July 2014

Helping Students and Parents Enjoy the Competitive Journey: Part IV, Competition Etiquette

July 31, 2014 06:08

This is my fourth installment in this blog series designed to help me get ready for another year of competitions in my private studio. I hope others can relate and that it gives them new insights and ideas for their own studios and challenges.

Click here to read Part I, The Application Process, Part II, Managing Expectations, and Part III, Preparing for Final Rounds.

This blog details the need for good competition etiquette before, during, and after the event.

You’ve found yourself chosen for an advanced round of a competition. You have done your practice, prepared your program, and are brimming with a myriad of emotions, some that completely contradict one another. Sound familiar? It does to me! They say people in extreme circumstances shouldn’t be judged on their behavior; but for a competition, it’s almost a given, right?

Not only will my students be judged for their playing, but they will also be remembered for their behavior before, during, and after the competition. And believe me, it sticks.

I try to do most of the communicating with the competition administrators on behalf of the parents and students before the event itself. I email with specific eligibility questions, ask for additional venue details, and just generally getting everything in line. These competition organizers are deluged with emails from parents and even with the best attitudes, parents can seem as if they are asking for special exceptions or allowances. Having the student do it is even worse in my opinion. It is great to teach the kids to be independent and take care of their own responsibilities (I am the mother of three kids myself!), but in this case they are nervous and generally not seasoned at writing a professional email. In addition to this, an email from the student can come off as a manipulative gesture – you wouldn’t refuse the request of a talented young artist would you? I have formed relationships with the competition administrators at least regionally by now and they know my intentions are only to enable the students to play at the best of their ability. They also respond to me far quicker and sometimes more bluntly because they know that I appreciate a quick and clear response. No need for niceties – just give it to me straight! Many times when a parent has emailed and gotten no response for weeks I can get the same questions by email answered in under an hour. They recognize my email, know my background and can feel free to send a quick response. This serves everyone. And in some cases, it allows us to get back to practice!

Lest anyone feel I am overstating things, I feel I must point out that in the last ten years parents communicating with competitions or administrators has actually cost our studio quite a bit. I have one competition and one administrator now who have made a request that I be the only one to communicate with them! Parents are prone to ask questions on their own and are generally very involved at this level. It’s only natural. They drive to lessons, schedule rehearsals, help take care of the instruments, and arrange their entire family’s life around events. They have invested a lot and genuinely want only the best for their kids in a hyper competitive field. In the smaller festivals or opportunities their kids had as younger players, they did all the communication on their own so it doesn’t occur to them to do differently. But their actions, while well intentioned, are then connected to the studio and everyone in it. It is surprising how long an unfavorable impression can last. In one case, I am still repairing relationships years later for all of the students here. Even I was surprised by both the aftereffects of this one communication gone wrong and the “staying power” it seemed to have on those in charge.

Fortunately, our current parents seem happy for this slight degree of separation. It eliminates confusion for everyone and maintains a good overall studio relationship with the competition for years to come. More than a few times last year we received great performance opportunities through the competitions after our kids were awarded prizes. These opportunities were not through the competitions themselves but the administrators that ran them. I like to think that our streamlining communications with them was helpful in this. In the end, the squeaky wheel does NOT get the grease. In my work as a soloist, I saw a similar reaction from conductors. Low maintenance and clear communication paired with a great performance gave me a much higher success rate at getting asked back a few seasons later.

During the competition itself there tend to be etiquette questions surrounding warm up rooms, time on stage, stage deportment, and talking to other competitors.

I suggest that students try and “lay low”, finding a private place to warm up if possible, avoiding socializing until after the event. Time on stage is essential and my experience has taught me that people will overstay their time. If you are not vocal about it, you will lose your time to try out the hall. I advise students to know their assigned time for this and stick up for it without overthinking or apologizing. Knowing a hall’s acoustics is crucial. If you have no time to try out the hall and are lucky enough to be on the second half, I advise sitting in on part of the first half to witness the challenges and benefits of the hall so you can use this to your advantage.

During the competition itself, the students need to be totally comfortable with stage deportment. How to stand, acknowledge a pianist, and greet or thank the judges is all part of being a seasoned performer. Even the walk from backstage to the center stage is being observed. These things matter! Students who are more new to this set of actions are seen as “green” and even if they play brilliantly, would they be able to do it again? Looking inexperienced on stage suggests you are and given that most competitions are offering a performance opportunity, this won’t bode well to the judges. Practice proper stage deportment at home, in rehearsals, and in all performance opportunities so it looks like second nature.

