Goal setting for competitions

January 15, 2009 at 07:41 PM ·

What are some reasonable goals to set for a person entering their first violin competition, particularly if they are aware that their level, technique and experience is not as high as other competitors?  Is goal setting helpful when preparing for a competition?  Knowing what judges look for might help with the goal setting, so what do judges look for? :-)

Replies (20)

January 15, 2009 at 08:09 PM ·

I think competitions are healthy if the person uses it to work their hardest 

and try to lift their level for themselves, not the next violinist or whatever.  

One learns a lot about themselves when they are put into pressure

situations.   If anything, it makes you practice.

January 15, 2009 at 08:09 PM ·

A good goal that is achievable and reasonable-is to perform the work better than you did the last time under concert, and further to learn about your playing in retrospect.

There's always a bigger fish to play against.  Sometimes one gets lucky, and their are fewer--but where the prize money is attention worthy-you can bet on playing against a great many skilled violinists.  As such the best one can do is play their individual best-and learn from the experience, if you do you've come away with a great deal....and what you come away with is much more valuable than a cash prize (althought that too is nice).

You see violinists resumes with competitions wins etc etc...what their resume never says is how many they did to get that one win.

January 15, 2009 at 08:13 PM ·

First of all, don't focus on what the other competitors are doing. I know this will be hard to do when you enter a practice room full of other competitors that maybe have harder pieces more expensive violins etc.

Your son should take what he has applied in lessons and practice and apply it to the competition. His main goal is to play the best for himself.

From my experience, the judges will be looking for intonation, wrong notes, technique , musical expression, stage appearance. I'm sure I missed a few, but others here will help you too.

Best wishes to you and your son,


January 15, 2009 at 10:29 PM ·


I suggest you focus on three goals.

1)  To prepare the music as perfectly as possible with only the intention of being repsectufl to the composer.

2)  To stand up on stage and regard everyone from the judges,  to the audience to the cleaning lady as your friend to whom you would like to give a present of the joy of music.

3)  Being friendly,  supportive and appreciative of the other competitors.

That`s all it is.  The crapshoot aspects can be left to the people who don`t appreciate prunes.



January 16, 2009 at 01:05 AM ·

All excellent suggestions and very, very helpful.  Thank-you so much!

Buri, being a non-musician, I don't understand how a musician plays a piece the way the composer intended.  As a dancer, I know how to do choreography the way the choreographer wants because I'm working directly with her/him.  Does a musician find copies of the pieces played by famous musicians and assume one would want to imitate that?  Sorry if I sound naive...I am.

January 16, 2009 at 01:26 AM ·


serendipity. I am about to write a blog on this.   The of course evrybody plays a piece differently ,  but the nebuluos advice @play what the composer intended@  starts with what is written on the page.   It is really hard to actualyy genuinly do all the dynamics,  tempo indictaions and so on that a composer wrote.   Until one has got those down one does not have the right to satrt syaing well this way is better,  or maybe he didn`t mean that and so on.  This last dimension is highets level of art or inquiry that allows plenty of freedom but it should never be precede by sloppy work a sis often the case. A simple example is telling the differenc ebetwween piano and pp.



January 16, 2009 at 02:54 AM ·

Got it!  That makes sense (though seems pretty darn hard but a lofty goal, nonetheless). 

January 16, 2009 at 04:01 AM ·


I've been down the path you are about to take over a year ago, and going at it again for a second round.  As for specific goals, try to have the piece memorized (including bowings), and have FUN!.  If this is for a community orchestra or something similar, then the judges are looking for a few key things:  intonation, rhythm, dynamics, expression and phrasing. 

January 16, 2009 at 04:59 AM ·

Hi Mendy,

Fun is a good goal, too. :-)  This is actually for my son and I think it's a pretty big local to state competition but his teacher has made it clear that he won't be a serious competitor due to several factors.  It's only for the experience that he's doing it. 

 It's funny, his community/university orchestra audition is always once a semester and only for the conductor/director who thinks he's great-talk about low key. :-)

January 16, 2009 at 05:42 AM ·

Gaining experience in competitions is a goal in and of itself.  If he hasn't competed before or not often, another goal to consider is playing through the entire piece WITHOUT STOPPING no matter what happens.  Often in practice, on a particularly hard part, a student will falter, stop and try it again.  The ability to recover from a mistake and continue is a skill, and a goal.

If he hasn't competed before, another goal is to learn how to take the criticism from the judges constructively, and not personally, and turn that criticism into a new set of musical goals.  This can be tough.  It is one thing for a teacher, parent or friend to correct, but it is an entirely different story when it is from strangers and written on paper and handed to you as a test result and being compared against others.  I learned that one myself a year ago when I entered my first competition in over 25 years. 

