Tag: composer competitions

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

A road with two designated lanes, labelled 1 and 2, for racing with the words "100m Sprint"

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.

Cataloging the Fail: A Cathartic Scrapbook

Composer Fail Example
The other day a young composer friend of mine was eagerly awaiting a letter of acceptance or rejection from a prestigious summer program. Alas, this person was rejected. I instantly received text messages sharing the sour news.

“Well, I didn’t get in.”
“Screw them.”
“I guess. I’m really bad with rejection.”
“Um, so was I. Trust me. Rejection ruined me in my early twenties.”
“I’m worried that might happen to me.”
“Dude, you’ll be fine.”

Ultimately this person will be fine. We all will be fine. However, while I easily emit an air of aplomb, I was recently reminded of how crushing these rejections were a short decade ago.

Lately I’ve been reflecting more and more on how I’ve dealt with rejections and supposed failure as a young composer. Because I now teach at a small liberal arts college, I constantly see and interact with a sea of undergrads. Their habitat involves Instagram and Snapchat, dorm rooms and drama, and this younger generation is still bright and bubbly and young and vulnerable as I was. And because of their presence, I am reminded of how I dealt with what I perceived as devastating defeat upon experiencing rejection.

I first experienced composer rejection as an undergrad, which is where I believe all of us composers experience our first twinge of adulthood angst. I was attending one of those undergrad composer recitals; I believe I was actually performing piano for one of the pieces. I remember hearing during the concert that one of my young composer colleagues received the BMI Student Composer Award that year. We were all happy for him. We all thought we had a chance of writing a good chamber piece and winning this award. We modified and edited our music and eagerly submitted our scores.

And then nothing happened.
And then I was rejected.

I wouldn’t say my first rejection was crushing—it merely materialized. I was disappointed. But I was young and resilient, and I thought I had plenty of time to submit a winning piece.
The next year I realized I hadn’t written many pieces and so therefore I had an abysmal selection from which to submit something. However, I found something to submit, and submit I did.
And I was rejected again.

This was starting to disturb and discomfit me, especially because I was nearing upperclassman status and also because other upperclassmen in my program had started to win these young composer awards. And these upperclassmen were in the process of obtaining good recordings of their work and applying to good graduate programs. I truly felt I was not only failing at composer competitions but also failing at writing music, meeting a recital requirement, fulfilling graduate school admission criteria, and therefore failing at life. (Such is the thought process of an angsty young adult.)

If I were failing at life, I might as well make the best of my situation. I certainly received another BMI rejection letter, and this time I decided to get crafty since apparently my music wasn’t as artful as it should be. My hornist roommate gave me a sheet of acid-free paper imprinted with soccer balls and I clumsily cut-and-pasted my rejection letter onto this sports-themed paper.
And this is when I realized that my roommate was far better at scrapbooking than I was (the resultant project wasn’t that great, if you’re curious) and that maybe I should stick to writing music instead. Except that I felt like I was failing at that, too. And admittedly the whole point of scrapbooking my rejection letter was to prove to people, including myself, that this rejection letter did not deflate me. Except it did.

At this point in my life I knew that my original pristine plan of applying to grad school and becoming a successful composer was absolutely not going to work out. Or so I thought.

And here’s where I want to step in and point out that there is no perfect plan or perfect system that allows for guaranteed success. As an adolescent, I thought the composer comp way was the only way to become a successful composer. I had no idea different routes were available to me, and furthermore I had no idea that I had to create them myself.

The good news is I eventually realized that I’m a composer. We’re all composers. We’re creative beings. We’re destined to construct musical worlds and trajectories and ultimately scenarios of our own composer existence. And, maybe the younger we are, the more we need to be reminded of this—that we must take charge of our creative selves and curate our own artistic future.
*Jennifer Jolley
Jennifer Jolley teaches music composition at Ohio Wesleyan University and co-founded the North American New Opera Workshop (NANOWorks Opera). In her spare time, she procrastinates by blogging about writing music.

Competition Fees: How Much is Too Much?

G-clef change
A few weeks ago, I was scrolling through some composition contest applications. One caught my eye; it was a perfect fit for a new piece I’d written this summer. A perfect fit, that is, until I saw the entry fee: $50.
I view that as an exorbitant amount for such an opportunity, and yet my frustration upon seeing this particular contest stemmed not just from the amount, but from how helpless I felt looking at it. How can a composer productively communicate to contest organizers that their fee is unreasonably high?

The issue of contest fees is, granted, a complex one. As I discovered when I turned to Twitter and Facebook to express my frustration with this issue, most composers or administrators fall into one of two camps when it comes to fees. The first: competition fees are a total scam, using the losers’ money to fund the winner’s purse; an organization should not hold a contest if it can’t do so without an entry fee. The other? Competition fees can be a worthwhile, even necessary expense that allow smaller organizations that wouldn’t otherwise be able to do so to promote excellent new music.

NewMusicBox covered both sides of this issue in an in-depth article back in 2004; since then, not much has changed in the way of competition fees. Composer Dennis Tobenski also has a very thorough, six-part blog series decrying the many flaws with composition competitions, and the first of these addresses his problems with entry fees.

