Tag: goals

Determining a Different Outcome

It’s easy to give ourselves a hard time about not being more successful as composers, musicians, writers, and artists. And this perception is often rooted in our self-regard and not in reality as others may see us. That is, we may have scored many successes but not perceive them as such. I used to become jealous, mildly enraged, or depressed by the success of others, and also engaged in petty schadenfreude when someone was perceived to have failed. I figure that’s why many “news” items detail the slips, failures, and inevitable aging of public figures; it enables us to compare ourselves to those once considered successful in a favorable light.

I’ve known some artists who were continually angry or at least frustrated by the cards they were dealt; one was a visual artist who had actually had a full show at the Whitney, a Guggenheim Fellowship, photos published in national magazines, and a monograph written by a highly respected art historian. Another was a composer who has had performances by a number of major orchestras. I told the artist that he wouldn’t be content until he had a Pulitzer, and the other confided in me that the day that they announced the Pulitzer each year wasn’t a very good day for him.

Somewhere along the line I decided that I was going to strive to avoid bitterness about my own career and (at least try) to appreciate what I have. Not all artists start with the same paint box of abilities, family support, timely teachers, and inspiring surroundings. But those of us who are composing and creating actively have at least found the success of drive, desire, and an inner strength to persist, no matter what our background is.

Recently, when they announced that the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was going to Frances Arnold, she was interviewed on NPR about receiving the life-changing phone call early one morning. I found myself envious of that experience, until I rationalized that her success is actually my success and a success for all of us. Her advances in her field are our advances. I never felt jealous of Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon. It was in fact embraced as a success for the entire world, and it still is (at least if we don’t deny that it happened).

“The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

We are the ones who individually determine the course of our lives. As the adage from Abraham Lincoln goes (and which was later appropriated by Silicon Valley): “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” No one else is going to do it.

Recently I’ve had what I consider to be successful renderings of a couple of works for mezzo-soprano that were composed for the singer Alice Simmons, whom my wife and I met after a performance at the Tate Modern Museum in London. We became friends and eventually I wrote her a song cycle based on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake that she premiered in the UK. Recently, she premiered an evening-length, multimedia event for me in Kansas. In her late 40s, Alice is reinventing her life as a performer. It’s something that she avoided for many years due to her lack of confidence. But she’s now putting herself out there and is constantly busy. She is reinventing her future and creating a different outcome, on a path that embraces the challenge of performing.

She doesn’t view herself as a success, but I see that her success lies in reinvention. And her reinvention contributes to my success in collaboration, which has resulted in a couple of lovely performances.

“Am I successful?” We determine what is successful. I’ve known musicians and composers who had a very limited definition of success, which was to write a hit song and live on the royalties or to end up getting a gig with the New York Phil. That was it. And when one person I know didn’t achieve the latter, this person drifted away from music completely—and he had a genuine shot at world-class gigs like the Phil, even if they weren’t specifically with that particular band.

So, where can your definition of success go but down if you don’t achieve one specific goal? I’ve known one person to have that sort of success and who seemed to appreciate it: banjoist, fiddler, singer, guitarist, and songwriter John Hartford. In the 1960s, he penned “Gentle on My Mind” in half an hour and, when his record was released, Glen Campbell picked up the tune and made it a very large hit—when I knew Hartford, it was the 17th most-recorded tune in history. Elvis, Sinatra, and a host of others did their own interpretations. While Hartford lived on those royalties for the rest of his life, he didn’t rest on his laurels. He composed many more songs (never again to achieve the popular success of “Gentle on My Mind”), and he toured all over performing many concerts—sometimes clog dancing, playing the fiddle, and singing simultaneously. Even when cancer ravaged his body, he kept performing and writing; I saw his penultimate performance in Asheville, North Carolina, which to me was the ultimate in success as he was still persisting in doing what he loved. By this time, he was only able to play the occasional single tone on the banjo and sing his songs fronting a backup band. Yet, to me, each note expressed a lifetime of incredible music making. He was actively involved and never failed, even if he never had another hit.

