How to Apply for a (Composition) Competition

If you follow the blog, you’re probably aware that recently I successfully raised funds with crowdfunding in order to fund a competition for young composers. Here is the first blog post in a series documenting the competition process!

The application process is now at an end, and I received 270 applications from all over the world. An incredible and also daunting number. While I had recruited an extremely capable jury (Evan Johnson, Patricia Alessandrini, Harald Muenz, Carl Rosman and Martin Iddon), I could under no circumstances expect them, as volunteers, to read through that number of entries.

I sent them 48.

And after reading through 270 proposals, and culling 222 of them, I’d like to think that now I know a little bit about how to write one. So I’m going to tell you what I’ve learned. But first, a few disclaimers:

* If you recognise something you did that I’ve listed here, do not be disheartened. I am only mentioning things that at least 10 others have done, you were not the only one. I am not calling you out, and I am not identifying anyone by name.

* I had to cull 222 entries. It was anything but easy, and it was a bit emotional as well. I had to learn to be quite hard on all of you. I am one person, I am not being paid to do this, and it was very hard work. So in this article I am sharing the brutal and unfair truth of what went through my mind. If there had only been a total of 60 entries, some of these issues would never have come up. And perhaps for another proposal where the competition isn’t so stiff, half of these things wouldn’t matter. But maybe this will help make you more bullet proof.

* That said, what I wrote hear does not necessarily reflect how I made decisions. If you broke one rule, it does not mean you didn’t successfully pass to the next round. It was always a combination of things, and at the end of the day this post is here to help you to write the best proposal possible.

* There has already been some criticism about the fact that I used the proposals as a first round. A few points on this issue: with 270 applications, I had little choice in the matter, otherwise it would have taken me 6 months to get as far as sending material to the jury; the project is intended to be collaborative and writing was the best way that I could anonymously get to know something about the entrants; if you are asked to write a proposal for a competition, job interview, grant, etc. that’s because the person who is asking you to do it thinks it matters; perhaps it is a shame that the arts in general require artists to be able to write about their practice, personally I think it is fun to do so and to be able to do so, either way it is the reality of the world today that as composers you need to be able to do this. Being able to communicate well about your art does not necessarily turn you into a salesperson.

* I’m going to basically start with all the things you shouldn’t do, and then make a few comments about what you should. Mostly, what you shouldn’t. That’s because it’s much easier for me to make a list of those things, having seen so many examples. I do completely empathise with you all though, it’s an impossible task, really.

Okay, here we go. The first point is basically the most important, after that, they aren’t really in any specific order.

* My first round was one of just going through the proposals. I think I culled 100 applications based on proposals alone, which brings us to the most important lesson: your proposal is essentially click-bait for your music. Your first job is to make me curious about you, your compositional practice and about listening to your music. That’s really all you have to do to make the next round.

* Longer, well-written proposals are better. Use the word count. If you’re a non-native English speaker, I’m sorry, but you’re already at a disadvantage. As much as possible, I tried to read past that, but mostly the problem was that non-native speakers didn’t write as much, didn’t help me to get to know them as people, composers, etc. Get a friend to help you, if you’re struggling with the English. (And don’t send applications in another language just because you know that I can read it. Just because I can, doesn’t mean my jury can.)

* I am, from the very beginning, looking for a reason to reject you (sorry, but 270! 270!). Think about your first sentence. “I am interested in the clarinet,” or “I love the sound of the clarinet” as a first sentence is not going to make you stand out, because I think I read it at least 50 times. I am also interested in the clarinet, you’ll be shocked to hear (sarcasm). This as a first sentence usually resulted in me saying, “No kidding, me too!” to my computer monitor (sarcasm, again). Do note, this was never enough for me to actually throw your application out on its own, but it just isn’t a good start.

* A number of applicants wrote that they could not say what their piece would sound like, only that they hoped it would sound different from their other pieces. That may be true, and is probably true for every entrant, but it isn’t enough to make me curious about you.