As both articles point out, the problems are many. A $30 entry fee for a contest that awards $250 to the winner seems downright dishonest; assuming the contest receives 50 entries, where is all of that money going? If an organization can’t afford the cost of holding a competition on their own, should they be holding a competition in the first place?

Applying to contests is something like gambling, a poker game with 50 players. A composer must ask before entering each contest with an entry fee: Do I believe my piece is a strong enough contender to justify the cost of entering? Is this particular contest worth betting on?

Sometimes, at least for me, the answer is yes. In those cases, I have to feel incredibly confident that my music is a great fit for that particular opportunity, and while I’ve increasingly been limiting the number of opportunities I apply to that charge fees, I will occasionally pay up to $15 or—rarely—up to $25.

In some cases, though, the cost of entering is not only not worth the odds, it’s downright exploitative, taking advantage of the very artists the organizing ensemble is purportedly trying to promote. For some composers, even $25 entry fees can prevent an application; if a composer applies to the majority of opportunities for which he or she is eligible, the entry fees plus printing and mailing costs can add up quickly to hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars a year.

A composer’s wealth is not an arbiter of talent; why, then, must it function as a barrier? And how might composers encourage contest organizers to lower or eliminate fees?

When I took to Twitter to ask this question, composer Nicholas Omiccioli proposed an interesting solution: A respected, professional music organization such as Chamber Music America or New Music USA (the organization which publishes this magazine) could create a set of standards for composition competitions (including fees), representing composers’ thoughts and concerns through those guidelines.

This potential rubric could be much like New Music USA’s guide to commissioning. While the guide doesn’t necessarily fit every composer or organization’s budget for every project, and every composer is going to have her own personal policy when it comes to putting a price on her music, it does provide a rough set of guidelines that encourage a composer-friendly industry standard. Such a rubric for organizers of composition contests could potentially prevent the current price gouging aspect of several competitions.

What do you think? Where should one draw the line when it comes to application fees? How much is too much? And when it is too much, what is the best way to communicate that to the organizers who determine the fees? I’d love to hear your thoughts and solutions in the comments. Meanwhile, I’ll be steering clear of any contest with a fee over $25.

Can We Move Past Post-Race, Already?

If you follow the American Composers Orchestra and you stay on top of your composer opportunities, you might have noticed ACO’s most recent Earshot post on Facebook:
Earshot post on Facebook
I saw this opportunity when it was first posted and I thought, “Great, another meaningful opportunity from ACO. Good for them, I wonder who the four winners will be.” And many others shared my enthusiasm—commenting, liking, sharing, and tagging to help spread the word. But I was surprised to see some comments that weren’t so positive. In fact, some went so far as to accuse ACO of blatant racism. Others argued that, were the tables turned to only include white composers, we would hear uproarious criticism. ACO has since removed those comments, but left some of the less incendiary responses up, such as:
incendiary responses
The comments that were removed and those above reflect some dangerous thinking—dangerous because it suggests that we live in a colorblind, post-racial America, where careful consideration of a historically oppressed and repressed group of people can now be casually tossed underneath the blanket term “racism,” or disregarded altogether under the guise of our shared Americanism. It is absurd because it suggests that the diversity of people successfully creating and performing new music in our field is robust enough so that no such opportunities like this one are necessary. It suggests that these remaining opportunities somehow pander to notions of trivial politics instead of addressing modern-day oppression. It is dangerous and absurd because it microinvalidates specific cultural identities with notions of super-imposed normalcy, i.e. “Americanism”—that somehow to be American is to be enough, and to be further qualified is unnecessary.

One need not spend more than 20 minutes looking through the headshots and biographies of the fastest emerging or most famous composers creating music in today’s orchestral world (and new music in general) before noticing the astounding homogeneity of that pool. I find that lack of diversity perplexingly unrepresentative of the actual number of people who are creating or who would like to create new music at high levels. Every day I come to work and receive calls, emails, applications, and musical samples from people of all races, ethnicities, and genders who are working diligently to improve their musical craft. As a violist, I perform with people of all races, ethnicities, and genders. On SoundCloud, YouTube, Vimeo, and BandCamp, I listen to people of all races, ethnicities, and genders. Yet the diversity of composers chosen for some of the highest paying or otherwise most valuable career opportunities in our field remains less than impressive, even in 2013. So why do some people react negatively when major cultural institutions take a public stand to make our field more equal?
Open door
Were the tables turned and this opportunity offered only to white composers, of course we would, and we should, hear and make uproarious criticisms of that model. The phrase “Whites Only” harkens back to a painful historical narrative in the United States. “Blacks Only”—“black” as the privileged, as the historically powerful—does not. To equate a hypothetical whites-only call for composers with ACO’s opportunity is impossible and painfully ignorant of the consequences of our past. Lawyer, civil rights activist, and author of The New Jim Crow Michelle Alexander puts racial privilege in perspective, “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”* The too-often monochromatic skin tones in positions of power within new music affirm that there is still much work to be done.