It took me several days to take the judge's comments from making excuses for myself (the room was too cold, the only musican judge was a bassist, I was the only stringed player) to  "I will take these comments to lessons and fix them by the time the next competition rolls around and do better".  Once I made it through that transition, I started to apply myself to my studies and practice more seriously than before, and my skills leap-frogged musically speaking. 

Let us know how it goes!!!!

January 16, 2009 at 02:32 PM ·

i think one of the best learning experiences is competition, assuming the player himself looks for it, be it for fun, for performance experience or to win.  personally, i think to tell someone to have fun in a competition is kinda interesting:).  on the other hand, learning to perform is quite different from learning to win, which imo is another topic by itself.  

for beginners,  competition is like travelling to an exotic island where all prior conceptions are put to the test.  may not be a bad idea to  assume the outcome will be the worst case scenario and build the steps backwards and prepare accordingly, especially mentally.   because later in life, it is the same track! :)whatever the verdict, if the kid looks forward to competing again next time around,  that is a job well done.  winning, esp coming too early, too easy is possibly one of the most misleading and damaging things.  losing, meanwhile, is a great motivator and stimulus to think deeper.

in terms of number of goals to keep in mind, some say people in general can remember and recall up to 5 items in one shot quite well.   to play it safe, may want to try to remember 3 goals really really well.  let them spin in the head constantly, starting now, during practice, during mock runs and during competition.   to be able to honestly reflect later that during the competition those 3 goals are executed as planned is winning by itself.

good luck.

January 16, 2009 at 07:22 PM ·

Interesting analysis, Al, and I appreciate your comments. I guess it might be difficult to "have fun" under the pressure of the first time competiting in such a competition. My son is extremely competitive and I don't know if "fun" is always a part of the equation. His music is an area where he still feels relatively weak, though, so it's not necessarily going to be fun.

  He's a competitive chess player and always plays to win.  He had a definite goal in 2008 of making chess expert (rating of over 2000).  He missed it by 3 days but was very happy to achieve that goal.  I'm not sure if he sets goals for himself in baseball but, as a pitcher, he wants to pitch well and very much wants to win.  Perhaps that's why this music competition thing is so nebulous.  He knows he will not be competitive and will probably be one of the weakest players there.  This is not a role he's familiar with but when he read the goals that people suggested here, he thought they were good ones and now he has a much better idea of how to approach this.    He loves one of the pieces he's playing and his teacher is pleased with his work.  For him, that's a great place to start.

January 16, 2009 at 08:14 PM ·

i see, so he is familiar with the mental aspect of competition but just not with  violin yet.  sounds like he is intelligent and focused, but perhaps lacking some violinistic skills.

my kids play competitive golf and every time afterwards, win or lose, they seem to have absorbed so much simply from being there, that i feel they literally "grow up" after 5 hours of play right in front of my eyes.   

similarly, by participating in higher level violin competition for your kid,  he may learn a lot by soaking in that environment (not sure if he is allowed to watch others play,,,that will be a treat).   the reaction he will get is something that regular violin lessons probably cannot provide.   

a true competitor learns to thrive under stress and finds only  hard earned victory satisfying.  one may even find the associated anxiety thrilling and addictive.  even enjoyable:)

January 16, 2009 at 08:15 PM ·

I guess my daughter is different in a sense that she isn't that much competitive to others, but she is competitive to herself. I don't know which one is worse :) As long as she feels like she has done the best she can do, she is ok with that.

One time, after an audition with a college level orchestra, she turned to me and said "I really don't care which seat I got, I just know that I played the best and that's all that matters. When she placed third in a recent competition, she was really pleased with her progress with the piece and playing it memorized that the prize was just something extra.

I think there is a bunch of helpful info on this thread, but I really like Buri's comment on being nice and curtious with everyone in the competition. I think that sets the tone for the competition.

I wish your son the best... we are gearing up for district solo competition if all goes well with my daughter's cast.

