7 Ways and Tips to Prepare for a Music Competition
As a teacher who frequently sends in students for music competitions many times a year and adjudicating an upcoming Music competition, here are some ways I would like to share to prepare for a Music Competition which I hope would be useful if you have signed up for a music competition or considering to do so, here are some ways and tips you could prepare for them better than just good old practise. As Belcanto Violins Music Studios specialises in violin studies, this article is more for string players though if you are playing other instruments or singing, some points may be relevant to you as well.
1. Instrument & Equipment
The first thing to check if you are nearing a music competition whether preparing for an online recorded submission or a live performance, is your instrument.
General Outlook and upkeep of Instrument
Make sure your instrument is serviced, during this servicing, you may want to check that you have the correct string, fingerboard or bridge height. Due to humidity (low or high) conditions, this would change according to the season. If you live in a humid climate like in Singapore, even though there is only one season all year round, you may need to check that your fingerboard has not sunken. This would mean that the harmonic notes and higher notes in the registers may not be easy to play. If your fingerboard is worn out, similarly, you may not have such accuracy while playing double stops.
Tip: For daily maintenance, we have come up with an Instrument Care Kit to keep your instrument and case looking fresh and clean, and the humidity levels at optimal levels in your case to protect your instrument at all times.
While it may be fine to use different string Brands to compensate for certain tones on your violin. This is especially a common practise with violist players to do so with using C&G with one brand and D&A with another. However, if you had broken a string and required a quick fix and used just a spare of another brand from a leftover set, this could be acceptable during practises and even through lessons. If you are doing a live or recorded submission, a different string may create a different unwanted resonance (due to different compounds and methods it was made from) or even go to the extent that the uneven resonance of the different strings may affect the intonation of your playing. There is a reason for strings to be sold and changed as sets as it is recommended that they are used as a set, so that the sound and resonance is intended to be uniformed from the same quality and brand of product line, thus achieving the best with your instrument. Pay attention to E strings on violins, they are mostly fine as other Brands but they have to sound cohesive with your instrument. Find one that goes well with your other strings and your playing style. You may want to do a self test recording to find one that suits you and your violin.
Tip: When a G,D or A string breaks on a violin, and you have used the same set for at least 6 months, you are likely to have already worn out the set of strings even though the other strings are still holding up. As it is difficult to source for single strings, and many good violin shops would sell these as a set at a better price, it is recommended to change the whole set when one string breaks since the resonance of the new string would also differ and create a tone “sticking out” from the other old strings and it would be just a matter of time that the other strings are damaged and need to be changed as well.
Correct Instrument Size
This pertains to children.
Most adults or anyone who is above 150cm should be using a 4/4 or full sized instrument. Therefore only children would need to keep a lookout if they have outgrown their instrument. Most Teachers would be able to gauge this. If you are unsure, you can also check this article that I had written about violin sizing. If you are always “over playing” your bow, meaning that you can overshoot your tip of your bow, this is an indication that you will need to change your violin size to a larger one. The larger the instrument, most likely the better the sound in most cases, hence it is always an advantage in terms of sound once a student has outgrown the instrument size to change quickly to the next size up. It is not advisable to skip sizes as in between there may be a deficit of accuracy and awkward postures may turn into bad habits which will be more costly to fix in terms of both lesson fees and time wasted in moving forward with the learning process. In a Competition, this also may affect overall presentation and may deduct marks for an awkward posture or possible technical difficulties from an odd sized instrument which will affect the tone of overall playing.
Tip: One would usually only take 1-2 years to outgrow each size of instrument. At Belcanto Violins, we make it easy to choose instruments according to Series, as sizes grow and students advance in their ability and skill, a more advanced instrument could also be purchased to meet the needs of more sophisticated and intricate pieces at higher levels. Generally, based on budget a better violin in our series even at a small size of 1/10 have large contrasts in terms of quality of sound and build as can be heard on our audio recordings.(Underline) Our BV1 Series are handmade with good quality sourced tonewoods, this series of instruments may already meet the needs of most violinists taking up the violin as a secondary hobby or for learning for leisure. A solid or good introduction to the instrument would start at our BV3 which I personally strongly recommend if you are trying to take the violin up at a more serious level. So if you start from this point, as sizes change you may want to maintain this level or go for a better model. As all our instruments are made within one workshop, teams and maker’s experience & wood quality would play a large row in ensuring consistency in your choice at all times.
