by Aiden Feltkamp, ACO Emerging Composers & Diversity Director
As ACO’s Emerging Composers and Diversity Director, I consult for ensembles who wish to create a more inclusive call for scores. I often hear the same questions: How can we be clear that we want to include composers from diverse backgrounds? What causes people to self-select out and not apply? What are barriers to entry for composers? How can I increase and diversify my application pool?
These are great questions! They’re also the questions we ask ourselves at ACO as we continually tweak our EarShot application. For us, there is not an end to our learning. Each season, we review and adjust our guidelines, eligibility and application to reflect new ideas and feedback from composers.
EarShot is an orchestral reading program that features composers who have had no more than one work performed by professional orchestras. It began as the Whitaker readings 30 years ago, continued as the Underwood Readings, and has since expanded to include four readings per season: three with partner orchestras around the US and one in New York City with ACO. The EarShot readings have expanded internationally to Beijing, China and Aguascalientes, Mexico.
Through implementing successful inclusion research from other fields, interviewing prospective applicants from marginalized communities and analyzing the efficacy of our attempts, we’ve made many changes to our application process over the years. Explore those changes below, along with detailed explanations, and let us know your thoughts on this approach.
We’re writing about this subject in the hopes of creating, and sharing, an application process with fewer barriers to those from marginalized communities. We’d like for this to be the beginning of a larger conversation. If you have questions or suggestions based on anything written here, please feel free to write in the comment section. We’re always learning, and welcome the opportunity to hear from you.
Leveling the Field by Removing Requirements
Letters of Recommendation
Recommendation letters reenforce systemic biases, as Michelle Iwen explains here. They double down on unconscious biases, as well as provide an unnecessary impediment to applicants from outside the traditional conservatory and music school circuit. Like all industries, networking and “who you know” greatly impacts a composer’s access to opportunity and advancement within the field. A marginalized composer may not have a mentor they can ask for a recommendation letter, or they may feel that they’re over-burdening the mentors they have in asking for letters. If we’re looking to cast a wider net and diversify our application pool, we need to find those outside our expected set of applicants.
Another reason we removed recommendation letters came from surveying emerging composers regarding our application. We asked, “What’s a reason you might not submit to this opportunity?” and we were told multiple times that several aspects of our application made it seem that we cared more about the “professionalism” of the submitted work than the content of it. The ask for recommendation letters was one of those signifiers.
Much like recommendation letters, resumes are used to gatekeep and were flagged for reenforcing a priority on “professionalism.” Since our review process focuses on the scores submitted, we realized that the resumes were unnecessary. A composer’s previous accomplishments, outside those that determine eligibility for the readings, don’t play into the selection process.
Live recordings of any quality can be prohibitively expensive. When recordings aren’t available, many composers lean on MIDI renderings. While MIDI renderings have their use, they aren’t always helpful in hearing the potential of an orchestral work. Therefore, those who are able to submit a recording are at a distinct advantage over those who need to use MIDI. And those who don’t submit either are at even more of a disadvantage. By eliminating the option, we level the playing field. This decision requires a review and selection panel of people who can read a score and imagine the outcome without the use of a recording, but in the end, it makes for a more equitable process.
Composer Nina Shekhar in her interview with I Care If You Listen describes the phenomenon of “professionalism” in classical music in this way: “One of the main criticisms people make about promoting diversity is that somehow the quality is diminished–that we should pick the ‘best’ pieces regardless of who writes them. The problem with this statement is that the standards by which we judge ‘quality’ are inherently skewed. We judge things based on white, male-centered standards. Encouraging diversity doesn’t mean diminishing quality, it means rethinking what we value in each other’s work from different perspectives.”
When we implemented these changes, we saw a 28% increase in applications from Black composers, Indigenous composers, and composers of color (BIPOC), and a 7% increase from women, transgender, and nonbinary composers.
Encouraging Diversity by Expanding Eligibility
Re-submission of Scores
Previously, we didn’t accept re-submissions of a piece that had been submitted for an EarShot call and not chosen for a reading. This meant that strong scores were passed over, then exempted from consideration for reasons not always related to quality (such as programming needs, personal preference of the reviewer or partner orchestra Music Director, etc.). We’ve amended this to accepting re-submissions, via invitations made to composers whose works were ranked by the review panel in the top 15% of the scores. Since we receive around 150-300 new scores each call, that means that around 20-45 scores are invited for re-submission.
According to our survey of composers submitting to our call for scores, orchestral works that are submitted to an EarShot call for scores are almost always written “on spec.” In other words, the composer has not been compensated for the time they spent writing the piece. Since it’s financially prohibitive to spend time working unpaid, asking for multiple works “on spec” is a huge barrier to entry for composers.
On the programming side, it’s in our best interest to invite re-submissions. Each EarShot call is highly competitive, so some compelling works are passed over because spots are limited, not because the composer is unqualified to participate. Anyone who’s been in artistic planning knows that small details and other considerations decide which works will be read or performed. Giving those works that were passed over another chance is in the orchestra’s best interest.
From research in other fields, we know that unconscious biases have a profound effect on review processes. Therefore, an important aspect of inviting re-submission is continually changing and diversifying the review panel. For each call for scores, we utilize a different panel of three composers for round one. These reviewers look at every score that’s submitted. The panel varies each time in terms of demographic, stylistic, and experiential diversity, and we’re continually expanding the pool of score reviewers for this process. There are two more rounds of review, and those panels always involve a different combination of administrators, artistic planners, conductors, and orchestra musicians. By diversifying and rotating the reviewers, we can mitigate some of the unconscious (and conscious) biases that inevitably affect the review process.
Another tool to mitigate the unconscious biases of the reviewers is to unblind the submissions. When the reviewers know more about the composer and the submitted work, they can be aware of how their unconscious biases affect their reception of the work and adjust their judgement accordingly.
When we began our partnership with the Aguascalientes Symphony Orchestra in our 2019-2020 season, we created a Spanish language version of the application. Once we did this, we realized that we should have had a bilingual application all along. We currently have a single application with English and Spanish instructions side by side.
Self-Identifying Gender, Race/Ethnicity and Additional Identities
Another expansion we’ve implemented revolves around the demographic sections on our application. Each demographic section has a write-in option, labeled “Additional” rather than “Other.” Checking “Other” is an alienating experience, and further reenforces the idea that there’s a majority (“normal”) demographic and an “other.” Each section is also created in such a way that you’re encouraged to choose all that apply, rather than just one.
Here are the options we’ve provided for the following categories:
Gender: Female, Male, Intersex, Transgender, Nonbinary, Agender
Race/Ethnicity: Arab/Middle Eastern, Asian, Black, Hispanic, Indigenous, Jewish, Latina/e/o, Pacific Islander, South Asian, White
Additional Demographics: Chronically Ill, Disabled, English as a New Language, Neurodivergent, Veteran
As we’ve implemented these changes, we’ve seen a shift in our EarShot composers who participate in the readings. Over the past 3 years, BIPOC participants have increased from 39% to 69%, and gender-marginalized composer participants have increased from 33% to 57%.
If you’re a composer, what requirements on an application keep you from applying – and what kinds of invitations would make you excited to participate? If you’re an administrator, how have you been changing your applications to invite diversified participation? What have you learned from your applicants or from other fields that could be applied here? We’d love to hear your thoughts on the strategies we’ve outlined above, and other modifications you’ve found to be helpful.