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Getting the Most from Your Competition Experience

May 15, 2007

American String Teacher

Getting the Most from Your Competition Experience
by Rachel Barton Pine

Over the years, I have been asked countless times for advice about competitions and auditions. The following is a compilation of my observations as a competitor, teacher, and adjudicator. I’m delighted to share them with all of my colleagues at ASTA, and I hope that they are helpful for you and your students.

BEFORE THE COMPETITION

APPLICATION FORM
Mail your application form in plenty of time before the deadline. Don’t wait until the last minute or assume that your teacher will remember and remind you.

INFORMATION GATHERING
Don’t be shy – phone or email the competition organization as often as necessary to get your questions answered.

EXTRA COPIES OF YOUR MUSIC
If required, gather clean copies of your competition pieces and mark the measure numbers for the judges. Don’t wait until the last minute for this task, as numbering measures can take longer than you expect.

PRACTICE PERFORMING
Preparing for your performance in a competition is no different from preparing for a concert. The judges are your audience, and like any other listeners, they want to enjoy and be moved by the music that you are sharing with them. It is just as important to “practice performing” as it is to practice slowly. If you are a careful listener when you practice, you usually will stop and work on fixing your mistakes every time you hear one. However, you need to get used to the feeling of playing your piece all the way through without stopping for anything. Don’t do this too often; most of the time it’s best to fix mistakes right away. But every once in a while, do a “performance play-through” during your practice session to capture the feeling of going from beginning to end as though you were on stage. You can try making mental notes of things you’d like to fix later. Better yet, record yourself so that you don’t have to remember mistakes as you go along. As you’re playing, focus only on what you’re doing and what’s coming up. Then listen afterwards to what actually happened. When you critique your performance, don’t catalog only the things that need improvement. Also pay attention to all that you did well so that you can repeat your successes.

PLAY FOR AN AUDIENCE
When you do your “performance play-throughs,” ask your family or friends to be an audience. If no one is available, do your best to pretend that you have an audience. (Stuffed animals in a row of chairs were often my substitute.) Always decide where your pretend audience is sitting so that you can practice standing toward them at the correct angle.

SCREENED AUDITIONS
If your contest will be held behind a screen, try to visualize a big screen when you play your “practice performances.” It can be very disconcerting to perform without being able to see your listeners, and this visualization will help prepare you for that odd feeling.

AN IMAGINARY BACKSTAGE
You can take your imagination one step further. Choose a room of your house to be your “backstage,” then “walk out on stage” by going into the room where your audience is waiting. When I was a student, I used to use my kitchen as the “backstage” and my living room as the “concert hall.” When I left the kitchen and entered the living room, I pretended that it really was the big moment. By the time I gave the real performance, I felt like I’d already done it many times before.

THE WHOLE ROUTINE
Performing is more than just playing your piece. Your concert actually begins the moment you walk out on stage and the audience sees you, and it doesn’t end until you are again out of sight. Occasionally, I used to do a complete “practice performance.” I walked out “on stage,” bowed, tuned, played, stood quietly in a good position during pretend piano interludes (singing them in my head), bowed after the last note, shook my imaginary pianist’s hand, bowed again, and confidently walked back “off stage.” Doing all of this might feel silly at first, but you’ll be glad you did it.

PRACTICE YOUR SHOWMANSHIP
Even if you feel insecure, it’s important to give the impression of confidence before, during, and after your pieces. During your “performance play-throughs”, don’t let any mistakes show on your face or in your body language. Be sure to project the drama and emotions of your music all the way to the last row of your audience. Never be distracted and lose concentration! When I was a kid, I strengthened my ability to concentrate by occasionally letting my little sister run around me and talk loudly while I was practicing.

PRACTICE YOUR WARM-UPS
When you do your “practice performance,” do a pretend “warm-up session” in your “dressing room.” (I used to use my bedroom as a “dressing room” before going to the kitchen “backstage.”) Experiment with warm-up sessions of varying lengths, as you may end up having more or less time than you expect. Sometimes a competition’s rules say that everyone will get a twenty-minute warm-up, but if they run late you may be stuck in the dressing room for an hour. Alternatively, a competition may run early if a contestant doesn’t show up. Then you may get only ten minutes to warm up. If you’ve already anticipated every possibility, you won’t be fazed by anything unexpected. I have seen friends and students who were very prepared for a contest spoil their chances by getting flustered during their final twenty minutes of practice time. Figure out what warm-up routine will work best for you.

