Sunday, December 29, 2013

How can Non-Composers Teach K-12 Composition?

• How do you teach and encourage your students to compose if you have little or no experience composing?

There was a round-table discussion of “creativity in the classroom” at the 2013 Newfound Music Festival, moderated by Professors Andrea Rose and Ki Adams. The audience included music education students and others interested in this topic, and the remaining panel participants were multi-instrumentalist and improviser Paul Bendzsa, ethnomusicologist and "soundsinger" Chris Tonelli, and myself.

This was the ninth consecutive festival with a session on this topic, and the objective every year is to discuss ways in which creativity can be developed and nurtured through teaching music in the public school system, from kindergarten to grade twelve (K-12). As Dr. Rose reminded us, composing is one of the “specific curriculum outcomes” for K-12 in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador (if visiting this link, see page 20).

Therein lies the challenge to be explored in today’s blog. Many school music teachers lack a background in composition; how do such teachers cultivate and facilitate composing and, more generally, creativity in their classrooms?

  • Is it possible to be a good teacher of something in which you have little experience? 
  • Is it possible to be a bad teacher of something in which you are highly skilled?

If you're in a hurry, I'll give you a hint: The answer to both questions is yes.

If you wish to continue reading, then consider this:
  • Teachers are sometimes not experts in the things they teach. Example: About a week before he started his first teaching job, a friend of mine was asked/told to teach physical education, something for which (a) he had no specific qualifications, and (b) no specific skill set. As a child, gym teachers routinely gave up on my friend because he was considered physically unskilled, and, for the most part, he was okay with that; his attitude was he knew it, and they knew it, so why pretend otherwise? Despite this, or perhaps because of this, I understand he became a very good phys. ed. teacher. He researched the best ways to teach and motivate students in kinesiology (also known as human kinetics, or phys. ed. if you prefer old-school terminology), established fitness goals, and found fun ways for his students to reach them. He found ways to encourage and empower kids who had been written off by previous gym teachers, precisely because he had been one of those people.

  • School wind-band teachers are required to have some knowledge of all the instruments of the wind band, but teachers can't necessarily play all (or even any) of the instruments well. They are of course proficient on their main instrument, and they may well be competent in a few others, but for most instruments, they have had very little training or experience. And yet, there they are, teaching our kids how to play these instruments! Is this a problem? Not necessarily. Good teachers find a way to teach basic skills in band instruments, and less-good teachers, for reasons that probably have more to do with pedagogical shortcomings than any lack of proficiency on these instruments, are less successful in this

  • Many school teachers and professors have found themselves in a position of having to teach something in which they had very little training, and some have gone on to become very good at teaching that subject. This is analogous to parenthood, in that nobody has any experience before embarking on it, but some become very good parents despite this, while others don't. One of the ways many people learn best is by doing. 

  • On the other hand, most musicians either know first-hand, or have heard of, cases where a virtuoso performer turned out to be a rather poor teacher of their instrument. Sometimes, the more you struggle in learning something, the better you understand how to teach it, and vice-versa

  • Experience and proficiency in something do not necessarily make you a great teacher. Overcoming obstacles and struggling to achieve proficiency can make you better equipped to helping students overcome their own struggles.
If you are a school music teacher, and you buy into the argument that you don't need to have achieved mastery in something in order to teach it well, here are some ideas that may help in teaching/encouraging composition and creativity, even if your confidence in this area is not high:
  1. Everyone is creative. We too often think of creativity as a "special" thing, a gift, which is bestowed upon some, but not others. This is wrong; we are all creative, but in different ways. In a recent study, 70% of respondents in the United States said they believed the education system stifles creativity. Some people may be more creative than others, but if true, this may be related to the encouragement or discouragement of creative activities experienced while growing up.
  2. “One of the myths of creativity is that very few people are really creative,” said Sir Ken Robinson, Ph.D., an internationally recognized leader in the development of education, creativity and innovation. “The truth is that everyone has great capacities but not everyone develops them. One of the problems is that too often our educational systems don’t enable students to develop their natural creative powers. Instead, they promote uniformity and standardization. The result is that we're draining people of their creative possibilities and, as this study reveals, producing a workforce that's conditioned to prioritize conformity over creativity.” ["Study Reveals Global Creativity Gap"]
  3. Encourage creativity.  Hypothetical situation: A child makes up a tune and plays it for her teacher; consider two different responses:
    • Teacher 1 response: "Well, I guess it's okay, but I've got to be honest and tell you that it really sounds too much like a Justin Bieber song, which makes it unoriginal, and a pretty poor choice of somebody to copy! I'll give you a C-plus for that, 'cause I'm feeling generous today!" The child is discouraged and embarrassed, and either never tries making up a tune again, or if they do, they know enough to not show it to the teacher.
    • Teacher 2 response: "Wow, that's good! And it kind of sounds like Justin Bieber… but better! You should write more songs!" The child feels encouraged, and keeps at it, keeps improving, and eventually finds their own original voice, which, not surprisingly, turns out to be nothing like The Bieb's.