January 16, 2009 at 08:46 PM ·

jodi brought up a good point about being competitive with self, which i think is crucial and the point, esp at very high level,,,one's mind simply cannot be bothered with others and other stuff.  

i saw jodi's blog one time about sports and music. one similarity between the two is exactly what we are talking about here: being competitive with self...set one's own goals and try to accomplish them.  even boxers going at each other are focusing on their own plans and goals.

since my kids are already "competitive" with a sport and seem to benefit from it a great deal, we have made a conscious decision to avoid any music competition going forward, partly because of  time constraint, partly because of lack of interest on her part, partly because we don't want music competition to turn her off from violin.   

as i said earlier, i have no problem if my kid decides to compete in violin for fun, except to her, violin competition is not fun:)

or to assess one's performance, which i think if done right, can be very helpful.  again, at this point, it is something that my kid finds rather meaningless.  (the competitions i know of, at her level, do not even provide judge's feedback. duh)

or to win, which i think is quite different and requires a lot more preparation, sacrifices and insightful guidance.   i look at her, shake my head and mumble,,,nah, not in your genes! :)


ps. last year we went to one local competition.  they gave out 3 level of prizes,,,30% get ist, 30% second and 30% third, so everyone is happy.  then the family must buy a bunch of tickets and the final recital was like 5 hours long.  torture. :)

January 17, 2009 at 05:58 AM ·

Oh my, Jodie, did your daughter break her arm?  That sounds pretty challenging to deal with!  It sounds like your daughter handles auditions and competitions very well and sounds like a mature young woman.  Keep us posted on the cast coming off and congratulations to her for her 3rd place finish-very impressive!

Al, my oldest son and I agree that certain music students could be very turned off to their instrument if they are forced to enter competitions.  That would describe my middle son, a cello player.  After his lesson today, he said he wanted to take a lot of time off from cello.  I was confused until I remembered that his teacher mentioned a spring recital.  This son would sooner quit than perform in front of anyone, even in a totally casual recital.  He's almost completely opposite of my oldest.  I don't really know why he continues to play cello but that's a whole 'nuther post. :-)

It sounds like there will be so many benefits for my son in entering this competition.  As Al and Jodie both said, competing with oneself seems to be a very healthy benefit of this type of competition. Just this week, my son's been practicing a bunch of old songs from his Suzuki books to make a recording with a pianist just to have for his own and to help him analyze his sound for improvement.

 Being that my son is almost 15 and has never done any competition, I think it's a good age for him to try one.  His teacher has chosen to place his students in the less competitive branch of this competition for a variety of reasons.  In fact, they even have a non-competitive section that a student can enter. (Might be that my son would do that)  My son isn't investing any more time into this than his normal hour practice 5-6 days a week.  Our friends told us of a young man who practiced 11 hours a day in anticipation of a concert master seat in a certain youth orchestra. I also see lots of amazing young musicians on YouTube playing incredible pieces so I know there are some incredibly dedicated and talented young musicians out there.  My son's on a different track but that's ok. :-)

Thank-you again for all the ideas on goal setting.  My son read it all and it's given him some direction.

January 17, 2009 at 05:18 PM ·

"I also see lots of amazing young musicians on YouTube playing incredible pieces so I know there are some incredibly dedicated and talented young musicians out there.  My son's on a different track but that's ok. :-)"

very good point.  different people have different aspirations.  if playing 12 hours a day of violin is truly all you care to do, that is one way to go about life.  if it takes having multiple interests to satisfy you, that is another approach.  

on a practical note, in the 1800's there are probably 100 professions ( i am guessing).  in this modern age,  there are probably 10,000 different careers to pursue:)

i have my own biases, but i am not telling. 

January 18, 2009 at 01:56 PM ·

Coincidentally, my youngest son is playing in a competition today!  He is very excited and finds these events fun.  He reunites with friends from all over the state, kids he knows from former camps and orchestras he has played with in the past.  He is also proud that he is prepared enough to participate in a competition; it shows that he is serious about learning the violin.  He can't wait for the judges to hear him.  He also really, really wants to win!  To him it seems winning is within his reach and he probably will be disappointed if he doesn't place well.  He has done enough competitions to know that sometimes you win and sometimes you don't, but the real point is in the preparation and hopefully you also get consructive comments from the judges. We treat the day as his special day, something like his birthday, and will likely go out for pizza or ice-cream with his accompanist afterward.  As a parent, I love the excitement of the whole thing.  I love seeing all the young people dressed up, hearing them warm up from the hallway, meeting the other families etc...  So my advice is to have fun and to make something of a celebration out of the event!

January 18, 2009 at 07:53 PM ·

Hi Jennifer,

How fun you make it all sound!  Clearly, your son has the experience and quality of playing that brings him to a level beyond my son and how wonderful to come into a competition so confidently.  I love the idea of making it a celebration of hard work.  Thanks for sharing and please let us know how your son does! :-)

January 20, 2009 at 11:17 PM ·

One more question, if you please.  One of my son's pieces is a Bach Partita and just today he said he'd rather play the Bach Allegro (from Suzuki book 8) since he's been working on that recently, as well, and has it memorized already.  He doesn't have the Partita memorized yet and the competition is about 4 1/2 weeks away.  I told him to ask his teacher on Thursday about it but I just wondered if any of you have switched pieces at the last minute.

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