* If the performer’s name is in the name of the competition, use her name. Don’t refer to her as “the performer”. Especially when that performer and her competition are pretty focused on collaborative processes. Plus, she’s an ego maniac. Like all performers. (Kidding. Kind of.)

* Oh, and when and if you do use my name, please do spell it right. It was up there on the top of the form.

* It was not necessary to include works for the clarinet in your proposal, but I would highly recommend that if you did, you should mention that in your proposal. Cause if there’s anything that’s going to work as click-bait (I hate using that word, but it’s the right one) … again, it’s all about making the reader curious about your music. Listening to music takes time, you want me to be interested in taking that time to get to know your work better.

* If there’s any chance that a title might put someone off, do not include it in your proposal. This means anything vulgar, clichéd, anything with the word “clarinet” in the title and PUNS. Especially puns. Puns in titles are just bad. Just don’t. Imagine how it will look on a programme! My sense of what is pretentious (for example) is not the same as yours, so be careful there. (After you’ve been selected, of course, you can call your piece whatever you like and I won’t say a word about it.)

* Don’t ask me to carry extra gear. Ever lifted a bass clarinet in its case? It weighs enough.

* Naming repertoire or composers that you are inspired by is risky, because we might not agree and that might negatively affect my impression of you. I still think it’s a risk worth taking. I, personally, have a weakness for composers who are interested in music history, and can fit themselves within the context thereof. Anyway, if we have common shared interests, that’ll get you really far in the process. And if we really didn’t (Justin Bieber, seriously?!), then it’s probably for the best that we won’t be collaborating.

* If you’re going to make sweeping generalisations about all of the existing clarinet repertoire and dismiss it all as “boring”… um… no, actually, just don’t do that. Why would you do that? What do you think I do for a living, exactly? Also, confidence is good, but modesty also has a place. Telling me your piece will become standard repertoire doesn’t read particularly well on paper, even if you might have been saying it wishfully or with a sense of humour.

* If you do refer to the works you submitted — and you should do this, remember, click-bait — please make sure that you actually did submit the works that you refer to. I clicked on one entrant’s scores immediately after reading an intriguing bit of text about them, and then couldn’t find the one that was referred to.

* Don’t include stuff about birdsong. There was this guy, he did it before, probably better than you. Okay, actually, I take that back. But, if you want to do things with birdsong, write about it in enough detail so that at the very least I can see that you know who Messiaen was.

* Don’t curse in your application. I’ve been known to swear, but I wouldn’t do it in a grant proposal.

* Don’t tell me what the clarinet is. I know what a clarinet is. (Tell me about your music. Tell me about you!) But don’t describe the sound of the clarinet. Don’t use adjectives to do it with, either. Here are some examples of words not to use: sultry, woody, sensual, meaty, gloomy, murky, heartwarming, etc. It’s actually a bit scary when you see them all together like that.

* Be careful with the anonymisation, if that’s a requirement. It was for this application. So many people forgot to do this! It disqualified you, since it was a very important part of this process (I mean, that was one of the ways we tried to keep things “fair” and it was fairly big throughout the crowdfunding process). Do also avoid using any kind of digital “sticky tape” on your .pdfs. It tends to render late, and I had to warn the jury to look away for a moment after loading those .pdfs. (But you weren’t discqualified.)

What you should do:

* Sentences that start in the following way were always interesting: “My work is concerned with…”, “The focus of my compositional practice is…” “The submitted works were chosen because…” “In the first submitted work, I tried to accomplish…” In other words, tell me something about your work, because it helps me to get to know you and to be curious about what you’re doing.

* You can also talk about future things without being specific about what the clarinet piece will do — you probably don’t know yet, nor should you. But “In the future, something I’m interested in pursuing with my work…” that’s interesting!

