About Calls for Scores

You’ve likely had a composition teacher encourage you to submit your music to “Calls for Scores.” These are announcements by presenting organizations who seek repertoire within certain guidelines. Often, selection leads to a performance. Selection sometimes leads to a cash prize.

In this post I’ll provide some guidance for submitting to Calls for Scores (CFS from now on). Since I’ve served as an adjudicator many times, I’ll let you know a bit about the behind-the-scenes process as well.

Places to find Calls for Scores

Strategies for entering Calls for Scores

Target your efforts:

  • Triple-check that you have exactly what is called for. String quartets 10 minutes or under, but yours is 12 minutes? I guarantee your piece isn’t awesome enough to be considered as an exception. Follow all directions to a T.
  • Consider festivals and conferences. There will be more submissions overall, but they will also accept more people, so you have a better shot (look especially for “regional” conferences).
  • Unique needs that you fulfil. Maybe a specific instrumentation, location, or a demographic you identify with (e.g. “flute, cello, and piano works for composers from Texas who identify as BIPOC”).
  • Informal CFS by friends-of-friends on social media (e.g. “works for flute and cello under 5 minutes: Go!”).

Watch out for:

  • Application fees. If you happen to have a piece for a very specific instrumentation and think the pool will be small, it may be worth the risk of $5 or $10. But please don’t get sucked into big prizes with application fees of $30+.
  • Calls that require you to attend. Most won’t pay your expenses, so focus on opportunities you can get to easily and cheaply.
  • Calls that require unperformed works. Please don’t write on spec, especially if it’s a unique instrumentation. Some ensembles even egregiously require recordings of works that haven’t been performed! These calls are presumptuous and ignorant–beware.

How do I get selected?

Step 1: Follow directions exactly

  • Is your piece for the requested instrumentation? The requested duration?
  • Were you asked to submit an anonymous score? Make sure to delete anything that identifies you.
  • Did you upload a PDF, or your original Finale file? An mp3 or a link to your SoundCloud? 
  • Make it easy on people making selections. They asked for materials in standard formats for a reason–to go through submissions more easily.

Step 2: Write good music

  • Many people would say that this is Step One. But guess what? You will be first judged on following directions!
  • Make sure you’re submitting music you believe in. And make sure your score is well-engraved: clean, clear, good page turns, all that. It shows that you care, and that goes a long way.

Step 3: Match your music with their needs

  • Do some research on the ensemble, festival, etc. Does your music fit in with their aesthetic? A group that loves programming intricate post-tonal music may not be so keen on your post-minimal style, and vice versa. Make everyone happy and submit work to people who you think will actually like it.
  • Unless specifically called for, it may be tough to be selected with a piece that calls for theatrical elements, octophonic playback, secondary instruments, etc. 
  • If an ensemble accepts subsets of their instrumentation, definitely consider submitting something. In my experience, having a few duos and trios on a program can help a lot with rehearsals, giving players a breather, etc.
  • Be mindful of the difficulty of your music. Some groups will love the challenge, but others recognize the limits of their rehearsal time. So as I said before, do some research to see who is the right fit for your music.
  • One more time: follow directions exactly. “We only have a digital piano” means “I can’t do any prepared or on-the-strings techniques.”

How it looks on the other side

Whether they say so in their call or not, every presenting organization will have a number of constraints in mind. Their CFS may be for one concert or a whole season. Each concert may only have 50 minutes of music. They may rehearse several times each week, or bring freelancers together for two rehearsals right before the concert.

For a large conference, there will be a committee of folks looking at scores, generally with two people reviewing each one. I judged chamber music for an SCI National conference once. There were nearly 700 submissions and I had to go through about 100 in a week! 

Know that, despite their best intentions, reviewers will make pretty quick judgements, often without listening to the entire piece. A clean score and a good recording will go a long way. When I judge, I may glance through a score, then listen to the beginning, skip to the middle, then to the end. If it’s really grabbing me, I’ll go back and explore some more. But when going through so many, I might only spend about 2 or 3 minutes on each piece.

Ensembles will go through a similar process but will likely sightread the semifinalists before making their decisions. This will help see which pieces are fun to play in addition to sounding good. I’ve been in situations where composer reviewers picked cool-sounding pieces, but the performers did not find them engaging at all. These are generally collective decisions, and they are never taken lightly.

Final thoughts

Your music will be rejected far more times than it will be programmed. There should never be any hard feelings. It’s a crapshoot. But you can certainly improve your chances by researching who is running the CFS, submitting pieces that will “work,” and following directions exactly. Some say to submit to every CFS that you might be somewhat qualified for. I think it’s best to concentrate your efforts on calls where you have the best chance. It will save you heartache and headaches.

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Welcome and thanks for checking out my work! -adam

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