Saturday, January 25, 2014

Do your submission materials best represent you?

Over the years, I have adjudicated a number of composition-related opportunities (competitions, applications for college, grant proposals, etc.) and have seen a very wide range of composers’ approaches to preparing their submission materials.  I’d like to offer a few observations on how to select your materials and prepare them to make the strongest impression that you can for any opportunity:

1. If you are asked to submit two or more scores, make sure you send works that contrast each other.  I’ve seen a lot of applications in which the submitted works have extremely similar features – a flashy opening, a constant motor rhythm, and so on.  This approach gives the adjudicator a good idea of what the composer can do with those particular musical parameters, but it doesn’t necessarily flesh out a fuller picture of a composer’s capabilities.  I’d also suggest choosing works that show contrasting instrumentation.  An application containing two solo piano works probably won’t be as strong as an application that features a piano piece and a string quartet.

2. Depending on the adjudicating circumstances, your application might only spend a few minutes before the judges’ eyes.  In my experience, a judging panel frequently has a rather large pile of applications to get through in a fixed amount of time.  Choose your pieces carefully – submit works that have effective (yet contrasting) beginnings.  This doesn’t mean that you should choose works that have flashy openings; select pieces that exhibit something intriguing right away that will lure the panelists to keep listening.

3. Take into consideration what you’re applying for.  If you’re submitting scores for a festival that focuses on chamber music, then sending a large orchestra or concert band piece won’t really give the judges an idea of how you might compose a piece for chamber ensemble.  Likewise, if you’re applying for a grant to write a specific piece (such as a choral work), submit at least one piece that clearly demonstrates that you’ve previously composed in that genre.  Judges are more apt to fund a composer who has exhibited the ability to successfully carry out his/her proposed project than one that is untested. 

4. About recordings: edit them.  Remove long pauses, footsteps, and the tuning of instruments from the beginning so that your music starts right away.  Similarly, take out clapping at the end.  Live recordings are almost always preferred over MIDI, particularly as these show great initiative on the composer’s part to get his/her music played.  If you’re submitting a physical CD (which is getting less frequent, but still requested by some organizations), make sure to write the piece information on the CD case, not the CD itself.  Once a CD is put into a machine, judges can no longer read what you wrote on it.  Make sure your CD actually plays – check it in a stereo or computer before sending.  Ship your CD in a plastic case, not a paper sleeve; I’ve encountered several cracked CDs that weren’t properly protected prior to shipment.

5. If a Curriculum Vitae or résumé is requested, have a section in your document for your list of works.  Be sure to include the title, duration, instrumentation, and year composed for each piece; divide your list into categories, such as large ensemble, small ensemble, and chorus.  You should also include publication and premiere performance information if appropriate, as well as the authors of any texts you’ve set. 

6. Last but certainly not least, make sure the notation on your scores is as clean as possible, so it will leave the judges with a great impression about your level of professionalism.  See my previous First Impressions blog for more thoughts on this topic.

One final thought: even if you’re not currently preparing an application for an opportunity, there are a few things you can do right now to cut down on your future prep time; update your C.V. and list of works on a regular basis, make sure your scores are in great shape, and get musicians to record your works.  Then you’ll be ready to have your materials best represent you when you submit them for the next opportunity.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Behind every success is a string of failures

Failure is hard. When you have put a lot of effort into something and the results don’t pan out the way you wanted, you experience a little twinge of frustration. If you keep working at it and still don’t succeed, those little twinges can add up into entire arms and legs spastically flailing. It can be even more discouraging if you see others around you winning competitions or getting performances, and without much apparent effort on their part. What’s their secret, you wonder?

I’ve wondered about that all the way through school and into my early professional life. I believe it comes down to three things:

1. Stop comparing yourself to others. Over the years, I’ve had several students who cannot resist the urge to compare the works they’re writing to those of firmly established, older composers. The end result usually involves a few tears and some Kleenex, along with my pointing out that those firmly established, older composers were students once themselves who, like my students, probably had no idea of what magnificent musical concept they would discover five, ten, or fifteen years in the future. (I then have my students study early vocal works of Elliott Carter and George Crumb; neither composer showed many hints early on of what they’d later compose - students usually settle down after that.) Once we learn to stop trying to measure ourselves against other people’s achievements, we get more comfortable with exploring our own unique ideas and abilities.

2. People all around us are not succeeding the first time they try something, and perhaps not the second, third, or fourth time either. We just tend to hear about the time that they do succeed, without knowing how many attempts it took. You probably don’t want to announce when you lose a competition, but when you win one, that’s the time to proclaim it to the world.  Use social media, emails, and face-to-face conversations to spread the good news to your family, friends, and colleagues.

3. If you don't do anything at all, you will definitely fail.  But if you try, you might succeed. If you don't succeed all the way, you'll keep learning how to be more successful next time. 

There are two great quotes attributed to Winston Churchill. The first: “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” The second: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” Both quotes perfectly capture what is necessary to persevere in a musical career: unending enthusiasm, a strong work ethic, belief in yourself, and the ability to pick yourself up when you fail, brush yourself off, and try again.