They say everyone loves a winner, so musicians, like athletes and entrepreneurs, spend an inordinate amount of time preparing to outperform the competition. There’s no scoreboard or balance sheet. Musicians leave their progress lingering in the air to hear every time they perform.
“There’s no way of avoiding competition,” says Roland Schneller, Chancellor’s Professor of Piano. “They play in recital, they all hear each other, they compare themselves, and they want to be as good as they possibly can be.”
But there are few winners declared in a competition and limited numbers of scholarships or chairs in an orchestra. How, then, do music students prepare for a lifetime of auditions and competitions, when the outcome is anything but certain?
Culture and competition don’t usually go hand in hand. But all disciplines of the arts at some point become competitive.
“Music is not inherently competitive,” Schneller states. “I have students who are not interested in competition, and I think that’s fine. But when you share music, it is only human to compare yourself to others and it becomes competitive. I have all my [pre-college] students do the yearly local music club auditions, as we call them, in which they play for a judge and get comments. I ask them to do that because it’s a motivating goal to work toward.”
Melissa Rose, associate dean and associate professor of piano, agrees that competing strengthens a student’s skills. Many teachers have their pre-college students prepare for these auditions, sponsored by the local music teacher associations, where students are given a rating and comments. At the state level, however, the auditions become more identified as a competition.
“I coordinate the Tennessee state instrumental competitions for the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) which include both pre-college and college students,” Rose explains. “They get comments, and a winner, runner-up and sometimes honorable mentions are declared in each category. The winners of those categories go on to the division level, which includes eight states. Ours go on to the southern division.
“In that case, they are competing against one another,” Rose says. “Most teachers emphasize that this is a way to perform for somebody else. As long as it is promoted in a healthy way by the teacher and the family, I think it can be healthy for the student, because it shows them what’s out there. You might be a big fish in a little pond here, but then you go to this level, and you see that another student can do this [particular piece]. It can encourage the student. You try to avoid the demoralizing aspect of it. I think that’s the responsibility of the support network for the student and the organizers [of the competition].”
Emphasizing the journey and not the end result is also important to get through a competition without debilitating stage fright. Jared Hauser, assistant professor of oboe, thinks the word “competition” is a stumbling block. “When you go to an orchestral or solo competition, you’re being compared to everybody else,” he says. “That can [turn into] a mind game, so it’s a lot more effective in my experience to say, ‘I know this music; I have a way of playing this that’s my way, and I’m going to show you how it goes.’ If I worry about what they want to hear, then I tie myself up in knots, and I can’t execute anything.”
Schneller concurs, noting that the younger the student is, the less stage fright they have. “Even students who have no stage fright can develop it as adults. Once the onset of puberty arrives, you become very self-conscious, and it becomes a bit more common. Competition affects you more when you’re older,” he says, “because you are aware you’re being judged, when before it felt more like a chance to show off your talent.”
“The more you compete, the more comfortable you are,” Rose says. “That’s another valuable part of competition.”
Whether a student is performing in a local music audition or a more intense competition, repertoire frequently comes from several contrasting styles of music. Mindset varies depending on the context—a solo competition judged by a panel of three requires a different mental approach than a chamber music competition in which a student is playing as part of a group in front of judges and an audience. The context affects the way the student prepares the repertoire and the performance.
Lindsey Reymore, a senior oboe performance major at Blair, has competed in both solo competitions and in chamber music competitions.
“There’s definitely a difference whether you’re doing it with a group or by yourself,” she says. “Each individual musician has to figure out what motivates them and be able to use it in any situation. I’m much more naturally motivated in a chamber music setting,” she explains, “because I’m working with other people who I respect and support, so I have a responsibility to them, and that motivates me to practice.
“That same reasoning doesn’t apply to a solo competition,” she says, “so I have had to figure out how to get the same degree of motivation in a different way.”
The mental preparation for solo competitions and orchestral auditions is also different. Orchestral auditions are usually behind a screen, even for the Vanderbilt Orchestra. Students walk in without speaking, play the excerpts and leave. On the other hand, auditions for summer festival spots or solo competitions are done in view of the judges.
Reymore auditioned for several summer festivals last year. “[Professor Hauser] prepared me for how I walked into the room and what I [would] wear,” Reymore says. “All these details don’t matter with an orchestral audition because you don’t interact with the judges at all.”
