The Other Side of the Curtain:
Judging Composition Contests
Is it nice to be on the side of a contest where you have nothing to lose? Yes. Is it often a challenge to pick a winner, especially when there's an excellent applicant pool? Also yes. But when you're judging a composition contest, you usually have to pick just one winner, no matter how many worthy pieces were submitted.
Sometimes you want to award a piece first place, because you feel like it's a clear winner, but your co-judges disagree, and you're outnumbered. You wish you could single-handedly write each composer a little love note: “I adore this piece! Keep sending it out! Send it in to us again next year! Send it to this other ensemble that will love it as much as I do!” But—especially if it's an anonymous contest—you can't do this. You know that the composer of this piece is going to see their rejection letter and feel completely disheartened.
There are a number of ways to you can lose a contest even as a perfectly qualified candidate. I'm telling you this not so you feel like the odds are ever stacked against you (though, honestly, they might be) but so that you'll have this information as a shield for your self-esteem whenever you lose a contest.
Here are seven reasons you might have lost a contest that have very little to do with you and your music:
1. Even in an anonymous judging panel, you risk being written-off as an amateur if you score is sloppily-formatted, no matter how excellent the music is. Is this unfair? Probably, but do take care in your formatting.
2. A judging panel may award first place to the piece that can easily be learned by the ensemble holding the contest. This could mean choosing that piece over another that demands more rehearsal time, even if the latter is arguably a better composition.
3. As a judge, sometimes I only have so much say over the matter before the final decision is left up to an artistic director. I've given high marks to a piece in a call for scores and then seen that piece go unperformed. Even a judge who loves your work can only take it so far.
4. Sometimes winning pieces are picked based on how well they'll fit with other pieces the ensemble has programmed for that season. Here, again, a rejection is not a reflection of the quality of your work.
5. If a contest is not judged anonymously, the judges may know an applicant as a colleague or former student. Even in an anonymous contest, a piece might be recognizable. Judges may consciously or unconsciously favor that person in the judging process. Is this fair? No. Does it happen? Absolutely.
6. Sometimes a great recording boosts a piece up in rating numbers. If your piece doesn't have any recording at all, or is a mockup/demo, it might be given a lower score compared to a piece that has been live or professionally recorded.
7. When applicants are rated by an arbitrary numbering system, the winning piece may actually be two or more of the judges' second-favorite work. If I love a piece and rate it as my number one pick (3 points), but another judge ranks it as their third, that piece might receive second place; the piece we both picked as our second-favorite might win.
Contest panelists are human, and they bring subconscious, sometimes illogical biases to their judging.
Maybe a panelist has never heard of any of the applicants, but in third grade they encountered a horrendous bully of a fifth-grader whose name was Judy, and they still can't see that name without feeling an unconscious shiver of revulsion, and . . . one of the applicants' names is Judy. Even though this new Judy is perfectly lovely, that judge might find Judy's piece lacking for reasons they couldn't put into words and don't consciously recognize.
As an applicant, you only have so much control over each contest. Even if you do everything right, you might lose anyway for reasons completely beyond your control. Sometimes contests (and grants, and artist residencies, and graduate school programs, and life) just aren't fair. If that's true, then what can you do?
You control what you can.
You try to stack the odds in your favor wherever possible.
You apply to a lot of diverse opportunities, hoping that it all evens out in the end.
You do plenty of composing that's not for contests.
You write music for your friends and yourself to perform.
You strengthen the professional connections that you've already made.
You remind yourself often that a rejection has little to no bearing on the quality of your music.
When you do get rejected, remind yourself that maybe there was one judge who'd never heard of you before the contest but who wanted, so very much, for you to win. Now, at least, they know your name; they might still be rooting for you.