I Was A NYFA Juror, Part 2

Yesterday we published Part 1 of my reminiscence about serving on a NYFA panel to select Award Fellows in the music/sound category, and here’s Part 2:

As the week went on, we jurors continued to plow through a seemingly endless first round of grant applications. Senior administrator David Terry, who guided the jury panel throughout the judging, kept reassuring us that we were right on schedule and would finish up on time, even through it took us until halfway through the fourth day to make it through the first round. After listening and grading the 509th entry, we broke into a spontaneous round of cheering, even though there was no one else in the room to hear us.

After a short break, we started the second round of judging, listening again to longer music selections from the approximately 60 semi-finalists and YES! we finally had permission to discuss the music with each other. This was fun. We all started out as champions of our own particular tastes, but interesting shifts would happen during the discussions. Works that seemed to be relatively uninteresting would become more exciting as someone pointed out the unusual orchestration, or the beauty of the contrapuntal melodic lines or an intriguing combination of cultural elements.

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We also now had access to each applicant’s musical resume, musical statement and optionally a cultural statement and/or musical scores, if they were provided. These were a lot less important than you might think. First, it was stressed repeatedly to the jurors that the awards are based on the music samples submitted, and not on an applicant’s resume, back catalog or what they intended to do with the award. The documentary materials exist solely to put the music samples in perspective. The scores were interesting in that it was a unique opportunity to see how myriad composers scored their music, but again, there wasn’t really time for all five jurors to look at each score in depth; I’m guessing that each juror had no more than 30 seconds with each score. And for me, at least, it’s really hard to listen closely to music and read at the same time so I rarely looked at the documentary materials, peeking only to answer such questions as:

  • Is this a really bad recording or is this supposed to sound this noisy?
  • Am I really hearing hearing two cultural influences from opposite sides of the globe?
  • This is utterly amazing! Who IS this person?

Once we got through the second round, we had narrowed a field of 60 semifinalists down to a group of about 25. In the final round, there’s no more discussion. It’s just a show of hands, with 3 votes meaning the applicant is awarded a fellowship.

David read the first name on the list, we listened to about 20 seconds of the work and he asked us to vote. 5 hands went up, and he intoned: “_______ is our first Award Fellow! Congratulations, _______. ” ( I’m sworn from revealing who got the most votes, and any details about the applicants or the discussion the jurors had.)

We all clapped and cheered. After 4 1/2 days of hard work, it only took about about fifteen minutes to get through the third round and select all eleven Fellows.

I should note there were a few I didn’t vote for, and other applicants that I felt were highly deserving but the other jurors didn’t see in the same light. The final eleven Award Fellows submitted works that everyone on the jury panel thought were very good and at least three jurors thought were great. And here they are:

Maggie Dubris
Eric Eigner
Vivian Fung
Shelley Hirsch
Susie Ibarra
Rudresh Mahanthappa
Robert Rodriguez
Neil Rolnick
Elliott Sharp
James Thirlwell
Bora Yoon

So, was it worth it? Oh yes.

In the first round, listening to sample after sample after sample, I found myself becoming a better listener. There were pieces of real beauty, works of breathtaking simplicity and music that I admired for its sheer audacity. Most of the works were good, and some were magnificent. I was inspired by what I heard and also felt incredibly lucky to have this chance to peer into this snapshot of the collective mind of my peers.

As the week went on and I got to know my fellow jurors, I was really impressed with each person’s unequivocal love of music, depth of knowledge and generosity of spirit. Our discussions in the second round of judging opened my ears and stretched my mind far beyond my musical preferences and prejudices.

Oh, and the NYFA staff was as nice as could be. They made this a great experience.

Finally, here’s some takeaway points, if you’re considering applying for the 2012 music Fellowships:

  1. Use your best moment of sound as your sound sample and cue to the beginning of that best moment. Don’t waste time on an introductory section. You only have scant moments to make an impression, so make it as compelling as possible. Sadly, I remember some some musical samples that were only beginning to get interesting when their time was up
  2. I feel confident saying that at least on this panel, a group of fairly good musicians playing a remarkable work would win out over world-class musicians playing a boring work. Musicianship did matter, but musical vision mattered more.
  3. Make sure your sound samples sound good. You’re competing against other people whose sound samples sound very, very good, and while the NYFA office has a nice sound system, it’s not YOUR sound system,. Try playing your CD on a variety of other players: in your car, at your mom’s, on a boombox…and make sure it’s not distorting (unless, of course, that’s the effect you’re aiming for.) We listened to the samples at what I would describe as a fairly low volume – loud enough to hear but not loud enough to fatigue, and definitely not typical performance or rock volumes.
  4. Normalize your CD so it’s not too quiet after the previous artist’s entry (unless, of course, that’s the effect you’re aiming for.)
  5. If you work in disparate styles, should you submit two samples that are similar in style or two samples showing radically different styles? This is a tough call. Ideally, you just want to submit your most compelling work. I remember voting for some works where I loved one sample and didn’t really care for the second sample, so you might hedge your bets this way, but at the same time, I also remember voting higher for an applicant that had two samples I liked than an applicant with just one sample I liked. Honestly, I think this is going to be different for every juror, so I’m not much help here. Go with your gut, or flip of coin or something.
  6. The grant application asks for a musical resume, a musical statement and, optionally, a cultural statement and musical score. The thing to keep in mind is that these exist only to help put the composition in perspective. The judging is based only on the musical samples you provide, so don’t worry if you can’t furnish a resume a mile long or can’t think of anything to say. Don’t sweat this, it’s not all that important.
  7. Are you afraid that you’ll get laughed at if you apply? You won’t. There was absolutely no disparagement of any of the samples we listened to. No laughing, no eye-rolling, no snorting; there was a reverence in the room and no one on the juror panel every said or implied that a work wasn’t very good, because I think they admired, as I did, the courage it takes to submit your work for judging.
  8. Last and most importantly: the awards are, to some extent, the luck of the draw, in that they rely on the votes of five jurors and their composite taste in music. Keep in mind that what one panel may dismiss as uninteresting, another panel, comprised of five different jurors, may well find captivating. If you don’t win one year, you shouldn’t hesitate to try again when the grant opportunity comes around again two years later. Keep at it until the right combination of jurors hears your unique musical vision.

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