Preparing for Competitions: Process over Results

John McMurtery | May 2016

    Imagine the following scene. You are about to perform in the final round of a concerto competition. A minute before walking onstage, you peer through a crack in a door to see how many people are in the audience. The judges are there, heads turned, deep in conversation, some of them writing on notepads. Your heart begins to race. You are not nervous, exactly, but you are excited. The thought that there is no place in the world you would rather be fills you with overwhelming serenity, even joy. The stage door opens. You stride confidently onto the stage. After taking a deep breath, you begin. As you play you forget about the judges and their furious scribbling. You imagine what it will be like to perform this piece standing in front of a full orchestra. You let go and trust the intense preparation that has brought you to this moment. The audience melts away as you become immersed in the music. Suddenly it is done. The applause finally breaks your concentration. Winning or losing becomes meaningless because you know you have given your best performance.
    Visualizing a scenario like the one just described can be a powerful technique to maximize success before an important performance. It is also part of a long process that prepares the mind, body, and spirit for the rigors of competition. Just as you play scales every day and keep in good playing shape, it is beneficial to keep your mind and imagination in shape as well. Prepare in a way that will help create the conditions for a peak artistic experience on stage.

Why Competitions?
    When asked about piano competitions, Béla Bartók famously said, “Competitions are for horses, not artists.” Some musicians view them as a necessary evil, some as a way to be heard by high profile musicians as well as their peers. Others love to show what they can do and are thrilled to compete against fellow musicians. Regardless of one’s feelings about music competitions, certain benefits can be gained, win or lose. Probably the most important of these are learning the repertoire thoroughly and learning how to practice and prepare for concerts.

Commit to the Process
    The first thing is to commit fully to the process. Focusing on the journey from beginning to end helps keep motivation levels high and prevents worrying about the eventual outcome too much. Begin preparing the day you decide to enter a competition. It is helpful to think of it as a type of athletic event. A runner does not wake up one morning and decide to run a race or start working out a week before a marathon. Similarly, musicians should start training as early as possible. Set a series of small goals along the way, such as learning a difficult passage, playing the work through from memory, or scheduling the first piano rehearsal. Your teacher can help set reasonable goals and outline your path.

Repertoire Choices
    If the choice of repertoire is up to the performer, there are several factors to consider. Is there a piece you fell in love with and are just dying to play? Before charging ahead, be sure to check with your teacher to see if the repertoire is at an appropriate level for you. Over the years I have heard too many contestants who have chosen works that are too difficult for their current abilities. They are often talented players, but they would have placed much higher with a different choice of repertoire. Select repertoire that shows your playing strengths to the fullest.

Consider the Conductor
    If possible, get to know the conductor whom you will be working with if you win. Some conductors enjoy the challenge of rehearsing a difficult modern work with complicated staging instructions and offstage ensembles, in which case you can be a bit more adventurous in your programming. Many conductors, however, will not have the time or resources to devote to such a large undertaking, so you would be advised to choose something more modest. Check to see if parts are easily accessible via rental or purchase and if the work has the appropriate instrumentation and level of difficulty for the ensemble. Remember that the conductor may be present for the final round of the competition and may be thinking about these factors when deciding for whom to vote.

Recordings and Score Study
    Once you have decided on a piece, listen to recordings and study the score. Besides learning your part, learn the piano reduction as well as the orchestral parts inside and out. Mark appropriate cues in the music. Practicing with the piano line in your head saves valuable rehearsal time.
    Keep in mind that you will not always be able to bring your own pianist to a final round. Sometimes a competition provides its own pianists, in which case you may only get one rehearsal with that player. Learn how to communicate tempos and phrasing with your body so the pianist is completely clear on how to follow you. You can even work on this skill away from the flute.

Maintaining Motivation
    At some point in the preparation you may find that you have lost some of your motivation to practice. The way to remedy this is to make sure you are not only working on your competition piece but also are practicing tone exercises, scales, etudes, excerpts, and even improvisation. Listen to other music that inspires you. Play chamber music with friends. Remind yourself regularly of your love for music. The way to perform inspired is to practice inspired. If you can find a way to love practicing, the feeling will most likely come through on stage as well, even if you are a bit nervous or not feeling at your best.

On Memorization
Regardless of whether or not memorization is required, you will feel much more comfortable if you can play the piece from memory. You do not necessarily have to perform without music, unless required, but push yourself to be able to play through the work from memory about three to four weeks before the event. Knowing that you have thoroughly absorbed the music will inspire confidence that you can deal with anything that happens onstage.

Practice Performing
    One of the most important steps in the preparation process is to play the repertoire beforehand in a pressure-filled environment. In the earlier stages of preparation, recording a tricky passage or two in the privacy and comfort of the practice room will elevate your heart rate a bit and simulate a performance situation. Later on, invite your teacher and friends whose musical opinions you trust to listen to you. If possible, create as many details of the actual competition atmosphere as you can. Ask friends and colleagues to act as judges. Provide pencils and a notepad to take notes as you play. Give them a copy of the score to mark the relevant parts where balance might be problematic or tempos need to be adjusted.

Appearance Matters
    In a dress rehearsal, perform in the clothing you plan to wear for the competition. Is it comfortable and appropriate for the competition? Videotape yourself and observe your stage presence. You want to look natural and comfortable. Record each session and listen back making notes on what you can improve on the during the next run-through.

Physical Challenge
    Flute playing is a physical endeavor. You will benefit by keeping in good shape. Eat well and drink lots of water. If you are a regular coffee drinker, gradually cut your caffeine intake at least in half before the performance. An abrupt reduction can lead to jitters and debilitating withdrawal headaches. Drink more water than you think you need, especially in the week leading up to the competition. Be easy on yourself with your schedule, if you can. Let your body and mind rest before such a taxing event. A little extra sleep the few days before is helpful for focus and stamina during the competition.

Performance Day
    On performance day, warm up slowly and don’t practice too much or play the same passages over and over. Keep your mind calm and focused. When you get onstage, trust yourself and enjoy the feeling of performing. Your visualization practice may help create the feeling that you have been through all this before because you have in a way. If you are nervous, that is okay. Realize that nerves are a necessary part of the performance. Don’t work to eliminate them; rather, make them work for you. Shift your attention back to the music by remembering you are there to give your audience a gift. When you give a gift, you don’t want to be stingy; so play with a generous heart. Strive for communication over perfection. If a mistake happens, don’t grimace or convey it with your body language. The judges may not have noticed. Use the mistake as a reminder to refocus and make the next musical moment the best one yet.
    If it is possible to record each round, do so. Go through the recordings first by yourself and then with your teacher to see where you could have made improvements. Even if you win, you want to find out what was successful about your performance and how it can be better next time. Win or lose, it is important to distance yourself from the results. A performance is merely a snapshot of you on a particular day, so take the lessons and move on.
    Realize the judging process is subjective. Seek out written or verbal feedback from judges after the event, as it will always give you some points to ponder for next time. Finally, no matter what the result, be sure to reward yourself after the competition is over. You have given it your best effort and learned many great lessons along the way. Realize you are now a stronger performer and a better flute player than you were before. In the end you may find competitions are not about competing against others but with yourself to become the best artist you can be.