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“Calls for Scores” – The Teenage Years of a Composing Career

What is the role of submitting to calls for scores and competitions in the grand scheme of building a career? Are there wholesome and compassionate ways that calls for scores and/or composition competitions can support artists even if they don’t win the “big prize”? How do we develop from this seemingly “teenage” part of our career and move on to becoming fully-fledged professionals?

Written By

Alexis C. Lamb

I will be the first one to admit that I pay attention and regularly submit to calls for scores. I check pages like TheComposersSite and the American Composers Forum “Opportunities” pages every week, and I would guess that I submit between 20-30 calls for scores on average per year and have been doing so for a few years. I am used to the email that arrives in my inbox saying, “We received more submissions that ever before.” Or “The panel was overwhelmed and inspired by the music they were able to experience.” Or some other sugar-coated line before stating my music wasn’t accepted. I keep telling myself, “If I want to have a successful career as a composer, I need to make a name for myself, and one of these days the right call will come at the right time or the right person will be on the right panel to commission me for something else down the road…”. There must be some sort of synchronicity in the works! These thoughts devolve into the absolute need to submit to as many opportunities as possible; otherwise how else will I ever build my career as a composer and artist?

How do we tilt the scales in our favor and go from a “young” or “emerging” composer to an “established” composer? (I still have many questions about what an “emerging” composer is, but we can save that for another article.) What is the role of submitting to calls for scores and competitions in the grand scheme of building a career? Are there wholesome and compassionate ways that calls for scores and/or composition competitions can support artists even if they don’t win the “big prize”? Are there other paths by which composers can earn name recognition and build their careers without having to rely on luck of winning these calls?

In short, how do we develop from this seemingly “teenage” part of our career and move on to becoming fully-fledged professionals?

Some of these calls have been very successful for me as well as having been positive and fruitful interactions. For example, I was recently selected to compose a new work for Ensemble 20/21 in conjunction with the Curtis Institute of Music and We the Purple Project for Democracy. I also have an upcoming commission from the C4 Choral/Composer/Conductor Collective for their IGNITE Commissioning Competition. In both of these cases, the communication has so far been constant throughout the process, and all parties have shown excitement and support for the upcoming projects.

But other times, these positive responses to calls can initially seem like a success, but they can slowly start turning down a much darker path.

In spring 2020, I received a notification of a successful application for a 10-to-20-minute opera. Having never written for opera, I jumped at the chance to get some experience writing for this medium while having an organization/ensemble who was willing to support my exploration. I had even paid a $10 application fee to submit to the initial call because of how much I wanted to write for the opera medium. I was a bit surprised when I saw how many other composers received a similar notice and were involved on the same email, but I continued to be optimistic and excited to write this work. I was also able to work with a libretto created by a dear friend of mine who has a lot of experience in opera and theatre, so it seemed like everything was lining up for this to be the perfect chance to have guidance and mentorship along this journey.

Fast-forward to COVID-19 times in May 2020, when the score was supposed to be due. We received a few emails mentioning that due to the pandemic, the deadline had been extended to June 5. I was also working on an orchestra piece, a solo percussion piece, graduating from my Master’s degree, getting married, and had one or two other projects along the way in May. Needless to say, I was grateful for the extension. I submitted my completed, 18-minute opera on June 5, 2020.

Fast-forward again, now to mid-August of 2020, and I still hadn’t received any type of response from the opera organization. I sent an email checking in only to realize that I accidentally submitted my materials to one of the other composers on the email chain back in May instead of to the submissions’ address, which was absolutely my mistake. (Side note: please use the “BCC” option for emails when addressing other composers in big calls such as this —I was in such a frenzy to submit the piece on time, and things happened due to another person using the “reply-all” feature). But what I cannot understand is why they had not reached out to me prior to this. They were so adamant about deadlines in the spring, but there was never any follow-up as to whether or not I had completed or submitted anything. Furthermore, when I sent my materials to the right address, their response was vague and mentioned that they never would have noticed my missing work if I had not reached out first. Initially, they said they were going to pay me a “small stipend” for the work. In this most recent email, the “small stipend” ended up being $25 USD. However, I also paid a $10 application fee, which I only decided to do because of how much I wanted to find an opportunity to write for opera and fortunately had the means to do so. That basically means I was paid $15 total, which equates to $0.83 per minute of music that I wrote, and that does not include any funding for the librettist who contributed her work as well. I found out later that this was a small organization just getting started and run by passionate musicians, but having that knowledge up front as well as the stipend amount would have given me a chance to reconsider my application.

I wish I could say this is my only call for scores nightmare, but unfortunately, there is another that comes to mind. A few years ago, I was informed that my music was going to be performed for a percussion festival at a university in my home state. This was again exciting for me because my family would be able to attend the concert in person, including an uncle of mine who wasn’t able to travel to any of my shows previously due to his health. They asked for the music months in advance of the festival. I planned to fly out for the concert to visit family and enjoy the weekend of music, and luckily, I was able to save some money by staying with my brother who lived in that town at the time. In any case, the stipend they provided me didn’t even cover my flight, but it was worth it for me to spend time with my family and have them experience my music in person. As it turned out, the festival was disorganized from the moment I arrived. Many details on planning were made at the last minute, and it took months to receive my stipend after the fact. The worst part, though, was that they apparently lost my music along the way of preparing for the festival. Nobody asked me for the music again, and I was not told of this incident until the dress rehearsal the day before. The musicians were essentially sight-reading my music. Of all concerts to have this happen, of course it had to be the one where family members were actually in attendance.