* What I’m saying really is that you should avoid trying to tell me what you’re going to do with the clarinet piece specifically, because, frankly, I know it’s bullshit. You probably don’t know, and if you’re writing bullshit in the hopes that I won’t see through it, in 99% of the cases, I will. Write what you know, to pick a cliché out of a hat. Write what you know about your work as it is now.

* Also, it’s nice to talk about how you imagine solo pieces in general. If you’ve written one before, you can talk about the things you tried to accomplish with it. “For me, a solo piece is the perfect opportunity to try…”, for example. I would be careful to avoid negative statements, or clichés. “A solo piece is not an etude,” for example. Yep, I knew that. I practised etudes every week for about ten years. Oops, I’ve gone back to talking about what you should not do.

* There was a relatively high correlation between the amount of care put into the proposal, and the amount of care put into the scores. When you submit your scores, make sure they look great. It’s particularly important that you avoid using the Finale or Sibelius presets. You want your scores to look unique, as much as possible. For someone who plays new pieces on a weekly basis, it can be disheartening to see those presets. Notation should also be clean and clear.

* If there are practical aspects to the piece (for the electronics and so forth), I think it’s better to leave those for later in the application, as I’ll probably be interested in that after I’ve been interested as far as listening to your work.

* Make sure your links won’t expire. I had intended to have the jury get their material a few weeks ago, but with the 270 entries, we got delayed. I’ve chased a few people up for updated links, but it adds a lot of extra work. And actually, the easiest ones for the recordings were from people who set up new (anonymised) soundcloud or youtube accounts to host their files. I didn’t have to download mp3s/wavs. It won’t affect your application, it just makes it a bit easier!

Okay, I hope that was helpful. Feedback is appreciated!

This entry was posted in advice, collaboration, on collaboration & composition, on performance, performance, the competition. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to How to Apply for a (Composition) Competition

  1. So good! I’m not a composer (I’m a cellist) but I enjoyed reading this so very much. I’m crossing my fingers that I get to meet you someday because you seem amazing (and hilarious). Thank you for writting such an excellent blog!

    • heatherroche says:

      Jennifer, thanks, aw, that’s nice of you to say! Don’t be fooled though, I’m quite boring in person. I just use humour to soften the blow for these poor composers ;)

  2. Steve Sauder says:

    Heather: I’m sorry I missed the party! I hope the competition goes really well and that you end up with something wonderful out of the collaboration! Your blog is wonderful, and for a composer trying to get his stuff out there (that’d be me… :), full of some great knowledge! Take care, and all the best!

  3. Jon says:

    Great post (and great blog generally)! I especially appreciate your stance on this: “you should avoid trying to tell me what you’re going to do with the clarinet piece specifically, because, frankly, I know it’s bullshit. You probably don’t know, and if you’re writing bullshit in the hopes that I won’t see through it, in 99% of the cases, I will.” Amen! However, I am definitely under the impression that many funding organizations in fact DO want composers to provide a bullshit-y amount of detail on the piece they propose to write. It’s part of the game to come up with a very, very specific proposal, even if the final composition doesn’t end up being anything like what’s proposed. It’s refreshing to see that you’re not looking for that, but it does seem like something that’s often expected in other situations. It’s something that always frustrates me about the grant application process. Unless I’m wrong about this? Curious if others have any insights…

    • heatherroche says:

      Hi Jon,

      Sorry for the delay to your comment appearing with a reply – it had gone into spam, I’m glad I thought to check that folder.

      Yeah, of course you’re right, and that was probably the only point I made where there was a bit too much of my own opinion about these things. And I can’t remember now, but I probably DID ask people to speculate about their future pieces. But… well, I won’t ask that again, because I can see the frustration it causes.

  4. This post is really helpful! I’m a composer and am currently in the process of applying for a few competitions, so I’ll take your points on board.

  5. Chelsea Czuchra says:

    very helpful and interesting post. it focussed some of my thoughts about how to construct this process when I do my own call for new works! THANKS!

  6. Miguel says:

    Thanks! Not very often we (poor composeres :D) can have feedback from the jury. We appreciate it! Just one question: will you post who was selected?
    Thank you so much!

