Throughout my career, I’ve heard much debate on the value of composers entering composition competitions. Should we? Shouldn’t we? If we win, does this mean that our music and career are validated? If we don’t win, should we pack away our score paper and notation programs to pursue another career?
There are many good reasons to enter a competition: a cash award that can help you pay the bills; a performance in a city, state, or country outside of where you live; a recording you can use to interest others in your music; recognition/publicity for you and your music; a grant for a project of your own devising; an opportunity to compose a new piece for an organization you’ve not worked with before… so how do you know if a particular competition is worth your time and resources to enter?
To help you decide, try asking yourself the following questions:
1. What are your expectations for winning the competition?
If you think it will lead to instant fame, think again. Realistically, there are very few awards that can truly change one’s career trajectory overnight (with notable exceptions – for instance, Caroline Shaw, the winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize, was a relatively unknown composer who became an instant sensation). So you need to ask yourself, what is it that you hope to gain by entering a particular competition? Make a quick list of how the competition would benefit you to help you decide.
2. Is there an entry fee?
Some competitions are free to enter, while others require an entry fee. If there’s a fee, ask yourself if the competition’s prize is worth the cost, particularly if you also need to spend money to submit scores and recordings by snail mail.
3. Does the competition provide you with a performance?
If so, will they also cover your expenses to travel and lodging to attend the concert? Bonus points if they also cover your meals!
4. Will you receive a recording of the performance?
You usually can’t use this recording for non-commercial purposes, but many competitions will allow you to use the recording on your website or Soundcloud page so you can share your music with the world, as well as interest potential musicians in performing the piece.
5. Do you have a strong and suitable piece to submit that matches what the competition is asking for?
For instance, if the competition asks for a 10-15 minute piece for large orchestra and all you have is a seven minute composition for string orchestra, now might not be the right moment to enter. However, keep track of each contest that you find so that as you write works that matches their requirements, you can submit them in future rounds.
6. If the competition results in your needing to write a new work for an upcoming concert, do you have enough time to compose the piece?
One of the dangers of entering competitions of this sort is not budgeting adequate time to write a piece alongside other activities in your life. If you’re not careful, you might not have the time you need, which can result in a very stressful composing situation and potentially a less than optimal piece. Before you enter this type of competition, take a careful look at your schedule.
Personally, I encourage composers to enter competitions. The payoffs can be very beneficial and wonderful, as long as you don’t take the losses personally. Winning any competition is a roll of the dice – you never know quite what the adjudication panel is looking for – so all you can do is submit your best work, then forget about it until you get your congrats/regrets letter. Whether you win or lose, remember that the value of your music is not determined by any competition or group of judges; this comes from within yourself and whether you’re doing what you love.