How to Win More
Choral Composition Contests
Whenever I first started entering choral composition contests, I often felt as though I had no control over the outcome. Now, when I evaluate choral pieces as a contest judge, it quickly becomes clear that some composers simply have a better grasp of good choral writing than others. These composers place the odds in their favor right from the start. In choral competitions, this means taking a creative approach to texture, tempo, and text.
So many choral pieces submitted to composing contests look and sound similar. In a choral competition, the easiest way to stand out from the crowd may be to write music that aims to be not just better, but different from your peers.
Over more than a decade of applying to choral composition contests (and occasionally winning them) and at least six years of judging them, here's what I've found most likely to guarantee—if not a win—then at least serious consideration from the judging panel.
1. Choose a thought-provoking text.
Your reviewer should, upon reading your text alongside your program note, have a reaction to those words—ideally, a positive reaction, or at least a strong one. Your goal here is to intrigue the judging panel before they've even heard or seen a note of your score. To up your odds of winning a choral composition contest, you'll want to avoid the most commonly-set texts. No Latin Mass texts, no O Magnum Mysteriums. Go easy on the Sara Teasdale. As a general rule, if you can name another well-known choral piece that has already set your text, choose something else to submit to that contest.
When I'm judging a contest, I'm much more likely to remember and recognize the only piece to set a contemporary text or even public-domain prose than one of four Kyrie Eleison settings in that contest. Even truly awful settings of distinctive texts are memorable. You don't want to be awful, of course, but you do want your entry to stand out.
When you set a text that's already been used in a well-known setting, you're priming that contest judge to compare your piece to the other setting. In my own experience, that comparison happens instinctively, even when I try to suppress it. I think, "Oh, I've seen this text before." I read the title and the other, more well-known setting pops into my head before I've ever heard your take on it.
If you set a text a judge has never seen before—or at least never heard set to music—you're coming into the evaluation with a clean state.
2. Consider the texture.
In early seasons of the show Project Runway, judge Nina Garcia often tells designers that the quickest way to look “cheap” is a dress that's “shiny, tight, and short.” In choral composition contests, the quickest way to lose a composition contest is to submit an entirely homophonic piece setting a Latin text in an unchanging 4/4 meter.
Even before contest adjudicators have heard your music, they may discredit it immediately if it features a choral texture that remains homophonic throughout the entire piece.
It is, of course, entirely possible to write a gorgeous piece of music that sets a Latin text in an entirely homophonic texture. One of my favorite choral pieces of all time is Messiaen's O Sacrum Convivium, which does both of those things. But your goal in entering this contest is to stand out. Because so many choral composers write pieces that are largely homophonic, it's a good idea to submit something—anything—else.
Are there phrases within your text that seem to call for a more sparse texture? Is there a moment where you might switch to a neutral syllable in three of the voice parts and let just one line sing the text? At some point in your piece, do the basses get the melody? Do the altos? Do the tenors?
Think critically about creating engaging textures, and you'll automatically stand out from the majority of pieces that a choral competition jury sees.
When you do stray from homophony, always think of the composite text: what the audience will hear when everyone is singing at once. The composite text is often quite different from how your text appears on the page.
3. Ask: is the text set well?
There's a measure of John Corigliano's Fern Hill where a cut-off from one part's line turns what's written on the page as “the trees and leaves” into what the audience perceives as “trees and sleeves.” Singing this piece as an undergrad, I was completely baffled by this extra syllable. I thought my ears were tricking me every time, until I took a careful look at the score.
This effect can be fun to play with, as long as you use it with care. It can also render a text completely incomprehensible. Any skilled reviewer will notice this happening on the page even without a recording. When that piece is performed, it will be extremely obvious to the audience and to you.
If you're sending an unperformed piece to a contest, you'll want to train yourself to constantly check how your cut-offs ending in a consonant align with other text. In other words, you're look at the text vertically in time as well as viewing each melody moving horizontally across the page.
Whenever you're writing in a texture that's not purely homophonic and a word ends in an “s,” a "t," or a “ck,” ask yourself what the listener is going to hear when all voices are singing at once. From the listener's perspective, when will each consonant actually be heard? If you stagger words over one another, make sure there is at least one statement of the text where the audience can hear the words being sung.
1) 2) 3)
In Example 1, the composite text—what the audience will actually hear—is "I dough wah to goh-nt,"
given the timing of the cut-offs of "don't" and "want." Example 2 offers a possible solution to fix the
composite text of example 1. Example 3 works better than Example 1 as a staggered text, because
there are no ending consonants in this phrase. This graphic is adopted from a talk given at the 2018
CAI Premiere|Project Summer Festival.
Of course, there are more basic elements of text-setting to consider, too. Have you set the text sensitively, accurately placing natural word stresses on strong beats? Does the harmonic language of the piece reflect the overall emotional landscape(s) of the text?
