Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Value of Accolades, and a Personal Anecdote…

In my previous entry (Winning and Losing as Impostors), I wrote about the competitive aspect of composition — namely commissioning and composition competitions — and suggested that success as a composer can be measured in many meaningful ways that go far beyond the binary options of "winning" or "losing." Measuring your value as a composer by how many prizes or commissions you have won or not won seems an unproductive strategy; better to focus on making every composition as good as it can be, and getting your music performed, both of which are within your control. Think of any further accolades earned by your music as a bonus.

That said, I do not suggest that accolades are without worth for composers, however; "winning" can bring significant cachet to a composer. Like it or not, having other organizations or individuals stamp their seal of approval on your work can be very beneficial. Here are just a couple of reasons:
  1. The Official Sanctioning / Emperor's New Clothes syndrome.

    There are no absolute measures by which to judge a composition. We like it or we don't, a lot or a little. It moves us, sometimes to tears, or it leaves us cold. It angers us, or brings us joy. It makes us think about stuff, or it lulls us into a trance… and so on. Why and how it does any of these things is a bit of a mystery; if it were simple, then any composer could move audiences like a puppet-master pulling the strings of a marionette, and the fact is that even the best composers do not always achieve success when composing a work [good topic for future blog post: Famous Composer Flops].

    Given this, if a prestigious organization gives its "official" sanction to a composer by awarding a prize or a commission, it can make a favourable impression on people who can facilitate composers' careers by programming, recording, or broadcasting their music, or hiring them, in the case of composers who do what I do (teach at a university). A music director (someone who programmes music for concerts) might not love a particular composer's music, but if that composer has recently won some really big prizes, that music director may be more likely to programme a new work by that composer on their concert series.

    It has also been my experience that awards, prizes, and commissions are factors (among many others) in ranking applicants to academic positions. Very intelligent people who probably self-identify as critical (i.e., independent) thinkers are not immune to the charms of "official sanctioning" (i.e., winning prestigious prizes and awards). Whether this is right or wrong is irrelevant; the point is that many people in positions to boost the careers of composers by performing, recording, broadcasting, commissioning, etc. their music, or hiring them, or giving them positive reviews in the paper and electronic media, are impressed by prizes, awards, and commissions. This makes them desirable and valuable to composers.

  2. The "Emperor's New Clothes" part of this syndrome (as I am calling it) is simply this: If some "powers that be" declare something to be true (e.g., this composition is great), it doesn't necessarily make it true (e.g., the composition isn't necessarily great).  I have heard "wonderful," prize-winning works that I didn't understand, or didn't like; I have heard works that received few or no accolades that I thought were really good. But whether or not we feel a composition is worthy of the prize it received, if the "emperor" (prestigious organization that awards prizes) decrees that it is excellent, then, in the minds of many who can facilitate composers' careers, it is excellent.

  3. "Winning," in any sense of the word, provides external validation for what we do as composers. It is essential that we as composers believe in ourselves — external validation ought not to be necessary — but let's face it: For most of us, there are times when we doubt ourselves, and for times like these, some external recognition of our work is great positive reinforcement.

    Here's a personal anecdote (for which I apologize in advance!): I was a relatively late-starter in classical music, and only began studying music composition in my mid- to late-twenties.  When I turned thirty, I had, unsurprisingly, not won anything, and I thought I would no longer have an opportunity to win anything, since any composition competitions that I knew about had an age limit of thirty. This depressed me; I felt like my ship had sailed.

    A few years after that, a new, much hyped competition was started by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, part of their mid-winter, massive new-music festival, and the age limit for that was thirty-five. This gave me new hope, and I entered, but didn't win. The following year, I spent more time on my application (more on this soon… possibly in my next blog), and submitted one of the movements of my doctoral thesis. This was my last shot at it, since I had just turned thirty-five. As it turned out, luck was on my side, and I was picked to be one of five finalists. Being picked was a big deal; they flew finalists out to Winnipeg, put us up in a fancy hotel, gave us tickets to all music festival events, fed us (I think), involved us in interviews and numerous other activities during the week, and we were guaranteed a nice monetary prize just for being a finalist. Oh, and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra played your composition in an evening concert, which was broadcast nationally in Canada. It was all very exciting.

    At the time, I had been hired on a one-year contract by this university, and I knew there would be a tenure-track position in composition open for the following year, to which I would be applying. Knowing that I would likely be competing for this job against applicants who had won multiple prizes, and that this was my last shot at winning something, the timing of this news was amazingly fortunate.

    I remember getting the phone call from Winnipeg, which came late one day while I was in my university office, probably doing what I spend about 50% of my waking hours doing (slight exaggeration, but only slight!), which is correcting student work in music theory. In my usual understated way, I responded with something like, "oh, that's great news," but apparently without sufficient enthusiasm, because the guy I was talking to said at one point, "you don't sound very excited by this… you ARE excited, aren't you?"