    The act of sharing something you create with someone else makes you vulnerable; you can never be sure how people will react, and for most of us, others' responses matter. Compounding this is the self-doubt that many of us feel when trying something new. Encouraging creative activities for your students is vitally important because it assuages these self-doubts, which in turn makes it more likely that students will want to continue creating things. I think that people who self-identify as "not creative" would not be limiting themselves in this way if they had been encouraged more in their creative activities while growing up.

  4. Originality is overrated, at least in the early stages of learning to compose; avoid over-emphasizing its importance to your students. Sounding like someone else when you start composing is a normal part of the process. Indeed, part of the training that many composers received throughout history was to learn to write music "in the style of" some other composer (Palestrina, Bach, Chopin, Schoenberg, Webern, Messiaen, etc.). In doing this, we learn different techniques, and we may choose to recombine aspects of these techniques in any way we wish when writing our own music. Everyone will find their own voice if they keep at it, but they won't keep at it if they are discouraged. If your students like pop music, then you could make a class project where everyone writes a short song (or even just one verse of a song) in the style of an artist they admire. Students can work in teams if they like, and then perform their songs for one another.

  5. The creative process is often messy. Things we make are usually not very good before they become good. Anyone who composes knows this, I suspect. However, there is a myth about the creative process in which genius composers get their ideas in a flash, or at least relatively effortlessly, perhaps as a gift from the Almighty, and all the genius composer has to do is to take dictation feverishly quickly in order to notate the genius composition. Movies such as "Amadeus" reinforce this absurd notion. It is important to make sure your students know that every "genius" composer that ever lived had periods of struggle during the creative process, especially when they were starting out, and often throughout their creative lives as well. "Amadeus" is entertainment with some factual content, not a documentary. .

  6. Self doubt is normal, both for students and teachers, when attempting something new. Self doubt can be an important part of the creative process: A person attempts to create something, but comes to the "realization" that the thing they are creating is not very good. "This sucks!" they might say to themselves, or to you.

    This "realization," however, may be (a) flawed; it may not "suck" at all, although it could almost certainly be improved, and (b) is a normal occurrence in the creative process, even for experienced creators; it's an illustration of how our perspective can change from day to day on things we create, and an indicator that we need to keep working on our creation in order to improve it. I have written several posts in which perspective is discussed in relation to the creative process, including this one, should you wish to read further.

    As teachers, we can try to ensure that our students know it's okay to doubt ourselves at times, and we can encourage students when this happens. As more experienced musicians than our students (hopefully!), we can suggest some concrete ideas for improvements, such as simplify (texture, harmony, ideas, etc.), repeat, vary earlier ideas, use a simple form like ABA, modulate, try an exotic scale, identify and clarify foreground and background (beginning composers often do not distinguish between the two, making the music sound confused), make it more idiomatic for the performers, and simplify. And simplify. And… Okay, you get it: Simplifying ideas is often a key to improving them!

  7. Critique carefully, and sparingly. I think that people who are just getting started in composition or in any endeavour primarily need encouragement, and, while the role of a teacher typically includes critical assessment, often what we as teachers intend as constructive criticism is received by students as discouragement. I would therefore suggest that any critiquing we offer, which ideally can be very helpful to students, be presented in the most encouraging way possible. Students should feel that they are free to take or leave any suggestions offered.

  8. Don't be afraid to admit you are not an experienced composer; there is no need to present yourself as an "authority" or "master" of composition, even if you are! Students, even at the university level, often respond well to a comment such as: "I really like your idea there, but I was hoping to hear more of it! Do you think that section could go on a bit longer?" On the other hand, a comment such as, "That section is too short and needs to be extended; what were you thinking?" is likely to alienate people, in part because it sounds like the person saying it is very full of himself. Music is generally written for audiences of non-experts (Milton Babbitt's, "Who Cares if you Listen?" notwithstanding), and non-experts can have very insightful and helpful comments too.

