Composition Applications for Beginners

This past fall was the first time I was on the receiving end of a call for scores. Looking through 200+ submissions and talking to some of the composers who sent materials in taught me more about the process than submitting ever did. It also gave me a really eye-opening look at what a field of applications looks like. Some composers are veterans of the application process, but some newer composers make mistakes in their application and follow-up that are easily avoidable, and could help them make their applications much stronger. If you’re a veteran of the process, all this is likely old hat, but I hope it will be useful for composers who are new(er) to submissions. Plenty of people have more experience than I do with receiving and reviewing submissions; I hope they’ll feel free to comment and add their thoughts.

This post arose out of a conversation with Meerenai Shim, who wrote up an excellent post on submitting unsolicited scores to performers, which I highly recommend. Some of the ideas below are applicable to those inquiries as well.

[Note: This post gets a bit of traffic each time we launch our annual call for scores, and has been edited and revised from time to time.]

The Application

Read the guidelines

I know, this sounds obvious, but it’s worth mentioning just because it’s so important. Of the e-mail inquiries I receive about our calls for scores, approximately 90% are questions whose answers are contained in the guidelines: who’s eligible, whether we charge a fee, what our instrumentation is (for the General Call for Scores), etc. Also, make sure you apply for the right thing! We run multiple composition opportunities, and applications for the two are often accidentally switched.

Follow the instructions

This one sounds obvious, too, but it’s also critical. Read through instructions carefully, and submit the materials requested (and only the materials requested). If the call asks for 2-3 pieces, submit 2-3 pieces. If it asks for recordings, send recordings. If the call does not request a cover letter, don’t send a cover letter.

Another way of thinking of it is: don’t make substitutions. If a call asks for live recordings, don’t send MIDI. If it asks for scores as PDFs and recordings as MP3s, don’t send Sibelius files and AIFFs. If it asks for finished pieces, don’t send works-in-progress. If it asks for a resume and a bio, send both (not one or the other). If the call requests you submit online at their website, don’t send the application in via e-mail.

Of the applications we received, I’d guess that roughly 10-20% did not follow the directions in some way. Our approach is to do the best we can to understand what the composer and the music are all about, despite whatever problems there may be, but the mistakes can be time-consuming or difficult, or leave us feeling like we don’t know what we need/want to know about the composer.

Tailor and proofread your materials

Keep the information in your materials relevant to the discipline at hand. Your composition resume should generally consist only of information that supports and explains your experience as a composer. In addition to your compositional work, this could include your experience as a performer, or, if your work is interdisciplinary, your experiences in those other disciplines, but it should all lead back to your musical work in some way. I’d recommend keeping one resume for composition opportunities and one for non-musical work at the very least; you may find that further tailoring would make sense for you. If you’re a student, have your teacher look over your resume. Chances are, they’ve seen tons of materials from emerging composers and can give you good advice.

Tailoring also means preparing your application with the spirit of the project or the interests of the organizing group in mind. Read over the description of the opportunity carefully, and do your best to make sure your application is faithful to the intentions of the opportunity. In the case of Wild Rumpus, our Commissioning Project is about commissioning brand-new works, and our group is interested in collaboration because of the creative risks we believe it encourages composers to take. We received many proposals to re-orchestrate old pieces, and while some of those pieces were very strong, those proposals weren’t as inherently engaging to our interests as applications that proposed new works (or didn’t mention a proposed work at all).

Look over your materials carefully before you submit them. Does your score file include all the performance notes we’ll need to understand your score? Are the dynamics marked? Instruments clearly and correctly labeled? Graphic notation and/or extended technique notation clearly explained? If the score is handwritten, is it legible? Are the pages in each file rotated correctly and in the right order?

Do your best to get high-quality recordings

Live recordings are always preferable to MIDI, and they are definitely not equivalent; MIDI is always at a significant disadvantage. Jurors reviewing submissions may not all (a) have enough experience with MIDI to mentally “get around” the inaccuracies and lesser sound quality, or (b) be willing to take the extra time with your score to figure out how the piece should “really” sound. If you’re lucky enough to have access to performers, do your best to wrangle a recording. The higher-quality that recording is, the better, but a halfway decent recording is better than MIDI.

Where MIDI is really absolutely necessary, do your best to make sure that the sounds are as faithful as possible. At the very least, the sounding pitches in your score should be accurate. (Artificial harmonics that sound as parallel fourths is a particularly common problem. Transposed scores that sound as written instead of at the transposition are less common, but definitely memorable.) And MIDI gets a bad rap, but all MIDI’s not the same! The default sounds for Sibelius or Finale may sound cheesy, but higher-quality samples can dramatically improve the quality. The more high-quality your MIDI instruments are, and the more you can incorporate samples for your extended techniques, the better. Putting together a high-quality MIDI mock-up is an art in and of itself that’s worth taking time to master, if you have little access to performers, or if you often write for large ensembles.

I mentioned above that about 90% of the questions I receive are covered in our guidelines; the remaining 10% is almost entirely composers asking to have the recording requirement waived. If documentation of some kind is truly impossible, it would honestly be better to submit a different piece. Imagine that we have hundreds of entries, and that our first pass with your materials will be a cursory one—we’ll set aside applications to study more in-depth as they grab our attention. With your materials, you can make that initial pass easy and engaging by making sure your application’s complete and clearly organized. On the other hand, having to work through a score with no audio makes that initial pass prohibitively time-consuming, and jurors may or may not be willing to make the extra effort with an incomplete application.


Focus your questions

Imagine that the contact person you’re writing to wants to help you, but has hundreds (or thousands) of e-mails in his/her inbox. When you write to him/her, keeping your questions specific and short is greatly appreciated, as is asking a question only if you can’t find the answer elsewhere. It always helps to check the organization’s website and re-read the call, just to make sure the answer isn’t covered there. I can only speak for myself, but I tend to prioritize e-mails that (a) can be answered quickly, or (b) cannot be answered by anyone else. As Meerenai mentioned in her post, research is critical.