    Well, gentle reader, take my word for it, I WAS excited — I was over-the-moon excited, but I just don't usually gush around strangers — so I politely assured him of my enthusiasm, and, after ironing out a few more particulars, we hung up.

    And then… What to do? How to express what I was feeling? After a lifetime of looking in from the outside, was I finally getting a shot at being on the inside?  I burst out of my office door, looking for anybody with whom I could share my news — didn't matter who — literally jumping for joy as I bounded down the hallway of the School of Music, noticing for the first time that I was able to jump high enough to touch the ceiling tiles with my head. I resolved to curtail my enthusiasm somewhat, lest I damage the ceiling.

    As it turned out, there was nobody at work. Back then, my colleagues went home in the evenings, presumably to enjoy a meal with their families, but I was without family, and most of my time was spent at work, and thus I was alone in the building. So, after completing my crazy hallway sprint, I just shuffled back to my office to return to my marking, no longer jumping like an excited puppy with spring-loaded legs, but still very, very happy.

    But why was I so happy? Well, that's easy; in addition to thinking that this news improved my chances of getting the tenure-track professor job that I really wanted, it was the first time I had received external validation for my music beyond an occasional comment by a teacher to the effect of, "well, I guess that's okay…," and, while I maintain that one ought not to need this sort of thing, I wasn't exactly getting it anywhere else (no parents or loved ones to say nice things about my music), so it sure felt great to get it!

    As a postscript to this tale, another Canadian competition began that year for composers aged thirty-five and under, run by the Hamilton Philharmonic. It was surrounded by considerably-less hoopla than Winnipeg's competition, but they offered a desirable prize nonetheless: Four composers would have their music workshopped and performed by the orchestra. Once again, luck was on my side, and a piece of mine was picked. I have no idea whether or how much these two events influenced the decision to hire me as a tenure-track professor at the end of the year, but I got the job, and I'm still here, twenty-two years later. Still marking student theory work a lot of the time…
So, don't let winning or losing define you as a composer, but be aware that accolades can be very valuable to your career, in large part because they can open doors for you. Know also that there are many successful composers who have never won anything, so fight discouragement (or, better yet, pick yourself up and dust yourself off!) if you do not win.

And finally, lest it seem that I am suggesting that winning prizes is some kind of panacea for composers, there are many prize winners who have not parlayed their winnings into long careers — it takes a lot more than prizes to become a successful composer — and there are many living composers who became successful without winning any major prizes. At best, prizes can boost careers, but more commonly, I think, they are a pat on the back, and that's something we could also use from time to time.

In my next post, I will write about some experiences I have had as an adjudicator, and offer some advice as to how to improve your odds of doing well in competitions.


Evan Smith said...

I really enjoyed your anecdote! I can completely sympathize with you. A few years ago I began to realize that the most important thing is, of course, having talent and working hard to refine it. I soon realized these were not the only important things. A lot of this business is who you know, and, (in getting jobs from those people who you know), what you've done.

I remember this every time I make the unfortunate descent into my documents folder and edit my Resume. It's interesting to look at, because I think we all have things we've done that we forget about, but more interesting perhaps, are the events/awards/experiences you've had that you thought paramount to have on your resume, and the next time you return to it, you take them off. In the grand schemes of things, these once very important awards, (like a $25.00 Pizza Delight gift certificate for Best folk song in the 2003 Buchans Music Festival) are no longer relevant at all.

Pat said...

I agree with the you that external validation can sometimes be necessary. I find that accomplishing anything in life eventually comes down to mindset and attitude.

Michelle said...

I wonder, as I have never been commissioned nor taken part in a composition competition (though I did submit to Arts and Letters on a bit of a whim), do you find that these "artificial" situations increase your creative drive as a composer (the pressure is on!) or hinder the natural, organic progression of ideas? It's a musing that I've heard tossed around in the school of music -- that having to compose a for a specific instrumentation, ensemble, style, duration, etc. in classes is a hinderance to the creative process. Personally, as a newbie composer, I appreciate some structure, but I do wonder if it ever gets tiresome. Are there any biases in the world of composition against composing for competitions/comissions rather than "art of its own sake"?

I find it interesting that, when attempting to discern some sense of how to define a composition qualitatively, the first object of measure is whether it moves us or not. I have often wondered if this is not why people are so slow to find their love for contemporary classical music -- is it less likely to move the soul than a lush, Classical string quartet? Can we appreciate something without really liking it? I think so... While I harbour a deep appreciation for Schoenberg's piano music, it is really not my cup of tea -- not something I might put on the stereo on a Sunday afternoon around the house. Much of it is technical, virtuosic, and impressive, but it generally does not evoke an emotion the same way a Beethoven bagatelle or a Chopin nocturne or even an Ives sonata might.

I too appreciate the anecdote! I remember the few (very few) years that I actually felt confident performing in the Kiwanis music festival, only to lose to the same people as I had lost to every year, going home disappointed, in awkward silence in my parent's car (to say nothing of tears shed in the venue's restroom...) until finally, as an older (and hopefully more mature and self-aware, maybe?) university student, I realized that it was never really the external competition that mattered, but rather the desire to achieve more personally. Not to say that some external encouragement wouldn't have been nice...

