So, you’re going to a music contest

Dear aspiring student musicians,

Over the last two years, I’ve worked as collaborative pianist (formerly known as accompanist) with nearly 200 students on preparation and eventual competition in musical contests. That experience has been a real eye-opener.

First, I would like to say that I was truly humbled by the amount of raw talent in our youth. Some of the final performances from these young musicians were truly breathtaking and I was privileged to be present for these magnificent performances. For that reason alone, I hope I can continue to do this for as long as my body allows.

For as rewarding as each experience is, the truth is that this is grueling work. Music requires a huge amount of concentration at a level which is unheard of in any other profession. We have to listen to tuning, get our fingers and tongues to work at precisely the right time and in unison, keep a steady tempo, and listen to other musicians so that we play the exact right note at the exact right time in concert with other musicians. It’s exhausting enough to do that for a few hours a day. Imagine doing it for eight! And, on top of an aggressive rehearsal schedule, I still must schedule my own time to rehearse the piano parts by myself.

But, I digress…

As I finished another round of contests, I’ve found that there are some pretty common mistakes that happen over and over, from student to student. I thought it would be useful to gather those experiences together for others to learn from.

So, in no particular order, here are the nine major things that happen at contest, and some pointers as to how to prevent them.

Mistake #1: Failure to adequately prepare.

Students often came to their first rehearsal having not even seen the entire piece of music. This was a mere 12 days away from the actual contest date! This is easy to correct. Take the time necessary to actually learn your music well ahead of your first rehearsal with an accompanist. Your goal should be to have your material memorized for your performance. You may not actually perform it from memory, but if you know your piece well enough to play from memory, you have the luxury of working on the musical side of the piece, rather than continue fighting with the notes on the day of the contest.

Mistake #2: Not knowing what the accompaniment sounds like

In this day and age, there is absolutely no excuse for not knowing what your piece sounds like. Student after student comes to me seeking an accompanist, and they have no idea what they are about to hear. Some of the comments that truly stunned me were things like “Who starts the piece?”, “When do I come in?”, or my favorite, “Can you tell me how this goes?”

Not having listened to any recordings, I had students who took their pieces literally twice as fast as they were supposed to, or twice as slow.

Look up a reputable recording on Amazon or YouTube as early as possible. Listen to that recording several times. Commit it to memory so you can sing along with it. Put it on your phone, your tablet, your computer, or whatever device happens to be the technology of the day.

Mistake #3: Failure to count

If you’re playing a piece in 4/4, that means there are four beats per measure. Not three, not five, not three and half. Four is the correct answer. So why is something so fundamental as counting so difficult? It actually relates to Mistake #2. The student doesn’t know the accompaniment. A secondary cause is simple nerves. In the heat of performance, students are so anxious to get it over with that they just come in whenever the mood strikes them, leaving the accompanist (a.k.a. me) in a panic trying to figure out how many beats or even entire measures were just overlooked. Or even more embarrassing is when the accompaniment comes to a stop while the soloist is supposed to play. I’m playing along, come to that break, and there’s…. silence. The soloist looks at me like I committed some kind of crime before figuring out that they are the ones who were supposed to come in!

Mistake #3a: Failure to count long rests

This is a combination of Mistake #3 and Mistake #2.

Here’s the deal. Don’t count rests.

Seriously. I mean it. Do not count rests.

So, you ask, “How am I supposed to know where I am?” You know where you are in the midst of long multi-measure rests by knowing how the accompaniment goes. Do you think the great performers are on stage playing a Tchaikovsky violin concerto and counting to themselves, “One 2 3 4, Two 2 3 4, Three 2 3 4, Four 2 3 4?” No!

Here’s what happens when you try to rely on counting that way. “One 2 3 4, Two 2 3 4, Three 2 3 4, Four 2 3 4, what am I going to have for dinner 2 3 4, SQUIRREL 2 3 4, what’s that smell 2 3 4, OH, God, where am I 2 3 4….”

Know the accompaniment so well that you know where to come in because that’s where you’re SUPPOSED to come in. I asked the students who delivered truly outstanding performances if they counted rests. Not one of them did. They said “I just know where my part fits.”

Mistake #4: Playing with no dynamics

A huge number of students play their pieces with a single volume level. Some choose super soft and timid as their only volume; others opt for mezzo blastissimo. This is usually the direct result of the student not being familiar enough with their music to get beyond fighting with the notes. Preparation is the key.

Another point on this is to play with a much wider range than you are probably accustomed to. Band and choir students are so familiar with blending into the ensemble that they play/sing their solos the same way. Play your louds louder, and your softs softer. And don’t be afraid to play out or sing out.

Mistake #5: Rushing.

Music isn’t a football game. You don’t get points for rushing to the end of the piece.

Mistake #6: Starting the piece WAYYYYY too fast.

