Saturday, November 30, 2013

Experiences as an Adjudicator — Part 1

Today's post relates to experiences I have had as a competition judge or commissioning jury member, with suggestions on how to strengthen your application. There will be no "magic bullets" in my advice; it's all stuff you likely know already, but there were aspects to these adjudication experiences that surprised me.

1.  The best piece does not always win. Before elaborating, let me point out the obvious: Different judges routinely disagree as to what constitutes the 'best' composition in a competition; if one judge thinks a piece is the best and it does not win, while other judges feel a different piece is best and it does win, it does not mean that the best piece did not win.  That would be sour grapes…

An example of what I mean took place on an occasion in which another jury member and I independently concluded that piece X was the strongest submission (for me, nothing else was even close), but a third jury member argued that piece X should be disqualified because it exceeded the difficulty level specified in the competition rules. I couldn't really argue with that — this was a valid point — and piece X was indeed removed from consideration. The same thing happened to several of the other pieces I thought were really good.  The piece that ultimately won stayed within the stated difficulty level, but frankly, while competent, I did not think it was a particularly strong or inspired composition.

We wanted to offer encouragement to the composer of piece X, and so the jury requested that it be communicated to the composer that we thought very highly of that piece, but we considered it to be beyond the difficulty level stated in the regulations.

In most competitions, however, no communication is made to losing composers beyond informing them that they did not win, which leaves composers wondering about things such as:

  • Did I came close to winning? 
  • Was there a technical/procedural reason, such as a rules violation, that I did not win?
  • Did anyone have anything good to say about my piece?
  • Did I have any chance whatsoever of winning?
  • If not, then why that was the case?
  • Do they not like the kind of music I write (i.e., is the problem stylistic preference)?
  • Am I a bad composer?
 I have always found this frustrating as a composer; how do you improve if you don't know why you didn't win?
Conclusion: Read the rules carefully and try to abide by them. If are considering not submitting a composition because it violates a rule, or submitting it anyway and hoping for the best, I would suggest the latter. Who knows, some juries might have made piece X their consensus choice irrespective of any perceived rule violation, simply because it was so much better than the other submissions. Just don't be surprised if you don't win due to a rule violation. [This advice depends on the rule in question, however; if, for example, you exceed the age limit, or the competition is for a specific ensemble type, such as orchestra or wind band, and your piece is for a different ensemble, it is probably a waste of time to enter the competition.]
2.  Some of the compositions that moved me the most did not make it very far in the adjudication process; they were eliminated fairly quickly because other judges did not rate them sufficiently highly. Many times, the winning piece is one that looks and sounds spectacular, while compositions that move me in a more profound way get eliminated, perhaps because they lack sufficient "wow factor" for some judges. I don't really know what "wow factor" is, and it is probably different for different judges, but this is how I would describe it, as it applies to me:
"Wow factor" entails having a reaction of favourable surprise –as in, "Wow! I wasn't expecting that, and it's very cool!" Not "Wow! That was totally predictable!" – at one or more points during the composition. It can also be a reaction to the visual appearance of the score; I sometimes have this reaction the moment I open a score to the first page (I experienced this the first time I saw the score to Stravinsky's The Firebird, for example), often because the attention to detail is exceptional, and/or there are orchestrational, textural, or compositional aspects that are immediately engaging, surprising, or even puzzling.
I Didn't Win They Don't Like My Composition 
• Here's what you should read into not winning, if you wish to explore a deeper meaning: It means you didn't win!  
It does not necessarily mean the judges thought poorly of your submission. Judges often really like many of the compositions that don't win. They sometimes engage in heated debates about the merits of specific pieces… Perhaps yours was one that judge 'A' really liked, but judge 'B,' a loutish individual with a history of getting his/her way, had a temper tantrum because he liked some other piece more than yours, and so judge 'A' went along with judge 'B' simply to avoid further drama. 
→ Do not read meaning into not winning!   
Potentially-Faulty Conclusion: You may conclude from this that in order to win a big prize, you need to write flashy, high "wow-factor," fashion-forward (whatever that means!) music, but it's really hard to predict judges' stylistic preferences — different juries have different tastes, and even the same jury's interpersonal dynamic can change from one moment to the next! — so changing your composition style in order to accommodate imagined stylistic preferences seems a strategy of dubious merit.

