What I’m Looking For As A Choral Composition Contest Judge
Updated: Mar 30
In my capacity as Inversion’s Artistic Director, I get to judge, as part of a team or alone, our sponsored composition contests each season. Entering your compositions into contests can be a great way to get your music out there and seen/heard, and all the better if you win! The reality, of course, is that there are a s**t ton of excellent composers all vying for attention in the same space. That can be discouraging, I know. But I have some advice and some encouragement if you’re looking for it…
Roughly ten years ago, I read a terrific blog post from Eric Whitacre about paying entry fees when submitting your piece to a contest. I can summarize his sentiment in one word… DON’T! He’s absolutely right. If you’re paying for someone to look over your artwork, it should be because they’re going to give you educational feedback in return. The point of a composition contest should be rewarding the winner, not asking those who fall short to finance first prize.
As a judge I’ve gotten to look over hundreds of choral scores, many of them musically excellent. There are, however, a few things that act as a quick filter in cases where I or a panel I’m leading have upwards of 100 submissions to evaluate. I’ve numbered them to make it as clear as I’m able.
1. Follow the damn rules! Nothing says “I’m young and inexperienced” like flagrantly ignoring contest requirements that are clearly printed. If I’m the person setting the guidelines, which is typically the case for Inversion, and I ask that all a cappella submissions include a piano reduction, assume that’s not an optional request. Don’t turn in a piece that uses a Maya Angelou or Shel Silverstein poem without documentation that you have permission. Do your homework!
2. Take into consideration the nature of the organization sponsoring the competition. You may have written a 16-part, a cappella masterpiece, but if you submit it to a contest offered by an un-auditioned community chorus, your piece won’t win. Even considering Inversion’s two professional ensembles, if your piece is going to take me longer and much great effort to rehearse because of its difficulty, that may well sink your chances of winning. I have a limited amount of time to give to the rep for any concert, including works I’ve written myself. Don’t audaciously assume I’ll drop everything and devote a disproportionate amount of rehearsal time to what you’ve sent us.
3. Make sure your score is easy to read. I don’t mean it should be easily sight-readable, but it needs to be legible and the “road map” needs to be very clear. Lyrics should be in a font that is more practical than ornate. I totally understand that not all musicians, especially younger composers, cannot afford the sticker price of Finale or Sibelius. You don’t deserve to be punished for that, but do whatever you can to make sure the music you’ve put your heart and soul into is comprehensible. If I can’t read it, I can’t program it.
4. Don’t use Papyrus font for your title! This one may be slightly unfair of me, but I hate, hate, hate, Papyrus font. It’s lame and makes me biased against your music, which may well be stunningly beautiful.
5. I hope this goes without saying, but write something good! You may be surprised how easily we can tell how much a piece meant to you during its process of creation. Are you teaching me your harmonic language as you go, and does it truly speak for you? Is there form to your piece or simply 25 of your best ideas separated by fermatas to keep you from writing coherent transitions? Did you pick a text that was important to you, and did you do it justice to the best of your ability? Does your work convey musical maturity?
Finally, I want to give you a few words of encouragement, as promised. You should enter composition contests. With Inversion, we don’t announce runners up. That said, I have personally reached out to multiple composers the last several years, who did not win our competition, but whose music impressed me, nonetheless. In some cases, I ended up programming their original submission at a later date, or even commissioned them to write a piece for us. It is a privilege for me, and I believe for those who work with me, to absorb and evaluate music we’ve never heard before. It’s one of the highlights of my job. The judging process is overwhelmingly subjective, and I know our final decisions matter. But keep in mind, just because you may not win a contest I’m judging, it doesn’t mean your music didn’t affect me. If it’s good, I’ll remember you.