I advise against socializing with other competitors during the event itself. I think this is too risky because of how easily one can get drawn into heated discussions about other competition results, teaching methods, or how this person played here or there. The music deserves our full focus on the day of a performance or competition and everything else can wait. It might feel like forever to a young person competing but competitions only run a few hours!

After the competition is done and the results are in, I urge all competitors to approach juries whenever possible to ask for comments and thank them for their efforts. It is not easy to be a judge and they sometimes deliberate quite a bit before making a decision with numbers right on top of one another. Just because you won second place doesn’t mean you couldn’t have taken first on a different day. In my past as a judge, the prizes I awarded didn’t always line up with who I thought had the most potential. Certainly no judge should ever be challenged on his or her decision. And no matter how dissatisfied students or parents are, the results should never be questioned with competition heads.

After the awards are given and people are finally relaxed, I think students should congratulate each other and feel free to socialize and relate to one another. Even if they don’t agree with the results, they know that everyone there has worked countless hours and deserves their chance to shine. It’s time to relax and they will likely continue to see one another in final rounds for more events. It is so validating for kids like this to know others just like them. Even across studios I feel they have so much friendship and support to offer one another.

Stay tuned for the last installment of this blog series: Carrying the Experience Forward.

* The photo above features student Lily Honigberg performing the first movement of the Barber Violin Concerto in the Army Orchestra Young Artist Finals.


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Helping Students and Parents Enjoy the Competitive Journey: Part III, Preparing for Final Rounds

July 28, 2014 06:19

This is my third installment in a blog series intended to help me gear up for another competitive calendar in my private studio. As I reflect on what has worked for us, I hope it sparks some discussion with other teachers who have similar challenges. Click here to read Part I, The Application Process and Part II, Managing Expectations.

This blog centers around the invitation to be “in the arena”! You are in the finals! Nothing is more joyous than getting phone calls from students as they receive this news. I was actually able to deliver this news to someone last year and it was thrilling for both of us. The students work incredibly hard and the process for some of the larger pieces spans an entire year of preparation. Being recognized in this way is indescribably validating and rewarding for all involved. Happiness all the way around! But now what?

First we celebrate by announcing studio wide and take a moment to catch our breath. Then a new exciting phase of preparation begins! I divide this preparation for final rounds into three categories - mental prep, musical prep, and studio networking for moral support. Of course their violin playing has to be on point. But in addition to that, their heads have to be in the right place, and their support systems should be called in to cheer them on.

In our studio, over the course of the last few years, we have accumulated personal accounts and files on our regional competitions and even a few national ones. As a student completes a final round, I request that they answer a small list of questions detailing their experience. During the competition itself, I task the parents with taking simple pictures of the halls, practice area, warm up rooms, even parking and nearby facilities. I offer this folder of info to the finalists and their parents each year so that they can familiarize themselves with the unknown – their venue, the orchestra and conductor if applicable, the stage, and the facility. Sometimes we might have a testimonial or two about the organizers themselves if they are incredibly organized….or the opposite! Even pictures of what previous finalists have worn can be helpful. What color is the concert hall or the drapes? Is the stage elevated? What kind of piano is there? If we are new to the competition, I email the organizer and ask similar questions politely and collect information for the whole studio so we don’t have to ask it twice. This is undoubtedly an exciting time. You can see it in their faces as they walk in for every lesson. The students are starting to visualize themselves on stage and playing their best.

Having said all of that, if I have learned one thing in the past several years with kids in the final rounds, it’s that you can always expect the unexpected no matter how prepared you are. Even with a file of things to familiarize them, you can always count on a fluke to enter in there somewhere. I can’t protect them from that. The best I can do is to tell them to be ready for it and smile as they see it. I compare it visually to an elf entering the room. He is like an extra variable meant to put you even more on your toes, and strengthen your resolve. We are covering the rest so thoroughly that my hope is that this will reserve some coping energy for whatever surprise the universe has in store for them.