Evan Harte said...

Quote: "We like it or we don't, a lot or a little. It moves us, sometimes to tears, or it leaves us cold. It angers us, or brings us joy. It makes us think about stuff, or it lulls us into a trance… and so on. Why and how it does any of these things is a bit of a mystery". I think you have partially answered this mystery in this very paragraph! My belief, probably one of many answers to the mystery of how music does these things to us, is that it makes us think about stuff, as you have said. I think that a big part of it is that we are reminded of a certain person, place, event, or thing that is important to us when we hear music. Whether it is a melody, a rhythmic figure in the music etc., it is able to access our memories or our thoughts and this often leads to various emotions.

Andrew Noseworthy said...

What an interesting anecdote! I don't see what would call for an pre-apology of it! I also must say I enjoy how these recent few blogs have been focused towards the concepts of the validation or successes of pieces and how to measure them. While St John's does certainly have it's music scene (and a good one at that), I still feel it's a place where it's hard to be aware of what is going on, especially in new music, elsewhere. We are encouraged often to submit to different things but many composers and performers around (myself included) do not always have an idea of what to compare our work to, or if we should at all. So speaking about the ups and downs of these validation of aspects can prove very useful.

I actually find this anecdote pretty inspiring. Even though most of us pursuing a career in composition are aware that before 30 you are still considered a young composer and successes in this career can come much later, there can still be a feeling of uncertainty after finishing this degree. For many people who are not musicians, it seems strange to them that careers would not come almost immediately after finishing your education. Which often makes me feel pretty pressured about what's going to happen once I finish my education. Pressure can be a good thing however, as it can drive you towards successes, but it can also sometimes make you feel like those successes are not possible.

I seem to be going on for a while with a comment (as usual) but I should say that anecdote was inspiring for me as it says that successes can come at any time but also that it is never too late for things to work out. It all seemed to work out and is still going well for you! Thanks!

Luke said...

I think that other people's opinions are very important to me as a composer, and often it's through the advice of others that some of my best work comes out in the end. One of the most beneficial things about getting other opinions is the knowledge that colleagues possess and how I might glance over something that may be blatantly obvious to someone else. To look at my compositions with an outside perspective is often something I dismiss at first and just assume it's good enough for my standards when in reality it more often than not isn't. That's one of the benefits of having someone with an outside opinion take a listen to my work. I sometimes like to play my music for some peers that have no musical knowledge and ask things like "is this boring you yet?" or "did that surprise you?" and most of the time their response echoes my own and I have to return to the drawing board. Another point discussed is the idea of evoking emotions in music as a sign of a successful piece of music, which is something I don't think about much, but rather I think "does it sound the way I want it to sound", instead of "does it sound sad enough? or triumphant enough?". I think the idea that successful pieces of music don't have to be evocative emotionally, but have to speak on a more basic level and communicate directly with what's at the core of the piece.

Andre McEvenue said...

I very much enjoyed reading this blog post. I guess it's not something I myself have ever expressed, but having some kind of validation for your work does feel good. And especially if are creating in a style that is obscure to the average person.

At this point in my experience, I am curious of how my work would be judged in a competition. I suppose it's not healthy to obsess over this, but I think most people wonder from time to time how their work compares to that of other composers in the bigger picture. There are, after all, a lot of good living composers out there.

I do think it's best not to compare yourself to others if you can avoid it. (unless you are doing so objectively to learn and grow) But at the same time, with competitions being such an integral part of the career path, it is hard to banish such a human impulse.

Kassandra-Anne Demers said...

I’ve never enjoyed the idea of entering competitions. There’s enough competition out there as it is. Plus, I couldn’t agree more about the issue of how can you judge anything in music. It seems so ambiguous to judge music since so much of it is based on personal taste. However, entering competitions is a great way to get your music out there and like you stated it could open new doors. I enjoyed reading your views on this issue; especially the importance on external validation. I’m also a late starter in classical music and can sympathize with the feeling of trying to catch up to the rest of the crowd that started at a much earlier age.

Jack Etchegary said...

I feel as if each accolade one receives opens a new door for a composer. The amount of accolades, as you have mentioned, that a composer has received definitely has an impact on the chances of that composer receiving another accolade. All of that being said, I think that the encouragement and joy that this acknowledgment brings to a composer is just as important as the acknowledgment itself. This sort of reward can have a huge impact on one's self esteem and courage regarding their compositions. Like you have mentioned, although the final reward at the end of a composition competition is the biggest accolade for a composer, being a finalist or semi finalist, quarterfinalist, etc... all have rewarding aspects that can greatly influence a composers confidence and charisma towards their own work. I believe that although sometimes composers may not succeed as far as they wished in a competition, each and every achievement no matter how small is important for a composer in order to encourage them to keep trying, and hopefully be more successful the next time around.