Running a Successful Student Competition

Stefanie Abderhalden | November 2015

    Competitions are often exciting but unnerving experiences for students. A well-run event provides a positive performance experience that encourages musical growth and gives students the confidence to pursue future opportunities.
    As a board member of the Chicago Flute Club (CFC), I have coordinated its annual student competition for three years. There are a number of elements that help to create a successful student competition.

The CFC Competition
    The CFC student competition, held since 1992, is scheduled in the fall because of the many solo contests that occur in the Chicago area during the spring. It includes a senior division for grades twelve and under, a junior division for grades nine and under, and an elementary division for grades six and under. These groupings facilitate the selection of appropriate repertoire for students at a similar level of playing. Currently, the competition is a one-day event, and the first-place winners perform in a member’s showcase concert later in the season. 

Choosing Repertoire
    One of the first tasks in planning the competition each year is selecting the repertoire. In each division performers play two pieces. The goal is to pick contrasting pieces that expose students  to a variety of music in the standard repertoire and also improve their skills. The repertoire also should challenge the older students in the division while not intimidating the younger ones. 
    The elementary division pieces usually run about five minutes long, with seven minutes of music for the junior division, and ten minutes for the senior division. For the senior division there is a special effort to ensure that one of the pieces is standard repertoire and something students could use for a college audition as well. In this division there is one unaccompanied piece and one with piano. Listed below is the music for the 2015 competition.

Elementary Division Repertoire
(6th Grade and under)

Menuett by Friedrich Kuhlau, from Pearls of the Old Masters Volume II
Romanza Espressiva by Franz Schubert, from Pearls of the Old Masters Volume II

Junior Division Repertoire
(9th Grade and under)

Offertoire, Op. 12 by Johannes Donjon, from 24 Short Concert Pieces for Flute, revised by Robert Cavally
Sonata in G Major, HWV 363b movement 2 by George Frideric Handel, any edition

Senior Division Repertoire
(12th Grade and under)

Andante Pastoral et Scherzettino by Paul Taffanel, from Flute Music by French Composers, edited by Louis Moyse
Three Preludes, Op. 18 movements 1 and 2 by Robert Muczynski (unaccompanied), G. Schirmer edition

    The rules specify editions but allow students to use others if they choose. If students decide to use a different edition or make changes to the part (such as to articulations or dynamics), they must provide copies of the score for the judges when they perform. For example, teachers may want to remove certain slurs printed in a part because of how they view the performance practice.
    Another consideration is memorization. For many years the CFC competition required one piece to be memorized for the junior and senior divisions. The memorization requirement has since been eliminated in hopes of attracting more applicants. Many students choose to memorize anyway, but by removing the requirement from the rules, the competition has become more approachable for some applicants, and the number of participants has grown.

Picking a Venue
    Another important consideration is choosing the right location for the event. The club’s membership comes from not only the city of Chicago but also the surrounding suburbs, so centrally located venues that are easily accessible from the interstate tend to be more successful.
    Potential locations should have ample parking, nearby coffee shops and restaurants, an open space for registration and gathering, plenty of warm-up rooms (preferably with pianos or keyboards), and large performance spaces that have well-maintained pianos and appropriate acoustics. We usually use large high schools and music buildings on the campuses of colleges and universities.
    Ideally, choose a venue that has plenty of music stands available to avoid additional costs. Make sure the pianos are tuned for the day of the competition. In the past the CFC has hired a piano tuner to come the day before or has negotiated piano tuning into our fees for using a venue.
    Negotiating a price can be a challenge. See if there are ways to barter to bring costs down. Venues have lowered their price in exchange for advertisement in our newsletter or having an information booth at the event.

Selecting Judges

    The CFC has a large list of wonderful flutists who are willing to assist as judges. They listen to each contestant, give comments in different categories of musical skill, and pick four winners in each division. Good options for judges include nearby university flute professors and local professionals and teachers. Compile a list of all past judges and keep up to date on the names of notable flute pros in the area.  Judges are provided with an honorarium for their time as well as meals throughout the day of the competition.
    It is imperative to clearly communicate to the judges the way you want the event to run and the atmosphere you want to create. For example, we ask judges to provide lots of written comments but to stay constructive and not write anything that may be deemed degrading to the student or instructor. We hold a judges’ meeting the day of the event to reiterate key points such as how the comment sheets work and the necessity of staying on schedule. (Sample comment sheet)

Advertising the Event
    Once the details are decided, advertise the event prominently. If a club is sponsoring the competition, send out flyers with registration details to all members. Advertise in flute newsletters and magazines. Post information on web sites and send out email blasts. Notifying local school band and orchestra directors is also a great way to get the word out. Make sure to emphasize to potential participants the benefits of competing and what they will gain from the experience.