Although this may have up to this point seemed like an anecdotal rant, these experiences (as well as countless conversations with another dear friend about the financial inequities within our music-making systems) are bringing more and more doubt into my mind concerning these unnecessary “steps” that seem to be invisible prerequisites in order to be accepted as a “serious” or “professional” composer. There is no one method, and I have learned that nothing is a linear path in knowledge, but why do we feel such a need to have these calls for scores on our CVs and resumés?

I have decided the best comparison I can think of for submitting to calls for scores is like being a teenager who has a driver’s license and car but still lives at home and is not financially independent. They feel independent enough to drive themselves around, but they are also still relying on family income, housing, and general support to keep afloat. How can we grow out of these teenage years of wanting to build a career as a composer and develop meaningful collaborations that will sustain us as creative artists as well as nurture our communities?

The larger question at hand: How can calls for scores be more equitable and worthwhile for all parties involved? How can we transform this process of gatekeeping into a holistic and compassionate way of building community and lifting up those wanting to work in these artistic fields?

While this is certainly not nearly a comprehensive list of suggestions, I have a few that I would like to offer. These ideas allow other career-building skills and connections to occur and start to critically evaluate and continually revise the system with equity in mind, even if an individual’s call for scores submission is not accepted:

1. Make all calls for scores or proposals free, without application fees, or include (and publicize!) waivers for artists who are unable to afford the fee (I highly recommend the fabulous NewMusicBox article, “Dissing the Competition,” by Alex Shapiro from 2018, where she shares a deeper insight and analysis to fees for calls and competitions). If you require composers to attend in person or participate in workshops, etc. but are unwilling to support their trips or time financially, this is also exclusionary.

If you are planning to pay a separate panel to review the works in the call, please anticipate this into your own working budget instead of passing the buck onto the composers. There are too many voices who need to be heard and may not be able to afford either your fee or to take time away from their paying jobs to attend a rehearsal/workshop/performance without compensation.

2. All details of commissioning fees, anticipated number of performances, rehearsals, workshops, etc. need to be established in advance to the best of your ability. Providing a written contract is also necessary to avoid any issues throughout the project.

Nobody would have been able to anticipate the devastation that COVID-19 has brought upon the artist community with cancellations, financial losses, and shutdowns of venues, but please do your best to be honest and forthright with composers from the start.

3. Please follow through with your statements if you tell composers that you will offer them feedback on their submissions. (This has also happened: I didn’t receive feedback even though it was offered and I requested it.) I understand that there is no way to truly anticipate a high volume of submissions for a call, but even a short sentiment from the ensemble can be helpful feedback for a composer and can leave them with reassurance that their work matters.

4. Feature a playlist of composers whose music you appreciated from the call for scores and want to share with your larger community. Even a recognition such as this could be meaningful from a well-known ensemble. (This was a collaborative idea created by a colleague and friend, Louis Raymond-Kolker, and myself in a conversation about a particular call for scores.) For example, discovering an artist via a playlist from a major string quartet could lead others to want to collaborate with said artist in the future.

Better yet, take this idea and share the playlist directly with other local ensembles, organizations, and institutions. You could even include these composers in educational outreach programs by teaming the composers up with schools in the area for teaching sessions with the classes. These are all additional professional opportunities that you are offering to the composer to further their own careers as well as the ensembles’ educational goals (if applicable). This in turn will also build the composer’s network of professional contacts that they may be able to interact with down the road.

5. If you are asking a composer to write a new piece for your call that has never been performed (which I am strongly against), please make a point of sharing their work in some way after the fact, even if it is not selected. For example, readings of each of the pieces would be an excellent way to turn it into a collaboration and learning opportunity for the composer and ensemble, and again you can team up with other similar ensembles or creative artists in the area to help with the readings and further cultivate a community. Writing a piece specifically for a call is a LOT of free work that you are asking the composer to gamble with, and if they decide to apply to the call, they at least deserve recognition for writing something brand new for you.

I believe there is a silver lining to every opportunity that I apply for; however, my faith in this particular system is quickly fading. These calls lead us to believe that they are just part of the path towards a professional career, but instead the gatekeeping can be more detrimental to a composers’ financial and emotional well-being. I do believe that we can change the system to become a more collaborative process where artists at any point in their careers can grow and benefit.

I look forward to finally being able to not only drive my composition career on my own, but also to move past those teenage years and allow genuine collaborations to happen in order to move my own career towards independence from this system. As I have the privilege to be able to begin this transition, it is my responsibility to continue to engage in conversations and create pathways in order to make this a more accessible career; if we can create pathways for composers from all walks of life we will all certainly benefit from a new structure and, most importantly, the music, individuals, opportunities, and communities that flourish in this reconstructed system.