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.


Michelle said...

The quote, "There are no absolute measures by which to judge a composition" is certainly a valuable one. With composition I find it incredibly difficult to be objective -- more so than, I think, anything else I have encountered. Achieving objectivity is difficult with writing, for example, but it is easy enough to make comments on clarity, unity, cohesion, grammar, and succinctness within most styles. Similarly for performance, there are things that can be commented on: interpretation of dynamics, phrasing, and tone, to name a few. I find it much more difficult to find some "standard candles" with composition -- indeed, only this semester have I realized the importance of reusing material! Perhaps commenting on compositions will become easier with age, though I do feel that unless you are the composer (and therefore know, more or less, what you're trying to communicate) it can be very hard to make qualitative statements about another's composition.

Evan Smith said...

I loved your point of challenging the arts council for funding in your second point. It's definitely something to feel so confident in your work or grant that you can't understand why it was turned down. I really respect that and am glad it worked out in the end. I would imagine many of those councils have to throw away so many applications so good ones may get thrown away just based on where they are in the pile.

Mitchell wxhao said...

I find it very awkward sometimes to make comments on other people's work on one listening. There is not enough time to spend thinking about why someone made a specific choice, only time enough to think "this isn't what I would have done". Now that I've done more thinking about this, it would be a lot to expect from adjudicators if you wanted feedback from every competition. There just may not be time for these people and I'd like to think "don't feel special - no one else got commentary either".

Perhaps what would be best is if applicants knew beforehand whether or not they would get feedback on their music.

Andrew Noseworthy said...

After commenting about frustration regarding not getting any critical feedback in return from submissions, it's nice to have a bit of consolation in part 2 of this entry. The points about not having sufficient time to give a good critique for a competition entry all make total sense. If an adjudicator would not be able to give a well done written critique of an entry, I don't think I would want the critique in the first place! That being said, the unsatisfying critique I referenced in my comment on part one did come from an Arts and Letters submission. I guess I just feel that if there is the option to get a critique, and the competition is offering this option, maybe it should not be half hearted?

Keeping in the tradition of my long comments, I had something recently occur where I received a strange response to a call that I submitted a piece towards last summer, and I am wondering if anything similar has happened to you Dr. Ross. If so, what would be your thoughts on this? In these blog entries you cover groups that will contact a composer who's piece should get an honourable mention, or even contact the composer with just a simple "thank you for submitting but your piece was not chosen". But for this call, I submitted a piece to a call looking for pieces to be performed in an upcoming festival. The piece I submitted met with all the criteria of what they were looking for. Anyway, I emailed the submission materials but did not hear back from the director for a few days, so I emailed her to confirm she had received my score and recording. She replied saying she did (addressing me as "Anthony" in the process funny enough) and said a confirmation email would be sent out to entries the following day. I didn't ever receive such an email, nor did I ever hear back from this call!

I checked their website just last month and the chosen entries were picked in October. When I checked out some of these entries, it was definitely clear why my piece was not chosen as it did not really come close to matching the quality of these pieces, but I still found it odd I heard absolutely nothing from this group. Have you had anything similar happen? And what would be your take on an event like this? Thanks again for the informative blog entries. I always enjoy reading them as they very easily evoke thought!

Brad said...

Wow! Maybe I should've read this one before the last one! (see my comment on pt1 and the last thing you mention in this article).

I think you almost have a right to know why you've been turned down when it comes to such large scale applications as the grants to which you were referring. The stakes are often quite a lot higher.

For regular composition competitions, especially those directed towards students, I definitely understand not receiving feedback. And, like you said, often those students have someone in the actual field (perhaps a professor?) by whom they can be evaluated and directed.

Sarah Bartlett said...

I've never thought about challenging a panel decision. It's hard to imagine, as a competitor, that a good appeal could change someone's mind (if not their decision). It's an interesting idea I hadn't ever really thought about. I also hadn't thought about asking for justification for a rejection. It makes sense that a panel would keep track so they had reasons to give applicants, but it's not something I would have thought to do. Obviously, there must be reasons someone's submission didn't make the cut; I just never would ahem thought of calling and asking why. However with that in mind, it'll definitely be a future consideration of mine.

Clark Ross said...

Sarah, just to be clear, I was not suggesting that decisions relating to artistic merit — a composition competition or commissioning grant, for example — can be challenged; they can't.

The example I gave was one in which a composer's organization (Continuum) had applied for funding for our concert season from an arts council, and we were turned down for a technical reason (they thought we were all students, and thus not classifiable as professionals).

I requested a meeting with people from the arts council and challenged their interpretation of this rule in a very polite and, hopefully, clear way, and they eventually agreed with me. This made us eligible to apply for funding for future years. Starting the following year, we began getting grant money from them.

But artistic evaluations are not, as far as I know, challengeable, and may in fact give the impression that the person doing the challenging is behaving irrationally (i.e., is a "hot head"), an impression most of us would prefer to avoid.

Thanks for your comment, and thanks too everyone else for your thoughts too! Always appreciated.