The 5 Cs of (arts) grant applications


From 2009-2013, in my role as Chair of the Music Board of the Australia Council for the Arts, I assessed over 2000 grant applications. This included reading thousands of pages and listening to countless hours of support materials – which was a rare privilege, and extremely illuminating re. the vast range of musical activity occurring around Australia.

Based on this experience, many people have asked general advice as to how to write grant applications. There is no magic bullet. However, the following points should be borne in mind: what I call the “5 Cs”.

  1.  Clear

Ensure that your written text is to the point. The entire proposal should be easily understandable to a musician from a genre or background unrelated to your own. Or even better, to a member of the general public. Avoid technical jargon as much as possible. If assessors can’t understand the written application, will they be likely to support your project in the meeting?

  1. Concise

There is nothing wrong with information presented in a matter-of-fact, readable manner. More words does not equal a better application.

I recall one round that had 1200+ pages of applications to read. In addition there were hours and hours of support material to listen to. So: avoid waffle – assessors may not have time to appreciate it.

  1. Comprehensive

As an assessor, it’s pretty easy to tell a project that is well considered and of an overall excellent (i.e. fundable) standard. It will typically be achievable rather than speculative. All information necessary to make the project achievable will be included. If there are parts of the application that are vague and/or missing, it’s not helpful to the proposal’s chances.

It is worth trying to imagine the sort of questions you would have about a project if you were an assessor: for example, “who is going to do the arrangement of the string parts”, “who are these ‘Musicians TBC’ and how do we know they will be of an excellent standard”, “what is the recording venue for the project and why is it a good choice for this proposal.”

Budgets are a good way to ensure that you have covered all relevant details necessary for the project to be viable. (And they should be balanced).

Confirmations are important. While it’s often difficult to have venues, artists etc. confirmed when the application is due, another application in the same round probably will. So they will score higher on the Planning criteria, thereby putting your application at a disadvantage. And therefore you will be less likely to be funded.

  1. Criteria

The criteria are always published prior to the grant round closing. Peers are instructed in and before the meeting to assess applications according to the criteria. So, in essence, the funding body is telling you what they are looking for.

Ensure that your application addresses the criteria in a clear and convincing manner. There is no harm in being obvious in this. Use the other questions in the grant application to address the criteria. For example, if you are asked to name the artists you are working with, and one of the assessment criteria is “Quality of key personnel”, explain why these artists are the best people for the project in addition to saying who they are.

(And in case you were wondering, “quality of written expression in application” was never on the list of criteria. So we never funded an application on the English language skills of the applicant.)

  1. Convincing

Typically, grant rounds will be extraordinarily competitive. You may have a fantastic project being proposed – but so will the majority of other applicants. So it is worth making the value of your proposal obvious and explicit. Why is this project worth funding? What is valuable about the proposal in the broader context? (i.e. beyond that you want to do it). Modesty is not necessarily a virtue in grant applications.

If something you are applying for is extremely important, convince the assessors that it is so. Otherwise they will fund something else.

And don’t presume that all assessors will automatically be familiar with the importance of the proposal you are submitting, nor with your history. Don’t take anything for granted.


There are a lot of other suggestions I could make:

  • this is hugely important – ensure that your support material is of the highest quality and is relevant to the proposal;
  • talk through the application with the staff prior to submission to ensure it’s all going to be fundable according to published guidelines;
  • see what has been funded in the past including amounts funded;
  • register to be a peer so you can have first hand-experience of what happens in assessment meetings, and get personal experience of the process (and other applications);
  • if not successful the first time, try again after taking any feedback into account and changing the application if necessary.

Please note: these opinions are purely my own, and do not represent any sort of official Australia Council policy or official direction on how to write grant applications.

Thank you, Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014)

Peter Sculthorpe was my teacher, mentor and friend since I started learning with him in 1987. In addition he is without doubt one of the most original and unique composers that Australia has ever had. The following is the text of a speech given at him memorial service at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, 29 October 2014.

Just like so many attendees here tonight, I got to know Peter via being a student at the Music Department at the University of Sydney. As a young high school student I took the leap into the risky unknown – taking a music degree rather than computer science in my case – and when deciding where to go, the achievements of Peter Sculthorpe, combined with the reputation of the University of Sydney, made the choice pretty clear.

I imagine that this progression into the world of music was pretty typical for the majority of my fellow students who studied with Peter.

And I’m sure that for this majority, their time with Peter similarly changed their life, for the better.

As a teacher, Peter was so much more than a ‘do this, do that’, technical sort of person. He wasn’t shy to give advice and suggestions when needed, but much of the time, lessons with Peter were wide-ranging discussions on an immense variety of topics, on everything from music and culture, to Australian and international society, through to the workings of his brother’s gun shop.

What Peter was really doing for us in our interactions was setting up a framework. He was setting out for us what it was like to be a composer, not just thinking about the notes on the page. It was the framework of responsibility that we had as budding and emerging artists to Australian, and artistic, cultures.

