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

Amy Beth Horman

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Published: July 25, 2014 at 12:55 PM [UTC]

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.

Posted on July 25, 2014 at 7:02 PM
Hi! I liked this article a lot. I'm a young violinist who has a big interest in getting more involved in classical competitions - I've only done one so far - and I had a question. What do you (and anyone else who has experience in this) mean by "another competition season"? I've done many fiddle contest, and the "fiddle season" is that time in the summer when you're at a contest almost every weekend. Is that the way that violin competitions work as well? Should you enter more than one competition a year? As a newbie to the "competition circuit", do you or anyone else have any advice? Thank you so much - can't wait for the next post in this series!


From Amy Beth Horman
Posted on July 26, 2014 at 11:24 AM
HI Shiloh. I am glad you are enjoying the series!

The competitive season for me begins begins in the Fall as my students do Youth Symphony auditions and prepare their preliminary recordings for major (national or international) competitions. They are sometimes away for the summer at festivals so the Fall is where we rev things back up again. Our last final rounds for competitions last year was at the end of March. So essentially it is Fall to Spring. Then we plan the literature for the next season.

I do recommend entering more than one competition if not just for the experience and allowing yourself to get used to the factors involved. For most of my students, they get stronger in their competition performances as they head through the year. I think acclimating yourself to the audition or competition experience is one of the best things a young musician can do because you will have a lot of them over the course of your lifetime. It isn't so much about winning as it is about figuring out how to accurately represent your gifts.

Best of luck to you in all you are doing!!

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