The musical preparation and practice is different for each child. If they are still adjusting to performing their work on stage and it is “in process” we might schedule another practice performance through the studio. I try and form an ideal schedule of lessons and rehearsals specifically tailored for each of the students as soon as they are announced as a finalist. If we are blessed enough to be playing with orchestra in the finals, I shoot their full score up on a wall using a projector in their lessons to help them visualize and quiz them. We even rehearsed their concerti movements with arrangements for string quartet and a conductor last year. I was delighted to find area players were happy to volunteer for them to simulate the need to telegraph. They even got a sneak preview to challenges in transitions or the allowance for rubato. And of course we record lessons, rehearsals, prep concerts and take notes to apply to our work. Rinse, lather and repeat!

When I was growing up and competing, finalists weren’t friendly with one another, sometimes even within the same studio. Last year we always had multiple students in the finals together. One competition even had three of our kids together in the finals so we found ourselves communicating a lot for common questions, strategies, and scheduling with pianists. I loved seeing the kids get closer even in the planning stages of the final rounds. They had been in enough studio events together outside of competitions to get to know one another and friendliness prevailed. In one competition, I watched my students fist bump one another as one walked off stage yielding to the other. In another, I saw two of them snapchatting each other and giggling. I realized as I witnessed it that this is something I always want to nurture and encourage in my studio. Anything that helps this feeling of being one with their classmates is so golden and they all play better for it. By creating common opportunities and opening up rehearsals, they were able to celebrate each others’ strengths and genuinely root for each other in that final round. They saw the placement of prizes shift and swap around as the competition year went on and celebrated each others’ victories knowing they were all sharing the stage.

Over the past many years we have accumulated a nice following for our students through events we host. There is a good amount of networking between youth orchestras, teacher organizations, and other studios. We also all participate to maintain a strong online community and this contributes to the kids feeling supported and encouraged. Between school orchestra, youth orchestra, family, friends and church, there is a virtual fabric of support that is truly palpable. So last year one thing I started doing to celebrate the announcement of finalists was to invite this studio following to the live final rounds. The finals are exciting and full of great talent. I also invite the rest of the studio. Many students who attend are not competing yet but will be in a year or so and they are very inspired just watching the process with a classmate involved. Frequently the finalists themselves have their own troops to call in. I then get the privilege of getting to know them as well. Celebrating the final round as an achievement in and of itself helps reinforce the idea that being “in the arena” is winning already and whatever happens after that point is icing on the cake. I want the finalists to feel the warmth of people who have seen them grow both as musicians and also as people. They have rooted for them all along in all of their separate circles and share a sense of pride for all they have accomplished. We have a quote we use in all of our programs in the studio which reads “the development and success of an artist is always connected to the support of their family and community”.

I hope that by preparing them in all of these ways I am not only helping them experience something empowering for each event but that I am also contributing to them managing this on their own one day. They have so much to offer through their music making and I believe preparation often gets lost in a practice room. By employing all of these methods of preparation, they are honoring every part of themselves and each other.

Next in this blog series: Competition Etiquette, and Carrying the Experience Forward.

* The picture above features student Sean Yongjoo Lim with quartet musicians Gavin Fallow, Christian Simmelink, Howard Van Der Sluis, Steven Honigberg, and conductor Joel Lazar preparing for the Landon Symphonette String Competition Finals.
Joel Lazar is currently the conductor of the Washington Sinfonietta and the Symphony of the Potomac.


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Helping Students and Parents Enjoy the Competitive Journey: Part II, Managing Expectations

July 25, 2014 05:55

This is my second installment in a blog series intended to help me gear up for another competitive calendar in my private studio. I hope it strikes a chord in many teachers with similar challenges. (Here are links to the other parts: Part I, The Application Process and Part III, Preparing for Final Rounds.)

This blog details the need to manage student and parent expectations on stage with larger pieces as well in competitions or auditions.

I am fortunate to have a lot of talented, competitive, and eager violin students in the studio currently. It has not always been this way but after twenty years of teaching, I hear all the major concerti within the week and find myself spending mornings reviewing what I will hear for the day in my mind just to prepare my ears for work.

The students have big dreams and practice both passionately and thoughtfully, having made many sacrifices in their families to play as beautifully as they do. Their efforts are equal parts heartfelt and ambitious. They can’t help but have big expectations! It seems like human nature when they are placing faith in what are sometimes long processes of preparation before competitive events. At the highest level of my studio, the students know each other well and so do the parents. The expectations coming from them vary however. A big challenge for us last year was managing these expectations in a way that would ensure a beneficial experience for each child entering competitions and auditions.

