Wednesday, 29 April 2015

To Compete.... or Not to Compete.....

That really is the question - a very good question! For years it has been a hot topic of debate in music as to whether it is beneficial to something so subjective. But I'm not going to sit here and argue whether you should or shouldn't enter music competitions - I'm just going to share my experiences of competing and what I've learned and achieved, and let you decide yourself. 

I started 'competing' as a musician at the age of 6, entering the Guernsey Eisteddfod annually. At that age I certainly never entered to win, I entered because my mum asked me if I wanted to do it and I said yes. Over the next few years I kept entering because I liked playing the 'big piano' - but I'll be honest with you, as a young musician, I wasn't very good! I didn't practice that often, and I barely passed all my graded exams right up to Grade 5. I hit 13, roughly the age, I find, that most young musicians either find their calling and excel or decide it's not for them and give up. My mum started me on percussion lessons jumping straight in at grade 4, and I suddenly realised that I really loved music, and needed and wanted to spend more time doing it. At 14, I won my first Eisteddfod trophy with an Outstanding, and later that year I passed my Grade 6 piano with a distinction. I'd got the bug. Competing in music was great, even if it was only competing with myself to do better.
- Now as a professional performer and composer I've entered hundreds of competitions and opportunities, and in the 5 years I've been doing that I have yet to win a single competition outside the Guernsey Eisteddfod. I've made the finals of national and international competitions three times though, and that just spurs me on to keep trying. For the first three years of entering competitions and never winning I did start to get a bit downhearted, true, but then suddenly, WHAM! Selected for a final! And it's doing competitive things like this that have taught me the joy of the win, and the resilience needed when you lose.

It's always worth comparing the pros and cons of anything. The benefits of a music competition at first seem obvious: you could win a trophy, a title, prize money, a chance to perform in a new, bigger, and/or more professional setting, or in the case of composition a performance of your work, or selection for recording or a concert season, or a commission - or any combination of all these big and little perks. But of course, these tend to be reserved for the winners (or sometimes, if you're lucky, the finalists as well). But even making competition shortlists (like top 20, or quarter/semi-finals) is a good little boost that your music and your work is getting recognised.

Pro: Competitions can literally open up the world to you
To date I've made the finals of 2 international competitions and 1 national competition, the semi-finals of 3 international competitions, the quarter-finals of 1 national competition, and most recently I had my music is making a small impact stateside after being selected for a concert program and an international composers workshop in the USA. I'm batting at about a 10% win rate, with about 1/3 of my entries resulting in some form of success (win, final, shortlist etc), and 2/3's resulting in a loss or no outcome. I'd say that's pretty good going, and from these placings I've generated professional performances and recordings and a couple of commissions, which probably wouldn't have happened without the exposure and contacts I've generated by participating in these competitions. However, the benefits are also there for those that enter but do not win or place in any way. I've entered composing competitions that required a brand new work, so it gave me an excuse to write something new, and to find the time to do so. And if it wasn't selected to win then I was free to use it as I pleased, like passing it on to a group locally that might perform it, or in the case of one of my most recent pieces, enter it into the Guernsey Eisteddfod where it not only won the class, but was selected by the adjudicator for his own choir to perform at an up-coming Christmas concert. 

Of course, there's downsides too. For years I made no shortlists, it I'll admit it was hard to take constant rejection. There's been a few times I've made trips to attend the 'announcement concert' only to find out I'd spent hundreds of pounds on travel and accommodation only to lose and be really out of pocket. Sometimes you enter competitions and opportunities and never hear back - several times I've had to re-google the competition to see if they've announced anything only to find they've picked a winner and not informed anyone else of their decision; no courtesy 'thanks for entering' email, nothing. And it's always hard when something you think is brilliant doesn't get the recognition you feel it deserves - Naturally, it's not going to feel good to lose, and sometimes it can really hurt. But the way to deal with it (well, the way I deal with it) is to find a quiet corner, have a bit of a mope for 10 minutes (if it actually meant that much to you), then shake yourself off and start again on the next one. Another down side the taboo subject of application fees. Some competitions request you pay a fee for entering, which, on the one hand I can understand if it's an email entry composing competition and they ask for £10 to cover printing fees of your scores or something like that, but I've seen competitions that are upwards of £100 to enter. I'm sorry, no way am I paying that much for a competition. Some competitions offer some form of prize just for entering. One example is the  Songdoor International Songwriting Competition (which I was lucky enough to make the final in 2012) - It's $10 per song, but every entry gets something for entering, like a free yearly membership to a music licensing website for example.

Con: Can you really afford to compete, or will it be a waste?
I once read on the blog of professional composer Eric Whitacre that you should never enter a competition where you have to pay to enter..... I actually disagree with him, but only partially. I enter competitions like that all the time, but I always weigh up the pros and cons, and most importantly the available prize. If you're in with a chance of winning upwards of £1,000, a £30 entry fee isn't too bad (but I'd personally never pay more than that). If it's just a prize of a performance, an entry fee of £10 would make me think twice. It's really is a judgement call, and you have to decide where your line is, and whether the perks outweigh the downsides. Additionally, it's certainly worth mentioning that you should never enter a competition you can't afford to enter. Check your information before you enter. If making the final is going to require you to travel, especially internationally, could you really afford it? Always, always ask yourself what the competition will cost you, and how it will benefit you.

At the end of the day, competition and critical judgement by a professional is a good thing if you ever want to improve. That's the reason people take music exams, they want the proof of their hard work, and you're competing with yourself to do better than you did last time. The thing to remember is, especially in music competitions, is that it is all subjective. Every adjudicator/judge has their own preferences or agenda that you may or may not agree with, but that's how it works. If you want to enter music competitions in any form, make sure it's because you enjoy it - if you win, by all means be proud and celebrate it, but be gracious about it, because on another day or with a different judge you may not have won. If you lose, remember to congratulate the winner and not dwell on losing, because again, different day and it could have been you winning.

The good thing is, you have an amazing ability to understand life by being in a competition - life is not one all-singing, all-dancing magical 'oh don't we all love each other' musical number (although, I sometimes I really wish it was). There are let downs, and successes, and lessons to be learned, and things to pass on, and music to make! So, I say to those of you who may be against competitive music - competition happens daily in life whether you like it or not - if you don't want it enforced upon you, you don't have to compete, but I might argue that you'll find life a little bit boring if you don't put yourself out there every once in a while. But then again, when all is said and done, it's worth remembering that competitively, the only person you need to be better than was the person you were yesterday.