heather roche

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!