UNEXPECTED DELAYS
At a competition, it is possible to have a gap between your warm-up session and your performance. If you don’t expect this, it will feel very strange having your hands become cold again. Prepare for this possibility by doing your practice “warm-up,” putting your instrument aside for 10-15 minutes, and then doing your “practice performance.” After you try this a few times, it won’t seem nearly as awkward.

PREPARE YOUR ENTIRE REPERTOIRE
Just because your time slot is short doesn’t mean that the judges will only hear the beginning of your piece. They may ask you to play a spot near the end, or to jump to the cadenza. Prepare your entire repertoire, even if it’s a lot longer than the time slot. Don’t risk being unprepared by guessing which parts of the music the judges are more likely to hear and not focusing on the rest. If you want to make a cut in your piece to fit the time limit, be sure to ask the competition organizers if you are allowed to do so.

REPERTOIRE ORDER
Some competitions let you choose the order of your pieces. When you do your “practice performances,” try playing your repertoire in different combinations to discover which one you like best.

Other competitions allow the judges to pick the order of your pieces. Often, you won’t know what this order will be until the moment arrives. During your “practice performances,” play your pieces in every possible order so you can learn how it feels to go from one to the next. Then you’ll be prepared for anything.

Many competitions allow the judges to stop you in the middle of a piece. Have a friend or family member pretend to be a judge so that you become comfortable with not knowing what to expect. My younger sister used to help me with this. “Please start with your Bach….okay, that’s enough, let’s hear your concerto, starting from the top of page two….thank you, a little Paganini please.” The next time would be different: “Begin with Paganini….thank you, your entire concerto, please….the second movement of Bach up to the repeat sign.” From one moment to the next, I never knew what she would ask. So I got used to reacting to the unexpected (and I’m sure she enjoyed bossing me around). If no friend is available, you can create the same randomness by writing down the name of each of your pieces on a scrap of paper, putting them in a cup, and drawing them out one by one.

TIME OF DAY, ETC.
Practice playing your repertoire at the time of day that you will be playing it in the contest. Keep in mind that this could change. Sometimes my scheduled audition time would be 10 a.m. but the contest would run late and I wouldn’t get to play until 2 p.m. If you want to really go over the top, you even can experiment with “performing” your pieces in rooms of different temperatures, humidity levels, and acoustics.

PITCH
Not every piano is tuned to A=440. Practice your repertoire with your strings tuned to a variety of A’s, from 439 to 445, so that you won’t be thrown off no matter what pitch you encounter at the concert venue.

CLOTHES
Create a “dress rehearsal” a few days before your performance. Stand on an uncarpeted floor and play your repertoire wearing everything exactly as you will when you perform. Concert clothes can cause all kinds of problems. I have witnessed sleeves that got in the way of a performer’s hands, shoes that squeaked, skirts that rustled louder than their wearers’ mezzo-fortes, and suit jackets that constricted arm motions. Disasters can be avoided by discovering things like these ahead of time. Even when you find no problems, it’s still good to get used to how your outfit feels with your instrument. Make sure that your clothes are age-appropriate. If you have chosen a skirt and blouse, look in a mirror to make sure that your shirt doesn’t rise up with your bow arm and expose your bare midriff.

YOUR INSTRUMENT
Be sure to get new strings and bow hair in advance of the competition. They should be “broken in,” but not starting to wear out. Keep a spare set of gently used strings in your instrument case, so that if a string breaks at the last minute, you can put a broken-in one on right away. Be sure to also take your instrument to a violin shop to get a check-up and tonal adjustment.

PACKING LIST
Before the day of the contest, make a list of everything you need to bring with you, even if you’re not traveling out of town. Gathering things can be stressful, and you’ll probably be excited and distracted when the day of the competition finally arrives. Without a list, you may forget something important. Commonly forgotten items include shoes, snacks, rosin, and piano accompaniment parts.

SLEEP
The night before the contest, relaxation is more important than last minute practicing. Go to bed early even if you’re too excited to sleep. Calm your mind with your favorite music, and force yourself to close your eyes. No amount of concentration and will power on stage will make up for lack of rest.

HAVE A GOOD ATTITUTE
Don’t waste time worrying about how your performance will compare with that of others or what rating the judges may give. Enjoy the improvement in your playing that will come from careful preparation. The musician you will be when you’ve finished getting ready will be superior to the musician you were before you started, and that’s what really matters!