  7. Very insightful! Thanks for sharing.

  8. Perry says:

    Hello Heather! Great comments! The only one I strongly disagree with though, as a pianist who has accepted calls for proposals, is the one about using the term “the performer.” In fact, I prefer the applicant to not assume a first-name basis with me, and I would rather the composer think about the piece as something performable by many people, rather than just me. If I wanted a piece composed specifically for me, I would collaborate with a specific composer, and not put out a call for proposals. Otherwise, really good comments! Some read more like “how to write a proposal for me,” but I think you admitted that in a rather passive, humorous way! All the best, and good luck to those who are selected!

    • heatherroche says:

      Thanks for your comments!
      The thing is, this particular competition was set up to be a collaborative one – each of the winners win a commission and will spend a year working with me on a new piece. Also, my name was after all in the name of the competition.

      Anyway, thanks for your feedback :)

  9. Ivana jokic says:

    Hi Heather,

    I just wanted to thank you for posting this. I believe that I have a better idea of what to expect for future proposals after reading your post. All of your posts are always helpful and I really appreciate your support for young and emerging composers.

    I hope you are doing well.

    Best regards,

    Ivana Jokic

  10. J Hamilton says:

    I didn’t apply for this, and so I don’t know the specifics of the call. It’s an interesting article, and the commission is something I would have liked to have applied for.
    It wouldn’t be controversial of me to suggest that there is a contraction of opportunity versus demand happening in the arts right now (I see the number of opportunities possibly increasing, but the amount of practitioners right now is extraordinary). Something I see again and again speaking to arts administrators, and in curating my own programs, is that there is a massive bias towards articulacy. I can’t help but feel that is a by-product of over subscription; in this article you allude to this. My fear is two-fold. I worry that we begin to privilege ideas that are easily communicable in the written word. Proposals I find success with have a certain ‘sexiness’ to them. I wouldn’t necessarily say they are better, only that the idea has a form of in-built PR.
    Another worry is that we foreground people from a very specific skillset and background; people I know who are doing well tend to be good at writing; mentally well-adjusted; socio-economically advantaged; arch-networkers; good administrators; presentable et al. I myself may be several of these things, and I’m not trying to make a simplistic argument arguing that rich white people can’t make good art – they obviously can. However, I think in this climate the odds of heading towards a culture of homogeneity is very great. I don’t see the place for people who don’t match these criteria, and I think it may be a huge loss.
    It sounds difficult to be overwhelmed by applications, and I sympathise with you. I often feel I get a sense of whether somebody is a good artist just by talking to them, but at the same time I feel that the notion of words serving as clickbait for music is a little perverse. I’m not blaming you for this situation, but I’m curious what your opinion is – how do we avoid this situation when every opportunity is so oversubscribed?

    • heatherroche says:

      Thank you very much for your extremely well-articulated comment.

      The thing is that for the most part, I agree completely with you. This post basically aimed to serve as an acknowledgement of the reality of the situation and in order to help composers address their own writing so that they might participate in that reality. I’ve had a lot of comments and e-mails from readers expressing their surprise at various points; things hadn’t occurred to them, this kind of writing isn’t really taught, so I was trying to help with that. I probably don’t need to tell you this.

      The call also leads to a year-long collaborative venture with the six winners (who will also be paid for their work). The collaborative aspect meant that for me, who they are as people and artists is just as important as their work. The proposal was the best way to anonymously get to know something about them.

      If it makes you feel any better, this article doesn’t necessarily reflect how I was removing proposals from the pool, simply observations as to how the proposals could have been better. I suspect the jury is also dealing with the last 48 by listening to everything they’ve been sent. And the 48 I sent them did cover a surprising variety of work.

      That said, I have my own musical interests, so those who win will reflect my interests as well – there will certainly be a certain kind of homogeneity there.

  11. Pingback: Index / TOC (scroll down for recent blogposts) | heather roche

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