The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Competitions Pt 6: IMHO

[This is the final segment of a six-part miniseries of posts on composition competitions. Competitions are typically a significant part of a composer’s coming-of-age process, and young composers in particular are frequently (in some cases constantly) bombarded with exhortations to apply to everything possible from teachers, administrators, and older composers. In these posts, I’m taking a look at various issues with competitions that many composers have come to see as problems, and which have caused many to stop applying altogether.]


So now that I’ve spent the past few posts on what my boyfriend refers to as a “competition take-down”, it’s time to offer some more constructive suggestions on how I – in my eternally humble opinion – would like to see things run. Mind you, these guidelines mostly hold for ensembles and performing organizations, and not larger institutions.

Call for Scores
First off, drop the whole “competition” thing. Awards and honors should be meted out by large, well-established, well-funded institutions. The American Academy of Arts and Letters, ASCAP, BMI, Columbia University. These institutions can fund a more considerable prize, and there’s significant cachet associated with the awards.

Additionally, removing the competitive aspect allows the organization to avoid whatever costs are associated with bringing on a panel of judges – honoraria, travel, postage, food, accommodations – and keep all decisions both in-house and completely at the discretion of the members and administration of the ensemble/organization, so that the selections are based on the resources and artistic direction of the group.

Multiple Selectees
Rather than making a token gesture toward new music by selecting one or two “winners,” my recommendation is to select either an entire program’s worth of works from the call, or select at least two works per program for your upcoming season. An ensemble that wants to make a commitment to new music should make a true commitment.

By performing works by several composers rather than one or two, your ensemble will be making a much more significant contribution to the music world by giving voice to many composers’ works.

Also, don’t predetermine the exact number of works that you intend to choose. In the event that there are a high number of entries that suit the group well, the option should be available to program more of the submitted works than originally expected. Conversely, if most of the works don’t fit the ensemble’s artistic profile, you should have the option of choosing only those that are best suited to the group. This also allows for infinitely more meaningful interactions between the ensemble and the composers.

Multiple Performances
If it’s something that your ensemble does, perform the selected works more than once! Your composers will LOVE you for it! Your audiences are also more likely to remember the composer, and hopefully seek out more of her works. (And maybe ask for you to program her again!)

Modest Honorarium
I may get an angry mob at my door for this one, but prize money isn’t strictly necessary – especially with a call for scores. However, a modest honorarium never goes amiss.

An honorarium is a nice gesture, as is paying a licensing fee for “rental” or copying or general use of the composer’s materials.

The reason why I’m more in favor of honoraria than prize money is that for many competitions, the prize money isn’t very substantial to begin with. Attempting to raise a bit more, then spreading it equally amongst the selected composers, benefits more of them – whereas a single “winner” would receive a performance and the complete prize, this way gives more composers performances and honoraria that they wouldn’t have received in a more competitive model.

While not strictly necessary, I think that honoraria or licensing fees are important because they send the message that the composer’s work is valuable. Plus: if you intend to charge for admission to your concert, you stand to make money from the composer’s work – they should, too.

Performance Licenses
Definitely have a performance license in place with the composers’ PROs (ASCAP, BMI, SESAC). They’re not expensive, and they offer additional income to the composers. And they make your performance…legal.

Archival Recording
Do offer an archival recording of the performance(s). Be clear about how a composer can use the recording (they can’t sell it), and make sure that they credit your ensemble. If you intend to post the performance on your group’s website, let the composer do the same, provided that they link to your site. Be generous, and be smart: having your performance in the composer’s promotional materials with proper credit gets your group’s name out there even more. It’s free advertising, and great word-of-mouth promotion from an enthusiastic new supporter!

Any recording that you’d like to make commercially available should be negotiated separately with the composer. See my final statement on honoraria.

If you’re going to offer a commission, please do it right.

Raise the funds for a fee that is commensurate with the work you’re commissioning. For anything larger than a duo and smaller than an orchestra, that’s between $500 and $1000 per minute of music.

As with my suggestion for multiple selectees, I wouldn’t commit to a commission up front. I absolutely endorse commissioning, obviously, but my recommendation is to base your commissioning decisions on rehearsals, performance, and interactions with the composer rather than merely seeing one or two scores.

Commissioning is a collaborative process, and selecting a composer – or composers – to work with should be approached with the same care and deliberation as programming the remainder of your season. This should be a composer who you want to create a long-standing relationship with, not someone to prop up for a single performance and then discard.

And please – perform the commissioned work multiple times! You paid for it – get some mileage out of it!

Strict Guidelines
Hopefully you’ll have a flood of entries – especially when it’s clear that you’re selecting multiple works for (multiples) performance(s). In this case, you’ll want to have a set of strict submission guidelines. Unambiguous instrumentation: SATB choir with no extended divisi; violin and piano (not violin, piano, and something else because it’s the closest thing the composer had in his catalog). A clear listing of required materials: X number of scores, engraved with a high degree of quality; recording requirements; a CV listing works, commissions, and selected performances. For electronic submissions, list appropriate file formats.

Any submissions that don’t conform to the guidelines will not be considered. Period.

And don’t hesitate to call out composers who don’t follow your guidelines. Email them and say that because they’re missing X from their submission, their piece can’t be considered. If you’re feeling generous, give them the opportunity to submit the missing components within a limited timeframe. (I accidentally left out a submission component to a large competition several years ago, and they allowed me a few days to email or fax it to them. Although I didn’t win, I was still grateful for the leeway so that my piece could be considered properly.)

And absolutely call out composers who have submitted scores that don’t fit the instrumentation that you’ve clearly listed – that’s poor behavior on the composer’s part, and they need to be told – politely but firmly – that they will not be considered because they did not follow the instructions.

If you want to be my hero, offer constructive feedback on submissions. “We couldn’t select your work because the score’s engraving wasn’t sufficiently legible.” “Your work is good, but doesn’t fit the style of pieces we usually perform.” “The piece may be too rhythmically complex for us to put together and do justice to in the limited number of rehearsals that we have scheduled.” “Your alto line sits a little too low for our ensemble.” It may be time-consuming, but honesty and tact go a long way, and can really help composers to grow musically or to tailor their submissions to groups more effectively.

Garrett Shatzer and the New Lens Concert Series did just this with a piece that I submitted recently to their call for scores. After they’d made their decisions, Garrett messaged me to say that they liked my piece, but it didn’t fit with the other works that they had already programmed for their season. (If you don’t know about New Lens, they pair newer works with works of the past.) New Lens is really doing it right!

None of These
For anyone who has read the lead-ups to this post, it should go without saying that entry fees are an absolute no-no. Plan ahead, and raise the funds your organization needs to make the proper commitment. Electronic submissions will keep postage costs and administrative time to a minimum. Printing costs can be kept to a minimum by reviewing submitted scores that have accompanying MP3s at the computer or on a tablet.

Age limits should be avoided. If you want to be of service to early-career composers, simply say so in your guidelines. Set flexible internal criteria for reviewing a composer’s CV to decide if they fit the profile of what you’re looking for in terms of where they are in their careers.

And leave the composer’s rights alone. If you want to make a commercial recording, work something out directly with the composer. Remember – you’re using their materials, so they deserve to be paid for it.

In Conclusion
I’m sure I haven’t covered everything, but I think that this basic outline can make the entire process infinitely more rewarding for both ensembles and composers, as well as drastically reduce the expenses that a group might otherwise be subject to with a traditional competition.


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