What to Do When You Lose
A contest loss doesn't necessarily reflect on the quality of your music: it simply means that your music wasn't the best fit for that particular contest.
When you're not winning, the best question to ask yourself is this: What were you hoping to gain by winning that contest?
Maybe you were hoping to win $1,000. Maybe you wanted to win the chance to write a commissioned piece. Maybe you wanted to work with a specific ensemble. Maybe you thought winning a contest would validate your work, proving something about the merit of what you do.
I hate to break it to you, but if you thought winning one specific contest would bring any lasting sense of validation of your work, you're probably wrong. A fleeting sense of self-importance? Sure. Winning is a nice feeling, but it's temporary. It fades quickly.
After your piece is performed and you get your prize check, you're still a composer; you still have to write more music. Sure, you can seek out another win, and you can keep looking for external validation. But if you're applying to contests seeking hard evidence that your music is good, I suggest you look elsewhere.
You may never feel completely satisfied with your music, or you may learn to find that sense of satisfaction within yourself every time you reach a double bar. You might find that sense of worthiness in knowing that you gave a piece everything you could, however contest-winning or contest-losing it may be.
That feeling of completeness, of fulfilling the promise we make to ourselves whenever we start writing a new piece—to write the best possible piece we can write at that moment in time—is what we should seek. Even after winning 40 composition contests and calls for scores, I can assure you: that feeling doesn't come from winning contests, or at least not in any lasting way.
When you lose, ask yourself what you were hoping to gain from winning. Consider whether there's another way to achieve any or all of these goals. What actions can you take by yourself—no contest required?
If you were excited to write a new piece if you won: Can you write that piece for a group of friends or colleagues to premiere instead?
If the contest came with a guaranteed publication: Can you query a few publishers?
If the contest came with an excellent recording: Can you write music for yourself to record?
If a call for scores would have resulted in a performance of an existing piece in your catalogue: Can you ask your friends and colleagues to recommend other musicians who might be interested in performing that music, then send it to those people?
If the contest came with a guaranteed commission: Can you pursue getting a commission through other means?
If you really wanted to work with that particular ensemble: Can you make a note to contact them in 6 months—outside of a contest setting—and query them about considering your music?
Contest rejections pave the way for professional risk-taking. When you get rejected, the worst has already happened; someone turned you down, and you survived. Yes, certain “no”s will sting more than others, but now that you know what rejection feels like, what's stopping you from seeking out more opportunities? If you're not afraid of hearing “no,” what's to stop you from querying publishers or cold-emailing ensembles?
The more you apply to contests, the more you learn to, if not love rejection, than at least to flinch less when it happens. When you're rejected from a contest, you've lost nothing but time.
If you lost a grant and you're proceeding with the project anyway, you can still use the wording you edited so carefully for that application in future grant applications or in descriptions, pitches, and promotional materials for that project. Even if you end up ditching that project, you'll have honed your grant-writing skills.
If you've lost a contest, you can send the piece to another ensemble to see if they'd like to premiere it instead. Before you do, take another look at that piece and consider whether you can make minor changes to improve it. Would you redo anything if you were writing that piece now?
If you lost a contest where you'd have had the chance to write a new piece for a specific ensemble, you can still write that piece; you just need a different ensemble to premiere it. Now that you're embracing the possibility of rejection, what's to stop you from reaching out directly to an ensemble (or five) to ask if they'd like to collaborate on a new work?
When you lose a contest, you can usually apply the next year. You can take what you've learned from the rejection and reassess your portfolio and application. You can submit a better, stronger application in the future.
The most reliable way to generate work for yourself as a composer will always be to return to the people you already know and to consider opportunities you can create on your own terms. If nothing else comes through, you can always fall back on writing music for yourself to perform.
Ultimately, the decision to award one piece and reject another comes down to a matter of personal preference. You already know this, I think, but I'll say it again in hopes that you'll repeat it to yourself whenever you lose a contest:
The “best piece” doesn't always win.
The best piece for that contest wins.
If you apply to a lot of contests and get in the habit of researching new ones and applying regularly, the odds are good that you'll eventually encounter a contest judge who sees the world as you do and who appreciates your distinctive voice. Or maybe you won't, but if you employ the strategies above, it won't matter.
Keep doing everything you can to increase your odds of winning. When you lose, take a moment to mourn the loss, but always, always keep writing.