Performing in front of an audience is an essential part of being a musician. It is particularly important for music students to gain as much performance experience as possible during the formative years of their training, as it helps to build both their confidence and resilience. For many, the quickest way to accumulate performance experience is through participating in music competitions. Playing in competitions does not only help one to become a better performer, it also helps one to learn through observing other players’ performances.
But what are the secrets to competition success? How can students perform to the best of their abilities on the day? We recently interviewed Dr Julia Lu, Director of the International Academy of Musical Arts, about her insights on the topic. A regular adjudicator of competitions throughout Australia, Dr Lu shared with us a few tips on how to maximise one’s performance in a competitive context:
1. Choose the right work (s)
Dr Lu suggests choosing works that are:
a) suited to the maturity of the student.
In recent years, more and more young students are attempting to play advanced pieces. However, mastering the technical aspects of a work AND being able to communicate the musical essence convincingly is by means an easy feat. Many students strive for technical perfection, however musical expression deserves just as much, if not more, attention.
“A truly outstanding performer is one who can convey the appropriate musical feelings and meanings,” says Dr Julia Lu. There are some works that are more suited to mature minds than young minds and teachers should assess whether their student is mature enough to understand the musical essence of the work.
According to Dr Kenji Fujimura, Artistic Director of the International Academy of Musical Arts, a student who presents a less technically-challenging work musically and expressively can be much more successful in a competition than those who merely toss off a cascade of notes at neck-braking speed.
b) within the time limit.
Students should be trained from a young age to respect the rules of the competition and should strictly observe the time limit. It would be a shame for the ending of a work to be discounted by the jury for exceeding the time limit. Similarly, teachers are strongly advised against cutting out sections in a work (except for repeats) to adhere to the competition time limit as this distorts the logical structure of the music.
2. Prepare adequately
Preparing in a thorough and correct manner can significantly enhance one’s performance on the day of the competition. Dr Lu suggests following these five simple steps below to ensure that one is adequately prepared for the big day and has the best chance possible to impress on the jury:
a) Practise performing
It is natural to get nervous performing in front of people. That is why students should rehearse the physical act of performing. Leading up to the competition, students should create opportunities to play through the work(s) to families and friends, simulating the conditions of the competition environment as much as possible. For example, it is recommended that one rehearses physically walking up to the 'stage', bowing to the audience, and sitting down to play. It would be even better if students can simulate the competition experience by performing in an environment other than their usual practice space at home. This way, students will feel more comfortable performing in a foreign environment and not feel distracted on the day of the competition.
b) Avoid over-practising
In the week leading up to the competition, students should avoid over-practising and fatiguing their muscles. Slow, meticulous practice is recommended, so as to resolve any last-minute stumbling blocks in the work. If students are aiming to play from memory and are worried about memory lapses, mental practice is a great alternative to practising at the instrument without over-exerting their muscles.
c) Practise at the same time as you will be performing on the day
It is recommended that students practise at the same time that they will be performing on the day of the competition. If a competition is scheduled in the morning, then one should get used to playing in the morning. If it is in the evening, then practising in the evening will help the body and mind get used to performing at that hour of the day.
d) Get plenty of sleep the night before
Students should aim to get a good night’s sleep the night before the competition so that they feel refreshed and alert on the day. One should avoid practising late into the evening or arranging any strenuous activities the day before the competition. Performing in front of an audience requires a tremendous amount of energy and concentration and a good night’s rest will enable a student to feel more relaxed and focused on the day.
3. Enjoy the experience
It is perfectly normal to feel nervous on the day of the competition. Even the most seasoned professional musicians feel nervous before a performance. Here are some helpful tips from Dr Lu to help you manage your nerves effectively on the day:
a) Allow plenty of time to arrive at the competition venue.
Arriving late at a competition can cause unnecessary stress and prevent one from being mentally prepared for the performance in those few vital moments before going on stage. Students should always leave plenty of time to get to the competition venue and acclimatise to the conditions of the environment once there.
b) Do a light practice on the day.
Students are advised against practising for too long on the day of a performance. One wants to feel fresh and focused in the performance, not tired and uninspired.
c) Plan your food and drink intake.
Like athletes, musicians also need to plan ahead when it comes to food/drink intake on the day of the performance. Avoid eating anything which could cause unwanted symptoms when nervous, such as nausea. It is also important to make sure that one stays hydrated in order to be able to concentrate properly during the performance. Even mild to moderate dehydration can have a negative impact upon a performance and impair one’s ability to think clearly.
d) Wear something presentable but comfortable.
Presentation at a competition is as important as any other public performance. It should be considered a formal event and participants should avoid casual clothes. However, it is also important to dress in comfortable attire that does not cause discomfort or impede one’s ability to move in an optimal manner. No aspect of one’s presentation should distract the performer nor the audience. It is a good idea to do a test run of one’s concert attire before the day of the competition to ensure it is the right outfit for optimal performance.
e) Embrace your nerves!
‘Nerves - if properly managed - can help boost your performance!' says Dr Lu. Nerves can give a performer the energy they need to sustain a performance and help them focus. Students should learn how to channel those nerves into positive energy and use it as fuel to drive the performance. Instead of feeling anxious, students are encouraged to embrace the feeling of excitement and use that as positive motivation for giving your best in the performance.
f) Become the “Greatest showman on earth”.
When in front of an audience, a musician becomes an actor. The role is simple - to tell a story, and to take the audience on a magical journey. Embracing that role and enjoying the performance enables the audience to also enjoy the performance. Treat the performance as an opportunity to share a special moment with the audience, like a storyteller transporting them to a different world. Instead of seeing the audience as critics ready to identify every error made, treat the audience as special guests who are being welcomed into the performer’s musical sanctuary. In fact, even competition adjudicators enjoy a good performance and look forward to being wowed!
Once you have prepared and practised following our tips above, remember the most important thing is to enjoy yourself on the day. If you are having fun, it will be apparent in your music and you are likely to give a better performance in the competition.
About IAMUSICA’s upcoming competition
Entries are now open for IAMUSICA's 2022 Melbourne International Piano and Strings Festival Competition. The 2022 will be online via video submission - entries are due 17 July. You can find out more information and apply by clicking the link button below.