How to prepare big program

Edited: December 21, 2020, 4:56 AM · Hello all!
How to prepare program for competition with three rounds for 8-9 month.Does anyone have experience or advice?

Replies (11)

December 21, 2020, 5:13 AM · This is one of my favorite things to do and talk about! I try to be as realistic as possible first... What is your goal? Do you think you are at a level where you could win, or are you just going for the 'experience'?

I know some people might criticize my mentality, but I think the amount of time spent on each round should be based on the expectation of your results. For example if I am going for huge competition for the very first time, then I'm not thinking about winning, or even passing the 2nd round. I would put 70% of my time into the 1st round, 20% for 2nd round and 10% for final. If I think I have a chance to place, (and I'm assuming you have some decent confidence in yourself because you are actually planning this far ahead), then I would spend most of my time on the 2nd round, in order to better guarantee a place in the final. Probably something like 30% for 1st, % 50% for 2nd, 20% for 3rd. Depends on how you assess yourself.

December 21, 2020, 6:00 AM · Hello James!Your opinion is very unusual but interesting at the same time.Thanks for your answer!
December 21, 2020, 11:40 AM · The only advice I have for recitals, auditions, competitions, is to choose repertoire that is 100% within your current technical level. How you play is just as important as what you play. One dicey spot can ruin your composure for the whole program. Remember that the worst possible thing that could happen is;-- Not winning.
Edited: December 25, 2020, 6:51 PM · Hi. I'd love to know what the competition is and what the program is. Anyway, my advice is to make sure you understand what the requirements are and feel free to contact the competition for clarification. Don't worry - they won't hold it against you. I've coached students for auditions who were afraid to ask. It's OK, it's not like a deep credit score search!

Also consider some non purely musical aspects such as travel and accommodations.

OK, let's say you've decided to do it, you've applied and have been invited to compete. With all due respect to James, I would try to prepare everything equally. Practice never goes to waste and it sounds like you're giving yourself enough time to prepare, and you never know about rounds and placement. I know of a famous virtuoso who, early in his career, entered a major competition. He breezed through the early rounds with his brilliant playing. Then, in the final round he was asked to play a certain movement of a concerto or sonata. He said "Ugh, I haven't prepared that yet." They almost laughed him out of the hall!

Whatever you're thinking of playing, make sure you can get it solidly in your fingers. But - and this is so important - don't let the first round be the first time you are performing your program. Study with a teacher if you still have one; coach with a couple of pros; play for friends and colleagues. Hold a couple of recitals featuring your entire program - even at-home recitals and/or senior center recitals, etc. Do all of it. When you play your first notes in the first round you should feel like a veteran. Also, with all due respect to Joe, I don't think that the worst thing is not winning; it's having regrets that you didn't do all that you could have done to prepare properly. But if you've done it all, the chips will fall where they may. Again, practicing - and performing - never go to waste. Just try your best and make music. At a competition you can't be quite as free in your interpretations as you can be running your own show at your own recital. But you can't be robotic either. Be musical but not too eccentric in your interpretations or mannerisms.

Good luck!

Edited: December 26, 2020, 12:42 AM · Greetings
I agree with Ralph. You need to have prepared your stamina. Being able to get through the Chacconne once under optimal conditions is fine. But being able to get through it three times in a row is a much better place to be. Build yourself up. Yes, do the program 5, 10 times if you can.
Competitions are funny things and maybe the do more harm than good in many cases. But I wonder why now would enter a competition that one was realistically incapable of winning ‘just for the experience.’ My gut feeling is that is a little disrespectful both to audiences, competitors and yourself. I am not convinced this is the way to start out in a crowded profession and might actually get you a bad name in the wrong place.
December 26, 2020, 9:33 AM · Overcoming nerves is such an important part of competition performance that it doesn't seem unreasonable for the first time you enter a given competition to be an experiment of sorts. You're learning the turf, so to speak.

High-level modern competitions can be something of a crapshoot, I imagine, to judge from watching them online. Everyone is playing at such a sterling level that there's an element of luck involved -- how close is the performance to the player's very best, and how well does the taste of the judges align to that player's style, strengths and weaknesses?

James seems to be a prizewinning veteran of the international competition circuit, so if I were the OP I'd take that advice seriously.