  9. Ask the student if there is any part of their composition that they would like to improve. Or you could ask, "on a scale of one to ten, how do you feel about your piece?" Questions such as these can make the student feel empowered, and they contribute to establishing your role as a helper. Ideally, a student would feel comfortable enough to identify at least some aspect of their composition that could be improved, because that builds a bridge between your role as a helper and their desire to improve their piece; you are both on the same side, and the student needs to know this. If the answer is that the student is fully satisfied with their work, this suggests that the work is either really good or the student does not want to hear anything negative or even constructive about it. In this case, it is best not to press the matter; there is little point in attempting to help someone that does not want help. If you continue to build trust with your students, you may find that some students that were initially closed to your suggestions will gradually become more receptive to them.

  10. Ask class members for suggestions or reactions to each others' pieces. Do this before you say anything about the students' creations, because once the teacher speaks, some students might not wish to say anything if their opinion differs from the teacher's, while others can be swayed by the teacher's words. If no students wish to offer feedback, you could …

  11. Ask specific questions, such as,
    • What do you think of the opening? Does it work for you?
    • Where are some places where the music expresses the meaning of the text really well? 
    • Are there places where the music could better express the meaning of the text? (Possible follow-up: What are some ways of making this happen?)
    • What do you like most about this song/composition?
    • How many different musical ideas are there? Do they all work equally well, or can any be improved? Can any be eliminated?
    If you ask the right questions, many students are happy to give their opinions on things, but they need to know that their opinions are understood, acknowledged, and respected. They also need to know that it is okay for others to disagree with their opinions; different class members might have diametrically opposed opinions on the same question, and that's okay (in fact, it's great!) as long as opinions are expressed as opinions, and diplomatically, e.g., "Maybe I just didn't get it, but I didn't hear a connection between the mood of the poem and the mood of the music," versus "that sucked!", "that was LAME," or "I just didn't like it," etc. Obviously the age and experience of students has a bearing on their ability to articulate specific musical concerns, so if someone says, "I just didn't like it," the teacher could try to follow up with questions to try to narrow this down, such as "what didn't you like?" or "was it too loud?" or "were there some chords that you thought didn't work very well?"

  12. GarageBand. This is perhaps the greatest facilitator of composition for untrained music-lovers ever invented, and I say this as the least-hyperbolic person in the history of the universe! ;)  If your school has Macintosh computers, the computers should already have GarageBand installed. If your school has iPads, GarageBand is available as an iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch app (or sometimes it comes bundled with the iPad). I had this program on my computers for years but never used it until a few years ago, and I quickly came to realize that it is easy to use, even for (especially for) non-musicians, fun, and remarkably powerful.

    Briefly, GarageBand allows multi-track composition by combining any of thousands of pre-recorded (or pre-created) loops in its library (organized by categories, such as drums, guitars, basses, orchestral, country, jazz, world, cinematic, experimental, etc.), each of which can be edited, abridged, or repeated, as desired by the user. It also allows mutli-track recording and editing of live instruments or voice(s) along with these loops, or on their own, and has guitar-amp modelling that "simulates the sounds of famous guitar amplifiers." It can do a lot more, but the exciting and empowering aspect of it for me is that you don't need any knowledge of musical notation, music theory, or even how to play a musical instrument, in order to produce surprisingly-sophisticated compositions.

    My suggestion here is that if your school has access to this app, spend some time fooling around with it, and then get your students working with it. Alternatively, spend no time getting to know it and get your students to figure it out and explain it to you!

  13. Do not force the issue.  Some people insist on defining themselves by their limitations, e.g., I'm not creative; I'm lousy at art (or sports, or math, etc.); I could spend 100 years studying music and never write anything that was any good. Like the old adage, you can lead a camel to water, but you can't make it drink, you can offer choices to your students, but it's up to them to select them or not.

Wow… yet another tome-masquerading-as-blog-post… apologies for the length! :-$

If you would like even more-specific suggestions, consider reading (or referring your students to) a series of posts I wrote on the nuts and bolts of composition from a few years ago called Composition Issues. There is a lot of information available elsewhere on the Internet as well.

And if any of this is helpful, or if you have further suggestions or disagree with any of these suggestions, please leave a comment!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Strike While the Iron is Hot!

The period leading up to a deadline is, for me at least, often very intense… I compose late at night, early in the morning, between classes, while waiting for my kids during their music and dance lessons, all in order to finish a composition on time.

Sounds kind of manic, doesn't it?

