Last May I began my monthly task of searching for composition competitions, calls for scores, etc., and came upon the Indianapolis Composition Competition.  I noted the substantial cash award, plus the performance by the ICO as part of Indiana State University’s 44th Contemporary Music Festival.  The announcement stated that:

The Indiana State University Contemporary Music Festival/Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra Composition Competition was established to recognize outstanding composers of orchestral music. In addition to a monetary prize, the composer receiving first place will be invited to attend a performance of the winning composition by the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra as part of the Festival’s activities. The winner also will be invited to speak at the Festival on a topic relating to his or her music. Other guests featured at the three-day Festival include the Principal Guest Composer, Gabriela Lena Frank, guest pianist Michael Kirkendoll, guest scholars, and composers participating in the Music Now concert. Since its beginning, more than 200 established and emerging composers—including eighteen winners of the Pulitzer Prize and five winners of the Grawemeyer Award—have participated in the Festival.

My immediate reaction (particularly to the bolded sentence) was “Ok, Joe, you have 0.01% chance of even being seriously considered. Is it really worth the time and $20 entry fee?”  I pondered my options for a bit and came to the conclusion, that yes, it was worth the time and entry fee, because if I did NOT enter, then I had a 0.0% chance of obtaining anything.  So, I entered, and had completely forgotten about the competition until I received an email and letter last week stating that I had, in fact, won the award.  I was stunned.  OK – now what?

I contacted the hosts and awarding organization and thanked them for the award, and told them that I was honored and happy to accept.  They said “Great!  Now send us the parts!”  I responded, “OK, I will!”  I hung up.  Then a sense of dread immediately ensued – I was planning to make some minor revisions to the piece following its premiere in April 2010 and I had not yet done so.  I reminded myself to stay calm, clear my mind, and then I set to work.  I finished the revisions in a couple of afternoons, and am now preparing the parts.

Now that the initial shock of winning the award and the stages of hurried preparations are behind me, I reflected upon my initial thought – not to enter – and must laugh a bit at myself.  Had I not entered, I would not have won.  My advice to all of the “young and emerging composers?”  Enter every competition you can.  If you do not have a piece that fits the instrumentation, then take a year and write one for the next year’s competition (if it is annual).  I am not suggesting that composers should “dive-bomb” every competition, rather we should take the time to search for competitions and calls for scores (I do this once every month), mark the competitions that we feel are important, and work diligently toward our goals.  We are the best arbiters of our music.  If we do not make the effort, who will?

7 Responses to “Competition Frenzy: Is it worth it?”
  1. Meh. I’ve had the opposite reaction even though I’ve had similar experiences to yours, Joe. I have found it far more lucrative and succesful to pursue performances through friends and colleagues who have performed my music before, as well as through my own ensemble, rather than through entering competitions and calls for scores. I have found networking (especially since the advent of social media) a far more succesful way of getting my music played than the slim chance of winning a competition, particularly when so many request extremely esoteric instrumentations.

    Which is not to say that I DON’T ever send out scores to calls for scores and competitions. That’d be silly. Writing a piece specifically to be able to enter a future installment of a competition? Well, that seems pretty silly to me too.

  2. Thanks for the remarks, Armando. I, too, have been very successful obtaining performances through networking, etc. Three years ago, I had 45 performances of my music, achieved simply through networking. That said, I realize that not everyone is capable of easily networking for various reasons, like their geographical location. Yes, certainly, one can build a local profile by networking, but if one does not live in an area with a large amount of prolific musicians, or if one wishes to establish a national profile, then one must network in any way that one can. For instance, if one wins a competition, then one stands to increase the number of those with whom they may network -simply as a result of the musicians performing the work. If a composer wants a performance in NYC, but lives somewhere else, and knows no musicians in that area that are willing to “go to bat” for that composer, and champion their music, then that composer must find alternative ways to “break into the market,” beside selling everything, giving up the stability of a job, and moving there. It really is up to that individual, and the goals that they set for themselves and their music. That is all that am saying – the educator in me sometimes takes over. :-) I want my students to succeed, and realize that there are numerous options and opportunities out there, if they only search for them and work toward their goals diligently.

  3. c sahar says:

    One question: How much networking was required to reach the frequency of performances you aimed for say for 2009?

    I ask as I hold down a full-time non music job while I continue improving my craft as a composer. Time is precious. I also do my best to keep up my keyboard chops to earn extra income to cover costs such as lessons, courses and payment to performers and audio guys to record piece s (the last is once in awhile due to the cost).

    So I’d like to hear from composers who have been in my situation or still are what is best: Devote equal time to competitions and networking? Or should networking be predominant? How does one prioritize? Finally, what does one do if one does not have the pedigree that helps with networking (that is, a degree from some respectable school or association with some great performance institution and/or composer??)

  4. Christian says:


    There’s no magic formula. In speaking with British composer Helen Grime this week, she underscored one aspect of the ‘networking’ question that I’d offer up for this discussion: you have to be yourself. Helen is a bright, emerging star, but also a person who is low key and personable: not sharp elbowed. She prefers to work with performers with whom she’s developed a relationship rather than foisting her scores on strangers. As Armando points out, this type of networking takes time, dedication, and being part of a scene, as a performer, observer, or composer, for some time.

    We all have to find our path, but if it’s ultimately to be successful, striving for personal authenticity is better, I think, than assuming that another composer’s formula will work for you. BTW, I’m all for education, but Lukas Foss didn’t have a HS diploma when he went to Tanglewood, so I don’t think the name on the diploma is always that important.

  5. I agree completely with Christian’s assessment. Each composer must, indeed, find his/her own path and rhythm. Simply take things as they come, and put yourself out there as often as possible. Be prepared to fail, and to learn what you can from your failures. Most important, I think, is to be true to your art and yourself, and to never give up.

  6. Yeah, I think Christian is right on. You have to find the path that feels right for you. Competitions and calls for scores haven’t paid off too much for me, but starting an ensemble and cultivating relationships with musical friends (most of which are not old school friends, by the way, so the pedigree doesn’t necessarily help in that regard). I’ve found social media like Facebook extremely helpful, as, believe it or not, being present on Sequenza 21 or New Music Box not just as a contributor but as a commenter.

    It’s also, as Christian says, good to set goals. Joe had 45 performances in 2009. I had three (it was a surprisingly slow and difficult year). In 2009-10 I had something like 12-15 and in 2010-11 I expect about 15-20 or so. At one point I’d wanted to reach 100 performances a year by age 40 (I’m 37) but that goal started losing its appeal to me because, for me, it would have meant writing music in a style that wasn’t always appealing: pursuing more didactic/educational compositions, simpler chamber pieces, etc. I’m not putting these kinds of opportuinites/approaches down, they just aren’t right for me and for the kind of music I want to write.

    Mostly, I’ve found that if I scratch a friend’s back they’ll scratch mine. Since I started Great Noise Ensemble in 2005 the number of performances of my music has increased in no small part because of the efforts of friends whose music I’ve programmed to reciprocate the gesture, either through programming me with their own ensembles/series when they have them, or recommending my music to director friends. That kind of advocacy was important to me from the beginning of my career and I started the process of being able to be an advocate not just for my own work but for others’ when I was a student.

    Finally, be confident in your own music and approach presenters/performers with that confidence. The worst anyone can say is “no,” and that’s really not that bad. Rejection often has little to do with the quality of one’s work, in fact, but with the needs/abilities of an organization or performer. So just keep trying and be persistent. But always keep in mind what success means for you and what kind of work you want to be doing. You’re the only person you have to please 100%.