I don’t care to live in a post-racial America; we all have a race, a culture, and an identity to embrace and celebrate. I do, however, care to live in a non-racist America, where people of all colors, ethnicities, and genders are hired, approached, perceived, and even incarcerated equally. It should be obvious: we do not live there today. But some opportunities, behaviors, and dialogues take steps to get us closer to that nation of the future.  To return to Michelle Alexander’s writings:

This argument [of racial caste] may be particularly hard to swallow given the election of Barack Obama. Many will wonder how a nation that just elected its first black president could possibly have a racial caste system. It’s a fair question. But there is no inconsistency whatsoever between the election of Barack Obama to the highest office in the land and the existence of a racial caste system in the era of colorblindness. The current system of control depends on black exceptionalism; it is not disproved or undermined by it. Others may wonder how a racial caste system could exist when most Americans—of all colors—oppose race discrimination and endorse colorblindness. Yet racial caste systems do not require hostility or overt bigotry to thrive. They need only racial indifference.*

I, for one, am grateful for ACO’s lack of indifference.


*Alexander, Michelle (2010). The New Jim Crow. New York, NY: The New Press.


After graduating from Vassar College with a bachelor’s in music and a secondary focus in English, Emily Bookwalter joined New Music USA’s team as a grants manager in January of 2011. Seldom refusing an opportunity to meet new people through music, she is an open-minded collaborator, improviser, and violist/singer in New York City. As a faithful advocate for accessible music in communities, Bookwalter is a violist and the external affairs manager for the String Orchestra of Brooklyn; a close-knit group of musicians dedicated to the democratization of concert music in Brooklyn. In addition to her time spent with the SOB, she actively performs with jazz/hip-hop/contemporary ensembles ShoutHouse and the Gabriel Zucker big band, and is an avid performer of improvisatory and experimental chamber music.

Iron Composer 2013

On September 6, five composers arrived in Cleveland to compete for the title of Iron Composer 2013 at the Baldwin Wallace Conservatory of Music. The brainchild of Lucky Mosko’s composition workshop at CalArts, Iron Composer is an aural takeoff on the famed Japanese television cooking show Iron Chef. The competition took its current form in 2007 in Omaha, Nebraska, before relocating to Cleveland in 2009. Narrowed down from an international pool of applicants, the five finalists were each assigned a different form of audience participation as their “secret ingredient.” They were then given a studio, an ensemble (a brass trio of double bell trumpet, horn, and trombone), and only five hours to compose a new work that incorporated their ingredient.

The finalists and their assigned audience participation were:

Can Bilir (Ankara, Turkey) – humming
Jennifer Jolley (Cincinnati, OH) – stomping
Jakub Polaczyk (Krakow, Poland) – whistling
Christoffer Schunk (Santa Clarita, CA) – clapping
David Wolfson (New York, NY) – snapping

Iron Composers

The five Iron Composers sit in alphabetical order–(from left to right) Can Bilir, Jennifer Jolley, Jakub Polaczyk, Christoffer Schunk, and David Wolfson–and await their fate.

At the end of the five-hour period, each composer received an anxiety-ridden 30-minute rehearsal with the brass trio before the concert began. Composer David Wolfson commented that the five hours of writing time were the fastest hours of his life, while Jennifer Jolley took some time during the process to blog about the experience. Admittedly, it was fun to keep track of Jolley’s progress as she posted about her ABACA piece turning into an ABABA composition, and then finally just ABA due to lack of time.


Christoffer Schunk instructs the audience that its time for them to clap during the run through of his composition, To Listen to Us

During the concert, each composer spoke briefly about his or her work and explained how the audience would participate. Through a series of projected instructions, navigated by yours truly, the audience hummed, stomped, whistled, clapped, and snapped throughout the evening, which offered an exciting, if not unusual, element to each work. The brass trio, comprised of trumpeter Joe Drew (director of Iron Composer), horn player Alan DeMattia (Cleveland Orchestra), and trombonist James Albrecht (professor at the University of Akron), performed each work with conviction, ensuring that each composer had a fair shot at the title.

Here are the five compositions:





The judges included Baldwin Wallace Conservatory of Music director Susan Van Vorst, Oberlin College composition professor Josh Levine, and performer judge Alan DeMattia. While each composer received specific individual comments and critiques, the judges collectively praised all of the finalists for showing a high level of craftsmanship in such a short period of time. Conservatory director Van Vorst also commented on the unique creative energy and vastly different artistic voices the finalists brought to the stage.

The Performance

As Drew, DeMattia, and Albrecht run through one of the scores, the judges take notes.

Ultimately, Jakub Polaczyk emerged victorious with his work Finding You, edging out his closest competition by just four points. In fact, only 11 points separated first and fifth place. In addition to being named Iron Composer 2013, Polaczyk received a commission from Cleveland’s Blue Water Chamber Orchestra as part of his award. Adding a new element to this year’s competition, Iron Composer asked the audience to weigh in on their favorite composition via text. Jennifer Jolley took home this honor as well as a heavy brass clock, an appropriate reminder of those five hours.