I complimented him once for not trying to reproduce the success of “Gentle on My Mind.” “Oh, but I did,” he replied. He spent three weeks composing a follow-up titled “A Simple Thing as Love,” intended to be as successful at the previous one. I love that tune, but it never caught on in the manner he’d envisioned. In spite of not duplicating his first success, he carried on practicing, writing, and giving concerts.

Our successes are self-defined and they can’t be narrowly conceived. I’ve lived out my life with a list of three goals that I made as a 19-year old when I desperately needed direction in life. I decided that my career in music would consist of teaching, composing, and performing, not necessarily in that order. I believed then and still do that a successful day was being engaged in all three of those activities. Forty years later, I’m still doing it. I consider that to be a successful career in spite of never winning (or being nominated for) a Pulitzer, never placing in the Walnut Valley National Banjo Competition, and never being named teacher of the year (or some such crap).

It doesn’t matter. At the age of 60, I’m happy in a weird sort of way. I still have moments where I envy the success of others and wish, say, I’d been endowed with a different background that would have led to a Santa Fe Opera premiere or performances with major orchestras worldwide. But then I wouldn’t have the life I have now. And who knows if I would have been happy with that other life anyway? It’s easy to confound and twist success in our minds into a perception of failure. But I’m composing every day, teaching, playing gigs, and staging concerts. I get to work with many different people, musicians and artists. And I’m left with a wide variety of stories.

It really doesn’t get much better than this. But, like servicing an old car, I know that I’m going to have to maintain and continue to develop that attitude. The specter of dissatisfaction can take over at any time. But it doesn’t have to.

Burnout is a b****. Let’s avoid it.

Explore all the posts from NewMusicBox’s 5-Day Creative Productivity Challenge here.

I would wake up, and it was there. I went about my day, and it was there. I would let my head hit the pillow in exhaustion at the end of the day, and it was still accompanying me. This low-level, ominous feeling had been following me around for months — contaminating every loud and quiet corner of my life. I even avoided counting the number of months that I consciously knew it was there. It started out as just feeling a little “off” or a little more worn out and wearied after each day of normal life-in-music tasks. Then, that dark cloud began to make its grim presence more known. I couldn’t shut it out because it was tied to everything that I loved. That feeling whispered to me in the darkness, “You’re not enough. Nothing you do matters. But don’t tell anybody that you feel this way because they won’t trust you with their projects.” I tried to do everything I knew to recharge: I cut out drinking, worked out more often, ate tons of vegetables, actively practiced self-care, and – most importantly – doubled-down on my work. My heritage is so full of that Midwestern, Protestant work ethic that it seeps from every pore. That tradition taught me, “If you’re feeling dull or distressed, just work harder.”

I started to get nervous. It wasn’t working. That dark cloud was getting darker. The fog was creeping into my practice and performance. It was creeping into my teaching. It was making it difficult to write and to record podcasts. I went to conferences and felt elated only to come home and feel even more defeated. I had to admit it: I was in total burnout.

I felt so sure. Now I don’t know…

“I can’t be burned-out,” I cried to myself. “My identity is built around being productive. I am a person who gets shit done.” Nevertheless, I had to admit to myself that I wasn’t getting stuff done. I was not being productive. I needed to find that part of myself again. I needed to find the part of myself that created more energy by practicing, teaching, and writing. How do you create that energy? How do you reconnect with the ambition that drives you with greater productivity? Was it lost for good? Was this the moment that I begin to slip away slowly from my lifelong passion?

Getting mired in small tasks without a big vision kept me incessantly “busy” but accomplishing very little.

“I don’t know what singing even looks like in my thirties,” I confided to a friend. “I felt really sure about what it looked like in my twenties. It looked like taking every job and getting lots of experience. It looked like a perpetually full calendar.” She asked, “Well, what do you want it to look like?” I whispered, “I don’t know.” I should have realized then that this would be the key to reconnecting with my productivity. Clarity. Clarity is the key. I had stopped dreaming up my audacious goals and had gotten stuck in the minutiae of “getting things done.” Getting mired in small tasks without a big vision kept me incessantly “busy” but accomplishing very little.

