The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Competitions Pt 3: Age Limits

[This is part three of a multi-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.]

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Many of the composition competitions out there have decided to focus on helping composers at the beginnings of their careers, which is only fitting because once a composer has established herself sufficiently, she no longer needs awards to pad her CV in order to make herself more desirable to schools, other competitions, or (possibly) potential commissioners.

What tends to get overlooked by many of the organizations hosting these competitions, however, is that not all composers begin their careers in their youth. Some composers merely come to writing music late in life. And others start a musical career, then move away from music for whatever reason (usually financial) to return in later years, effectively starting over. Enough significant composers from the 20th century fall into either of these categories that they need not be listed here.

Consequently, imposing age restrictions on competition entrants has the net effect of excluding emerging-but-no-longer-young composers who could benefit greatly from the performances/exposure that a competition placement could earn them. Composers starting later in life are already at the disadvantage of having to change gears or start from scratch, so these limits put them at a greater disadvantage by excluding them from potentially beneficial opportunities.

And, as composer Christian Carey pointed out in a Twitter conversation on the subject, age limits are not only exclusionary, but further pander to the cult of youth that has already swept popular culture.

In short, we’re looking for a composer who – in addition to being talented and skilled – is also, as a former teacher of mine once described some of my extra-musical qualities, “Young, cute, and f*ckable.” (Srsly.)

We’ve also fallen prey to the 5 O’Clock News Syndrome: searching for the next wunderkind who will wow us all with his facility: the myth of the youthful talent that is so limitless that the organization who “discovers” them will be praised for all time for recognizing such a phenomenon. The five-year-old who plays Mozart perfectly after a single hearing. The 17 year-old who composes symphonies crammed with orchestral “color”. In short, a youth who can be propped up in front of audiences and donors as “the next Mozart”.

Wunderkinden are rare. And thankfully so, because we invariably ask them to run before they can walk, and few seem to continue past adolescence or early adulthood, when the pressures to recreate and simultaneously surpass their youthful successes become too great.

I understand that age limits are intended to keep out composers with more experience and (hopefully) growing careers, but they also neglect to take into account those composers whose careers haven’t reached a sufficiently significant level by age 30…35…40…whatever completely arbitrary number the committee decides to impose on entrants.

And one can’t help but wonder if there’s not a sense of distaste at the thought of having a competition winner be in his 60s. There is a more than subtle ageism at work here.

Not every composer started like me when he was 14. And not every composer finds success in youth, early adulthood, or even middle age – there are incredibly skilled and talented composers who toil away without recognition during their lifetimes.

There should be no problem awarding a composer who is not in her 20s or 30s because she started later or hasn’t yet achieved the status that she “should have” by such an age.

Taken alongside application fees and the rights grabs that many competitions make, it’s easy to suspect a certain…cynicism…at play in the organizations that host some of these competitions. The youth requirement all but guarantees that the entrants will be inexperienced and pliable, so a $25 gatekeeper fee doesn’t automatically seem outrageous to the applicants. Plus, a bit of legal-sounding language that seems to be guaranteeing a recording or multiple performances but which also effectively steals a composer’s rights will likely – and generally does – go unquestioned and unchallenged. After all, what experience do the entrants have to counter the claim, “This is just how things are done”?

The only ones to question these practices are the ones who are too old to apply anymore. And their criticisms can be easily written off as petty bitterness over not having achieved a certain status. (…which having won X competition would obviously have solved, if only they could enter it again.)

I’m just starting to age out of some of these competitions, and I honestly feel nothing but relief.

If organizations want to limit entrants to their competitions to be early in their careers, a glance at a composer’s works and CV list will show how long they’ve been at it, and how much experience they have. If a composer’s works list only goes back a handful of years, they’re obviously just starting out, regardless of age. If their musical education was 20 or 30 years ago, but their musical output has a corresponding 20 or 30 year gap…they’ve recently returned to their first love, and need all the help they can get in establishing themselves in this new career.

Competitions who purport to aid emerging composers (as opposed to composers just starting out) might have a slightly more difficult time with composers who are on the verge of moving from “emerging” to “established” (or whatever), but I think that this is a finer point that may need to be addressed on a competition-by-competition and composer-by-composer basis: “Is this composer sufficiently well-established that being awarded by our organization won’t be of significant aid to her career?”

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