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What I Learned Watching the Finals of a Prestigious Music Competition

This past weekend, Jolene and I drove to Houston for the Houston Flute Festival and left feeling so inspired! For me, the highlight was observing the final round for the Byron Hester Competition. Y'all, I learned SO. MUCH. from this experience. It was really interesting to observe such high level players and see first-hand what exactly sets one player apart from another, and what contributes to a winning performance. Overall, the biggest takeaways for me were that technical passages need to be flawless and effortless, and that it is not enough to just play what is on the page.

What I Learned Watching the Finals of a Prestigious Music Competition I How To Win A Music Competition I How To Perform I



When you are competing against players at such an incredibly high level, even the smallest details (also see: mistakes) will stick out. If you are going to use any alternate fingerings, be sure that it is not compromising the quality of sound.


This should be common sense for a competition, but all runs and technical passages need to be flawless. Every single note should be heard, but even that is still not enough.

The passages need to sound effortless.

There is a HUGE audible difference when a player feels uncomfortable with a technical passage versus someone who practiced that passage so much they could play it in their sleep. Your aim should be to sound like the latter.


This aspect is not something you can officially be judged on, but you guys....the way you present yourself through your appearance makes an incredible difference in how people perceive you. This is going to affect judgement on you before you even play your first note.

Obviously you need to dress nice, but just "nice" is not good enough. Dress pants and a blazer? Next, I'm already bored. Wear something fashion forward that will make you feel like a badass! Ladies, pull your hair back so it does not get in your way. It also looks so much less distracting from the audience.


Take control of the stage as soon as you step onto it. As a performer, it is YOUR responsibility to engage your audience. The most effective way to do this is to look up from your music! If you do not feel comfortable memorizing your music, be sure you can still get out of the music stand and look out into your audience frequently. Think back to the fundamentals you learned for public speaking. You would never get in front of an audience and look down at your piece of paper the entire time, right? It should be the same for music. An amazing example of this can be found in any Amy Porter video. She is seriously #performergoals.

While we are on the subject of getting out of the music stand, this goes for physically as well. When performing, the music stand should always be positioned lower so you are not hidden behind it. But take it a step further and step out and away from the stand a bit as well. If you are bent over playing into the stand the entire time you are creating a wall between you and the audience, not to mention you look much less poised. If your stand is lowered and you are standing back from it tall and confidently and looking out into your audience frequently, it creates a very different experience (again, a la Amy Porter). It will engage your audience and draw them in to the performance.


If at all possible, find out what type of environment you are going to be performing in. The acoustics of a large concert hall versus a rehearsal space versus a recital hall will all be very different. In the case of performing in a large resonant concert hall, you will need to be prepared to tailor your articulations and note endings pretty greatly. Try to find a similar environment that you can practice in and record, record, record. Another concern to keep in mind is whether you are forcing your sound, or if your sound is not resonating enough to fill the entire hall.

Things to be mindful of if you are performing in a resonant space:

-Articulations need to be much shorter and crisper. With a large resonant space, the notes will naturally expand as the sound travels, so if you do not play crisply and short, everything just sounds like mush by the time it gets to the back of the hall. Be especially mindful of any LOW articulated notes!

-Repeated notes will need even more direction and phrasing otherwise it just sounds flat and boring. We want to avoid lulling the judges to sleep.

-Be very aware of the silences, especially in solo pieces. For this competition, all finalists were asked to perform the third movement from the C.P.E. Bach A Minor Sonata. After a section resolved, each player just took a breath and continued on. However, this crushed the potential for SO many beautiful moments. You can avoid this by listening to the hall for the prior tonality to dissipate before continuing on to the next section. Leone Buyse frequently talks about "articulatory silence," which I think is such a beautiful way to think of it. I found myself yearning for more of this silence throughout the Bach.

-Lift your note endings. Since all the notes are going to expand by the time they get out into the hall, it is imperative that you treat every note ending with care, but ESPECIALLY any before a silence. Lift the note to help it ring and give it life. Even if the note is short, resonant acoustics make it so much more apparent when a note is ended flatly as opposed to with a lift.


Know the piano part as well as you know your own part. It shows.


While we are on the subject of piano, if it is at all possible, bring your own pianist. You are already going to be nervous so why not provide yourself with a little more security? The last thing you want to do is walk on stage wondering if the provided pianist is going to remember your tempos from the one hour you rehearsed together. In scenarios like this, the disconnect between the two players is so evident from the audience.

I am a firm believer that your pianist is not an accompanist, they are your collaborator. You play off of one another and feed each other's musicality.

A consistent issue throughout was balance. Despite the piano being only half open, there were still many parts where the flute was overpowered. A pianist that you have worked with for such a short amount of time is most likely more concerned with accurately playing their own part. If you are able to bring your own pianist, they should have no problem at all playing with the piano fully open and never having a balance issue. Once you find a great collaborator, they will constantly be listening to you not only for balance, but for changes in tone color as well.

If it is simply not a possibility to bring your own pianist, then there are still ways for you to ensure a great performance. It is critical that you communicate with your pianist through your movements. Position yourself so you can easily turn towards your pianist to cue them in. You should also turn in more towards them when you have intertwining sections. Think of it as you would a chamber music setting. If you are performing in a woodwind quintet and have a gorgeous line with the oboe player sitting next to you, you're probably going to lean in more towards them and move together with the music. This should also happen with your pianist.

Moral of the story is either way, it is extremely evident on stage whether you treat your pianist as simply your accompanist or as your collaborator, and it makes a WORLD of difference.


If you are walking on stage to perform as a finalist for a prestigious competition, odds are you're probably nervous. And if you are wondering whether or not the audience can tell, the answer is yes. Everything that you are feeling is portrayed though your body language, facial expressions, and playing. One of the performers clearly felt so anxious it made ME feel anxious just watching! On the flip side of this, another one of the performers was so aloof I could not even force myself to fully pay attention to the performance. This specific performer was technically solid and had great phrasing, but everything from the outfit choice, to demeanor, to body language, to movement while playing was so boring it just completely overpowered the playing.

Channel your inner Sasha Fierce and own the stage from the second you walk onto it. Even if you are a wreck of nerves on the inside, fake it til you make it my friend. If you walk onto stage in a killer outfit with the attitude "Yeah I'm a badass and I know it" and nail your performance, there isn't much that can compete with that. Attitude and presentation is EVERYTHING.

On a similar note of being an actor, if the piece you are performing has a complete character change be sure to convey it through your face and movements. You have the power to set the mood before you even play a note.


INTONATION, MY FRIENDS. There is nothing more distracting from what you are trying to convey than poor tuning.


When preparing for any type of competition or audition, you should be video recording yourself as often as possible. Make sure to pay attention to your movements. Are you doing anything that looks unnatural or distracting? Alternatively, you also want to avoid just standing completely still and conveying zero emotion or expression.


If you are given a free choice of repertoire, make your selection carefully. Obviously you want to play something that you truly love and are passionate about, because you will perform it better and that passion will be conveyed to the audience. You also want to make sure you choose something that you know you can 100% nail and feel like a badass playing it. HOWEVER. Keep in mind that if one of your competitors decides to play say, Chant De Linos or the Ibert Concerto and completely nails it, there really isn't much else that can compete with that.


I learned SO much from this process and hope that these notes will help you in your current and/or future preparations! If you ever have the opportunity to observe the finals for a competition, do it. I still can't believe how much I took away from this process, and I am excited to begin implementing these into my own playing!

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