité out there about what it's like to build a career as a composer and how undervalued their talents and efforts are.
I see this controversy over entrance fees not just as a tempest in a teapot (clearly it's that), but also a symptom of a kind of dysfunctional starvation mentality within the community of composers.
I see this attempt to belittle a valid concern as not just disrespectful of the individuals who have brought it forward (clearly it's that) but also as a symptom of a desire to squelch discussion on the topic.
This is not what we need to be debating, and we shouldn't be turning the lens of petty criticism towards our very allies - organizations endeavoring to further the cause of composers and new music.
Another view holds that this is exactly what we should be debating and that the attempt to stifle such discussion is wildly inappropriate. Further, with most of these ensembles the primary focus, quite sensibly, is upon their own survival. Any efforts devoted to furthering the cause of composers and new music is incidental at best. (Not that they wouldn't like to do more, it's just that the realities of survival in a tough ecnomy don't permit them the luxury.) But it is inaccurate and misleading to attempt to characterize all of these competitions as purely efforts to further the cause of composers. 
I pose this question to all of the "carmudgeons" out there: is this truly what we want?
I don't know of any "curmudgeons" in the group so I will happily accept the derogatory moniker myself and answer for all both of us (surely there must be at least one more...):
What we truly want is to not feel like we're being used. Too many of these "competitions" have exactly that odor about them. we really need this infighting over entrance fees?   In the words of a great 20th century American philosopher, "can't we all just get along?"
I haven't seen any "infighting." I have seen a fair amount of rational and productive discussion. It seems to me that we're all getting along quite tolerably well, especially considering the variety of viewpoints represented thus far. The very last thing I would wish to see here is for this kind of healthy discussion to be repressed under false cries of pettiness, teapots and infighting.
For the record, I do not enter competitions and only very rarely ever did (I honestly can't think of one, but may perhaps have done so in years past). I make a living from (mostly) choral commissions so I have ALL the skin in the game.
Daniel E. Gawthrop
on November 6, 2011 7:37pm
Daniel I certainly mean no disrespect to anybody, and only used the term "carmudgeon" as a reference to a previous post.  If you think it is a worthwhile pursuit for composers to debate the validity of competition entrance fees, I'll happily agree to disagree.  I certainly won't "squelch" you, if you or anyone else wants to take on this cause.  But I'll still disagree.  I can think of too many more important issues to talk about that would *increase* composers' opportunities not to resent discussions that would directly *diminish* opportunities, however noble the intentions might be.
Though I've never seen any example of such predatory practices that you are referencing, if indeed these do exist as cynically as you have described I will grant your points (presumably you are not making these accusations lightly, merely on the basis of a competition's perceived "odor"?). But I think you've skirted my point. Let me present it again. Let's say all of the ensembles that currently have to charge an entrance fee for competitions stop doing so (I haven't checked for a while, but a few years ago this would have meant a healthy majority of composer competitions in this country).  There would then be vastly fewer opportunities for students and emerging composers.  Can you explain how the interests of composers are better served in this hypothetical?
It seems that you are rather severely second-guessing the intentions of organizations who are promoting new works through holding competitions.  My position is fairly clear on this, based on my own experience creating just such a competition to benefit composers (and yes, to benefit my organization too), and certainly no disrespect to you.  You have carved a career for yourself without entering these competitions; kudos to you, that is no easy task! But it seems to me that the people who have the real "skin in the game" are the composers who DO participate in these competitions, and not those who eschew them or have no need for them.  Particularly those composers whose careers are not as developed as yours, and who need to pursue every opportunity and are perfectly capable of deciding for themselves if a given opportunity is worth the fee.  Is it not enough that you may freely choose not to participate in a competition that charges a fee?  Who are you, then, and indeed who is Eric Whitacre, to argue that an emerging composer's opportunities should be limited even further than they already are, on account of your own personal druthers about competitions that you don't even participate in? 
on November 6, 2011 8:09pm
Greetings All,
Let me start by saying I understand the thought process behind both of these contrasting arguments. For those composers just starting out, I think it's helpful to keep in mind that pursuing a compositional 'career' is by definition a calculated risk. One of the best things composers can do for themselves is develop a group of musical friends that support and perform your music. Personal connections and building relationships will help you much more than blindly sending out scores.
That being said, it's not a bad idea to occasionally send out a piece or two to competitions/festivals to see what happens, especially when you are trying to build some momentum in the early stages. While I don't do this so much anymore, I can remember some specific instances where a positive response turned into a pivotal experience in my development as a composer - if I would have allowed the $20 entry fee to dissuade me from applying, I would have missed out on an important opportunity.
Hope this helps!
Kurt Erickson
on November 8, 2011 6:39am
Thanks Kurt, well said.  Yes it does need to be emphasized that the bulk of our opportunities ultimately will not come from composer competitions. However, for somebody just starting out, and especially for those composers who are geographically isolated from a large cultural center, these competitions can be one of the primary ways of getting one's music out into the world, and of gaining "a group of musical friends that support and perform your music."  Which is all the more reason that we shouldn't be discouraging this practice.  
To the contrary, we should be encouraging more organizations to offer competitions!  And for organizations without thousands of dollars lying around, entry fees are a perfectly appropriate funding model because those who don't want to pay the fee don't have to participate, and those who don't have objections to the practice are free to send in submissions, according to their own judgment and perceptions.
Your story reminds me of an experience I had in the first year of our competition.  I had sent out an email blast to composition professors at schools across the country, and received a rather curt reply from a faculty member at IU.  He said that he didn't like competitions with entrance fees, and wasn't going to be forwarding the information to his students, as was requested in the email.  I sent back an email asking why he wanted to deny his students this opportunity, and if it wouldn't be better to let them decide for themselves whether or not they wanted to pay the fee.  Well, my email was worded more diplomatically than that, and he did relent.  And as it turns out, our winner in the Student Composer category that year was from IU!  His piece was wonderful, we flew him out to San Francisco, Marnie Breckenridge gave a stunning performance, and for him I'm sure that it was one of those "pivotal experiences" that you mentioned.  Which of course, was the whole reason for us to hold the competition in the first place - a competition that would never have gotten off the ground if we had not been able to fund it, at least initially, with entrance fees.  
I wonder how that student's interests would have been served by that professor's initial high-minded objections.
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