Students often start the piece without considering the ridiculously difficult double-tonguing passage that they will have to play at bar 68. So, they start bar 1 about 25% faster than they can actually play the piece. Bad idea. When you get to the hard part, what are you going to do? Some students just make a complete mess of it, and keep going. Others come to a near dead stop as they fumble their way through the hard part. One student had a unique solution: He just didn’t play the hard part at all.

The fix? Get really familiar with the hard part. When you set your tempo at the beginning, do it by thinking how fast you can actually play that hard part, and then back it off 10%. Trust me, with performance nerves, you’ll end up at the right tempo.

Mistake #7: Fixing mistakes… in a performance

Okay, so you’re playing along, and you just didn’t hit that note the way you think you should… in other words, you bombed it. For your sake, and mine, please don’t stop and “fix” it. If you blew that passage or that note, it’s in the past, and no amount of stopping and restarting is going to make it better. It only makes it FAR worse. It’s like saying to your audience and/or judge, “Hey! Look at this! I just totally flubbed this note, and now I’m going to play it right for you!” The right approach is to just keep going. Own your mistake. Treat it like that’s the way it’s *SUPPOSED* to be played! Moving on past a mistake is actually one of the hallmarks of a really fine musician.

Mistake #8: Following the accompanist

This is a collaborative effort and under ideal circumstances, you and your accompanist work as a well-oiled machine. But, ultimately, you’re in a contest situation and you are the one being judged, not your accompanist. So, if the accompanist starts your piece too slowly, or too quickly, take control and play the tempo that YOU want to play when you come in. That does NOT mean you can change the tempo at will throughout the piece. It just means that you prefer the starting tempo at a different tempo, and you simply take control. Once that’s done, stick with it. Your accompanist will follow you faithfully.

Mistake #9: Letting yourself get flustered.

We all make mistakes. Even the most professional musicians make mistakes, or have a memory lapse. I’ve seen it happen to even the most seasoned veterans, like Andre Watts. And when it happens, I can guarantee they do not break down in tears. Neither should you.

So, you made a mistake. What do you do? Carry on as if nothing happened. In the rare situation when a false start is just going to ruin the whole piece for you, do something like what I’ve heard more than one conductor do in such an event. Stop the performance, and say, “you deserve to hear this the way it’s meant to be heard.” And start over. No apologies, no crying.

In performance, it is as important that you handle the occasional mistake as gracefully as possible as it is important that you perform as beautifully as possible.

 A few bizarre anecdotes

I actually overheard a student and accompanist congratulate each other on finishing the piece together.

One student I accompanied played all notes with exactly the same note value. Sixteenths, quarters, even whole notes got the same treatment.

“I’m glad I picked a contemporary piece. The judge will never figure out if I played the right notes!” (Yes, that happened).

Chewing gum and playing flute is not a contest winning strategy.

“Do you mind if I play the piece through once to warm up?”

 A parting thought

One thing that is consistent amongst all musicians, regardless of experience of rage, is nerves. We all get them. If you don’t, you’re not human.

The worst thing you can do in an audition is walk into the room, cram the horn in your mouth and start playing. You’re not ready yet, and chances are neither is your accompanist nor your judge or audience. The silence before and after you play is as important as the piece itself.

Relaxation is the key. The problem most students and teachers run across is exactly HOW to relax. Sure, I can tell you can kinds of New Age stuff, like “make yourself one with the instrument” and “practice yoga.” But, that’s not what you really need. What you need is something very specific that you can do to take the edge off and get in touch with yourself and the music. Here’s my favorite exercise:

  1. Stand comfortably with your feet directly under your shoulders, and pointing straight ahead.
  2. Place your hands in the small of your back and feel the muscles back there. Lean forward a little bit, and you’ll feel them tighten. Now, lean back slowly until those muscles release and hold that position.
  3. Put your hands at your side, and you’ll find that you are perfectly balanced on your feet.
  4. In that relaxed position, take a deep breath with your abdomen. Don’t raise your shoulders or puff up your chest. Instead, focus on making your belly stick out and look as fat as possible.
  5. Now, let that breath out through pursed lips. Make a “W” with your lips and let your breath out through that little hole.
  6. As you release that air, you’ll feel the stress and tension drain from your shoulders and neck and on down to your back. You should take at least 15 seconds to release your air.

Now you’re more relaxed, take a quick look around, and get centered in the space. I don’t mean physically in the middle of the space, but find that feeling where you know exactly where you are in the room, and you feel comfortable there. Think about the music filling the space, not just coming from your instrument. Start only when you are ready, and not a moment sooner.

One of the students I worked with made it a point to do this in her audition. She then proceeded to deliver the most exquisite performance I have heard at a student audition. It was light years ahead of what she had done in rehearsal. At the end, the judge said to me, “I don’t know it was she did at the beginning, but she accessed another plane of existence. It was exquisite!”

‘Nuff said.

If you are a student reading this, I hope you are inspired to be an even more dedicated musician. And, if I’m lucky, I’ll get to be your collaborative pianist some day!


Your faithful Collaborative Pianist (Accompanist)