One of the most exciting experiences a young musician can have is to enter a competition.
The possibility of winning, teamed with the pressure of performing in front of a judge, is both nerve-wracking and exhilarating and sure to get your child’s adrenaline flowing. These contests can vary from regional orchestra competitions to national piano festivals, drawing kids from around the world to compete for cash prizes. If your child is in a music group or takes private lessons, her teacher should have the rundown of what’s in your area.
Found a competition that looks interesting? Read on to learn how to help ensure your child has a good experience while competing.
Kids can enter festivals and competitions as early as elementary school, though most kids wait until the middle school years. Once your child shows an interest in competing, talk to his music teacher about what level competition he’s ready for. Some festivals let you choose your own repertoire, while others assign it. And while certain competitions will only want to hear one piece, others will require scales or sight-reading, so make sure your child is up for the challenge of whatever you choose.
When it comes to how many competitions your child should enter each year, Peter Mack, a Seattle-area piano teacher whose students have won many international competitions, says the more the better. Mack advises, “You don’t want to pick one festival and have it be like the Olympics, where you have one chance to succeed. That’s a tremendous amount of pressure. If kids sign up for multiple competitions, it will become routine and they’ll be able to learn from each one.”
But whether it’s your child’s first or fifteenth competition, there will still inevitably be some nerves. Help him prepare for the audition by asking a teacher or student who has already been through the process what he can expect.
For example, will he perform on a stage or in a classroom? Should he play his scales first or his piece? If he’s being accompanied, how close should he stand to the piano? The more he knows going in, the less scary the actual performance will be.
Finally, encourage him to put himself purposefully under pressure during his practices at home. He could play his piano music while saying his name, address, and phone number out loud, or try his clarinet solo blindfolded. If he can play accurately under these conditions, performing without any distractions at the competition will seem oh so simple.
Ready, Set, Perform
The day of the competition, give your child a nutritious breakfast, make sure she dresses to impress, and arrive at the venue early. There usually will be an area to warm up and practice, so have your child run through her piece a few times until she feels ready, but don’t overdo it. Today’s not the day to master that tricky fast section.
When it’s her turn to audition, remind her to take her time. These judges see many kids throughout the day, so they try to keep things moving. But your child should feel free to take a few moments before playing and breathe deeply and focus herself. She will be graded on different areas such as talent, technique, and accuracy. Let her know that if she makes a mistake during the performance, she should try to keep playing and not look back.
“Many times what may seem like a huge error is really not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. If a child makes a mistake, they shouldn’t dwell on it, as this could affect the rest of their performance, but instead move on as if it hadn’t occurred,” says Richard Floyd, Texas State director of music.
After she’s performed comes perhaps the hardest part of all—waiting for the results. Many competitions will post their decisions the same day. If your child does decide to stick around, she probably won’t regret it. The atmosphere at competitions, while tense at times, can be really enjoyable for kids as they meet other children with similar passions. “Winning is great, but it’s the experience of the competition that’s the most exciting part,” explains Mack.
Dealing with Defeat
After putting hours and hours of hard work into a competition, it can be disappointing for children if they don’t do as well as they’d hoped. If your child doesn’t make the cut for the district band, or falls far behind his peers at a flute festival, let him know that you’re still proud of him. “Music isn’t like a sport where there’s a clear winner and loser. It’s so subjective; one judge may believe one student’s Bach is beautiful while the next thinks it’s completely wrong,” says Mack.
The most important thing your child can learn from a defeat is what to focus on for his next competition. Does he need to work on performing in front of others? Could his sight-reading use more practice? Judges will often provide feedback with an assessment of the performance and suggestions for improvement, so go over their critique with your child while the performance is still fresh in his mind.
Be sure to remind him of everything that he did well, whether it was mastering a section of music that was giving him trouble or getting up the nerve to sign up for his first festival. “It’s great to have a contest that you’re preparing for, but it’s the journey that matters in the end,” says Floyd. “It’s the months of practice leading up to the competition that benefit kids the most and help them improve, not the event itself.”