That said, I am always trying to get my composition students to try new things — it's like trying clothing styles you would never normally consider and being surprised to discover some that turn out to look pretty good on you — so I don't think it's necessarily a bad idea to try writing a few pieces that are flashy and yet fantastic (whatever that means!), in an attempt to grab the listeners attention and take them on a wild but satisfying ride, if you've never tried something like this before. 
3.  Play early! Play often! If you buy a lottery ticket, you know that there is very little chance you will win. But so what? You buy it anyway — it's only a few dollars — and hope for the best. If you want to double your odds of winning, you can buy two. When you lose, you probably don't mind too much; you just toss out the ticket and try again another time, presumably in part because you're pretty secure in the knowledge that you can't win unless you buy a ticket, and it doesn't really cost you all that much to do so. (Gambler's Anonymous disclaimer: If you are a compulsive gambler, do not buy even one lottery ticket! However, it's probably okay to enter composition competitions, if you wish. Especially if they are free.)

Well, the same is true of composition competitions or commissioning juries; if you submit applications on a regular basis, you will have a better chance at winning than if you submit a few. "That's pretty obvious," you might be thinking, and you would of course be right, but the point of this advice is that you never know what a jury is looking for because every jury is different (normally, anyway), and you might just have a piece that they would have loved, had you submitted it! I can't state this strongly enough: You just don't know what different juries will like. I have been on juries where a piece I had thought would go far in the process didn't, and a piece that I thought would be eliminated early almost won.

Freaky things can happen when you put a group of human beings in a room to try to come to an agreement, I tell you! Chaos theory applies to human behaviour! Especially in juries!

Another benefit of the "enter often" advice is that sometimes, particularly in the case of competitions that are not particularly well-known, they don't get many applications and so the winning submission just happens to be the strongest in a relatively-weak pool.

The downside of this advice is the cost associated with it — it costs money to print and bind scores, burn CDs, buy padded envelopes, and pay for postage — but it's not usually prohibitive. Sometimes there is an entry fee as well, and these can be very expensive, so I don't generally recommend entering competitions with an entry fee of more than about $20. If it is much higher than that, the cynic in me wonders if it a cash-grab by the organization running the competition, particularly when they pull stunts like not awarding a first-place prize.

4. "Technical problems" significantly lower your chances of winning. These include:
  • Scores that are sloppy, and difficult to read; 
  • Scores that lack sufficient attention to detail (e.g., inconsistent or infrequent use of dynamics, articulations, bowings, slurs, or instructions for the performer (if any are needed));
  • Scores with lots of detail, but some of the details don't make sense (e.g., staccatos over half notes, bowings or wind-instrument slurs that are impossibly long, crescendi or diminuendi that are unreasonably long (e.g., going from mf to f over four bars at a moderate tempo), or performer instructions that are not immediately comprehensible);
  • Scores that are unidiomatic for performers; it is possible to write difficult/challenging music that is idiomatic, perhaps even pushing the boundaries of what performers can do (although I personally don't recommend pushing these boundaries, since they have been pushed pretty far already!), but unidiomatic writing suggests that the composer just does not understand how to write well for those performers;
  • Mediocre or missing recordings. Getting good recordings of your compositions can be a challenge, but they are absolutely essential to the success of your submission. Ideally, you would submit an excellent recording of the piece played by good musicians, and not a computer-generated MIDI realization. Occasional adjudicators have a deep prejudice against computer-generated audio recordings, even though it is possible to make high-quality computer renditions of music these days. I would therefore suggest that if you MUST submit a computer-generated audio file (because you don't have a good-quality live performance recording), spend lots of time producing a high-quality product (this may necessitate buying a good-quality sound sample library).
Conclusion: A well-prepared submission has a shot at going far in the process; an average or poorly-prepared one has very little chance. This isn't exactly earth-shattering news, but not everyone seems to realize how important this is. Juries often have to sift through dozens or even hundreds of submissions, usually with time limits on the process; a natural way to make initial cuts is to remove submissions that are faulty in any way, such as a less-than-professional score, no recording, poor or mediocre recording, good recording but lousy performance, or an important rule not followed (see #1 above for more on this). 
5. Commissioning juries are a slightly different kettle of fish. All of the above applies to commissioning juries as well, but there are some differences, all of which should be made clear in the programme guidelines of the commissioning programme to which you are applying. My main advice is to read them carefully, paying particular attention to:

  • Eligibility;
  • The project description. This is supposed to be written by the performer(s), ensemble, or organization that wishes to commission you, but it is a good idea for the composer to work with the commissioner in crafting the project description; some performers ask the composer to write it, and then run it by the commissioner (i.e., performer(s)).

    You may wish to get help with this from someone who has written successful commissioning applications. You can also get help from the arts council officer(s) assigned to the programme to which you are applying; providing help is part of their job description.

    The Canada Council has a 750-word maximum for project descriptions, which is a lot of words. I can only assume that they are looking for a well-written document with as much detail as possible. Beyond that, I think (but don't know for sure) that projects to which greater "prestige" is attached do better than those with less, but "prestige" is, like art, in the eye of the beholder, and thus hard to define. However, I think (once again) that a commissioning project for a performer that is not well-known and never tours will probably be ranked lower than a project for a performer, ensemble, or orchestra with an international reputation (ideally a positive one😉) that plans on playing the commissioned work many times in well-respected public venues. Which brings me to…
  • Possibilities of repeat performances. It is very important to address this, even if not specifically requested. The percentage of new works that were only performed once is depressingly high, and many arts councils would prefer not to shell out a lot of money for such projects. Work with the performer(s) to explore opportunities for repeat performances. Consider exploring the possibility of having multiple commissioners, such as three different string quartets that can each commit to performing your work multiple times. Include details, such as dates and venues for each of the planned performances.
  • The Canada Council states that the committee will assess applications on the following criteria:
    • the quality of the composer’s work (and the librettist’s work, where this applies)
    • the quality of the project, including the merit of the proposed commissioner-composer partnership, and the proposed interpreters’ performing skills and musicianship
    • the context and projected impact of the proposed performances
    • the possibility of repeat performances and further dissemination of the proposed composition.
  • The quality of the composer's work is presumably as important as anything else on that list, and so your job as a composer is to demonstrate this by submitting strong support materials, such as the required number of scores and recordings (usually two), which must be of excellent quality (see #4, above), a strong resumé highlighting your compositional achievements of the specified length (for the Canada Council it is 2 pages; if not specified, I would not exceed 2 pages, because the review committee doesn't have time to look through resumés that are longer than that), and a list of your compositions (ideally with performance information listed, such as dates, venues, and performers), not exceeding 4 pages for the Canada Council.
  • I recommend submitting scores and recordings that have a connection to the project described in the application, if possible — If you wish to be commissioned to write an orchestral piece, for example, it would be good to show you know how to write for orchestra by submitting one you have already written — unless doing so somehow reflects badly on you (e.g., a student work that wasn't very good, the recording is terrible, the score isn't in great shape, etc.).
  • If there is a particular section of the score/recording that you want the jury to hear first, indicate this in the clearest possible terms, e.g., "Please play recording from 4'33", which corresponds with bar 189, p. 12 of score X." Not all juries will follow your wishes, but many will.
6. The main common denominator to all of this advice is: Take the time necessary to make an excellent application. Imagine how much time you will need to do this, and then double it or triple it… It requires tremendous effort to make a strong application, from making sure your scores and recordings are as good as they can possibly be, to working with the commissioner to discuss performance dates, venues, and expectations, to the actual application itself. No matter how long I spend on these things, I always find myself wishing I had spent more time on them.