Edited: December 26, 2020, 4:03 PM · I'm grateful for all the answers and advice!
But I'm really interested in how you distribute the work when you need to learn a large program. For example, I practice the most voluminous and difficult pieces first, then I take a break and practice short and easier pieces and some technically difficult passages for a week. then I go back and check how the earlier learned was stuck in my memory. Perhaps you have your own methods of preparation?

I apologize for my mistakes in English.

December 26, 2020, 5:39 PM · Ideally, you'll want to have performed the entire program piecemeal over the years -- that nothing (or almost nothing) you're preparing on the program is something you haven't performed before, preferably several times.

Consequently you're not "learning" so much as "reviewing and refining", which means that you can more comfortably focus the spotlight on a few things and feel comfortable that everything will be stable even if you're not constantly touching everything.

December 30, 2020, 2:10 AM · Greetings,
I didn’t notice you mention it but I think visualization / mental practice is a fundamental part of mastering works. Everyday, preferably before you go to bed visualize your self playing through a work on stage. Any point that is fuzzy or slightly hard to recal you simply don’t know. This saves a lot of wear and tear on the body and is sometimes more efficient than picking up the instrument. If you are not familiar with the application of mental practice it is well worth researching and using it to help give you a competitive edge.
Edited: January 7, 2021, 9:05 AM · Hi Alexandra!

I love your question! (Couple of weeks ago I actually wrote a blog post about this subject, feel free to check it out if you are interested!)

Previously, I have made the mistake of not planning ahead and found myself in uncomfortable situations. For example, I have often gotten stuck in certain details for too long and postponed the performance phase only to find myself insecure and nervous on the big day.

Since then I have made it a habit to always plan the process ahead.

What I've found useful, is reversing the timeline and starting the scheduling from the competition date backwards.

I've planned a two-week cooling-down period before the date and a month-long performance / stamina building period before that.

Then I have split the remaining time to several shorter sections, where I learn the repertoire, perform it and leave it to rest.

I have found setting small goals and sticking to them, no matter what, to speed my learning a lot.

In my daily practice, I have planned in some time for pure musical exploration (singing the music in your head, listening to recordings, analyzing the score) and for performance practice (i.e. visualization or playing pieces or smaller sections through in front of friends or a recording device).

Finally, I have made sufficient rest a priority, since I function best when I am most relaxed.

Good luck with your preparation!! :-)

Ps. Here is a link to my blog post with more detailed information, in case you are interested:

January 8, 2021, 11:45 AM · Hi,
I had a maybe similar task when preparing for my very final exam.
The requirements were:
One complete recital (I had two sonatas, one virtuoso piece plus a set of a few short pieces).
After that recital, I was told what exactly to play during the second part of the exam, four weeks later. I had to let them choose from a list that I gave them, containing 100 minutes of diverse music, plus four concertos.
When I started preparing, I got pregnant, so I knew in advance, my time might get consumed by the baby, to a great extend.

So, I made a plan to be time-efficient:
Which were pieces I had studied before, and which were new?
Which were the ones that included great technical difficulties?
Which were the ones with the most complicated music to memorize?

Then, what to do with, say, the four concertos, from which only one would be chosen, in the end?
One of the concertos was new to me (Barber), the rest (Mozart A, Brahms, Tchaikovsaky), I had played, some time, before. I had to prepare them only to an extend that I would be able to do the fine tuning during the last four weeks.

I then divided the pieces into sections and made technical studies out of them. So, I basically stopped practising the whole Flesch scales, but rather took the scales and double stops and so on from sections of my program, in order to warm up. Same thing for bowing studies and all other aspects. In the end, I had to put the pieces together, and the final program seemed to consist of, if not easy, then at least very doable parts.
I made myself a rough schedule, in advance, and a very precise schedule for about each week or two weeks. I included lots of variety in my schedule, as I tend to get bored, easily, and I included lots of breaks, and also some options to choose from: Say, either the thirds from the Brahms concerto, last movement OR from the Chausson poeme to practise thirds.

The good thing about that was that I never had the bad feeling that I was not practising enough, nor hopped around between pieces because I was afraid to miss one of them. If that Beethoven sonata was on my schedule, next week, only, then I was totally fine ignoring it, today.

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