Entering Music Competitions
For some, competition is a thrill, an experience to be revelled in, whereas for others it's an experience best avoided. This article looks at entering music competitions, and the best approach to gain the maximum benefit, particularly if you are someone who doesn't relish the thrill of competition.
As a child I entered quite a few music competitions. It came with the territory: learn an instrument, take music exams, play in local youth bands and orchestras, and enter competitions. I never really enjoyed the experience, probably due to stress, nerves, and the feeling of failure if I didn't win – which was usually the case. Music exams evoked similar feelings, slightly diminished through knowing that there was no competing element, and in the knowledge that, provided enough preparation had been done to meet the required standard, everyone came away with a prize in the form of a pass certificate.
Unlike music exams however, as a general rule, there is often no set standard in music competitions. The standard is established by the entrants as they perform, but only the adjudicator knows what the standard is primarily based on. For example: accuracy in performance, technique, musicality, overall delivery, or just gut feeling. I remember playing in a local piano competition with about 15 other entrants. Everyone played the same piece of music. I played quite well and didn’t make any mistakes, but didn’t win. I accepted that others played better, but what I found hard to accept was that the winner actually stumbled quite noticeably in the middle of the piece! Looking back, I guess the adjudicator was probably putting overall musical performance above pure accuracy. As adjudicator that was his prerogative.
As I got a little older I decided that music should be about music for music’s sake, not about competing to see who ‘the best’ was. It was a valid point, but it wasn’t until some years later that I began to realise that there were real benefits to be had through entering music competitions.
Whatever we do, and music is no exception, we need goals to strive for. Winning a music competition could be one such goal, although I still feel 'competing' and 'music' are not intrinsically a good match. However, if we adopt the Olympic perspective where it's not the winning so much as the taking part that counts, then the benefits start to become more apparent to the extent that, in a sense, everyone can be a winner. The benefits, all of which are tremendously important, include:
- a chance to play in front of a captive audience;
- experience being in the spotlight;
- experience playing in a different acoustic environment;
- an opportunity to experience, and cope with, nerves;
- an opportunity to meet and interact with other musicians;
- an opportunity to get a clearer perspective of our current level compared to others;
- for pianists and organists, an opportunity to play a different instrument;
- there's a very good chance that after the competition you'll be a better player due to the amount of preparation done, and the experience gained in performing.
At the very highest level it's the interpretation of the music that is judged. One interpretation may be favoured by one adjudicator whereas another interpretation may be favoured by another, and it may only be a very thin line separating the two.
- Basic advice for performers in music competitions:
- enter the competition primarily because you would like the experience of playing in front of people;
- play the piece you have prepared in front of as many people as you can, as many times as you can, before the competition;
- breathe deeply before you start (to reduce nerves and tension);
- remember that your performance starts from the moment the attention is on you. This could be long before you actually sing or play a single note;
- if you make a mistake don’t stop, keep going. Some people won’t even have noticed;
- remember that with the correct approach everyone can be a winner.
The best performances I have given are those where my mind was on enjoying, and sharing, the music I was playing, and nothing more – not trying to win a competition, not passing exams, and not thinking about the pay cheque I would be receiving afterwards. It is for this reason that the best advice I can give to people entering competitions is to focus on the music, relish the experience, and enjoy yourself!
Whether you enjoy the thrill of competing or not, there is much to be gained through entering music competitions, provided your performance is of primary concern, and winning only secondary. Of course, giving advice is always easier than putting it into practice, but I hope this article will help entrants to re-evaluate the benefits of music competitions, and give teachers a positive perspective to pass on to their students.