 

AT THE COMPETITION

CLOTHES
Dress nicely for every competition, even if you know that the judges will be behind a screen. It is important to make a good impression on the contest organizers, and the judges might meet you afterwards.
ARRIVE EARLY
Because competitions can run ahead of schedule, be sure to arrive early. I have seen many students caught unawares because a contestant cancelled and the contest officials made the next people play ahead of their original time slots.

FOOD
Eat a good meal before your performance, even if you aren’t hungry. Pack healthy snacks to keep your energy up. Bring plenty in case the contest runs really late. Don’t ever leave the building to get food (or for any other reason). Anything can happen while you’re gone. If other people drop out, you could miss your turn or have to rush to get ready.

WAITING
Don’t feel obligated to socialize with those around you before it’s your turn to play. Even if you are ordinarily the outgoing type, you may want to maintain your privacy and personal focus. I always packed a portable CD player and a good book. If I didn’t want to talk with anyone, I would put on my headphones and hold my book in front of me. Even if you don’t want to read or listen to music, just wearing headphones and holding a book open will keep others at a distance. On the other hand, if you want company, arrange for a friend who isn’t a fellow contestant to come with you as your designated buddy.

WARM-UP
While warming up, don’t exhaust your emotional energy by “performing” your pieces over and over. You don’t want your best playing to occur in the dressing room. I always used to bring along a favorite piece not included in my competition repertoire. If I wanted to, I could play it in my dressing room and stay limber without burning myself out on the contest pieces.

Remember the warm-up routine that you figured out at home. Play carefully and calmly. Warm up all of your audition pieces, because you never know what you might end up playing. Perhaps you will hear that the judges asked a previous contestant for certain portions of the repertoire. Practice everything anyway. The judges may ask you for different spots. And, sad to say, a contestant who is feeling competitive might not be telling the truth about what he or she performed.

Don’t allow yourself to be rattled by hearing someone really impressive in the warm-up room next to you. The judges won’t necessarily choose the contestant who played the most challenging piece. Also, how someone sounds in the dressing room isn’t always how that individual will sound on stage.

Sometimes there aren’t enough warm-up rooms for everyone. On a few occasions I practiced in the ladies’ room!

YOUR INSTRUMENT AND MUSIC
Competitions can be very chaotic, so be sure to keep your instrument and sheet music with you at all times. Don’t leave them unguarded when you go to the bathroom, because many people’s things look alike and you never know what may happen. At one audition, I left my music on the stand in my warm-up room and went to see what was happening outside. When I returned, another player was walking down the hall with my music in his hand! Luckily, I caught him in time or it would have been a disaster.

YOUR PERFORMANCE
Remember to tune before you start your first piece, and stay calm if you have trouble with your pegs. Don’t peek at the judges while you are playing! You may think that you’re being subtle, but the judges are sure to notice. You will come across as distracted and insecure. Also, don’t be concerned if the judges are writing lots of comments. Usually, they are noting strengths as well as areas that need improvement.

AFTER THE COMPETITION

MEET THE JUDGES
It is always valuable to learn from the experts who just heard you, just as you do at a master class. Regardless of whether you win a prize, be sure to introduce yourself to the judges if you have the chance, and ask them for their honest feedback.

TALK TO YOUR TEACHER
Be sure to show your written judges’ comments to your teacher so that you can discuss them together and complete the learning experience. If the judges gave you numerical scores, don’t draw any big conclusions by how high or low they are. Each judge uses his or her own range – one judge’s 85 may actually be higher than another judge’s 96.

IN CONCLUSION
Remember that the real reason you entered the contest wasn’t to win a prize. Music isn’t an Olympic sport in which the fastest runner is clearly the best. Comparing different violinists is like comparing apples to oranges. If you don’t win, you shouldn’t feel depressed, and if you do win, you shouldn’t get too full of yourself. Each time I won a prize, my teacher would say, “Well, Heifetz wasn’t there that day.”

When you are a student, the true value of participating in competitions comes from the educational opportunity. You get to play a concert for the judges, you get to perfect your preparation methods, you have a goal to work towards, you have a chance to hear others and learn from them, and you can identify strengths and weaknesses in your playing. It’s much more important to do your best than to “beat” others.

Good luck and have fun!

~~~

A veteran of many competitions herself, Rachel Barton Pine won 1st prize in numerous U.S. competitions before becoming the first American and youngest ever Gold Medalist in the J.S. Bach International Violin Competition in Leipzig, Germany, at the age of 17. As a teenager, she also won prizes in the Montreal, Queen Elizabeth, Kreisler, Szigeti, and Paganini International Competitions.

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