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Preparing To Win A Guide to Competition Success

Conor Nelson | November 2011

   Preparation for a successful competition begins months or even years in advance. Beyond talent and musical preparation, competition success begins with excellent organizational skills. At the height of my competitive years, I planned which competitions to enter and selected repertoire as much as three years in advance. That may sound excessive, but preparing effective repertoire takes time. The goal is to arrive at the competition in peak condition musically, physically and psychologically. I often entered as many as ten competitions a year, so I spent many hours researching and planning. 

Research and Organization
   The first step is to discover which ones are a good fit for you. Both the National Flute Association and Flute Talk publish listings of competitions, and additional offerings may be found online. For younger students who have little or no experience, competitions held by schools, youth orchestras, local flute associations, community orchestras, and local volunteer groups are an excellent place to begin. I advise my university students to take advantage of local competitions first because they can gain experience without the expense of housing and transportation. 
   To determine whether a competition is an appropriate fit, consider the repertoire, age requirements, geographic location, and your career goals. Enter competitions with the lowest age limits first. In most cases there is a far better chance of success for older and more experienced candidates. I realized quickly that competing with students ten or more years my senior was not necessarily wise. There is plenty of time in the future to enter those competitions. 
   Consider the overall cost of the competition. Most have an entrance fee that may range from $15 to $150. If the competition has a pre-screening CD round, factor in the cost of an accompanist, recording engineer, and recording studio. Check the cost of transportation and housing. To pay for entering competitions, I regularly set aside student loan money. Many competitions provide host families for the competitors. The overall cost of entering a competition will rarely be offset by the prize money. However, winning a prestigious competition is helpful in career development.  

   When selecting a competition, repertoire is an important facet to consider. Most flute competitions have set requirements or options to choose from, although concerto competitions tend to be more open. Because there are so many competitions, choose those with required repertoire that highlights your strengths and that you have performed before. Likewise, in freely structured competitions, choose repertoire that you play well.
   Choose a program that highlights your ability to contrast stylistic periods (Baroque to Romantic, Classical to Contemporary), sheer virtuosity, and exquisite fundamentals. For freely structured rounds of flute competitions, I present highly virtuosic works and something less well-known, as judges are less likely to have preconceived interpretations of a little-known work. 
  For young artist competitions in which a variety of instrumentalists compete, perform the gems of the flute repertoire, as flutists will be judged against musicians who are playing the violin and piano works of Brahms, Ravel and Tchaikovsky. 
   Never be afraid to reuse a piece. It is not cutting corners; it is being professional. One of my chamber music coaches at the Manhattan School said he did not feel comfortable with a concerto until his twentieth performance. Your presentation at a competition should never include a first-time performance of a piece. I never won a competition when playing pieces that were new. Several times I used the same repertoire to win a competition a year later that I had previously lost. 
   Which competitions you enter may be influenced by career goals. For those who plan to become an orchestral musician, masterclass competitions for orchestral excerpts study are an excellent idea. Competitions that offer future concerto appearances, recitals, or management will help those who want a solo career. Competitions offered by flute societies and clubs look good on a resume, and almost any competition will help distinguish you in the pursuit of a teaching position at a college or university.  

Getting Started
   As an undergraduate I kept a manila folder for each competition that interested me. Some folders were for annual competitions, while others were for competitions held several years in the future. I filed them by date for easy reference. In each folder, I placed as much information about the competition as possible. This included the competition flier (if there was one), and another sheet that contained important information about the competition for quick reference. In some cases, if I had not received a flier yet, the sheet of information I had collected was the only thing in the folder. 
   This sheet included the date of the competition with the location (hall, city, and country), deadlines for pre-screening CD rounds, entry fees, and repertoire requirements. I also listed dates for recording sessions and several pre-competition performances (recital halls, schools, nursing homes, assisted living facilities etc.). I included information from competition websites, even if they were from the previous year as the general time of year the competition is held rarely changes. Competitions in which a variety of instrumentalists participate usually do not change repertoire requirements from one year to the next. It is a huge advantage if you can begin your planning before the website is updated. Having this information in one place, allowed me to plan repertoire several years in advance and figure out what repertoire might be used in more than one competition. 

