Competitive Nature

While competitive drive can be unhealthy if left unchecked, if focused correctly, it can also be turned into an advantage that can reap benefits for everyone.

Written By

Rob Deemer

Recently, a number of colleagues forwarded me a post that was published on one of Slate’s blogs entitled “What Kind of Stress do Full-Time Composers Experience?“. While the article really doesn’t answer the question (the author, Andrew Watts, assumes that the definition of a full-time composer “essentially means teaching and/or arts administration,” a presupposition that side-steps the true stresses of composers who survive “full-time” on their compositions alone), it brings up a common complaint about the composition field: competition.

Most often, when “competition” is discussed in new music or composer circles, it usually pertains to an organized contest for a prize or award of some type. Watts’s suggestion that competition is a stress point in the life of a composer looks not to contests, but to the built-in competition that is inherent within the series of educational “hoops” that a composer (supposedly) must travel through in order to have a chance at acquiring the aforementioned teaching positions:

4) Lastly, composition as a career is an extremely competitive environment. As mentioned above, it is often necessary to have the support of an institution, such as a university or conservatory, in order to make a living in the U.S. as a contemporary classical composer. With the example of becoming a faculty member at a university, a composer generally needs: a) to have a solid grounding in performance and musical fundamentals from high school or before b) gain admittance at a top undergraduate composition program [these usually accept 10 percent to 20 percent] c) gain admittance at a top master’s composition program [these usually accept 5 percent to 15 percent] d) participate in numerous festivals, workshops, masterclasses, internships, competitions, etc. e) gain admittance at a top doctoral composition program (many of these take four students a year out of 100-plus applications; f) wait until a current university composer retires or dies, and then be one of the few lucky applicants to land a professorship (at any given time there may be only a dozen or so institutions hiring, and there will always be top competition from all over the world for these spots).

This “brass ring” outlook is very much the prototypical concept of competition among composers who still reside within or have recently emerged from those “top” programs that Watts emphasizes. Such a linear “a+b+c=success” model is an easy trope to subscribe to, primarily because of its narrow focus and simplistic logic (most composers who teach at conservatories attended conservatories, therefore if one attends a conservatory, one must strive to teach at a conservatory), and subsequently the sense of competition for resources between composers is fanned throughout their studies. Not only does this interpretation of the world miss the forest for the trees (fodder for another column), but it overlooks any potential benefits that a competitive nature can foster in a creative artist.

A theory about the benefit of competition between composers was posited recently in an insightful article by Karol Jan Borowiecki for the Journal of Urban Economics. In his piece, entitled “Geographic clustering and productivity: An instrumental variable approach for classical composers,” Borowiecki investigates the potential advantages that individuals may have when living in large metropolitan population centers by comparing the lives and creative outputs of composers in the 18th and 19th centuries. In addition to the concepts of proximity encouraging close relationships with other composers and proximity encouraging interaction with influences outside of the artist’s core industry resulting in innovation, Borowiecki includes a theory about friendly competition:

The second theory advocating a clustering benefit is posited by Porter (1990). In Porter’s view, the local competition in specialized, geographically-concentrated industries is the biggest stimulus for growth. It is posited that the presence of multiple rivaling individuals might be the source of important incentives for out-performing the competitor. Considering the economics of superstars in which ‘small numbers of people earn enormous amounts of money and dominate the activities in which they engage’ (Rosen, 1981) and a ‘Winner-Take-All Society’ (Frank and Cook, 1995), the importance to write better works than fellow composers seems to be of considerable importance also in classical music. The high concentration of composers might create a very competitive working environment, where only extraordinary performance is acknowledged. Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) was aware of that and was mostly motivated to make his presence in the French capital:

In Paris they are accustomed to hear nothing but Gluck’s choruses. Only place confidence in me; I shall strive with all my might to do honor to the name of Mozart. I have no fears at all on the subject. (Letter of 28 February 1778, published in Mozart, 2004)

In 1778, the year Mozart spent in Paris, his productivity peaked and he wrote 19 influential compositions, as recorded in Gilder and Port (1978). Furthermore, his productivity was in that year three times higher than his annual average of around 6.6 compositions.

Interpreting this through the lens of our present day, it’s not difficult to see how this concept is carried out both as it was in those previous centuries, with composers continually being drawn to urban centers, but also through the new super-communities created through social media. Articles abound that decry the sense of competition that can creep into one’s psyche as Facebook and Twitter bombard us with a continual stream of friends’ and colleagues’ successes, but that competitive urge does not have to be destructive in nature. As Borowiecki’s article points out, our inner drive to improve and excel can be encouraged by that sense of competition, especially if it is combined with positive relationships with one’s colleagues and an openness to new influences outside one’s own sphere of comfort.

It is much too easy for those who are still in the beginning stages of their career to feel overly competitive with their colleagues because so much of what is in front of them is unknown, just as those who are further along in their careers can find themselves both overly competitive and bitter because of real or imagined failures or slights from others. While that competitive drive can be unhealthy if left unchecked, if focused correctly, it can also be turned into an advantage that can reap benefits for everyone.