See part 2 of this entry, in response to some comments (below) on the frustrations of not getting feedback from adjudicators.


Evan Smith said...

Its great to hear this from the other side (i.e. adjudicator). I've never entered a composition competition, but in all competitions it is true that, those who don't not win are often never told what the issues were, how to improve upon it, etc...

This is an unfortunate learning curve because as you said, how can they improve to do better next time?

Robert Godin said...
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Evan Harte said...

I have never been in a composition competition as of today. However, I can imagine how awful it must feel to have a piece in a competition, have it lose, and not know why. I think all adjudicators should do what you have done, dr. Ross. It really would be nice to know that my piece had been highly considered even if it had lost!

Clark Ross said...

I was on a Manitoba Arts Council jury once, and the arts council officer took notes on every decision we made so that he would be able to explain the decision to unsuccessful applicants, should they call or write him. I think many composers don't realize that you can do this, when it comes to commission grant applications — I certainly didn't before then — but I would highly recommend that any composer turned down by an arts council follow up with the appropriate officer to find out why they were turned down, and what they can do to improve their chances of being successful next time they apply.

Composition prizes, however, are different; as a jury member, your job is to sift through all the scores and recordings to try to identify a winner, and since you can have over 100 submissions to evaluate, asking jury members to critique each non-winning piece would be very onerous. Getting a critique of your piece from judges could be valuable for the composers, of course.

On the other hand, I have seen some of the critiques written by the Newfoundland Arts and Letters Awards judges, and I have never seen anything that was remotely insightful. This is not a criticism of A & L judges (I have been a judge for them); I think it is just a reflection of the fact that, in order to write a meaningful critique of a composition, you need to spend a significant amount of time with it, and there simply is not sufficient time to do this for most competition judges.

For deeper insight into your compositions, don't be shy about asking composition professors or other successful composers. The worst that can happen is that we say no, probably because we are too busy, but if we say yes, I will suggest that you are more likely to get meaningful comments and suggestions than you would from adjudicators who only have about 5-10 minutes (if that) to spend looking at your piece.

Michelle said...

Regarding the first anecdote, that is a very interesting conundrum. If the winner -- who wrote a decent piece that stayed within the competition's guidelines -- had flouted the entry rules with the same ambivalence as the other composers, could his/her piece have been as strong as the others? As a total square when it comes to rules (not that you'd know it, considering how melodic my piece-without-a-tune turned out to be...), I would probably be that entrant who, if not for your stickler colleague, would be left sitting at home as a sulky grump after losing to someone who threw caution to the wind, guidelines be damned, and wrote a piece that exceeded the required difficulty level.

The question of "wow factor" is an interesting one as well, as it goes back to the idea of playing with expectation that has been explored on this blog (and I'm sure in the minds of all composers). It doesn't seem as simple as a work just being virtuosic, but I think that's definitely a factor... and preferably, something new and bold while still being pleasing to the ears -- a tall order to fill! Another point to add to the conclusion of this topic: I feel like the temporal position of your piece in the adjudicator's day could also have potentially extreme consequences. I know from marking exams that I tend to go harder on the ones on top of the pile; then as I slowly realize that half the class is failing, I lighten up a bit -- oh okay, that was NEARLY the right answer, here have half a mark, I can tell that you've tried! And with papers, the opposite might be true. The more times I type out "c.s. this comma is unnecessary/should be a semicolon/you should start a new sentence," the less likely I am to let one slide. Adjudicators are people too, and they get hungry and cranky like the rest of us. It certainly isn't a reason to go making excuses for oneself for every loss (which would be detrimental to one's progress as a composer), but for those that have a tendency toward self-deprecation, it can lighten the load a little.

Mitchell wxhao said...

