Guidelines for Organising a Composition Competition by Michael Norris

Michael Norris, CANZ Member, Associate Professor, NZSM, Chair, SOUNZ Te Pae Whakamaherehere Kaitito–Composers Advisory Panel

Below are some guidelines and questions to consider if you are thinking of putting together a competition for composers. Though CANZ openly supports and encourages new competitions for composers, we do think that there are some important things to resolve before advertising your competition, particularly if you want to attract the best composers to your competition.


This is probably one of the first things you need to consider, and can be the trickiest to resolve if you’re not sure where the prize money is coming from. It’s also important for another reason: most established professional composers don’t enter competitions, as they already receive guaranteed incomes from their composing and/or teaching. The honour of winning a competition alone is not enough to tempt them to enter. In fact, even some of the top young composers these days are getting performances and readthroughs by the best ensembles in the country, so the promise of a performance or a small prize is not enough to tempt them to enter.

Therefore, you will need to provide a strong incentive for the good composers to enter your competition: they are probably already receiving paid commissions, so they need to feel that there’s a good enough reward that it might be worth them taking time out. In short: $200 isn’t much of a reward for a month’s work; instead, we recommend that all competitions have a first prize of at least NZ$1000 to consistently attract the best work from around New Zealand, more if it’s for an ensemble or orchestra (for instance, the NZSO’s Lilburn Prize had an attractive first prize of $12,000, although even they had difficulty in attracting high-quality entries). Having second and third place prizes are also good in increasing the likelihood that composers will enter. Other bonuses, such as a guaranteed public performance and/or CD recording/broadcast, can also beef up its attractiveness.

If you do not already have an existing prize purse set up, then the problem of finding money for your competition becomes more difficult. Creative New Zealand is the main arts funding body in New Zealand; however, as far as I’m aware, they haven’t historically provided funds for competitions, preferring to directly fund commissions. Still, it’s worth talking to them for advice.


Some competitions have a “theme” that all entries should conceptually conform to. Unless this is specifically tied in with the funding source, however, CANZ generally does not recommend this practice. We feel that you will get the most interesting submissions when composers are free to choose their own topic, their own style and their own concepts.


Consider carefully who your jury will be. Here are some guidelines:

  • Use an odd number of people on the jury: this hopefully will avoid a “hung” jury
  • There should be at least one established composer on the jury, preferably more
  • Ensure you clearly communicate with each jury member what is expected of them, and how much work it will entail, before they agree to be on the panel
  • Ensure the jury members know whether they are being remunerated or not — some jury members may be happy to do it unpaid, but many will want some sort of remuneration for their time. If you do pay an established composer to be a jury member, then consider whether it would be useful for them to provide feedback on entries as well, particularly if your competition has an educational aspect to it.


CANZ can help advertise your competition in the following ways:

  • A free ad in Canzonetta, the bi-monthly newsletter
  • A free ad on the CANZ noticeboard
  • A free listing on the “Opportunities” page of the CANZ website
  • A free ad on the CANZ discussion list

These three means of dissemination have a combined readership of some 150 New Zealand composers. Further places to contact would include SOUNZ (Centre for New Zealand Music) and APRA (Australasian Performing Rights Association).

Competition Criteria

It is important to specify exactly which forces (instruments) should be written for, and a guideline of the expected durations of compositions. In some cases you might need to indicate whether an electronic part could be included. But note that required durations should reflect the size of the prize purse: in other words, very few people, if any, would write a 10-15 minute piece for only $500 potential reward.


It is important to answer the following criteria of originality in the rules (also see below)

  • Should compositions be written especially for this competition?
  • If not, how recent should the piece be?
  • Can the piece have been performed before? Workshopped?
  • Can the piece have been written by more than one person?
  • Can this piece be an arrangement of an existing work?

Note that the more stringent with originality you are, the fewer the number of entries; on the other hand, it does mean that the winner will be an entirely new work. This is a fairly standard condition for most international competitions.


Composing takes time. You need to give your potential entrants plenty of time from the time that the competition is announced. Ideally there should be at least six months between the date of announcement and the deadline for scores. A mid-to-late-year deadline gives student composers some time to work on pieces during the year.