“Preparing for a solo competition, the process is going to be more lengthy and involved than for an orchestral audition, where you’re playing small snippets of orchestral pieces or solos out of context that may be only eight bars long,” Hauser says. “For a solo competition, the student should be thinking big picture: broad, long phrases, direction within the piece, how one movement relates to the next, and how their own personal appearance is important.
“At a solo competition you want to look bigger than life when you’re on stage. Every detail is important, from what you wear, to how you walk on stage, to the way you bow, if you bow.”
Preparation also entails picking repertoire that the student can learn and perform well by the time the competition happens. Because of the time it takes to pick and learn repertoire specific to a competition, students frequently pick something they already feel comfortable performing.
“With MTNA, you apply early in September and auditions are in November,” Rose says. “So you have to predict in September what you’re going to be able to play in November. I always get the question, ‘I couldn’t get the piece ready, so can I change it?’ No, you cannot.
“I think if you really want to win a competition, you’re going to want to take your seasoned repertoire. You generally don’t take something new.”
Reymore, along with Thomas Crespo, BMus’11, (bassoon) and junior Valerie Hsu (piano) made up Troika two years ago. The undergraduate chamber music trio made it to the live rounds of the Fischoff Chamber Music Competition along with the pre-college Parthenon String Quartet, made up of Alvin Kim (cello), Will Bender (viola), Jacob Schafer (violin) and Annie Bender (violin). The Fischoff is one of the best-known and influential competitions in the United States. Reymore and her trio only decided to compete at the end of the fall semester.
“We put together the whole thing in one semester. They came over to my house for a week during winter break to rehearse all day, and then after that we had as many coachings as we possibly could at school,” she says. “We rehearsed five days a week and then every day coming close to the competition. I think it was a little too much, looking back on it,” she says.
Their youth as a recently organized trio made it even more significant that they were chosen by the Fischoff, which only selected 48 entries from a total of 130 to play in the live rounds that year.
“They were pretty young, compared to most of the field for Fischoff,” says Hauser. “The judges were looking for the overall package of a group and not the individual virtuosity of each player. It doesn’t mean that the players aren’t virtuosic,” he explains, “it just means they’re looking for a blend and a maturity.”
“Our biggest comment from the judges as to why we didn’t advance [to the semifinal round],” Reymore says, “was that we had balance issues. We had played in various places—at Blair, in people’s houses—but it shows maturity for a group and for individual musicians to be able to adjust to a hall right away, which is not even something I had thought about until then. It was a learning experience to realize that there were subtle things like that that can make such a huge difference.”
“The Fischoff does a really nice thing,” Rose says. She helped coach Troika and her son was a member of the Parthenon String Quartet. “After they announce the finalists, they have an ice cream social for all the groups, and they have all the judges available to talk to each of them. They can go over things that the judge didn’t write in the comments. I really liked the more educational component, and that they could actually talk to the judge and get some feedback.”
With big competitions like the Fischoff, competing is a way for a performer to launch a career. However, only concentrating on competitions does not necessarily lead to a well-rounded educational experience for a musician. “Competitions sometimes get a bad rap, too,” Rose says. “If you’re only always working toward a competition, I think that’s very limiting. You’re limiting your repertoire and not working on other areas of your musicianship.”
The bottom line is that competitions are not necessary to enjoy making music, but they can help serious students progress in technical skill, planning and musicianship, whether they win or not.
“If you use competitions as a tool to help you grow, then they’re great,” Rose says. “You always have to enter a competition thinking, ‘Gee, if I win, it would be really nice.’ Don’t go thinking, ‘I’ve got to win this competition,’ because there’s no point in it. You need to think that this is an opportunity to play for other people, to get comments and to grow as a musician. If you go with that attitude, you’re fine, and I think most teachers try to promote that.”
State competition winners
String Chamber Music
Alternate: Camellia Trio (Natalie Fritz, Lucy Turner and Susan Yang), students of Melissa Rose/Leslie Norton
Junior Strings (ages 11-14)
Winner: Allison Pao, violin, student of Connie Heard
Alternate: Kaili Wang, violin, student of Carolyn Huebl
Honorable Mention: David Bender, cello, student of Kirsten Cassel-Greer
Winner: Matthew Williams, student of Jama Reagan
Honorable Mention: Jennifer Li, student of Lauren Coplan
Winner: Gitae Park, student of Elizabeth Eckert
Honorable Mention: Wednesday Link, student of Elizabeth Eckert
© 2017 Vanderbilt University | Photo credit: John Russell, Anne Rayner