Planning for a remarkable life

In an early 2017 episode of The Tim Ferriss Show, Ferriss interviewed Debbie Millman, the incredible designer and founder/host of Design Matters, who described an exercise she calls “Your Ten-Year Plan for a Remarkable Life.” Millman recalled this exercise that she completed in a very early class session with Milton Glaser and that she now teaches her own students. He asked his students to write a detailed description that lists what their life would look like ten years from now. Then, he instructed them to read their essay every year. Millman also reminisced about finding her own essay from that class many years after she wrote it while moving house. She realized just how many goals she had planned for herself in that exercise that came to fruition.

You may be thinking, “A goal-setting exercise, Megan? Really? How mind-blowing…” But, stick with me. Remember that dark ominous cloud from earlier in this post? It wasn’t the vegetables, bubble baths, or motivational Pinterest quotes that helped me escape its path and rediscover my productivity mojo. It was this.

Working backwards from your major milestones

I started teaching a goal-setting exercise in my “Make It Rain” music business workshops before I stumbled across the Debbie Millman episode. However, this exercise shares some very similar points. The most important takeaway is to, “imagine yourself in the future.” For my goal-setting exercise, we start 20 years in the future. It is, at the time of this writing, the end of 2017, and 2018 is just around the corner. Let’s imagine you’re using this goal-setting exercise as a stand-in for your run-of-the-mill New Year’s resolutions. I like to plot this out on a timeline, an example of which you can see below. But you should pick the visual representation you like best.

career milestone timeline

First, look twenty years into the future. In 2038, who do you want to be? It is time to dream big. Think about where you will be in your life and career. What are the seemingly impossible goals that you would like to have accomplished? Then, the ten-year point on the timeline is a mixture of seemingly impossible and “highlights of a career” goals. This is the part in which you think about “what kind of legacy do I want to leave in my field or for my family?” Before we get to this goal-setting exercise in my workshops, I teach participants about what I consider the four levels of a career: generalist, specialist, expert, authority. We discuss how to strategically level-up from each one of those categories. The difference between your ten-year goals and your goals twenty years in the future is the difference between your goals as an expert in your field and your goals as an authority. An expert has a solid track record in handling complex, higher risk/higher profile projects and usually works with industry-leading clients. Let this help you brainstorm goals that have to do with complex projects and industry-leading collaborators. An authority receives honors and awards by professional peers for contribution to thought leadership. This could help you brainstorm goals that would fundamentally change your industry. Experts author seminal books on industry-related topics, perform (or speak) at leading national and international festivals/conferences, and influence a large fan/supporter base. An expert is also able to pick and choose work and enjoys “celeb status.” The easiest way I find to explain this is that an expert is someone who a reporter “inside the field” turns to for their opinion. An authority is someone who a reporter “outside the field” asks to comment on their general domain. You can hear it now, “Hmmm, I want to write a piece about opera. I’ll ask Renée Fleming…”

I had begun to believe that those big goals weren’t available to me anymore.

As a personal note, when I returned to this exercise feeling utterly defeated by burn-out, this was the most difficult part of the exercise to do. I had pages of notes for things that needed to happen in the next few months. But thinking about my twenty-year goals? I was left with a big blank. I had lost sight of my biggest vision. I had lost sight of who I wanted to be in the farther future for the sake of the dopamine high of crossing off a to-do list in the now. In fact, I had begun to believe that those big goals weren’t available to me anymore. If you haven’t been in that place, I hope you never have to experience it. If you have, please take even more time to dream up the most unbelievable, extraordinary, and astounding goals for your life. I want you to skip past the step in which others would say, “Who do you think you are?!” and march right on through to the point at which they might just faint in astonishment.

The halfway point

The five-to-six-year point of the goal timeline is where we identify the halfway point to those larger goals. When I have workshop participants complete this part of the exercise, we try to pinpoint the halfway milestones to big goals. For example, I will have some students suggest that they want to win a Grammy Award in ten to twenty years. We will often discuss that it is more likely to be considered for a Grammy when you have had a decent amount of recording experience in your history. But just recording regularly doesn’t make you magically ready to take home some hardware from the ceremony. Some of the things we also discuss include: writing/playing works about which you are deeply passionate, increasing your technical skills to be recording ready, finding a recording engineer you trust, working with a label, becoming a voting member or getting sponsored by two voting members, programming with a strong vision that still falls within the guidelines, and much more.