I don't think this is a particularly healthy way to live, at least not on a regular basis, but it happens, and when it happens, I have noticed the following:
  • It is stressful;
  • It is exciting;
  • It really gets the creative juices flowing (i.e., the composition is fresh in my thoughts much of the time, which causes ideas to come more easily and frequently); and 
  • When the deadline has successfully been met, the excitement and flow of creative ideas continue.
Excitement and stress are important parts of the creative process. If you have ever been stuck, and anyone who has made a regular habit of creating things has probably experienced this at some point, you know how painful it can be. Often, it takes an imminent deadline to become "unstuck" again.

I think that two of the main causes for "writer's block" are:
  1. Extreme self-censorship (we become too self-critical); or
  2. Loss of focus, for which there can be many causes, such as:
The pressure of an imminent deadline can force us to become less self-critical and to become more focussed. On the other hand, the weight of too much stress can squash us like a bug, but lets not go there…  :-/ 

Becoming less self-critical and more focussed can unblock impediments to creativity, many of which may be self-imposed, allowing us to move forward with our composition or whatever work in which we are engaged.

What do you do after the deadline has been met?

I find that after the deadline has passed, my brain continues to be in "hyper-creativity" mode, meaning I have lots of ideas, I continue to wake up early, and I have a general urge to create things, be they compositions, blog entries, story ideas, music theory handouts, or anything else that happens to interest me.

If I do nothing — if I do not act on these creative impulses — I gradually return to my "normal" mode of functioning, and, if I am lucky, I get more sleep while I'm at it!

But there have been times when I have jumped immediately from the completion of one project to the start of another, and this has resulted in an uninterrupted creative flow, which has led to faster and more painless project completions than usual.

Right now, I have finished all school work for this semester, and I have ideas galore for stuff (including today's blog entry), and so my plan is to get busy on a couple of projects right away. Oh, and to finish my Christmas shopping too, of course (which, unusually for me, was almost done a week before Christmas).

In other words… to strike while the iron is hot!

This, I believe, is the basis for Benjamin Franklin's famous adage, "if you want something done, give it to a busy person." He was living proof of this; Franklin is described in Wikepedia as "a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, musician, inventor, satirist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat."

The busier we are, the more efficiently we must work in order to accomplish our tasks. If I return to composing after a protracted period away from it, I often find it very difficult to get started, as if the part of my brain used for composing has dust and cobwebs in it. If I immediately dive into another project after finishing a work, the composition process flows a lot more smoothly.

Let me know if you have experienced anything like this.

Happy creative flowing!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Experiences as an Adjudicator — Part 2

My previous post (Experiences as an Adjudicator) generated a couple of comments about the frustration of not getting feedback from competition judges. If you don't know why you lost, or even how close you came to winning, then how do you know what needs improvement for the next competition you enter?

I can certainly understand feeling this way — there might be some consolation in being told you came close to winning, even if no reasons were given as to why you did or did not win — but it is a complicated issue, provoking questions such as,
  • should competitions provide explanations for their decisions?
  • should they provide critiques of all submissions?
  • is it feasible to do either of these things, and,
  • if the feedback or rationale provided is superficial (which seems likely, given the little time adjudicators have to spend evaluating each composition), is it beneficial to do either of these things?
Here are my thoughts on these matters, and more(!):

1. Some Kinds of Competitions Provide Feedback

I was on a Manitoba Arts Council jury once, and the music officer (i.e., administrator in charge) took detailed notes on every decision we made in order to be able to explain them to unsuccessful applicants, should they call or write. The officer was impressively diligent; if an adjudicator said, "I vote against this because it's a very weak application," the officer would ask for clarity — what exactly was weak about the application — in order to relay useful feedback to the applicant. I think all applicants may have been given some reason for the decision, but further information was only provided when specifically requested.

I suspect many composers don't realize that you can do this, when it comes to commission, project, or travel grant applications — I certainly didn't before then — but I would highly recommend that anyone turned down by an arts council request further information on the decision in order to find out why they were turned down, and what they can do to improve their chances of being successful next time they apply.

I had never done this in the past because I didn't want to come across as "whiny," or "difficult." Plus, I am not a fan of confrontation… However, politely requesting clarification or explanation as to why you were turned down is neither whiny nor difficult if your objective is to learn from the experience ("how do I make a stronger application next time?"), and not to challenge the decision ("you elitist SOBs had no right to turn me down!").

Remember that when dealing with an arts council officer you are dealing with the messenger, not the people who actually made the decision on your application, so be polite, and chances are they will appreciate it and be very helpful.

