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

Amy Beth Horman

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Published: July 28, 2014 at 1:19 PM [UTC]

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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