If you aren’t clear on the reasons you want to accomplish your seemingly impossible goals, then the work on the path to reaching that goal is going to feel burdensome.

What are the halfway points to your seemingly impossible goals? Can you achieve even more clarity on the most desired aspects of those goals? What I mean here is, is it important to you to win a Grammy because you love recording music? Or, do you want to win for different reasons? If you aren’t clear on the reasons you want to accomplish your seemingly impossible goals, then the work on the path to reaching that goal is going to feel burdensome.

Two-year goal actualization

You can take as many “business of music” courses as your heart desires, but nothing will be useful to you unless you know the trajectory you want to take. That is why we start at the farther end of the goal timeline. It’s the big goals that help us plan the course along the way. Now, our two-year goals are where the “rubber meets the road,” so to speak. Your five-to-six-year goals hopefully began to look a little more realistic or timely to you. That’s a good sign.

If you’re like me, the two-year goals are where motivation starts to kick back in after I’ve scared the beejezus out of myself with the wildly ambitious goals. These begin to look like actual SMART goals: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timebound. I had a student reveal to me that one of her big, audacious goals was to be an EGOT winner. (EGOT is an acronym for “Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony” in reference to persons who have won all four awards.) We talked about how her two-year goal actualization would be full of auditioning and gaining experience in all four of those areas. It’s a rare honor to receive all four of those awards. To do so, you need to be undeniable in all of those arenas. You can’t avoid learning about how television gets made and focus all of your energy on stage acting if your big goal is to be an EGOT winner. Take a moment, now, to outline your two-year goals in alignment with your overarching “Who do you think you are?” career-spanning goals.

Quarterly goals with metrics

Finally, we’re getting closer to the here and now. Take your journal, or piece of paper, and sketch out the quarters between this moment and your two-year goals. In each one of those quadrants, give yourself a handful of assignments that you know will help you achieve the two-year goal(s) you wrote down. Remember our students who wanted to win Grammy awards? Maybe their quarterly goals include:

  • Make a repertoire plan that will progressively work toward the type of repertoire to be recorded.
  • Do an internship in a recording studio to learn more about the process.
  • Make a professional studio recording of a specific upcoming performance/recital.
  • Network (make sure to identify a specific place, specific event, or specific people) with audio/video recording professionals to learn more about who to have on my recording team in the future.
  • Record every practice session or performance to get used to listening to myself on recordings.
  • Listen to those recordings on the first weekend of every month.
  • Make a plan to post new recordings after the listening session.
  • Sit in on an editing session with specific friends or mentors to learn the process.
  • Ask specific friends or mentors for advice on working with labels, producers, and engineers.

None of these quarterly goals seem particularly difficult or challenging when we write them out like that. But, surely, you can think back to a time when you were dragging your feet because you just didn’t know where to start on a big project or a specific action didn’t make it onto your calendar. You had the big end goal in mind, but you didn’t know how to strategically plan out the micro-actions to get yourself there.

Busyness is no longer my currency

I scroll through social media and can see that I was never alone in these challenges. I find that many of my colleagues are suffering burnout. Their dark clouds are stifling all of the positive feelings they initially brought to their music careers. The signs are jumping out at me through the screen. There are many Type-A, workaholic, checklist-or-die types in our field. We wear our “busyness” as a badge of honor. We lament our low wages, lack of sleep, and wearing of seventeen hats even as we glorify this martyrdom in ourselves and others. Achievement for the sake of achievement is a chimera. Instead of slowly drifting away from the field, I found a way to recommit to my larger vision and passion again. I hope that you’ll do this exercise many times. I hope that you’ll do this exercise to keep you clear and sane. Finally, I hope you’ll do this exercise well before you desperately need it.