2. It May be Possible to Challenge a Decision

Many years ago, when I was president of Continuum Contemporary Music in Toronto, our grant application to the City of Toronto Arts Council was turned down because only "professional" organizations could receive funding, and we had been deemed a student organization.

I had spent hours carefully preparing what I thought had been a very strong application, and had read all the rules carefully. We had several doctoral composition students in our group, but we also had non-students, and the only stipulation in the rules on this point was that applicants should have completed their basic training in their area, and have been a practising artist for some minimum period of time, perhaps a year, in order to be considered for a grant.

All of the doctoral students had completed bachelor's and master's degrees, which surely constituted completion of basic training, and we had all received commission grants, had numerous premieres, and many of us had won big prizes. We were mostly in our late twenties or early thirties, and we worked for a living in addition to being doctoral students. I felt strongly that all of this was sufficient to establish that we were active composers who had completed our basic training.

I felt sufficiently indignant that I mustered up the courage to call the arts council (and I am profoundly uncomfortable about talking to people I don't know on the phone!) and politely explained my objections to the stated rationale in the rejection letter. The arts council officer seemed sympathetic, and said he would look into it.

I was subsequently invited to make my case to the top brass of the arts council, and I took my friend and fellow group member, Omar Daniel, with me, and the upshot was that we convinced them that we should not have been turned down. This did not mean that our application could be retroactively funded, since all grant money for that deadline had been spent, but it did mean that our future applications would be eligible for funding, and in fact they did get funded.

3. Is it Feasible to Provide Feedback in Composition Competitions?

Composition competitions are a different kettle of fish; judges must review all submissions in order to identify a winner (or sometimes first, second, and third-place selections), and since there may be over 100 submissions to evaluate, writing a critique for every non-winning piece would be very onerous.

If you are familiar with Kiwanis or Rotary Club music festivals, you know that contestants each receive a written critique from the judge, but these are produced "in real time," meaning the judge engages in "automatic writing" (not really… they just write quickly!) while the performance is taking place, all of which might take just a few minutes. There is an assumption that the critique is aimed at someone in the training stage of their artistic development, and so judges write comments with this in mind. They probably write a lot of the same things over and over again.

One could apply the music-festival model to composition competitions and provide quickly-written critiques of submissions (if the submissions were performed live), but, as mentioned above, this would be very onerous, and quickly-written evaluations might not actually be very helpful to composers, since they are unlikely to be very insightful.

As an example, I have seen a few of the critiques written by the Newfoundland Arts and Letters Awards judges, and they did not generally strike me as being particularly deep. This is not a criticism of Arts and Letters judges; I have been a judge for this competition, and I found it challenging to write constructive critiques, in part because there were so many and so little time, but also because it is a composition competition for all categories of music (folk, pop. rock, jazz, country, world, contemporary classical, etc.), which makes selecting the "best" works across radically-dissimilar categories kind of a silly exercise.

In order to write a meaningful critique of a composition, you need to spend a significant amount of time with it, and there is simply not enough time to do this in most competitions.

4. Getting Past Nuts and Bolts Issues…

"Nuts and Bolts Issues" refer to score-related aspects that are not primarily a matter of opinion, such as clarity of notation, sufficient and logical score details, logical accidental spellings, unidiomatic writing for the performers (although this can be a matter of contention), etc. I wrote three blogs on this topic, if you are interested in reading more:

On musical detail (1)
On musical detail (2)
On musical detail (3)

A challenge for judges in composition competitions, as mentioned in an earlier post (The Value of Accolades…), is that, once you get past nuts-and-bolts issues, there are no absolute measures by which to judge a composition.

I might tell my students that there are too many ideas within one composition, or that ideas are abandoned before reaching their full potential, or there is no climax, or not enough development, because these are values that are common to several centuries of classical music practice, and they are values I would like my students to learn. But that doesn't make them absolute values.

A composer might respond by arguing that the objectives of a particular composition were to write music with many dissimilar ideas, with no development, and no climax, and, if she achieves these goals, then how do you argue that there is anything wrong with that piece? I might not care for it, but not liking something is not an objective basis for judging that thing.

And so we face a dilemma. If there are no absolute measures on which to judge a composition, what value would there be in receiving a critique of your work from someone whose aesthetic tastes differ from yours?

Going back to the practical issue of feasibility for a moment, this is one reason that it takes considerably more time to meaningfully-critique a new composition than it does to evaluate a performance of a work in the standard repertoire. Put another way, it takes more time to process your thoughts about something you have never heard before than it does to adjudicate a work you have heard many times, have probably performed, and taught to your students. This makes the music festival model (writing a stream-of-consciousness evaluation in the few minutes it takes to hear the performance of a work) more challenging for music composition, but not impossible, by any means.

