Archive for the ‘Competitions’ Category

Making the Most of Competitions by Milena Inés Pajaro-van de Stadt

One may say that I’ve experienced both success and failure in competitions throughout the last fourteen years of my life.

If that’s the way you want to look at it.

In my opinion, any true learning experience is a success, no matter what. Especially in an artistic field like music, where 99% of our life is rejection (or feels that way). It is so much more about the journey than the one small moment in which we discover whether we’ve “won” or “lost” (horrible words to use, but you know what I mean!). I’m just as thankful for the experiences in auditions and competitions where I’ve been eliminated or just plain rejected from the first round as I am for the big exciting wins that seem to jump-start or even make a career. In truth, the times I have actually learned the most have been those times when it didn’t go my way and I was forced to take a step back and “reality-check.” Those are the events that help one develop a tough skin, discipline, and a positive attitude. I mean, let’s think about it—playing music is a personal, intimate, soul-exposing experience, so what could be more humiliating than to put everything you’ve got out there, with all your heart, only to be rejected for just doing what you love?? Just the idea of a competition for playing music seems cruel and unusual . . . so we have to learn how to make it fun, rewarding, and meaningful.


This part of the process is incredibly valuable. I know for a fact that some of my largest leaps of improvement in technique have been in those month-or-two-long stretches of preparing for a competition. Not only was this true of my preparation before the Tertis Competition but also this past summer as my quartet (The Dover Quartet) prepared for Banff!

The biggest difficulty when preparing for a competition is the amount of music one needs to prepare, usually anywhere from 5 to 8 pieces. The system I used in preparation for Tertis was to break down my practice week so that I had a goal of hitting every piece by the end of the week and accomplishing some clear goal each day. I took out my planner and wrote out a practice schedule (more like a guideline). It said things like, “Tune second page of Walton,” or “work on phrasing in last movement of Brahms,” or even something as mundane as “do fifteen minutes with metronome of measures 56–90.” It helped me plan out each week, with broader goals as the competition got closer, so that by the last week I was performing through pieces for friends and thinking about the big picture. I never had to worry about running out of time and missing a piece, because I knew I could just trust my plan. It kept me focused (I have a tendency to jump around from piece to piece distractedly when I don’t have a plan).

The quartet and I developed an entirely new (to us, at least!) rehearsal method when we were at Banff this past August. It is by far the most efficient rehearsing we’ve ever done. What the method entails is to play through an entire piece without stopping. Then everyone sits there silently writing a list of the things they wished had been better or different, movement by movement. No one speaks. Then we have a break, whether it be a long break for lunch, a short coffee, or even going to bed for the night. Nobody speaks about it until the next rehearsal, in which each member gets a chance to go through his or her entire list. Item by item, the other three of us sit in silence and listen to the points of that one member. We try out and work on everything that member requested, then move to the next person. The first time we did this it was a revelation to see how many things we actually agreed upon. It gave us a chance to rehearse without arguing about the way someone worded this or that, and it gave everyone a chance to have their opinion heard and tried unanimously. This all happened because we didn’t want to rehearse too much and we wanted to save energy . . . which brings me to my next point . . .

Having fun!!!:

I am a HUGE FAN of not overworking myself when I need to perform (or any other time for that matter). This is why I think it is so important to RELAX and give yourself a lot of down time when you are at a competition. Don’t practice 5, 6, 7 hours a day. If you can’t stop thinking about the pieces, do mental practice. It works—sometimes even better than practice with the instrument. This seems so obvious, but people forget to have a good time at competitions! Read a book (I brought A Song of Ice and Fire with me to Banff this summer), watch TV or netflix or movies (I got hooked on Breaking Bad while at Banff!), go out and explore your surroundings (I went hiking 4 times throughout the week we were at Banff—ok I know that’s a special circumstance because it’s so beautiful there, but honestly, getting out and having exercise and fresh air is fun and healthy anywhere you go!). My quartet and I made it a priority not to rehearse more than we needed to each day and to have a lot of personal relaxation time. I know it did so much for our morale and mental health. When you’re already at the competition, the time for stressing is over. It will do no good!

Finally . . . move on!:

It’s always great to self-reflect after something like a competition, but up to a point. Think back to the preparation—what techniques worked? What wasted time? Then move on. I learn so much about myself from the competition process. I remember one competition when I was antsy in my hotel room, so I practiced all day long. Well, lo and behold, I had shoulder problems by the time I got to the finals! Take what you learn from the process and be glad you have a new experience under your belt. No matter what, you’ve gained invaluable knowledge, understanding, and experience, and maybe a new roadmap for the future.