It may seem self-evident in retrospect, but Peter was showing us that, just like almost everything in life, when it comes to writing music, having both a brain AND a heart is the most important thing. It is about being honest and true to oneself. It is about demonstrating respect and a desire to understand the work of others, even if it comes from places or approaches that initially seemed strange. It is inherently about recognizing honesty.

Back in the 80s and 90s, we need to remember that this was a somewhat radical response. My own recollections at the time were that continuing the latest musical trends from Europe, for example, were what was important, and anything else was old hat, or not worth consideration.

Peter’s desire was not for us to blindly follow trends or aesthetics, but instead to find what was in ourselves. To find our own unique voice, and to develop our skills to allow this uniqueness to flourish and find our own place in the world.

Don’t just do something because it’s trendy, or the ‘done thing’ – do everything because it’s important to you, because it comes from your heart, find your own way.

What an important lesson this was. It is THE most important lesson of all.

I know I wasn’t alone in receiving such generous and optimistic advice from Peter. How do I know this? Well, it’s all around us.

Australian music now, I believe, in a better place than ever before. Certainly the standard of works by Australian composers is consistently outstanding. Australian performers play increasing amounts of Australian music. OUR music. Audiences, both in Australia and internationally, are responding to Australian music. It is intrinsically linked to an increased sense of self-confidence about our unique place in the world: that, musically at least, we are not an outpost of Old Europe or a little cousin to the USA – unless we want to be.

Peter is intrinsic to this. Not just through the music, but in his influence, his foresight, his generosity and wisdom that has been taken up by so many with whom he came into contact. For example, arts organizations like the Australia Council, ABC Classic FM, the symphony orchestras and Musica Viva Australia all bear marks of his indelible influence, even if he wasn’t immediately associated with them – because of his vast range of students and Peter’s philosophy.

And not just organizations associated with Western classical music. When discussing my interest in electronic dance music with Peter, he was really excited and talked about how he would love to make a techno piece one day. What a surprise! But not really. As Peter said, there is room enough for all of us in Australia, and for a generosity of spirit and approach.

Can we imagine a successful musical Australia without that which Peter Sculthorpe brought to it? No, it’s pretty much inconceivable – it would be just so different.

Peter was indeed a musical giant – not just through his own music, but on the effects he had upon others. It will continue to resonate into the future. On behalf of all your past students, Peter, and all of those Australian composers still to come, I salute you.

Photo of Peter and I, ca. 2008, by Adrienne Sach.

Photo of Peter and I, ca. 2008, by Adrienne Sach.

It is better to be feared than loved – Premiere Performances

I have completed a new, large work for the Sydney Philharmonia Festival Chorus and the Sydney Youth Orchestra, which will be premiered in the Sydney Opera House on 8 and 9 October, 2014.  The lyrics come from the writings of Niccolo Machiavelli, whose image is placed above this post.

Following are the program notes.  Or go here for information from Faber Music on the instrumentation and choir sizes.

There is nothing quite like singing in a choir, as so many people in Australia and the world know so well. Even more special is singing in a massed choir of 400+ voices. In performance, each chorister combines to create such a powerful sound to raise the roof of a venue like the Sydney Opera House.

This year I was commissioned by the Sydney Philharmonia Choir to write a new work for massed choir and orchestra. When I say the Sydney Philharmonia Choir, I really mean the members of the Sydney Philharmonia Festival Chorus. Many of the singers in this group put forward their own hard-earned money to enable the construction of a brand-new piece of music.

Talk about putting one’s money where one’s mouth is! This is really crowd-funding at its best. So when I set out to write this new piece, I was imagining each of these choristers producing sounds, phrases and melodies that, if not for their own foresight and generosity, would not exist.
When writing new choral or vocal music, the starting point for the actual music is usually the text. Good text will dictate its own rhythm, and indeed sometimes the music itself.

Another starting point for me was contemporary events and society. To me there isn’t much point in writing music that isn’t relevant to contemporary musicians and audiences. Especially when lyrics are involved to make the intention very clear.

So after a long search, and given what’s been going on in Australian politics recently, the writings of Niccolo Macchiavelli (1469-1527) were the best choice. It may seem strange to use texts from 500 years ago, given what I say above. But how can one go past such choice quotes as:

“It is better to be feared than loved[, if one cannot be both]”;
“Politics have no relation to morals”, or even:
“The promise given was a necessity of the past, the broken promise is a necessity of the present.”

Did Machiavelli has a crystal ball to see into contemporary Australian politics when writing the above gems? Or is it rather something more fundamental to the human condition?

In the end then, It is better to be feared than loved (the title of my new work) deals with contemporary politics of governments, politicians and the pursuit of power. As such, it is often musically bombastic and overblown – which was tremendous fun to write.

And, I hope, to sing.