“Competitions are for horses, not artists”

Blog post by Sandy Clark – Composer

“We’ve really enjoyed looking through all the entries…”, “we’re thrilled by the popularity of the competition”, “…unfortunately your composition was not selected this time…”.

These phrases are all too commonly emailed to any emerging composer applying for commissions and competitions. Not seeing your name on a shortlist of successful applicants can be exhaustingly demoralising, particularly when your blood, sweat, tears, and all important time has gone into your work. You may want to just throw the towel in and think “why do I bother if nobody understands or appreciates my work?”. But fret not!

As an emerging composer myself, and in the final stages of completing my PhD at the University of Hull, I am beginning to realise the importance of self-promotion and determination. Throughout our education, whether at music college or university, opportunities are in abundance to work with peers, write music for visiting artists in workshops, or even compose for large ensembles.

Unfortunately, the ease of these opportunities doesn’t carry on into the real world and we have to look for opportunities ourselves. While competitions do provide a great platform for composers, it is difficult to gauge how a judging panel will receive your music, and therefore whether its worth you putting in the hours of work required to write a new piece.

One distinct advantage to competitions is that they force us to create. In November/December 2019, I unsuccessfully applied for five competitions. Yes, I was very bitter about the “unsuccessful” part at the time, but once I had surfaced from my momentary despair, I realised that I had four new pieces in my repertoire that I didn’t have before (one submission was a pre-existing piece). Now those pieces are ripe for sending off to other ensembles to consider for future concerts!

Bartók famously said that competitions are for horses, not artists. I disagree. The support that competitions provide emerging artists is multitudinous. Firstly, there’s the financial aspect. While some competitions don’t offer prize money, some offer a lot of money, which can help form the bread and butter of any freelance or self-employed artist. If I had won all five of the competitions I applied for in winter 2019, I would be around £4000 richer!

This brings me on to the E-word. Exposure. The topic of many a meme centred on artists being paid with exposure rather than actual money; competitions usually do both for composers. Exposure shouldn’t be overlooked, though. The ensembles and organisations offering competitions are often some of the wealthier and better-attended ensembles. Therefore your music has the potential to reach quite a lot of the right people, and you never know who might be in the audience.

Exposure (and competitions in general) also has the potential to lead to repeat performances, recordings, publication and further commissions. Of the five competitions I entered, all were offering at least one public performance, two were offering a professional-quality recording, and one was offering publication.

From the perspective of an ensemble, competitions can also bring people into contact with new music. Making Music’s Adopt a Composer scheme was instrumental in connecting dozens of composers with dozens of amateur music groups around the UK, most of which likely consider Stravinsky and Shostakovich the pinnacle of contemporary music. Schemes and competitions such as these are an excellent way to connect music creators with music makers, and in turn, music listeners.

Usually when applying for competitions, residencies or schemes, a composer is asked to provide a CV including a list of awards and prizes. Generally, the longer your list of awards, the more impressive your application looks against others. This brings me back to my first point, which was that your chances of actually winning competitions might be quite slim. This probably doesn’t have anything to do with your talents, but more to do with personal taste. Generally, I like to write music that people enjoy playing and listening to. That’s what gives me satisfaction as a composer.

Some people (a few of whom have been fairly vocal about it) consider this to be “selling out” and “inartistic”. But what is art for if not to be listened to, seen, observed, or appreciated? But you can’t please everyone, and this is something that hits home when you put your artistic heart and soul on the line in applying for competitions. 99 times out of 100 a rejection will not be because they didn’t like your music, it will be because they liked someone else’s better. But that’s the crux. They liked it. The music itself isn’t necessarily better – it just suited the judges’ tastes better. Chances are, if you send it to somebody else, they’ll love it and want to perform it!

So when applying for competitions, residencies and schemes when you don’t have a massive list of prizes or awards under your belt, how can you possibly make your application stand out?! I believe the answer is in commendations. Just as I will later this year when winter comes back around, befriend a musical director of a choir, orchestra, brass band, you name it. Get them to perform your pieces, and then get them to write a testimonial for you about your work.

On your CV you can then replace the awards and prizes section with real words from real people about how fantastic they think your music is, or how great it is to work with you. Show them that your music spreads joy and connects with people. That kind of feedback can be just as powerful as the credentials of any competition.

Sandy Clark

Visit Sandy’s Website

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