Follow the Rules
   Read and reread the rules and regulations. For a thirty minute program, make sure that you have no more than twenty-six or twenty-seven minutes of music, unless the rules specify “thirty minutes of music” because competitors may be stopped or even disqualified for going overtime. Print all information found online and make copies of everything sent to the competition. When traveling to the competition, take the folder along in case a problem arises.

Prescreening Suggestions
   If a competition requires prescreening materials, book a recording engineer and a pianist immediately. The goal is to make the highest quality recording possible. It is always surprising how many entrants send recordings with poor sound quality. An excellent recording is an invaluable investment, so hire a sound engineer and record in a hall with good acoustics. If possible, give yourself more than a week between the recording session and the deadline date. This will save you from having to make such important decisions as which take to keep, when you are under duress.
   Carefully listen to the recorded material. The first couple of seconds of a recorded track are pivotal as it is the first impression the listener has. An extra trusted set of ears on the day of the recording can be very helpful, as it is difficult to make accurate assessments of numerous takes. My students often record on the same day so that they can help each other.  
   My teacher, Linda Chesis, advised me to record pieces when I was at the height of my preparation, instead of waiting until I needed a recording for a deadline. This advice was particularly useful for competitions without fixed repertoire requirements. There was one competition in which I recorded a pre-screening tape on a mini-disc recorder at the last minute in my pianist’s carpeted living room. It was no surprise that it was not selected. 

Practice Routines
   While competitions place high demands on musicians in terms of repertoire, very often flutists forget to pay attention to the basic fundamentals of flute playing. When preparing for a competition, maintain a daily routine of long tones, etudes and technical work that includes a variety of articulations and rhythms. About one month before a competition, I read through half of a book of etudes every day, such as the Twenty-six Selected Studies by Henri Altes. Likewise, once you have learned difficult passages in pieces, continue to practice at a slower tempo to maintain the work you have already done. If over long periods of time, repertoire begins to grow old or stale, infuse different pieces into practice sessions. Listen to great musicians play other compositions by the same composer. 

   Each year more competitions require flute players to perform works from memory. In general, even if memory is not required, or is merely preferred, it may be a distinguishing factor when judges have difficult decisions to make. Although you may opt to use music for chamber works, or other collaborative pieces, concertos should always be played from memory, especially at concerto competitions. Even if memory is not specifically required, it is likely other competitors will perform concertos by memory.
   Committing a piece to memory requires a great deal of time and planning. Seek advice about techniques for effective memorization and start as soon as you can play the score. You should be able to perform the piece from memory at least a month before the actual competition. In order to give yourself additional opportunities to perform from memory, plan run-through performances in both casual and formal settings. 

The Competition
   Rest, good nutrition, fresh air, and exercise should all be seen as part of the preparation. It is beneficial to know in advance whether there will be an audience. Sometimes the rules will specify this. If not, ask colleagues who have entered the competition previously. If you stay with a host family, they may provide valuable insights about the competition. Search online for images of the competition hall as this will help with mental preparation. 
   I found it helpful to know if the audience would clap for competitors. In general, if an audience claps, the musician should bow. If an audience and jury are silent when the competitors walk on and off the stage, it is important to know how to react to that silence. The absence of clapping can be discomforting and strange for both the audience and the performer. One option in the absence of clapping is to acknowledge the accompanist with a nod upon the completion of the piece and then confidently walk off, instead of bowing in silence. This shows decorum and professional consideration. Feel free to respond verbally if a jury member thanks you, but be prepared to make a confident silent exit if you know there will be no clapping. Be sure to practice all spoken introductions out loud. If you announce a piece that has a collaborative component, be careful to say, “We will play the Hindemith Sonate.”
   It is important to practice performing your pieces in various orders, as “What would you like to begin with?” coming from a voice thirty rows back in a concert hall may be unsettling. What to start with should be planned from the beginning. I consider the first four or five phrases when selecting an opening piece because the first thirty seconds of a performance make a lasting impression on the jury. 
   Comfort and familiarity with repertoire is key. Choose pieces where it is easy for you to capture the atmosphere or mood right at the beginning. Sometimes this is a game of elimination. For example, if you have the tendency to crack the first note of the Poulenc Sonata, or have trouble with the opening runs in Chant de Linos, these might not be the best pieces to start with. If you do not feel comfortable starting with any of the pieces, you have made a big mistake. When deciding on an effective order, know the timings exactly and be careful to include time to walk on and off stage as well as any necessary introductions and tuning.