Living a Long-Form Life

As a living composer, I’m faced with my birth year in nearly every concert program. Every time I see that number—and usually it’s listed alongside composers with a death date, too—I’m aware that my time, and what I can compose during it, is limited.

I recently finished my longest work yet, a 35-minute piece for chorus made up of several 2- to 4-minute movements and one 8-minute movement. Writing a 35-minute piece could be intimidating, but writing a 3-minute movement is not. That’s largely how I approached the piece; I’d work on one shorter movement, then another. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how to apply this strategy on a much broader scale: to break into movements not only compositions, but everything I want to achieve in my life and career, approaching a life in music as one would approach writing a long composition.

A long-form piece is judged as a whole; there’s no need to express what you want from the piece in a single movement. If we apply this to a lifetime, then one composition doesn’t need to contain everything you have to say, sum up your feelings about the current state of new music, or succinctly capture your worldview. Over a life-long body of work, there’s room for subtlety and nuance; we don’t have to demonstrate in 4 minutes, or even 35 minutes, that we know how to write music.

There’s no need to express what you want from the piece in a single movement. If we apply this to a lifetime, then one composition doesn’t need to contain everything you have to say.

Not every piece has to be perfect, either. The music you’re writing now may have flaws that you’ll later want to change, and there’s room for that, too. Not every piece even has to be good; some works may be more like prototypes, allowing you to try something out and potentially fail while honing that idea for a later, better piece. There’s time to let ideas unfold, and there’s room for rest.

A career functions much the same way. We don’t need to imagine that one big performance or one big award will be responsible for making our entire career. Instead, we can ask ourselves what we’ll try to achieve over the course of a life spent composing. If we view our writing as part of a life-long body of work, then when we set goals for what we’d like to accomplish, we can stop aiming for things we have no control over—like, say, a particular ensemble programming our work next season—and instead ask what we’d like to have happen during our lifetime. How will we pace ourselves over thirty, or sixty, or eighty years of writing music? What music do we want to write, and what will we express with that music?

Given the current political climate, most composers I know are asking ourselves whether every piece of work we compose should now express our political views. Moving forward, should every one of our pieces advocate for social justice? Maybe so, but I’m not sure that every piece we write needs to do so in a big, dramatic way in order to make a statement. Think of a longer composition; we’re able to recognize the larger themes in that work even if those themes aren’t present in every single movement. We take the work as a whole.

Bear with me on a brief tangent: I’ve been a vegetarian for fifteen years. On a day-to-day basis, it doesn’t feel like my personal decision is affecting the world in any huge way, or in any way, period. By not ordering chicken for lunch last Wednesday, I know I haven’t directly saved some hypothetical chicken’s life. If I cast my decision over the course of a lifetime, though, my attitude shifts completely. What sort of impact can I make over a lifetime of choosing not to eat meat?

This concept extends to the current need for representation of more composers who are not white and/or male and/or dead in classical music programming, too. A single concert with a non-white or non-male (or non-dead) composer on the program may not initially come across as advocacy, but if an ensemble regularly chooses to program this way, over the course of many seasons they’ll expose thousands of audience members to the concept that not all composers are dead white men. This, I’d argue, would make much more of a lasting impact than any single concert dedicated to this purpose.

In your creative lifetime, what are you going to accomplish with the music you choose to perform, write, or program? Looking back on the work that you’ve created in the past, what patterns are already present? You don’t have to be an activist in every piece, the same way that your 8-minute piece for solo violin doesn’t have to include every possible extended string technique. But if everything you do advocates for even a small aspect of what you believe, what kind of impact will you create over the course of your life?

Goofing off, Perfected: Lessons from Fluxus

In my columns so far, I have explored different ways of integrating fields outside of music into our work, including alternative educational models and institutions, as well as considered the ultimate purpose or function of our work. In this, my final post for the month, I’d like to recap a personal experience on the periphery of traditional music.