Responding to mention of the Arts and Letters Judges, I have an anecdote: The second time I submitted a piece for the competition, I didn't win, and my score came back with nothing but praise. Though I appreciated the praise, I still wanted to win a competition, so the praise didn't really help me beyond "Do that more" and I still did not know what was really "wrong" with the piece. So I agree that it's probably not worth the while to overthink not winning. Sometimes you just don't win.

Andrew Noseworthy said...

Continuing along the journey of composition competition themed blogs there is now a blog from the other side! A lot of these suggestions do seem a little obvious at first, but reading them described by a past adjudicator complete with little anecdotes of past situations makes them hit home a little more.

The main part of my comment here though, will be echoing Mitchell's comment below. I recently received an adjudication back from a competition I did not win, that contained nothing but praise. I guess my immediate thoughts were, "so why did I not win then?". In the end, it really may always depend on the situation, and not always on the quality of the piece. Still, I would of liked to have some sort of feedback in the way of criticism. I think I'm always looking for some sort of criticism on my work, even if it wins something. I'm a pretty big believer in the idea of always being able to improve and progress. This occasion with this composition was especially irritating though, as I knew there was definitely things to be improved and I just wished the adjudicator had often some sort of suggestions!

Andre McEvenue said...

I have received comments from adjudicators before that I felt were not very insightful. I agree that interpreting a new composition does take a significant amount more time than assessing a performance of a piece from the standard repertoire.

I also agree that it is important not to base your value of your own work on the result of a competition. There are just too many factors at play.

In a way, I think that critique is something that the composer must seek out him/herself if it is desired. Given the time constraints of the competition adjudication process, I feel that less than useful comments are a commonality.

Brad said...

I think the most important thing to take away from this is that don't let not winning something detract value from the music you've written.

Doing theatre and that, I have been to many auditions and most of them are not going to result in you getting the part--it's not that you're not good enough, it's that you're not quite what they're looking for. They have a specific idea and if you don't look the part--it's not you.

Like you said, perhaps you didn't appeal to the tastes of some of the judges with your piece. It doesn't mean it's a bad piece.

Maybe there could be at least some sort of honours system within the competitions whereby even if you did not win but wrote a great piece, there would be a certain number of 'honourable mentions' that would get actual constructive feedback. Not everyone, just those who made the cut.

Brad said...
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Andrew Gale said...

Although I have not participated in a composition composition, I can appreciate the uncertainty that one could possibly feel in a situation where he/she did not win or receive feedback from the jury. In any event, it is easy to say that it would be wise to take the extra time to work on all details/aspects of your submission before actually submitting it.

It is unfortunate that there is often no feedback in such competitions, which makes the opportunity to learn from your mistakes challenging. Having said that, hopefully there are other ways around finding a way to receive some sort of feedback on a composition.

Julia Millett said...

I have never entered a composition competition but I have had my fair share of being adjudicated in music festivals. What we need to keep in mind is that we are being adjudicated by another human being. The amount of subjectivity that we must deal with in music is sometimes sickening. The majority of things that we do is based on how what we do is perceived by others.

SO moral of the story: Do not let how other people think of your pieces change how you think about them yourself.

Who knows, maybe in 50 years your piece that was shot down in some comp composition will be considered one of the greats of our time!

Jack Etchegary said...

I have submitted several applications for scholarships and also submitted many applications for grants and funding to record albums with several local bands. These have required recording music, filming videos, creating resumes, itineraries, budgets and many other things. However, I have never submitted a piece into a composition competition and I am unsure if i ever will. There is something very daunting about the process to me, and after reading this post, I believe it is the harsh subjective nature of the jury process that scares me from feeling confident in submitting my compositions to competitions. This I know, of course, is quite counterintuitive based on the main points you have made in this post. I am definitely used to the preparation needed in order to submit a large work such as a composition in order to be judged and critiqued with the hopes of winning a competition. For me, I suppose the next step would be to feel a bit more confident about my chances of being successful in such a scenario. Perhaps if I concentrate on this I will in fact submit a piece into a competition eventually. It would definitely be a good challenge to overcome.