Be patient

There’s an opportunity that hasn’t announced their results yet, and you’re anxiously awaiting the response. You’re pondering a follow-up e-mail, but resist the temptation! At least over here, we announce things as soon as we’re able, so if you haven’t heard anything, that’s because there’s nothing to tell yet!

Respect the people on the other end

A call for scores is a group’s way of inviting you to contact them, but the other side of that is that, to them, your submission is a sufficient way for them to get started getting to know you, and the ball’s essentially in their court. While it may be tempting to immediately follow up on your application, in the hopes that it will make your application stand out, have faith that your work speaks for itself and will represent you and your interests in all the ways that matter to the jurors.

All the rules that apply in other social situations apply with contact people running calls for scores. Extra unsolicited materials, insistently pursuing a meeting or extra attention for your portfolio, or reprimanding a contact person for not responding to your extra materials/requests are unlikely to make your application stand out in the way in which you’d like. Remember, you’re a total stranger, and an interest in further contact has to be mutual. Let them follow up with you. Friendly, non-creepy contact is always the way to go.

On to the Next One

Disclaimer: This last thing isn’t really advice from a person who runs calls for scores so much as a suggestion from an emerging composer who also applies for stuff. So, you know, take it as you will.

A composer friend recently told me that he doesn’t apply to opportunities because he doesn’t handle rejection well, which seemed to me like a completely understandable impulse, but one that will end up only hurting him in the long run. I’d guess that I’ve been applying for opportunities in earnest for about six years, and I still have no ability to predict what opportunities will/won’t accept me. Let someone else decide whether or not you’re what they’re looking for that year. When you don’t apply at all, you’re basically making that decision for them.

Most composers are rejected for things fairly often, probably more often than not, and that’s a normal part of the process. Try not to take it to heart—the music you sent might not be right for them this time around, but it will likely be right for somebody else. It may even be right for this same group, just in a different year. Applications are basically a way of fishing for the people and the groups that your music engages. Keep giving your music the chance to be found by those people.

This post is really just a tip-of-the-iceberg post, since topics like a good MIDI mock-up, a well-tailored resume, or a beautifully written/engraved score could really be their own posts or series of posts (or overarching life pursuits), and I don’t claim to be an expert on any of them. But the process of reviewing submissions for our first two opportunities made me realize how important these basics are, and I hope this is helpful for those of you who are new to submissions. For those (thousands? millions?) of you who have more experience reviewing submissions than I do, I hope you’ll feel free to add your ideas in the comments. Happy applying!

The Wild Rumpus Starts

The idea for Wild Rumpus got started one summer at a music festival, a three-week summer camp for composers and performers of new music hosted at a museum for contemporary art. Every day, we had master classes or rehearsals, put on three concerts a day, and kept on playing/writing/hanging out late into the night.

I loved the abandon of the whole project: you’d sign up on a clipboard for a recital you’d hold three days later, in any of the galleries in that incredible space. You could write a piece (feverishly, in the middle of the night) for the first couple weeks and have it performed in the third. You’d be making music outside the neighborhood bar at midnight, or in the hallways at the gallery, or on your way to dinner. And not all the music was great, not all of it was even good, but the message was unmistakable: Try it out. See if it works. Try something else. Don’t be afraid. Do it do it do it.

It was exactly what I needed to hear right at that moment. It had been a rough couple of years since I’d gotten my masters, and I’d been feeling really uncertain of my next step. The sort of subterranean doubts that can accompany composing—nobody cares about your music, there’s no way for you to make a living—had grown worse since leaving school. I didn’t know any musicians where I was, and I didn’t have any performances lined up. I developed writer’s block for a year and a half. And then personal stuff came up, huge personal stuff, that ground life to a halt for a while. I don’t even remember why I thought of applying to that festival. When I got in, I couldn’t believe it. It was like something wonderful had happened to this composer who was really an elaborate fiction, this composer who happened to look like me and share my name.

But I went. I sang Meredith Monk. I played gamelan and samba. I went to three concerts a day. I sketched stuff and got feedback from my friends. I sketched some more. I talked about my music and that of my friends. I stayed up late. And my life was different. I was different. By the time we were having our workshop on starting your own new music group, I sat there and thought: Hm. I was making music again, and I started dreaming about ways to keep that momentum, ways to keep experimenting and discovering with other people who love new music. It stayed in my head for a long time. Until now, specifically, five years later, having lucked into meeting brilliant performers and composers who wanted to do this, too.

Wild Rumpus is a new music group dedicated to work by young/emerging composers, composers who are developing their craft and their careers. More importantly, it’s about developing music in collaboration with composers. We want to be an experimental laboratory for new music, a space to play and try stuff out and see what happens.

As a composer, I think there are practical reasons why this is a good thing. They go something like this:

  • It’s an inspiration thing. When composers write for somebody specific, that person’s personality and style of playing inspire them. And when they get to exchange ideas with a performer, that dialogue usually leads to totally different discoveries that they might not have found alone.
  • It’s a skill thing. When composers try stuff out with players while they write, they can quickly and easily figure out what works and what doesn’t in terms of practicality. Testing before you ship is a good idea in any discipline.
  • Taken together, I believe that this kind of work can help support early-career composers not just by giving them a performance and a recording, but by giving them a chance to learn and grow while they write for us.

There’s another way of putting it. When I first started thinking about the thing that’s now Wild Rumpus, I was thinking of this:
Try it out. See if it works. Try something else. Don’t be afraid. Do it do it do it.

We hope to help with that. I hope you’ll come check us out.