2. Pay Attention to Holding Posture
Good Posture is always convincing that you have mastered the instrument to a certain extent. You could make recordings of yourself to check your posture. Or read good books such as the Principles of Violin Teaching by Ivan Galamian on this subject. As an adjudicator or while teaching, I will not check just general holding posture, but finger postures on the violin and how the strings are pressed and dexterity of fingers to gauge the effort and type of practise that the student had put in to master the piece presented. This is the same for the bow hand, fingers on the bow hand should be engaged as well and the wrist should mostly remain fluid. Technical Ability is often a very large component that count towards the overall competition points.
3. Picking A Piece
If you are fairly young your teacher should form an opinion of pieces that would be advantageous for you as many competitions offer free repertoires. If there are set pieces, then make sure you set aside additional time to spend on these if you do not have a natural affinity to the piece. It may also mean that perhaps you could choose to join another competition that would be more advantageous to you instead if the piece is a tough one for you. Whatever the case may be, at a certain age, it is not advisable to always leave the choice of your repertoire to your teacher as sometimes, it is necessary to write and create some programme notes as part of the competition and you would need to be able to present on these as well. It is best to pick something you like or you are good at than to work towards being good at it as many times, preparing for a competition is not an event where you have an infinite amount of time. There is a clear deadline to the preparation which may result to unwanted stress or a negative experience.
4. From Memory?
If you are able to play from memory this would be very advantageous because the communication with the audience on thoughts on the piece and where and how the piece is heading whether happy or sad, lively or sombre are all non-verbal communications but using your instrument, the music and body movements. This would mean if you have a music stand right in front of you while playing the piece, it would be disruptive to the direct communication and performance of the piece. If you are playing a piece not from memory, it is possible to put a music stand, however most majority of the piece should already be by heart. Staring intently at the music stand would definitely lose the communication of the piece, this may also translate to having little or no interpretation of the piece if the music seems to be almost “read off” and not playing from the heart.
Some pieces are exceptions and can or should have a music score. These are Sonatas like the Beethoven Piano and Violin Sonatas or Brahms, where both violin and piano sections are having equal importance and communication between both instruments is key in the success of communicating the piece to the audience. In such cases the score as a reference during the performance of the piece could be a good idea as depending on the audience and situation, the mood of the performance could alter and shift and would be useful to have a score to “stabilize” the performance.
Join not to Win but to have an experience & gain exposure or feedback. The Social Aspect of these Competitions are also not to be underestimated as many precious life-long friendships are forged.
Sometimes it is good to learn a piece without having first heard it. This is so that the whole interpretation will be uniquely yours. After learning the piece to a certain level of completion, you can check back on some good and credible sources of recordings. A lot of learning a piece is dependent on aural awareness and most talented musicians rely heavily on this to learn a new piece of music, unknowingly, your interpretation may be swayed by a prior impression of the piece. If you are commissioned a new piece of music by a composer, you may be disadvantaged if you are not used to learning a new piece from scratch and may lack the necessary confidence to give your best to the piece. It is therefore a good challenge to once in a while learn a piece from scratch without any prior knowledge of it as the learning process would inevitably be more precious.
6. Injury Prevention
Learning the violin and playing it for a long time needs a lot of self-care. It is easy to get burnt out if you do not pace yourselves. It is a good idea to have a very good stretch before starting out your practise. This is true for any age. The key to learning any instrument is having a longevity doing it. It may be easy as a child or teen as your muscle recovery is a lot quicker than an adult. But it is never to early to start on good habits. You may also be interested in reading my previous blog on other good practise habits to have.
It is also important to watch your breathing while playing. This could also give better circulation to your muscle whilst practising and could also achieve an overall more fluid and expressive performance.
7. Practise Performing
In my previous blog about Overcoming Stage Fright, it went into more detail on ways to grow away from fears of performance in front of an audience. At a competition, whether it is a video recording or a live competition where there are live audience and the judges, it is important to not be overwhelmed by a sense of anxiousness but to convert these feelings into excitement that can be positive for the performance.
A good positive mindset that you are performing each time not as a means to show off your capability but to give someone a gift of music would be a great way to transfer a negative feeling of nerves to positive one. Afterall the adrenaline that you get from the performance could mean that you are more expressive and create better communications of the piece to the audience. Not everyone has a chance or opportunity to learn or perform an instrument. And in many parts of the world people have never heard the sound of the violin. It is truly a gift to be able to learn an instrument to spark this joy in someone for that moment of your performance. You could perform in front of stuff animals if you do not have an audience during this pandemic. However, my recommendation is to perform at every opportunity you get. Just playing for someone even your parents would be a good way to practise a performance. When you get to that performance that really counts you would have already become seasoned and hence, there would be no need to be fearful or nervous.