This summer, I’m creating a collection of performances at the Walker Art Center surrounding an exhibition of Fluxus works by George Brecht, Yoko Ono, Allison Knowles, and many others. I recently sat down with Sarah Schultz, curator of public practice at the Walker, and a group of local artists, and Sarah asked a seemingly simple question: what is Fluxus? What followed was a conversation where simple statements became instantly complicated. For example, Fluxus is an insular form speaking to the art world’s nuanced concepts of the object, vision, and experience. Simultaneously, Fluxus is an open initiation to life and living, enabling the public to take the scores into their own everyday. These inherent contradictions are perhaps summarized best by Hannah Higgins (academic and daughter of Allison Knowles and Dick Higgins) as she begins her book Fluxus Experience. “Since Fluxus artists never seem to agree on anything,” she acknowledges, “Fluxus has become ‘a pain in art’s ass,’ in the words of Fluxus artist Ben Vautier.” Now, I believe that we can hold two contradictory ideas in our heads without passing out, but it does become difficult to explain exactly what Fluxus is and isn’t. If you were to say one true thing about Fluxus, you could say that Fluxus is about the primary experience itself. The vehicle for exploring the now moment in Fluxus is through the Event Score or the Fluxkit.

Event Scores involve simple actions, ideas, and objects from everyday life re-contextualized as performance. Event Scores are texts that can be seen as proposal pieces or instructions for actions. The idea of the score suggests musicality. Like a musical score, Event Scores can be realized by artists other than the original creator and are open to variation and interpretation.
– Allison Knowles

I consider Fluxus a shared cousin between the music and visual art world. It is fascinating to see how treatment of the scores differs because they are kept by private collectors or at art institutions like the Walker. The scores here are handled with gloves, cautiously maneuvered with a small stainless steel spatula (so as to not bend the corners), and kept in a humidity and temperature-controlled space. When I think about the thousands of scores kept by orchestras, or the ones I have at my studio, I can see a real contrast in both treatment and use. What if Fluxus scores were kept by orchestras, lent out to groups that needed them, rented, and written on?

Although I’ve researched the scores through books, it was grounding to visit the scores in person. (Primary experience wins again!) Fluxus scores were released in editions like Brecht’s Water Yam, Ono’s Grapefruit, and Kosugi’s Events. The scores themselves are casual and airy. Easy and smart. They seem a bit haphazard in a lovely way that feels comfortable and domestic. In looking at Water Yam, a collection of 98 scores by George Brecht, you can imagine George picking up his scores from the printer and sitting down to cut them out with a pair of scissors, all different sizes from tiny to quite large. The pieces are kept atop one another in no particular order inside a small plastic box with a sticker on top. Seeing the scores in person helped me to envision the score as a more dynamic object and imagine why a score is held so central in Fluxus works.

<i>Water Yam</i> by George Brecht

Water Yam by George Brecht

Creating a score is a labor. To create a score, we have to envision ourselves as someone uninitiated with our ideas. We put ourselves in the shoes of another person—an act of empathy—and we offer an experience to anybody who would invest time to decode the document and act it out in real time and space. A score is a set of rules for engagement. It is the same for a recipe, a manual, or a blueprint. Scores come with a contract between the composer and the performer—a contract that could be understood as rules for interpretation or etiquette for the creation of a performance. This is a vernacular that has changed over time in music, different for each generation, although it feels as though the door was blown wide open in the 20th century.
To the Fluxus composers, a score is a narrative experience that exists in the mind.

from <i>Water Yam</i> by George Brecht

from Water Yam by George Brecht

A score is an instigator that weasels its way into your life, as in Milan Knizak’s Cat (1965) which reads, “Get a cat.”  A score is a document of a poetic event already past, a connection to something immensely human.

From Yoko Ono’s 1971 edition of <i>Grapefruit</i>

From Yoko Ono’s 1971 edition of Grapefruit

A score is a tool, multi-faceted and evolving over time. A score invites performance, a presence, and/or goofing off.

