I Hosted My Own Composition Competition; Here’s What I Learned

Like most musicians over the past year, I have missed performing and working with fellow artists in person. Music is such a holistic and engaging art form; I wanted to find a way to create community in this prolonged season of separation.

Performing my own work "three 'shorts' for solo viola" at the Canadian Music Centre. Photo by Britton Riley.

As a composer-performer, I decided to host my own composition competition. I’ve been out of school for over 6 years, so I wanted to be open and receptive to what fellow composers were creating and learning while also producing new performance opportunities for myself. I wanted to better understand the competition application process from an administrative view. With the 70+ applications I received for my New Works for Solo Viola Project, I was definitely given that insight. This knowledge is helpful for not only composers but performers and educators too; anyone who has to apply for anything online these days can learn how to improve their submissions by having a better idea of what really matters.

1) Identify Your Hook


Yes, having knowledge of your skill/instrument/craft is of utmost importance. But if you want your jury to remember you, you need to provide them with a hook. What makes you special and unique? What qualities do you bring that no one else can provide? I was surprised at the end of the day it wasn’t what school someone went to or how many awards they had achieved that made them stand out. It was what made them different than the rest of the applications.

Make yourself memorable. Do you come from a unique cultural heritage or life perspective? What hobbies or worldview inform your craft? I received many scores that looked promising, but if the composer wasn’t memorable it was much harder justifying that work to move on the next round. Even a quirky and well placed one-liner in your bio can make all the difference.

2) Invest In Your Website


Your website is the business card of 2021. It seems superficial, but if your website is out of date or poorly organized, it communicates to your jury or prospective employer that you don’t take yourself seriously.

I know building a website from scratch may seem daunting, especially if you are in the early stages of your career, but even a simple website with clean graphics and a short bio speaks volumes. Your website is a first impression that can either help or hinder the rest of your application.

Don’t give your jury any reason to think less of you from your website or online presence.


3) Be Considerate Of Your Jury


This should be an obvious point that follows from #2, but don’t give the jury any reason to start out with a poor opinion of you. This can happen in two ways:


First, make sure that all your links (including your website!) are functional. Don’t make them track you down asking for additional working links. Make their job as easy and as efficient as possible.

Second, keep any email correspondents polite, brief and respectful. Don’t let a poor impression taint your otherwise great application.

4) Have Good Quality Music Samples


Make sure your music samples are high quality recordings, and edit out any excessive prolonged silences or applause. Your jury will start forming first impressions within 20 seconds of the music you send them, so make it count!

Something else I hadn’t considered before is to send music samples that are dynamic and varied, especially within the first 2 minutes of music. Most jury members won’t have time to listen to your complete 35 minute concerto, so the first few minutes are crucial.

Music that is static and slow rarely shows off variety and command of your craft in a way that fast, flashy music does (for both composers AND performers). If you want to send a recording that has a slow introduction, consider sending your jury a timestamp of a faster section later on in your piece you would prefer them to listen to first.

A quick note for composers, try your best not to send MIDI samples. Sometimes they are necessary, but they don’t install confidence that your music is playable for real musicians. Bribe your friends to play for you by buying them a coffee or lunch. Even a rough recording of live musicians is better than MIDI instruments, or heaven forbid, MIDI singing.

Again, don’t make your jury work hard to understand your music or performance.


5) Personalize Your Application


This doesn’t always apply to every project, but where possible, personalize your application. Take the time to google and research who the application is for and what their interests are. Craft responses that best suit your audience.

For my New Works for Solo Viola Project, I was accepting new proposals as well as scores. The proposals from applicants who took a personalized approach showed a care and commitment that was sometimes lacking in other proposals. They took the time to understand who they were writing for, and scored much higher as a result. They also made me much more excited to look into their projects, which helped them be more memorable (point #1!).

6) Don’t Take Rejection Personally


At the end of the day, I received more high quality submissions than my project had room for. The difficult decision to take 25 shortlisted composers and cut it down to 8 winners was an almost impossible task.

I know it sucks to work really hard on an application, only to be rejected. What hosting my own competition taught me is that just because you weren’t selected, doesn’t mean your work isn’t of value.