Competitions often get a bad rap. Some people dislike the comparison of very different individuals to a single set of standards or the similarity to a battle as they pit one person against another for the sake of an external prize.
However, I do not see competitions that way. I have participated in over fifteen competitions and placed in nine of them and have always come away with an internal reward such as a special lesson that develops my growth as a musician and person.
I enjoy competitions. They provide a chance to put myself into the hot seat and avoid letting past accomplishments soften my desire to develop into the best musician I can become. Competitions help me see where my skills fit into the current local, national, and international levels of playing. They help me gain perspective on the work I have done and the work I need to do. Since practice can be so isolated and insulated, I have found that competitions give me a healthier view of the bigger picture. I offer here some additional benefits, as well as my most memorable experiences of what it’s been like for me to compete.
Interestingly, what first comes to mind are all the friends I have made at competitions. For example, at the 5th Franz Schubert and Modern Music International Competition in Austria in 2003, I met musicians from Belgium, Australia, and Hungary, with whom I am still in touch. After the competition finished and we could all relax the intensity of our focus, it was a joy to connect with the other competitors, talk about life, and find connections between our experiences making music and living in different countries. You never know; you might just make a friend at a competition.
Some competitions offer prize money. In 1996 I entered the Léni Fé Bland Music Scholarship Competition in Santa Barbara, California. While I did not win one of the larger prizes that year, my performance was touching enough to the jury that they created an encouragement award for me. That funding helped me pay for school. You do not always have to receive first prize to win.
In 2000 I won first prize in the New York Flute Club Young Artist Competition, which came with the opportunity to give a New York debut performance. A debut is, in a way, a rite of passage. What I passed was this: the year before winning, I was in a rehabilitative period, having had to start over and relearn how to play without so much tension. Thanks to the patience and the incredible support of my teacher at the time, Tara Helen O’Connor, this competition for me marked a new beginning of freedom in my playing. Competitions can mean so much more than you think.
Sometimes the sheer difficulty of a competition has been enough to motivate me to participate. In 2001 I was accepted to the 56th Geneva International Music Competition in Switzerland. The challenge for me was to memorize twelve major works from the required repertoire list. Having risen to the challenge, I was eager to attend. My flight to Europe, however, would be leaving only a few weeks after the events of 9/11. Perhaps memorizing twelve works was not as challenging as I thought. The difficulty now was whether or not I would let the fear of those events win. I could not let fear win. So I packed my bags and headed to Geneva. I didn’t advance, but I still came away with many lessons.
Listening to great musicians, even in the context of a competition, can be so inspiring. For example, at the semi-final round, I observed really great competitors, including Silvia Careddu (the winner that year), and marveled at their level of focus and concentration. Those were areas I realized I should work on to improve my own playing. Now I knew what that looked like and could begin to incorporate it into my own performing. Sometimes competitions can help you see more clearly and overcome weaknesses and difficulties in both music and life.
The intensity of competition has helped me learn about myself and what I need to do my best. How do I react to pressure? What are the circumstances that influence a poor and a good performance? In the prelims of the NY Flute Club Competition, I remember feeling the overwhelming urge to find a private space for myself, away from the other competitors. The only place I could find was a dark, narrow crevice of a doorway in the middle of a hallway. That is where I did my warm-up. I don’t know why I needed that level of privacy that day, but I did. Listening to that internal message made all the difference. I was able to concentrate my dissipated energy, and deliver a solid, knock-out kind of performance of Jolivet’s Chant de Linos that could not have happened otherwise. Intensity does not have to cripple you as a performer; it may just be trying to show you what you need.
Competitions can bring out the best in people and nourish desirable qualities. In 2008 I made the finals in the woodwinds division of Rice Univer-sity’s Shepherd School Concerto Competition. External judges were always used for the final round. For about four years in a row, the winners of this competition had been bassoonists. That year, two flutists and a bassoonist made the finals, and the bassoonist, Miles Maner, won. I was runner-up. I decided to be a gracious runner up and be the first one to offer Miles congratulations. As I reflect on that action, I realize that competition helped me develop good sportsmanship.
I have also used competitions to gain experience. After four years of not competing at the international level, I wanted to try again. I decided to participate in the Domenico Cimarosa Flute Competition in December 2011. That year, I was teaching full-time at St. Olaf College as well as finishing my doctoral dissertation from Rice University. It was a busy time to prepare for a competition, but I wanted to feel challenged and vital in the area of flute along with everything else I was doing. I did the best I could in my preparation and went to Italy that December. My main purpose for going was to hear the level of competitors and to get my competition feet wet again. Interestingly, in the first round of my performance, the lights went out. I could not see the music but had to keep playing. Needless to say, with all the imperfect factors involved, I did not advance. Again, however, the experience provided several lessons. First, prepare your music as close to memorized as possible (just in case the lights go out!). Second, don’t overdo it. I was stretched pretty thin at the time and needed to adjust my expectations accordingly. Third, I was ultimately glad that I did it because I had a better understanding of how well I would need to play to improve the next time.
Competitions have helped pull me out of a rut and helped me reclaim a sense of musical place and purpose. Teaching can become draining sometimes, so in 2012 and 2013 I participated in the Concorso Internazionale Musicale “Città di Padova” in Italy. The competitions happened in June, after the school year finished, so I did not have too many other demands during my preparation. Having learned my lessons from the Cimarosa Competition in 2011, I earned two third prizes in 2012. I decided to do it again in 2013 for several reasons. I wanted to stay current with the level of international competition, but now, for the added purpose of better guiding my students. I also wanted to have a reason to stay in shape and improve my repertoire, and of course, I wanted to see if I could place higher this time.
All three reasons were satisfied – the international competition level is still very high, with excellent intonation taking priority. My playing is in competitive shape; I have improved my repertoire; and I placed second in the Winds Division. While I literally placed in these recent competitions, the sense of place that competitions have helped me most appreciate is within myself – the discovery of who I really am and what I can share through my music. Competitions help me reclaim purpose and vitality.
I hope that my experiences may provide a fresh perspective to accompany you in answering this question. Competitions can provide very positive experiences for learning and growth, if we let them.