Dear Dr. TubaEuph:
I worked really hard on my recording for the ITEC solo competition and was devastated to find out I didn’t get accepted for the live rounds. I’m not sure if I should even be a music major if I can’t advance in a competition. What should I do?
Dear Dr. TubaEuph:
I recently entered a concerto competition sponsored by a local music club and I won! Since the competition, though, I have had a hard time staying focused in my practice even with the concerto performance coming up. Do you have any advice?
Dear Frustrated and Confused,
Thanks for these great questions. Participating in competitions is very valuable and what you are both experiencing is typical. Every competition and audition has a winner (well, most do, but that’s another article for another time). That means every competition and audition has a bunch of people who don’t win. How do we deal with this (win or lose) and stay focused on our long-term goals?
I decided to ask two of my Texas Tech colleagues to help with this. Dr. Quinn Patrick Ankrum is an Assistant Professor on our voice faculty and has extensive competition experience. Her advice to Frustrated starts with focusing on the preparation and the actual recording he or she put together. In the question, Frustrated noted “I worked really hard on my recording” and since he or she sent it in, we’ll assume it was good. Focus on the fact that you put together a good recording, not that the judges didn’t accept it. Dr. Ankrum notes that competitors need to remember that it is just a performance. “Stay above it all,” she says, “and remember that your goals go beyond any individual competition.” Most importantly, use your own ears to assess your recording and get advice from your teacher about what you can improve, but don’t try to guess what the judges didn’t like about it. “You will drive yourself crazy if you try to figure out why you didn’t advance” said Dr. Ankrum.
For both of our submitters, Dr. Ankrum reminds them that the competition is just one set of judges’ collective opinion and that many successful musicians have never won a competition. She notes that “winning builds more ego than skill and ego is the demon we fight as musicians.” I find this very profound and important for competitors to remember, win or lose. Winning a competition does not make you a better performer and losing does not make you a worse one.
Dr. Lisa Garner Santa, our Professor of Flute at Texas Tech, also had some thoughts to offer from her experience as a competitor, teacher of competitors, and jury member. To Frustrated she says, “Those most successful in competitions are those who are willing to lose. Allow inspiration for musical progress to be motived by a love of the art rather than a fear of losing. If you feel truly called to pursue a life in music, then use the loss to your advantage.” Like Dr. Ankrum, she suggests listening back to the recording objectively and “with full awareness to intonation, rhythmic accuracy, and clarity of musical intention.” Dr. Garner Santa also has advice on the long-term career implications of Frustrated’s question: “Lastly, lose the ‘should’- it’s full of self-judgment. Focus on what “is” and use that knowledge to inform your practice.”
For Confused, Dr. Garner Santa encourages a focus on preparation for the upcoming performance. She notes that young musicians often lose interest in repertoire after a first performance or competition, but “unfortunately, this is just when the musical breakthroughs occur.” She recommends a more creative and “risk-taking” approach to practice that will result in improved motivation and a more effective performance:
Think outside of the box. If you’re playing something lyrical, you could create poetry to reflect the rhythm and meter. You can experiment with ideas of tone color by literally coloring your music (a photocopy perhaps). If the piece is rhythmically driving you could practice beatboxing it! Everything different you do will create a new level of experience with the work and will deepen your connection to it.
Definitely some things to think about here and I’m very grateful to my two colleagues, Dr. Quinn Patrick Ankrum and Dr. Lisa Garner Santa, for their help. I think they remind us that competitions can be valuable for motivation and performance experience, but that we cannot get too wrapped up in the results whether we win or lose. Best of luck to both Frustrated and Confused in their future endeavors and thanks for the great questions!