Monday, February 11, 2013

How to win composing

One of the main reasons we all became composers is the thrill of competition. The hunt, the chase, the adrenaline rush, the sport of it all! The vibrant beauty of young lads, in the prime of youth, competing for the glory of being the best. We are lucky in that we have such a well formed and established competition circuit for the young composer to earn his chops on, which then turn into exciting and plentiful opportunities for the mid-career composer like the Rome Prize, all culminating in such Grand Prix as the Grawemeyer and the Pulitzer, two of the most closely watched and anticipated contests in all of music.

The Greek Olympics
As in Ancient Greece, the composer today is celebrated for the
intrinsic beauty of their competitive success.
It's no coincidence that "composer" and "competition" share the same root. From the Latin, "com-" means "together, together with, together in union," and hints at the true nature of the composition competition- a grand coming together, a coming together of coming togethers, a union of the fractured lines of musical thought which are worked out in communal fashion by expert panels and committees through the process of selection and reward, ultimately settling once and for all which music is superior in a culminating announcement of their decision. The competition is thus the apotheosis of cultural musical expression. This is why so many average music listeners refer so religiously to such famous competitions as the Masterprize when deciding what new music they are going to like.

With competitions holding such a valuable and important place in the career paths of young composers, many justifiably want to win as many as possible, so as to secure admission to more prestigious graduate schools of composition and thus win more coveted teaching positions at more prestigious universities. So many want to know: how can I achieve more success with the composition competition? Well being such an objective process, there are a few simple things you can do in your compositions and life to help improve your chances with the competition panel.

The first thing (step 1) that will really help you win competitions is to have won a lot of competitions already. This is very important. Many committees don't want to go out on a limb and decide that something is good for themselves- they feel much more comfortable selecting winners that other committees have already put their stamp of approval on. You will find that a small number of contestants tend to win the majority of competitions. This is not only because they are the best composers, but because they have a proven track record of success and so must be the best.

If step 1 proves problematic for you, I suggest applying to competitions where your teacher sits on the judging panel (step 2). Often the most prestigious competitions are reviewed by panels of older, respected composers who themselves have won many competitions and most likely teach at prestigious universities. This makes sense because who is better at judging hot new trends in music than old people? Study with them. Many of them will want to secure their own legacy as important composers and teachers by demonstrating that their students are very prolific competition winners, who themselves will one day make excellent competition judges. Take advantage of this.

What about the music itself you ask? Is there anything you can do there to help secure your competition legacy? Well there are a few simple things you can change in your music in order to be a more viable competitor (step 3). While not nearly as important as steps 1 and 2, these relatively simple steps won't hurt you either. After all, you didn't become a composer in order to get second place. If you aren't first, you're last.  There is no try.

1. Use Crotales. I simply don't understand composers that don't use Crotales in every single composition. They are the most versatile, wonderful instrument, which can be struck with a mallet, bowed, or even hit creatively with a knitting needle. Nothing says "competition winner" like constant, absurd saturation of your music with Crotales. Similarly,

Crotales, the most important instrument in modern composition.
2. Why not use 7 triangles? Better use of duplicate percussion instruments is one of the easiest steps to take towards competition success. You don't want to be labeled as one of those composers that only uses one triangle per composition when you just as easily could be using 7, or 11 different triangles, arranged stereophonically around the audience, each struck exactly once.

3. Use lots of tuplets of things- on page 1. Some composers might have some great tuplets of things in their compositions, but they bury them way down on page 20. Most panels don't have the time to wade all the way through a long and dense composition to find your best tuplets. You want those to be displayed front and center, right away. You want the first page of your composition to say, "I can make a tuplet of anything." Also, if you are European, the downbeat of the tuplet should always be a rest.
An example of some masterful use of tuplets.

4. Title your piece artistically- for success! Nothing is more difficult for the composer than coming up with a title that keeps up with the latest titling trends. While we seem to be coming out of a period where successful composition titles included a word with an internal part of the word enclosed by parentheses-  such as Inter(rupt)ions- which followed a long period of titles suggesting the deep mathematical or scientific understanding of the composer- Geopolymetrcisms- today's trends might suggest the need for something a bit more poetic. A good standby is to title your pieces beginning with a "... and." This helps to convey how badly you would like to win competitions, as well as how deep and mysterious your thoughts are, as though they are constantly on-going and the listener just happens to pass by mid-sentence. (Example: ... and how deep and mysterious ). It really works well with almost any sentence. (... and with almost any sentence ... )

5. Don't write slow music. What is this, the middle ages? Nobody has time for this. When the panel pops in your demo CD, you have about 10 seconds to keep them listening. This is achieved by showing how many notes and extended techniques you can fit in in 10 seconds, not by boring them to death with some long slow build to a climax.

By following these few simple steps, you will be well on your way to greater competition success. And should you find yourself discouraged by the competition circuit, you can always try your hand at Popular Music, where the best music always makes the most money and the most culturally important achievements are recognized annually at the Grammys.

27 comments:

  1. Title for my next composition, inspired by this article: Phenylketonuric (only because I can't pronounce it),

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  2. Nonsense. Without bowed vibraphone, crotales are NOTHING.

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  3. Don't forget about artistic photos or drawings on cover pages, of obscure things with tangential relations to the title or program of the piece.

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  4. That's so right on the money, Ben! And hilarious, too. Thank you!

    After being told twice that I needed to be signed in to WordPress, even though I already was, and then having Google try to set up a Blogger account for me, I am finding commenting on here as difficult as winning a composition competition. Last try, and then I give up...

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  5. I owe you several beers for this post!

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  6. Hilarious (and sad) because it's 100% true

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  7. Run out of ideas? Try this... http://stealthispiece.com

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  8. Didn't someone write some software to do all this for me?

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  9. WONDERFUL!
    Ana Cervantes
    Pianist

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  10. Brilliant - but you've missed a couple of tricks. Don't forget to invent new symbols for common techniques like pizzicato, sul ponticello etc. It'll drive the players mad but you get to write a whole page of instructions before you have to think up any music.

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  11. Don't forget the importance of looks. If you're not good-looking, get a nose job, toupé, wig, boob job, whatever it takes. Have a professional photographer take a photo of you in a cable-knit sweater leaning against a weathered New England barn, staring off into the autumn landscape. Every orchestra manager knows they can't lure in new young audience members with an orchestra-brochure photo of some balding, bespectacled grump in an ill-fitting tweed jacket.

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  12. As you'll no doubt be mentioning it frequently with members of the competition jury, you'll want to make sure your composition's title can be registered as a legal domain name. As an example, "Yes, as you know the piece is based on the largest known prime number. For further insight on the serialization process I used, go to www.primalconjecture.edu"

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  13. Sad but true. Point 3 is perhaps the most important point. Professors and sometimes other composers believe music must be really complex to be "good." But composers are often throwing away their music's charm and accessibility for the sake of trying to impress people with sophistication.

    This is why I stopped entering most contests. I asked myself, "why do I care what these composers think of my music if they can't judge good music themselves?"

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  14. “Congratulations Ben Phelps!! Thank you so much for taking the time to share this exciting information.”
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  18. ...and if you are a woman then you need to use a male pseudonym

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