Wednesday, December 8, 2010

"Dear Composer..."

There are many wonderful moments in the professional life of a composer: the satisfaction of a newly completed work; hearing a piece come to life for the first time - especially in the hands of very talented and experienced performers; a good review; and, of course, the thrill of the premiere itself complete with a warm reception from the audience. Then there are the downsides: hours of work; writer's block; deadline stress; editing scores and parts; lack of time to work; less than stellar reviews; and especially the arrival of the very thin envelope in the mail. 

All composers recognize this envelope immediately. On the outside, there is the logo of the competition or ensemble to whom we sent our music in hopes of winning an award or performance opportunity. On the inside there is only the thin piece of paper. It doesn't matter the contest or the sponsoring organization, they all contain pretty much the same prose:

"Dear Composer,
Thank you for your submission to [insert name of sponsor]. After a careful review of all submissions, we are sorry to inform you that [name of your favorite piece] was not selected for the [insert name of opportunity] at this time. There were a large number of applicants this year and the selection process was extremely difficult. 
We wish you best of luck in your future creative work and encourage you to submit again next year."

This is the letter we receive most often. One would imagine that a composer would become numb to the familiar words in the thin envelope over the years. Yet, strangely, this letter always stings me. Everytime. These messages also seem to come in bunches and are not merely confined to the  thin envelope waiting patiently in the mailbox, but lurk in email mailboxes as well. The only way to make them stop, seemingly, is to just stop sending music out.

But that's no answer.

All creative artists must embrace the unending cycle of defeats and victories that define our careers. It helps me a little bit to also find myself often on the other side of that message; sitting on a selection committee that ultimately decides against awarding an opportunity to another composer. Some decisions are no-brainers. Many, however, are reached achingly and after much discussion. 

This week's thin envelope and letter.
This week, as I am smarting from a couple of rejection letters, I try to remember an incident that happened to me many years ago. I was out of town sitting on a panel that was charged with evaluating compositions for a funding opportunity. There were a great number of applicants and the process took several days to complete. One evening, the panel, along with the facilitator, went out to dinner after a long day of evaluating composition entries. At the dinner, the facilitator of the panel introduced me to one of his colleagues (not on the panel but joining us for dinner) and remarked to this person what a good orchestral composer I was. This immediately raised my eyebrows. Not that I don't think I can write well for orchestra, it was just that I had not talked about or presented my music to this facilitator. I couldn't help but ask him how he was aware of my orchestral work. He responded that he had recently sat on a panel that was evaluating orchestral submissions for a composition contest and revealed to me that my piece was the last one cut before the panel arrived at a prize winner. "Yeah, " he continued, "everyone really loved your work."

At first I wasn't sure how to react. My first cynical thought was, "All right! Out of all the losers...I was the BEST loser!" Yet, I was oddly flattered nevertheless. At least I had been in the game; a real contender. It just hadn't worked out that time. And in the end, that's what keeps me submitting. There are just so many composers vying for so few opportunities that most of the time, you just miss. One can either be constantly hurt, pick up one's toys and run home or rub the sting out and try again.

I guess I'll try again.