5. For Deeper Insight, Please Call…

For deeper insight into your compositions, don't be shy about asking composition professors or other successful composers you know (or even ones you don't know, if you are willing to summon up some moxie!). You might get turned down, but if we say yes, the feedback you receive may be more meaningful than comments from adjudicators who only have about 5 minutes (if that) to spend evaluating your piece. More time spent appraising something usually results in more meaningful insights than otherwise.

If feasible, try to get in-person feedback on your compositions, as opposed to sending a score to someone and requesting comments (which I don't recommend, unless you made an arrangement ahead of time with someone to do this). This allows the evaluator to interact with the student, and not just issue a pronouncement from on high, as it were. Meeting with a student affords the opportunity to ask questions about the composition, which helps the teacher to understand the composer's mindset and intentions, such as:
  • How satisfied are you with this piece? (If the answer is, "Extremely!", perhaps why are you asking for a critique?).
  • What sections of the composition are least satisfying to you?
  • What were the overall goals for this piece? 
  • Did these goals change in the course of writing the work? In what way? 
  • What are the formal functions of different sections of the piece (e.g., initiation, continuation, contrast, closure, expository, transitional, developmental, conclusive)?
  • Why are there so many distinct musical ideas, or character changes? Do they all belong in the piece, or would removing some strengthen the piece?
When requesting feedback, it is helpful to both the evaluator and yourself if you specify aspects of the piece that are troubling you; this shows you are open to suggestions on how to improve those sections. I have had people ask for feedback on their compositions, only to discover that what they really wanted was a pat on the back and some positive affirmation of what a fine piece they wrote. Most people, in my experience, are open to honest criticism, if it can be delivered in a gentle and thoughtful way.

Fine-Print Disclaimer: Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that composers are out there waiting for you to call requesting a critique of your work… Your best bet is to approach someone you know, which, for students in a university music programme or conservatory, would be someone who teaches at your school. If you are not enrolled in such a programme and want to get feedback on your work, I strongly encourage you to seek composition lessons. I don't usually give compositional feedback to people I do not know, mainly because I don't have time for it, but partly because not knowing someone makes it difficult to know where to start when critiquing their composition; I could be using terminology they have never heard of, or I could be making assumptions about what they already know or don't know that are incorrect.

6. Kindly Disregard… Or Regard… Your Choice!

As with any opinion, of course, it may not be what you want or need to hear, so just take all advice, including this, with a grain of salt.

7. "Too many notes"

You may have heard the story of Emperor Joseph II's reaction to Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio, in which the Emperor, when asked by Mozart if he liked it, said he did, but it had "too many notes." Whether this really happened or not (it has never been authenticated, but it was in "Amadeus," so it must be true, right? ;) ), this oft-repeated tale illustrates the difficulty in articulating a precise rationale for what is ultimately an emotional response.

I suspect that a big reason composition competitions do not typically explain their decisions is that it is really tricky to articulate defensible, intellectual justifications for what are, to a large degree, emotional reactions to a composition. Some people can do a pretty good job of explaining some reasons behind their emotional responses, but, when we like or dislike something, we are often unaware of all the reasons we react that way.

Summary, and Suggestion

  • Arts councils usually offer rationales for at least some of their decisions (I don't think they normally do for commission competitions, however), so if you get turned down, don't be shy about asking for more information; that's something most arts council officers are prepared to provide.
  • If a composition competition is aimed at students, especially those at an undergraduate university level or younger, I think offering a brief critique to all entrants could have value, albeit limited (see #3 above), but it would be an onerous process for judges.
  • If a competition is aimed at composers who have finished their basic training (e.g., with no age limit, or age limits of under thirty or thirty-five), providing a cursory compositional critique (how's that for alliteration!) seems of questionable value to me, and it might actually annoy some people.
  • For "deeper" insight into your compositions, it may be best to request feedback from someone who does this for a living, like an active composer (who may or may not be a professor). Just remember the advice in point #6 above, if you do this.
  • Suggestion: Since it seems unlikely that composition competitions are ever likely to offer explanations for why every submission was ranked the way it was, I think it would be wonderful if, in addition to the usual prizes awarded, competitions added or expanded an "honourable mention" category, thereby offering encouragement to composers whose compositions were highly-regarded, but just not sufficiently-so to have earned a prize.