The old saying that cream rises to the top is true in my experience as a judge of national and international competitions. Lists of prize winners often include the names of previous semifinalists or finalists; their consistency, polish, and brilliance are characteristics they demonstrate in each performance. Experienced judges understand the importance of the first four measures: a strong beginning sets the style and builds both momentum and confidence for a winning performance.
The same characteristics are obvious in outstanding athletes (Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan) who start strong and establish their presence and power in the game. This momentum often builds to a winning conclusion. Confidence, accuracy, and excitement create a strong first impression. The observations of a coach or trainer help an athlete to eliminate much of the trial-and-error that produces failure in inexperienced competitors. The flutist’s first opportunity to excel is the beginning notes of the solo exposition of Mozart’s G Major Concerto (K. 313), one of the most commonly requested flute competition pieces; they set the style of the performance.
Observations and evaluations by an experienced teacher benefit flutists, just as they do athletes and competition pressures or other performance distractions make rigorous mental preparation necessary. Performers should understate the important aspects in those first moments of a piece in order to improve competition preparation. To create a winning first impression, I suggest these steps as the best way to the winners’ circle: confidence, rhythmic organization, environment, attitude, and musical impression.
Confidence. Even before playing the first note, performers should demonstrate confidence in the way they walk to the center of the stage, smile at the audience, and coordinate the opening notes with the pianist. This confident demeanor includes standing straight, walking with a sense of purpose and with eyes focused ahead. Never turn away from the audience; and when tuning, listen to the pitch of the piano in order to have it clearly in mind before playing. The flute should tune with a strong sound and move into different dynamic levels. Adjust the music stand to fit your height without blocking your face from the audience. Many inexperienced performers raise the stand too high and eliminate contact and communication with the audience as well as interfering with projecting the tone to the back of the hall.
Setting the Rhythm. Establish an internal pulse before beginning the performance to define the meter and rhythmic structure; these are essential characteristics in a performance. Precise rhythm patterns communicate phrase structure to the audience, and they convey style and meaning to the audience immediately. Run through one fast, tricky measure, mentally, subdividing the basic pulse into smaller units. Rhythmic accuracy is an important element in every performance but particularly for orchestral auditions.
Environment. Experienced competitors understand that the particularly frustrating effects of different temperatures and acoustics are out of the performer’s control and will practice in different locations in anticipation of either lively or dead acoustics. It helps to rehearse in large, small, dry, or live classrooms, rehearsal halls, or recital halls to learn to adapt quickly to whatever conditions may exist for the performance. Temperature also affects both flute and performers, because either hot or cold temperatures cause intonation, endurance, and other performance problems. Practicing with a sweater or jacket on a hot day will simulate a performance when the air conditioning fails.
Attitude. A positive, anticipatory attitude toward performance creates confidence in both performer and audience, and even if nerves are a factor, maintaining a great attitude conveys confidence in your performance. Anxiety and nervous tension often begin days or weeks before a performance, and a calm, focused practice carries over into performance and creates confidence rather than insecurity. Focus on the music and the enjoyment of performing for an audience in order to calm performance anxiety.
Musical Impression. The most important element in the first four measures is also the musical substance and style they convey. This is certainly the most subjective part of any musical performance, but the key in which the passage is written, the tempo, the time signature, and structure have to be combined with a tone quality, dynamics and the intuitive or emotional quality that connect the notes to capture the soul of an audience. Players should record practice sessions and listen objectively for the musical impression beyond the notes to develop this essential part of performance. It’s helpful to find a partner and trade performance observations; write objective improvement suggestions such as more dynamic contrast, rhythmic accuracy, or improved tone quality.
As the academic year begins and new challenges and opportunities emerge, players who make use of these suggestions will feel more confident and experience more success in auditions, competitions or performances. Remember that the cream always rises to the top.