In performance, the larger concerti and virtuoso works are bigger than all of us. They have stood the test of time and most of us who have performed them with orchestra would agree that they improve on two planes: the practice room and the stage. It would be unusual to find a pre teen or teen who has played one of the romantic concerti in full multiple times in public let alone with orchestra. Yet to fully explore and grasp these works and be able to truly play them fluidly, this would be ideal.

Every student hopes their first performances will be exactly what they have planned. I remember feeling this way myself. But realistically, I believe it would be healthier to consider those first performances as just a foraging for information. Where does the body tense up under pressure? Where does our score study sag or fail us with adrenalin on high? What sections of our concerto embrace and thrive off of the electricity of the audience and which sections threaten to fall apart? What about our ability to create long lines, sustain tempi, and create smooth transitions? I believe you can’t know a piece until you experience it on stage multiple times. Not only do I advise my students and parents to accept their mistakes in early performances or competitions, I also instruct them to take notes afterwards and apply what they experience to their practice going forward. My goal is for them to play passionately but remain clinical. I urge them to shut off all internal judgment in order to open the door to fascination as to how their bodies respond to the excitement of stage and audience.

I have frequently seen parents disheartened by the first few performances assuming this is a marker for how their child will fare long term in the competitive arena. In fact, one has almost nothing to do with the other. In my studio last year we offered 7 performance opportunities to students in master classes we hosted. In addition to this, we selected students upon request to perform in classes for The National Philharmonic, WPAS, Fairfax Symphony, and ASTA master classes. I make attendance of these classes a factor in whom I choose to perform because I want them to witness their classmates in process. A performance that is rocky at the beginning of the competition season will soar by the end of the year. Soon they see on their own that the early performances aren’t as much a reflection of promise as they are a body adjusting to pressures and factors. They start to manage their own expectations and embrace the process.

This would be the end of the blog if it weren’t for the unpredictable nature of the competitions and auditions. We often compete for the performance opportunities awarded or the scholarships. With competition results often catching us off guard, if the prizes don’t contain one or both of those things, I rarely encourage competing over just performing in an opportunity we can provide ourselves. Some students thrive on goal setting and the pressure an audition or competition can provide. It can serve as a great motivator. But eventually they will need to find that motivation within themselves!

The expectation to win a competition or advance to a higher round needs to be managed very carefully. I often describe to my students how many times I won a competition on a performance that disappointed me to tears backstage while losing a competition after my best playing. Sometimes it truly feels there is no rhyme or reason to it. In fact, in most circumstances, there is – just not necessarily in everyone’s favor. If only we could look at the iTunes library of the judges beforehand we might catch a glimpse at what rendition of our pieces they preferred. We cant please everyone (we shouldn’t!) and often I think with a different jury we would see a different outcome. Once in the finals it is so much anybody’s game in my opinion, I advise people to pretend they have won already stressing that the ordering of prizes could swap around very easily. I have been on juries enough to know that some battlegrounds will form and perspective can get lost. When I was a young competitor, I once had a cellist who was head of a jury approach me after I won only to tell me he was annoyed he had to fight for me to win because the violinist on the jury was so put off by my f holes not consistently being out. Quizzically that comment wasn’t even on my critique that was mailed later. I myself almost missed a flight judging a competition once fighting for a child to receive the award I believed they had merited only to find out one of their score sheets from another jury member had gone missing deducting 50 possible points from their overall score.

Being “invited to the arena” or named finalist is an opportunity to perform, be inspired by others in your category, receive critique, and carry this information forward. It is a privilege to even play this literature let alone be identified as exceptional in your interpretation of it. With gradual preparation through multiple performances, our best outcomes in competitions last year came from students who felt they had already won as they walked out on stage, not just as they were handed the award afterwards.

Next in this blog series: Preparing for Final Rounds, Competition Etiquette, and Carrying the Experience Forward.


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Helping Students and Parents Enjoy the Competitive Journey: Part I, The Application Process for Competitions

July 22, 2014 09:00

I am sitting on a beach vacation a lot this week and am finding myself physically and mentally preparing for the next competition calendar. Some time off allows lots of brainstorming and much needed reflection on how to make next year's competition season more rewarding for my whole studio. So I am starting a blog series both to focus my thoughts and hopefully give some new insights to other teachers who find themselves in my position. Click here to read Part II, Managing Expectations and Part III, Preparing for Final Rounds.