If your response to these suggestions about text-setting is to claim you “don't care what words the audience hears, anyway”—an argument I've heard from at least one composer—then why are you bothering to set text at all? Staggering the text incomprehensibly is an excellent technique to use if you're creating a piece that is purely about sound, not language, and when you intentionally want to create a feeling of confusion or chaos for the listener. If that's not the case, though, be sure to think of the composite text you're creating.
4. Hone your unique voice.
If I'm judging a choral contest and must choose between a technically less-well-written piece where the harmonic language feels unique and fresh or a piece with a lifeless but technically-skilled mimicry of another composer's style, I'll vote for the first piece every time.
In other words: imitating Eric Whitacre for six minutes is not going to win you points with most choral competition panels. The world doesn't need another second-rate imitation of Palestrina, Lauridsen, or Rutter either. These frequently-imitated composers embody their respective languages with a skillful ease and finesse that knockoffs of their styles usually lack. By now, too, the styles in which these composers write have already been “borrowed” by countless other imitators.
So how do you create your own style? A good start is simply being aware of which harmonic progressions distinctly evoke the music of other well-known composers. If you're composing and a chord progression feels too obvious, ask yourself if that's because it's the most clichéd approach to that phrase. Familiar chord progressions often feel comfortable because we've sung them or heard them in many other pieces.
Find an alternate solution that feels truer to your voice. Keep your listener on their toes. As a reviewer, if I feel like I can anticipate exactly what's about to happen next during most of a piece, that doesn't bode well for that piece's originality. Many composition contest rubrics include a space for originality of voice, too.
As composers, we can expect more from choruses than mind-numbingly basic melodies and hackneyed chord progressions. With careful voice leading, we can lead singers to fresher melodies and harmonies.
5. Craft dissonances with care.
The opposite end of the spectrum from pieces imitating popular choral composers are ones that feature chromatic lines that aren't idiomatic at all to choral singing. These pieces have relentless, almost aggressively dissonant chords. They usually present no help to singers with finding or learning their notes. These pieces are also often among the first to be rejected from a contest.
Don't get me wrong; I love plenty of atonal choral writing. I truly believe that you can lead even amateur choruses to some deliciously weird chords if you use careful, mostly step-wise voice-leading. If you're writing for a professional chorus, of course, then you'll likely be fine writing as many complex harmonies as you'd like.
But when you submit a choral piece to a contest, remember that conductors have to consider how long it will take to learn the winning piece. They're including that piece as part of an existing program.
Will it take them a huge amount of rehearsal time to get these chords in tune and nail your incredibly complex rhythms? No matter how great your composition may be, if it requires an amount of rehearsal time that's unrealistic for a chorus, that conductor won't program it. They certainly won't vote for it in their competition contest. You wouldn't want them to pick it; you'd end up with an underrehearsed premiere and a bad recording.
If I give a low rating to an extremely dissonant piece in a choral contest, the odds are I'm doing so not because it's atonal, but because it's poorly-written. This is an important distinction to make. If we want vocalists to sing atonal chords—and sing them in tune—we have to find crafty ways to get to get them to each chord. When you write for a non-professional chorus, approach your delightfully crunchy harmonies with care.
6. Consider what else is the ensemble is programming.
When you're applying to any composition contest or call for scores, it's a good idea to first familiarize yourself with the ensemble hosting it.
There's a huge range in the technical abilities of choruses that host contests and calls. An SATB piece you'd submit to a high school's call for scores could be entirely different from an SATB piece you'd send to a collegiate group, which could be entirely different from one you'd send to a community choir. You'll want to assess the level of difficulty that a chorus can handle, as well as their overall approach to the genre and style of the pieces they usually program, long before you enter their contest.
You should be able to gauge the average level of difficulty that a chorus is comfortable programming by listening to recordings of past concerts or considering what they're performing this season. This shouldn't take a lot of your time; even five minutes of scanning through their current season could lead you to submit a piece that's much more likely to win their contest. If a more challenging piece of yours is out of reach for a certain competition, keep an eye out for contests and calls held by professional choruses. Luckily, the spectrum of choruses calling for new music spans a huge variety of skill levels. If the idea of tailoring your application to specific ensembles feels like too much work, then keep an eye out for ensembles that seem like a great fit for your work.
Writing for chorus can be a constant battle between seeking out new sounds and exercising restraint. This is both the bane and the beauty of writing music for voices, especially amateur musicians. But presumably you're applying to contests in the first place because you'd like to have your choral music performed. Writing music that can actually be performed is the challenge we sign up for as choral composers. If you're submitting to a choral composition contest, it's worth taking the time to send in a piece you think will be a fantastic fit for the ensemble hosting it.
And if you apply to a contest and don't win? Read this.