in Columns

On my music and beyond: How do you win composition competitions?

by Tomi Räisänen

On the date of publication of this column, Tomi Räisänen’s organ concerto Pulmo, which was awarded the grand prize in the Kaija Saariaho Organ Composition Competition, is being premiered on the new organ at the Music Centre in Helsinki. “As a composer, it is good for you to aim to improve and challenge yourself”, writes Räisänen.

Whenever I give the International Composition Masterclass, ‘Sävellyspaja’, I make a habit of inviting the students to “ask about anything” in their last private lesson. Last summer, I was amazed to find that more than half of the participants were interested to know how one wins composition competitions. You might imagine that students attending a composition course are there to learn about composing, but on the other hand I can very well identify with the concerns that many of them have about their future after graduation. There must be more composers alive today than at any other time in world history. This is a discipline that you can study globally, and music universities seem to be churning out a steady stream of fledgling composers. Will there be enough work for all of them? No wonder that some see a composition competition as a means for jump-starting their career.

When contemplating a music competition of any kind, often someone will bring up a quote attributed to Béla Bartók: “Competitions are for horses, not for artists.” (There are multiple variants of this quote.) This is generally seen in the context of his unwillingness to sit on competition juries. But if we interpret his words to mean that competing in the arts is futile by default, we go badly astray. It is a harsh reality that competition – dare one say struggling for survival – is a core feature of the life of any artist, musician or composer: first, you compete for entry to an educational institution in often gruelling entrance examinations, then you submit your works hither and yon in the hope of getting performances, and you compete for grants with innumerable other applicants. It’s a tough game to try to get a slice of the meagre resources in our marginal field.


If competing is a fact of life, why not enter a composition competition? Of course, if you’ve managed to get on the grant circuit and you have commissions to keep you busy, you may not need to do so. However, only a select few are so fortunate, and the astounding numbers of entrants in just about every competition demonstrate that there is a keen interest in these competitions out there.


On the other hand, it is entirely understandable that some resent the notion of competing against other people. I myself engaged in competitive sports in my youth, and perhaps because of this I have never had a problem with this.




There is a wide and diverse range of composition competitions in the world. There are prestigious ones with handsome prizes, dismal ones with scarcely any remuneration, and everything in between. There are also scams whose principal purpose is to charge fees from gullible entrants. A good competition generally has an entry fee that is modest compared to the prizes and considering the context of the performances for prize-winners, or no entry fee at all.


Competitions often have restrictions, the most common one being an age limit. This is understandable; after all, there are separate categories for junior athletes. By contrast, it is a bit odd to find competitions restricting entry to specific groups of people or, say, women only. For me, the best and most valuable competitions are those that are open to everyone, irrespective of nationality, age or gender.


Competitions usually invite applicants to submit their entries under an alias, their identities not being revealed until perhaps in the final round. Anonymity has its benefits. You do not need to fear adverse impacts on your reputation, because the names of entrants who did not make it to the final round are never made public. There is no shame in not winning a prize. Anonymity also guarantees equal opportunities, as the music will be evaluated solely on artistic criteria, without any consideration for the composer’s background or personal characteristics.


The names of the jury members, however, are always known, and this may have a bearing on whether composers are willing to enter a competition. Perhaps it would be wise to assemble juries of as diverse collection of members as possible, in keeping with the spirit of the times. Yet on the other hand, we should not have jury members who are known to aggressively favour their particular stylistic preferences. Competitions rarely mandate that they are looking for works in a specific style, and juries must be able to view entries with an open mind.




It is always worth considering how much time it is sensible to invest in participating in a competition. The competitions that allow you to submit an existing work that has already been performed are the most effortless. A case in point for myself was the Tokyo Irino Prize in 2007, which I won with Stheno (2006) for recorder tubes and prepared guitar. A similar opportunity emerged in London in 2019 with the ONMC competition, a small competition with only (!) 150 entrants, which I won with my rather old piece Diabolic Dialogue (2001/2002) for clarinet and cello. Winning a bit of money and a performance by doing virtually no extra work at all – what’s to complain? 


Sometimes it is convenient to be able to enter a competition with a piece that you are writing anyway, as a sort of ‘bonus’. Of course, you need to have the commissioning party or partner agree to this and make sure that such a move does not violate the rules of the competition. On yet another personal note that was especially gratifying, when I was writing my marimba concerto Portal (2019), I entered it in the IV International Uuno Klami Composition Competition and won 3rd prize and the audience prize, totalling a generous sum of money, plus two world-class performances. The same thing happened with my ensemble work Tele (2021), which I was writing as part of a Covid-themed project. This project coincided with the Siuntio 560 composition competition organised by the Lux Musicae festival here in Finland, and again I secured a cash prize and an excellent performance as a bonus.


As a composer, it is good for you to aim to improve and challenge yourself. Sometimes a composition competition can provide a context for this. Recently I wanted to test myself to see whether I could write accessible but interesting contemporary music for children and adolescents. I entered the P.J. Hannikainen choral composition competition with the youth choir work Kiire (2021) and the Pirkanmaan Pinna composition competition with the youth orchestra work Kalalle (2023). I must have done something right because both pieces won 2nd prize.




Over Christmas 2020 I examined and tried out a theoretical pitch-set scheme that I had worked out. I noticed that a composition competition for the Tampere Piano Competition was in progress to find new works for pianists to play in the semifinals of that competition. Pragmatically minded that I am, I decided to cast my theoretical study in the form of a piano piece. In a brilliant instance of killing two birds with one stone, my solo piano work Hile (2020) won the competition and was given no fewer than eight performances by the semifinalists in the Piano Competition.


By contrast, if you intend to enter a competition calling for a large orchestral work and have no plan B, you need to think really carefully about what you are doing. Writing such a big piece can take months, and if you don’t win a prize, chances are that the piece will never be performed. There is always a huge number of entrants, and the risk of failure is high.


Such risk notwithstanding, I found the international Kaija Saariaho Organ Composition Competition to be an attractive ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity. The prizes were princely, and the world premiere would undoubtedly be spectacular. The new concert organ at the Music Centre in Helsinki is an instrument without parallel in the world, and I was keen to write a concerto for it. I realised that no one intended to commission me to write such a thing, so doing well in the competition was my only shot at making the dream come true. Sometimes in life you have to take a risk, and this time it paid off: my organ concerto Pulmo (2023) was one of the winners of the orchestra category in the competition.




So how do you win composition competitions? It’s a tricky if not impossible question, unless you happen to have a crystal ball and know how to use it. Maybe the only thing that is certain is that – like in sports – you just have to “give it your best shot and see how far it goes”.


Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi