Has it really been since February since I posted anything? Oh well, it’s been busy. I have some ideas for posts, so maybe I’ll catch up over the next couple of weeks. Here’s one that feels compelling at the moment.
The absolute worst part of cohosting a regional Society of Composers conference so far has been having to send out the rejection emails to 200 or so composers whose work we didn’t accept. It was made a little better by getting an email right back from a composer asking for comments on his piece. I don’t know if my email back to him helped at all, but here’s a version of what I told him:
Dear XXXX,We didn’t solicit comments from the reviewers, just a rating indicating their interest in programming the pieces, but I can give you some general insight both relating to this conference and to several others where I have had work accepted in the past.Of the nearly 500 submissions, we accepted 70, or about 14%, which is actually a little low. I think we got more submissions than is typcial because we will be one of only two SCI conferences in 2012, and there was no national conference this year. The question, then, is how do you get into that 14%? Some categories are a good bet, while others are not. A school can typically program lots of solo and chamber pieces, but even though everyone writes band, choir and orchestra music, very few pieces in those categories can be accepted at any given conference. For example, we took four pieces from the Band/Wind Ensemble category, three from the Young Band category (where the odds were actually pretty good), and about ten from the Chorus category and four orchestra pieces. These numbers are actually relatively high, and reflect WT’s excellent ensembles and the participation of groups from a second University and a community group. I’ve been to conferences with no orchestral performance, or one SCI orchestral piece on a concert of meat-and-potatoes. At the 2010 Region VI conference, I had a band piece played, and it was one of two, and the only full band piece. When I submit to one of these things, I tend to submit one large ensemble piece and try to find another submission that is more to my advantage, statistically. Having a big piece played feels good, and justifies the trip, for sure, but it’s tough to make happen, because the field of “competitors” is large. Also, visit the hosting school’s website and figure out what their strengths might be–if they don’t have a viola professor, for instance, think twice about submitting a solo viola piece.Another fact is that it’s very easy for conference organizers to accept a piece for which there is already a performer, either within the hosting school or from outside. If you know someone at a nearby (or not-so-nearby) school, try to get them to agree to play your piece–if you’re lucky, they’ll do it once at their school and again at the conference, or maybe come to your school. College faculty members and graduate students need these kinds of performances for their CVs and promotion and tenure files just as we do, and colleges frequently will pay their travel to a conference to play. If you can think strategically in that sense, you can boost your acceptance rate. I started getting accepted a lot more when I started sending the names of people who would come play the music at the conference.Again, with large ensembles, this is less of a possibility. Sometimes you luck out–for the 2009 National Conference in Santa Fe, I was able to submit the names of two performers who were at New Mexico State University, a quick drive up the road, and for the current conference, I have a piano piece being played by a pianist from Dallas. Some of this comes down to my approach to deciding what to write and when to write it–when I got my first college teaching gig, I decided that I wouldn’t write “for the drawer,” that is, that I would always have at least an oral agreement with someone who was interested in playing the piece before I wrote it. That policy has served me well, along with keeping in touch with as many people as I can over facebook. I don’t live in a major metropolitan area (although that is changing soon), so the digital approach to networking has been crucial. To most performers, the question, “Can I write you a piece?” sounds a lot better than, “Can you play this piece I wrote?” A good idea is to write a piece that you can perform as well–I’m a trombonist, and I always feel good when I get a chance to play my own music, which has gotten my music performed in New York City and at Aspen.The only other thing I can say is that you should make your submission look as good as possible. Your score should look good–not just the notes put into Sibelius or Finale, but edited to show some concern for layout and formatting. I always tell students that not only do you not have to accept the default settings, you shouldn’t in every case. At the very least, make the prettiest possible layout that you can and change the fonts for non-musical text to something tasteful but not Times New Roman. This can help tremendously with publication as well. For this conference, we accepted recordings, but didn’t require them, and I instructed our reviewers to consider pieces primarily on the
score, not the recording, but it makes sense to me to submit a recording if you possibly can.You’ll get lots of advice regarding MIDI realizations. I think it is almost always a mistake to send one–they usually sound terrible, and it lets the reviewer know that you haven’t had a good performance yet. SCI isn’t really for giving premieres, in my opinion, although we do have them on our conferences. I guess that fits in with my philosophy of what to write and when (see above), because I want to know that a piece will be played, not depend on the possibility of a conference performance. I think of pieces having a life, and these days they tend to have a high mortality rate–I’ve written some pieces that were stillborn (premiere never happened), some that died after their premiere (like the piece I wrote for a University’s centennial with a very specific text), and some that go on to lead long, healthy lives (my greatest hit right now is a horn and marimba piece that started selling copies when a performer put up a YouTube video). A conference, to my thinking, is a great place for a second or third performance–it gets the piece into the ears of my colleagues, exposes it to a new part of the country, and puts it on my CV in a meaningful way.