‘Goofing off’ is a quality that Fluxus artists certainly honed in performance, and…there are positive qualities to goofing off. Goofing off requires developing a fine-tuned sense of what it means to pause long enough and distance oneself far enough from worldly objects and events to recognize their illusory dimension and thereby reinvest the world with wonder. In order to really goof off well, the instrumental sense of purpose so deeply ingrained in Western ego and epistemology must be abandoned.
– Kristine Stiles “Between Water and Stone” from the Walker’s 1993 catalog In the Spirit of Fluxus

This is the thing that surprised me about the Event Scores: the works are a direct invitation to play, as well as an invitation to presence. Serious focus and purposeless play are both intensely human and increasingly rare. Goofing off is another form of presence, or rather a complete lack of presence when we abandon our veneer to embrace a purposeless sense of wonder. We goof off and are human. In this way, Fluxus and their Event Scores point to our human condition in a way that is wildly dynamic. The score is an invitation, a call to action, and first-hand study and performance of these scores would be healthy for any of us.

Competitions Are For Horses

horse raceEvery lesson with Shulamit Ran at the University of Chicago would begin with her sitting at the desk reading through my new score, internally listening to my music as I anxiously would look around the room. Invariably, my eyes would land on the handwritten sign behind her desk on which was written “’Competitions are for horses, not for artists’—Bela Bartók.” I would be simultaneously heartened and saddened every time I saw this wisdom, which also reminded me of Charles Ives’s famous statement, greatly strengthened by the fact that he uttered these words to the Pulitzer Prize committee in refusing their award, that “prizes are for little boys.”

I’m thinking about composition competitions at the moment for two reasons. First, Paul Mathews’s beautifully written article for NewMusicBox, “The Cycle of Get.” Second, one of my students last week asked me for my help in learning more about appropriate competitions.

My immediate instinct when responding to the student was to repeat the mantra that I learned from one of my previous teachers, which he reiterated at nearly every lesson: “Competitions tell us more about the judges than about the pieces entered.” While I personally have found this statement to be both true and hopeful—for me it implies the necessity of applying for as many things as many times as possible in order to find the right jury for my works—I thought that by itself it might serve to limit the student. Instead, I found myself dispensing more practical advice that perhaps might be useful for the gentle readers of this column.

1.) Yes, composition competitions are very important. You should enter as many as possible. If you keep winning them, you should aim for higher-level awards. Enter ones that you believe you cannot possibly win (as well as ones that you believe you should win)—it’s the only way to ensure that you will find your proper level. Unless you’ve won the Pulitzer and the Grawemeyer, there are always more prestigious awards for which you can try. If you’ve won either the Pulitzer or the Grawemeyer, then you certainly don’t need my advice (but thank you for reading).

2.) Join one of the many organizations like American Composers Forum that publishes listings of available competitions. Read the listings carefully and make certain that your piece is a good match for the written rules. If they ask for specific instrumentation, only submit if your work exactly fits their criteria. Follow their guidelines in terms of length. Your bold art will find a more willing audience if it’s sent to the correct location.

3.) If you are a student who can afford to travel to them, you should apply for summer festivals that offer music composition as a field of study. They can be very expensive but also very useful. Spend some time to find festivals with faculty who you believe best match your aesthetic predilections.

4.) Competitions are a very good reason to have the most beautiful scores possible. They generally receive at least 10 and as many as 100 or more applicants for every prize awarded. Therefore, they look for excuses to dismiss scores. Sometimes they will use improper notation as a reason to stop looking at someone’s music.

5.) Remember that every winning piece will be excellent in some way, but many excellent pieces will lose. The judges for each prize generally change from year to year, as do the entered works, so keep trying for the prizes that are important to you. Winning a competition means that your good work luckily met with a panel that could recognize its innate worth. Losing a competition means that your good work met a panel that didn’t recognize its inherent beauty. Neither success nor failure in competitions should change your perception of the value of your own music. Treat both success and failure lightly.

6.) Yes, entering competitions is important and winning them can be a boost to your career. However, your real job is to become as good of an artist as you possibly can become. You will never be able to control the results of competitions (there is a lot of luck involved in your piece finding the proper panel), but you can always control how much you grow as a composer from one piece to the next. Some of the best composers working today had little success as students and only found their true compositional voice at a later age. Competitions should never be your goal. Your goals should always be about artistry.