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

Amy Beth Horman

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Published: July 31, 2014 at 1:08 PM [UTC]

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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