Too Old to Be Emerging, Too Young to Die

A woman just lost her husband to cancer. She needs to get back into the workforce to pay the bills. She has some administrative skills, but her resume is slim after caring for her children at home while they were young and caring for her husband while he was sick. She knows she will only be able to land an entry-level position, but she applies for work anyway. Unfortunately, the job postings say “only those under thirty-five are eligible to apply.” As a forty-three year old woman, she can only apply for positions that are more advanced and require experience she has not been able to build.

A career-military man put his twenty-plus years in and has retired, but he wants to continue to work. The Navy gave him many skills and a lot of experience, but the kind of work he did took its toll, and he needs a change. He decided to return to school and prepare for a new career. After graduating, he finds out that he is now too old to apply for entry-level jobs in his new field even though he is only forty.

After twenty years in the practice, a doctor decides she has had enough of doctoring and decides she wants to become a high school science teacher. It turns out, the age limit for new teachers is thirty. She’s out of luck.

Thankfully, in reality, none of these people will have aged out of being able to apply for an entry-level position anywhere. The government has made it against the law to discriminate against someone based on age. That allows individuals to try a new career and reinvent themselves at any age. No one is imprisoned by the career choices they made at the age of eighteen or twenty.

So why is it different in music composition competitions? As a new composer, I have found that almost 100% of composition competitions geared toward “emerging composers” have an age limit. The most generous one I found this past year allowed people under the age of forty to apply, but I have already aged out at forty-three. Most set an age limit of thirty or thirty-five. In fact, I recently saw a music school advertise a scholarship for their graduate program, but the age limit for applying was thirty. (I’m pretty sure that is illegal if the school participates in federal financial aid programs.)

Competitions for emerging composers are very helpful to those composers. Emerging composers don’t have as much experience. They are entry-level composers. Winning a competition helps them build a resume/CV. It increases the chance that the composer’s music will be played by a greater number of groups in a wider geographical area. It helps get their name known, which could lead to commissions. Winning competitions also helps composers apply for teaching positions at schools. It is a way to “prove” to others that one’s composing skills are legitimate, as subjective as the process is. A competition for “emerging composers only” protects the still-learning group from having to compete against those whose skills are well-polished.

But somehow, the organizers of these competitions usually assume that the still-learning are young. Why is that? Do they think only young people have new ideas? Do they think all “older” people must have been composing for decades, and if they haven’t hit success yet it means they are no good? It seems in the world of composition, one must either have a career well-established by the age of thirty-five, or it’s time to give up. There is little place for people who want to enter the field later in life. (Forty is late?!?!)

Although I have been a musician for all my life, I took my first composition lesson at age thirty-seven. I waited for a number of reasons, but the primary one is that I was focused on my family. First, my husband was in graduate school for seven years. Second, I was homeschooling my kids. Third, the money and the time were not there until my youngest was thirteen. Yes, I could have made different choices, but my husband and I made the choices that were best for us at the time. In the situations I described above, the characters could have made different choices. If they are allowed to apply for entry-level positions, why can’t I apply for entry-level competitions?

I occasionally come across “emerging composer” competitions that do not have age limits, but they are few and far-between. I respect these organizers who say that they will determine who qualifies as “emerging”. As a gardener, I know how I would describe an emerging plant. It is one where the tiniest bit of stem has poked through the soil, up until the plant has grown it’s first two sets of true leaves. After that, it is well on its way to growing into a full plant. I don’t know how that translates into composition, but I can say for certain that if a Google search of a composer’s name shows awards, competitions won, works published by a well-known established publisher, performances by symphonies and multiple nationally-known groups, or a teaching position at a place of higher education, the composer is NOT emerging.

A composer of any age, and who has been composing for any length of time, could be emerging because they have not had this kind of success. Expanding the parameters for “emerging” beyond age will promote creativity, over all. It will encourage those who start later in life to compose, and it will encourage those who perhaps compose in the evenings after work, like Charles Ives did, and who have not yet met success.

Forcing beginning composers like me, who have aged out of emerging composer competitions, to compete solely against those who are often already well-established, is very discouraging. It’s like learning how to drive and immediately having to go from zero to 60 merging onto a highway filled with big rigs. It is intimidating. Frankly, I think I deserve points for courage. And I’m not the only one. I know other composers who started later. Some are women, who like me, who raised their children first. Some are men in their sixties. But who cares? Anyone of any age can be an “emerging” composer. It’s time to open up the competitions to people of any age and make the criteria for qualifying as “emerging” based on experience alone.

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