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On Competitions

Mark Sparks | November 2013

    The annual Directory of Competitions in this month’s Flute Talk will mean something different to each flutist. While some cannot wait to get their applications in, others feel the adrenaline pumping in a sort of flute fight or flight response at just the thought. Hot to trot or not, all competitors feel the butterflies coming on as they think about playing for the judges. Competition is a fact of daily life for flutists. With so many of us eager to show our stuff, doing well against one’s peers is the only way to stand out.
    As any seasoned pro will tell you, when entering a competition, break a leg and have fun. Enjoy the experience. Right. Try as we might, let us admit that it is easier said than done unless you have a couple of fat prizes under your belt. It is even harder if lately you have been receiving those skinny rejection envelopes in the mail. Let’s face it; competitions are tough, even for the most dedicated players.
    Attitude is everything. As you visualize going before the judges, a little acceptance of competition can go a long way. To become aggressive is actually to resist, so soften up a little. Competition may be a thorny mate to cozy up to, but it is a natural part of life. Plants and animals engage in the survival ritual on a daily basis, where the winner takes all and the loser, instead of getting a ticket back to hearth and home, receives a trip to oblivion. Many CEOs live by the slogan “If you are not changing, you are dying.” Change may be difficult, but it is the natural medium for progress and survival, and the antidote to entropy. We are hard-wired to change, and to keep up, one naturally needs to know how the competition is evolving. Change signals the possibility of realizing potential. You likely know this already; otherwise you would not put in all those hours blowing across the flute in order to improve.
    Decide you are going to find some luck, and we know where that is. It is at the intersection of Preparation Street and Circumstance Avenue, and you will need some directions. Set yourself up for success. Start out early. Fill out the forms and read the requirements twice checking what fees are due, and when, and if there is a recording round. Make sure flights are available, and choose one that gives you time to adjust upon arrival. It is important to understand the qualifications, and then to study the repertoire requirements carefully.
    Preparing for performance, whether it is a competition or recital, is a personal art form. Only you know how much time you need to get ready, and what kind of routine you prefer. Perhaps memorization is required, or you decide it is just better to memorize. Slow and patient practice is always necessary for a good end result, and it is a good idea to record your playing. Time management is crucial, especially if the repertoire list is lengthy or demanding in scope, so make an evolving practice plan and stick to it. Stretch, take breaks, and practice injury prevention. Sleep and exercise are also important. Whatever your method, it must result in one magical element: consistency. Consistency is the promised land for performers, and it is vital to self-confidence.
    Preparation is the easy part. It is the circumstance bit that is tricky. Of course, as with weddings and funerals, it is important to show up. There may be events beyond your control, but planning and common sense usually pay off. But more importantly, circumstance is not only about being in the right place, it is about being there at the right time, and as the saying goes, “There is no time like the present.” For luck to come your way you must be in the moment and enjoying it.
    I have had the privilege of knowing many great musicians, and they often share some common traits. Highly successful musicians tend to be kind, positive, generous, and sincere. Many great players also seem to be completely accepting of the moment. They go with the flow, and find the positive in every situation. It is a skill like riding a bike. Exist in the very instant of recreating the music. Whether performing, in competition or not, observe and accept what is happening in the moment without negative judgment. This creates the circumstances for positive energy to happen in the music. This positive energy can build, and ultimately lead directly to the much-sought-after first prize, fame and fortune.
    This is quite different, and more enjoyable than entering a competition so you can stand out from the crowd. Focusing completely on the moment can remove that nagging distraction of thinking about the judges and wishing ill on your competition. You have no control over them anyway. Developing positive feelings about the situation can also reduce stage anxiety, as you compete only with yourself. Stage fright is simply a misinterpretation of the body’s natural response to fear. Use this prescription: eyes closed, sit up straight, step back and observe the negative energy. Watch its effect diminish. Breathe, in through the nose, out through the mouth, and replace with positive and self-nurturing thoughts. Smile. Fear of failure is a natural phenomenon and a necessary step in the evolution of your playing. Calm acceptance is the answer. If you are thinking about winning or losing, you are missing the point.
    You will eventually find that all paths, competitive or not, lead back to the music, and the simple joy and fundamental skills of playing the pipe. Most of the famous flutists who win competitions are great musicians as well as excellent instrumentalists. Developing a positive approach to competition is not an end in itself, but merely one way to become a better person, flutist and musician.