Submission Procedure

Make sure you clearly understand and clearly articulate to entrants how the submission procedure will work. Some competitions have a first round of “expressions of interest”, followed by a second deadline for scores; the jury is out on whether or not this aids the process.


Competitions should never attempt to gain copyright of submitted works. Composers rely on copyright to earn royalties, and would be extremely loathe to enter any competition in which they give up their copyright. The competition may wish to obtain the right to a first performance within a one-year period, but should not retain the performance rights beyond that.

Entry Fee

Some major international competitions have an entry fee. In New Zealand, however, this is not standard practice, the feeling being that an entry fee will tend to discourage younger composers from entering.

Entry Form/Rules

Aside from asking for details, your entry form should list the rules, regulations and criteria for the competition. CANZ recommends the following rules are included on your entry form:

  1. Clearly and unambiguously state the forces and duration of entered works, and any other criteria specific to your competition.

    Sample: Submitted works shall be a piece for ensemble of at least 5 instruments from the list provided, lasting between 7 and 10 minutes in duration. No electronics are permitted.

  2. Clearly and unambiguously state any age and nationality restrictions, and other restrictions which will immediately disqualify someone from entering.

    Sample: Only works by living composers, born after 10 November 1966, who hold a New Zealand passport will be eligible to enter.

  3. Clearly list the originality criteria.

    Sample: Works must have been written specially for this competition, and must not have been previously performed in public. The work must be entirely the original composition of the entrant. No arrangements of existing works will be considered.

  4. Clearly spell out the submission procedure including deadline. (NB: using the postmark as an indication of submission date is the fairest method.) You might consider making the competition anonymous entry, for added transparency. If the competition requires parts, you should make a separate date for submission of parts, once a shortlist of entrants has been made.

    Sample: Applications must be submitted anonymously by the following means: a code name must be clearly visible on each document included in the application. PLEASE NOTE: the code name replaces your name and is the sole means of identifying the work.This code name is indispensable; it must be made up of figures and letters only. Candidates must ensure that nothing that could make it possible to identify them appears anywhere on the scores. Otherwise, the work will be excluded from the competition. Applications must include the full score (laser-printed if possible), a sealed envelope containing the composers name, address, email, telephone, a certified copy of an official document establishing the composer’s age and nationality, a short biography, a declaration signed and dated by the candidate stating that the work has been written specially for this competition, that it has not been published, that it has never been publicly performed, even in part. Applications that do not contain all the documents requested above shall not be accepted for the competition. Candidates shall send their application by to CANZ, PO Box 4065, Wellington. Applications must be postmarked NO LATER THAN 15 JULY 2008. Only one entry per composer will be allowed.

  5. List the prize(s). As mentioned before, the size of the prize purse is directly related to the number of entrants you will receive. Composers have to think that it is worth their time to write a piece for your competition, when there is the likelihood that they will not get paid for it. Generally speaking, a prize purse of less than NZD$1000 is only likely to attract students or recent graduates. List any rights if this is important.

    Sample: The winner will receive a prize of NZD $5000 and a certificate; the work will be recorded on CD and/or DVD and will be broadcast on Radio New Zealand Concert. The competition reserves the right to premiere any works selected in the top three within one year of the competition deadline.

  6. Discuss the jury for the competition and any rules surrounding the jury. Include a standard disclaimer about the jury’s decision.

    Sample: The works will be examined by a jury made up of the following individuals: X, Y, Z. Members of the jury may not enter this competition. Any jury member who is aware that one of his or her pupils has submitted a work must find out the code name of the work in question and make it known to the organisers of the Competition. The jury member concerned may not take part in the voting on the work in question. The jury’s decision is final; no correspondence will be entered into.

Final Words

Remember that the composition community in New Zealand is not that large. Even the most prestigious composition residencies in the country only receive between 3–10 applications a year, so do not expect piles of entries for your competition. However, your competition will be playing an important role not only in the increased visibility of composition in New Zealand, but also in the increasing perception of the viability of a career in composition for young composers, something our country needs if we are to train a new breed of excellent composers for the future health of our culture.