I see multiple challenges inside of my studio's competitive calendar each year but the first challenge is perhaps the most important one of all: the application process.

Last year, I dealt with international, national, and regional submissions on 14 competitions. Just when I thought I had a full list, another parent would chime in with a new possibility that seemed too good to pass up. Getting the applications in and filled out correctly felt like a major accomplishment. Most competitions now have even added a polite but definite threat saying if we made a mistake in our applications, our submissions would be discarded. This is their right and even makes sense on an administrative level from their perspective but nothing springs fear in our hearts like this line in print. While the applications are similar they are also murderously different on some subtle level seemingly to confuse us....cue lots of sleepless nights and late night emails from parents! One had a word count maximum for bios, another needed specific format I didn't have on my computer. Then the referral letters. One from me and one from a reputable violinist… but which one? Signatures, bios, letters, repertoire lists, performance experience.... and that is just the written portion of the application process. Many parents are applying for things for the very first time and seeking assistance or advice, nervous they will misstep. Others have done this before and learned from it but even a veteran competitive parent can fall prey to multiple application processes.

The written apps would have been almost manageable. But then there is the media content. Who knew I needed a technical degree in computers and recording equipment to run a competitive violin studio? Where should we record and how many sessions would we need? What equipment do we use? Do we do it ourselves or hire an engineer? Some needed photos in different formats… press quality, different sizes, black and white versus color… names or without names. Then the obligatory attaching/uploading/entitling files, using new file sharing services, or registering on youtube. I found myself enjoying a glass of wine more often after long hours of teaching. So much to keep track of that my conservatory degree just didn’t cover!

In the end I consulted with friends, rallied in expert parents who worked as engineers, borrowed equipment, and for our international submissions got engineer referrals and an acoustic space, even managing a group rate. The administrative work involved was kind of staggering. But by the time everything was submitted, we had become a team in this process. We were fortunate after countless hours of recording, emails, and coordinating to reach the finals in all of our competitions except the international competition and the parents were thrilled. I figured things out as I went along. And I learned a lot about how I want to accomplish next year so that all of our lives are simpler.

Here are the tips I gathered for simplifying or streamlining the application process:

• communicate with parents to choose appropriate competitions and repertoire letting them know of your system so they are well prepped for how you like to organize and apply for things.

• use your (google) calendar and put it on your website for all parents. Pinpoint the 2 weeks before any deadline, the deadline, competition finals, and when results come. I color code it. Copy website, application info, competition organizer contact info, and how and when results will be posted for the “description box”.

• print checklists for each of the competitions to place on a stand as parents walk in and designate 5 minutes of every lesson to check on progress.

• identify the parents that can help with technical issues and let them know you may need their help.

• talk to parents about a visit to the luthier to troubleshoot any and all problems with violin and bow before recording.

• as soon as the final round info is posted, book a pianist and only use that person in rehearsals in the month prior.

• instruct parents to record at any performance opportunity just in case they catch something on their own.

• know your equipment and do test runs on how it works. Have parents bring at least one form of back up equipment just in case you have the perfect "take" but an issue with your method of recording.

• if you are there, take notes on top of a clean score in recording sessions that can be sent by scan to the student to apply to help in the next session.

• identify who has heard students in the past 6 months and could supply a great recommendation letter. Write them and ask them in advance if they would be willing so they see it coming.

• make good and polite contact ahead of time with each competition organizer for repertoire exceptions, eligibility concerns, and know their name, contact info, and background.

• as components of a strong application are completed, build a running and updated competition file for each student. Best video or audio takes, publicity photos, updated bios….keep at it. Soon they can apply for things quickly as all things are at “arms reach”.

In the end, if the application isn't done correctly or doesnt represent the students or the teaching effectively you have wasted a ton of time and energy. We are stopped dead in our tracks. So this is where my brainstorming starts this week. As a great new friend of mine said - "It's such a privilege to be in the arena!". But to be invited into the arena, the application process has to be successful! The more we organize this process and streamline it, the more energy can be placed into music making and coaching. And if that doesnt help our chances, I don't know what would!

Next in this blog series: Managing Expectations, Preparing for Final Rounds, Competition Etiquette, Carrying the Experience Forward


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