The Outcome
   Every musician has heard the “you are all winners” speech at some point. Typically this less-than-comforting adage is offered during the agonizing moments before results are announced – when our ability to absorb such advice is tragically low. Upon hearing unfavorable results, these words were difficult for me to take to heart, especially after having spent an entire month’s worth of rent and groceries simply getting to a competition and paying for pianists, entry fees and hotels. As time went on, however, I started to understand these wise words more and more. 
   Regardless of the result, every competition I worked towards taught me something. I learned how to handle a great deal of repertoire simultaneously, and my playing benefitted from thoughtful practice and careful preparation. I gained organizational skills and musical endurance and had the opportunity to hear extraordinary musicians from around the country, which in turn inspired me to work even harder.  
   For many young musicians, competitions are a rite of passage that teach them how to handle the pressure of performing in front of an audience. Written evaluations from committee members can be extremely valuable; I often found they focused on something my teacher had been trying to convince me of all along. If you can speak with the judges after the competition, ask for any additional feedback. Although prize money is a huge bonus, the true reward is what you learn from the experience. Very few performers make more money from competitions than they spend on them. 

   I remind students that my list of rejections far outweighs the prizes I won. There were many competitions that I entered two or three times before earning a prize. You never know what might happen. When I competed in the Byrd Competition in Michigan for the first time, I did not win. I came back twice more with a vengeance and finally won – plus over time I received five recital engagements from a presenter who happened to be in the audience at my first attempt. Many students get discouraged and decide not to reenter competitions where they were previously unsuccessful. Perseverance is key. No one could imagine an athlete deciding not to enter the Olympics a second time after finishing in ninth or tenth place. Think of the many athletes who return four years later with added experience and win a gold medal. It is also wise to remember that there will likely be a different panel of judges each time. 

   If you go to competitions simply to win, you will miss out on some rich opportunities. If you enter competitions with the goal to learn and grow, you are already a winner. Click here for Flute Talk’s Directory of Competitions.
Repertoire Ideas

For freely structured competitions, here are three possible programs. 

Flute Competitions
Albinoni: Sonata in a minor 
Taffanel: Fantaisie sur le Freischütz
Ichiyanagi: In a Living Memory 


C.P.E Bach: Hamburger Sonata
(or a more obscure one)
Karg-Elert: Caprice No. 30, Chaconne 
Jolivet: Chant de Linos 

Young Artist Competition:
J.S. Bach: Sonata No. 5, E Major 
Martin: Ballade
Prokofiev: Sonata 
Nielsen: Concerto 

Practice Routine
  A sample practice routine for one month leading up to the big day:

1 hour: Scales Geoffrey Gilbert, Technical Flexibility for Flutists and/or the Taffanel &Gaubert, 17 Daily Exercises
1 hour: Etudes play through half of the Twenty-six Selected Studies by Altes or similarly challenging etudes that incorporate numerous different articulations. 
1 hour long tones and vocalises: De La Sonorite and/or Philippe Bernolds’ La Technique d’Embouchure
2-3 hours repertoire. 
Play through your pieces for friends or family casually 2-3 times a week