    Scheduling students is one of the trickier aspects of planning a competition. First, the competition organizer checks to make sure each student and teacher has paid all of the necessary membership dues and application fees. An Excel spreadsheet that can be easily shared and edited through sites such as Google Drive and Dropbox helps to keep track of the details. Once all of the students and their teachers are confirmed as members, the schedule is created. Each student receives a warm-up and performance time slot.
    Be sure to consider the accompanists as well. They should have sufficient time to avoid conflicts if they are accompanying multiple students, but their schedule should not be too spread out over the course of the day. The schedule must work so that accompanists do not have any time conflicts, and if possible can be present for warm-ups with students. It is easy for multiple rooms to fall behind in the schedule if students and judges have to wait for a delayed accompanist. Students may submit time requests with their application. We do not guarantee they will receive a certain time during the day, but we try to accommodate them if possible. 

A Well-Run Event
    Many people are needed to make the day of the competition run properly. The CFC requires students to submit the name of a parent, teacher, or guardian on their application who can volunteer on the day of the competition for a 30-60 minute time slot. This helps cover important jobs such as door guards, proctors, and registration. On the day of the competition, each volunteer receives a piece of paper with a description of the job.
    There are many volunteer duties. One important job is assisting at the registration desk with signing in students and volunteers and providing them with information. Other volunteer positions include door guards and room proctors. Door guards stand outside the performance rooms and check off students as they arrive to compete. They make sure no one enters or leaves the room during a performance. The proctors are inside the room and announce to the judges each contestant’s number as the student enters the room. They also move any equipment and can serve as a messenger for the judges if they need anything.
    If the competition runs all day, consider meals for judges, attending sponsors, and people helping for the entire event. The CFC budgets for this cost each year and coordinates with a hospitality volunteer ahead of time to plan the food and drink. We typically provide coffee and light snacks in the morning for the judges’ meeting and a lunch mid-way through the day.
    Plan ahead. Arrive at the event well in advance to set up everything beforehand. Use this time to complete preparatory tasks such as hanging up signs, making sure the judges’ packets are ready to go, and setting up the registration table and performance rooms. The more that is done ahead of time, the smoother things will run. It also allows more time to tackle unexpected obstacles that come up during the event.

Prepare for Problems
    Be ready for difficulties to arise throughout the day. One year there was a large accident that caused traffic delays on one of the main interstates. This delayed many of the students. With careful rearranging we were able to move around some students so the late arrivals could still play. It is always a good idea to have a couple extra people around in case volunteers do not show up or are late in arriving so jobs are covered.
    Have extra copies of all informational papers and supplies. For example, judges will go through a lot of pencils throughout the day, and there will always be additional places you did not think of that should have signs. Keep a positive attitude throughout the day and try to think through as many potential problems ahead of time to have a plan for how to handle them.

Creating a Rewarding Experience
    Ideally, the goal of entering a competition for any performer is to have a positive experience. This starts with providing a nice venue where students will have a good sound while performing, and parents will enjoy listening to their children. For many students, performing in a large hall with a nice piano is a huge step up from the tiny practice rooms they use at school. 
    The CFC provides all participants their adjudication sheets promptly after the competition. We send the sheets to each student’s teacher; envelopes and mailing labels are prepared in advance of the event. Care is taken to hire judges who will give many helpful comments as well as words of encouragement. The adjudication sheets ensure that everyone receives feedback from the competition that highlights their strengths and helps them become better players.
    The winners receive certificates suitable for framing, prize money, and acknowledgement in our newsletter. We recognize the winners’ teachers in the newsletter as well. First-place winners are also invited to perform on a member’s showcase concert held later in the season.
    Prize money is an asset to any competition. Try to find sponsors to provide the prize money. Local flute repair professionals and music companies are often very willing to sponsor competition prize money or provide gift certificates. Be sure to thank and recognize all sponsors. For instance, offer complimentary advertisements in printed materials, or provide a table at the competition where they can promote their business and interact with the performers.

After the Competition
    In the days after the competition it is very important to send thank you notes to the judges and sponsors of the event. These notes are an important part of appreciating the judges’ expertise and the sponsors’ generosity so they will hopefully assist with the event in the future.

Plan a Competition Today

    The CFC’s annual student competition is one of its most rewarding events each season. There are many different ways to run a competition successfully but hopefully some of the examples from our event will inspire you to start a competition or enhance an existing one. Hosting a competition is a great way to get students motivated and excited about music.