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Thoughts on Competing, Contests, Auditions, and Music 

 
Here is a topic we all think about one time or another: contests. Sometimes it seems really difficult to connect the reality of a performance with the perceptions offered by those evaluating the performance. There are two (perhaps three if we want to include audience members, if applicable-- we'll save that one!) perspectives worth considering. I have had the good fortune to win a few of the many competitions and auditions I have attempted. I have been equally fortunate to have been included in a wide range of judging circumstances as well, from local junior high level solo/ensemble "contests" to international competitions, some by tape, some live, etc., etc. I've seen people rise to the occasion, and crash and burn (and I can personally relate to both!). I have seen people get supreme enjoyment out of a "III" and be crushed with a "I" ("What, no I+?"). There is a lot to think about and remember. 
 

Perspective No. 1: the performer(s). 

 
When I work hard and do well as a result of that work, I want to receive an evaluation in keeping with that effort and how I perceive it. The problem here is the evaluator most often does not see the whole of my work, only the result. If I am not fully informed (or deluded about my playing), or have a bad day or don't get the result I worked so hard to achieve, I can feel cheated or, carried to extremes, I can view the performance and/or evaluation as being more far-reaching than its reality. The truth is, however: on this day, in the opinion of this evaluator, I played that well. I can be disappointed or surprised, happy or disgusted, but how I feel or respond really is my choice. My initial attitude going in is equally important-- if I am confident of my preparation, if I am clear why I am accepting this challenge (preferably for healthy reasons, e.g., taking a risk, trying to improve myself, to see where I stack up in a larger framework, trying to move myself into a better position, rather than trying to "win" or beat someone else), then the evaluator's responses, regardless of their political, etc. issues, are only a part (sometimes a very small one) of a bigger picture. So what can I do as a performer? Keep a healthy perspective on what and how I am doing, and remember that no matter what the results or how well I want to do on that day (realistic or not), I will give my best effort and be as proud of that effort as I can. The results can encourage me to take a different approach the next time or reinforce what I did well this time, but in itself, the "contest" is a step along a much longer path. Take my word for it-- I've bashed myself (and evaluators) unreasonably many times in the past, regardless of the actual result. It's a waste of time and energy (I mean, you could be using that time and energy to practice!). Learn what you can and move on. 
 

Perspective No. 2: the evaluator(s). 

 
As an evaluator, I certainly bring my own preferences to the table. I try to remember that I am only hearing one performance on one day, and there is more than one way to play a horn. I always hope everyone will have their best days, but it isn't always the case. Still however, how do I know which performance is a good day vs. bad? In other words, is it fair to assume more than what I hear at the moment? This all sounds very noble, doesn't it? I wish I could say that what I ate that morning, how the traffic was coming to the event, how much I need a second cup of coffee, or how many groups I have heard up to that point didn't make any difference, but it always does. Do I know the teacher? Have I heard the person play before? Am I put off or encouraged by the way the person presents himself? How's her accompanist? All of these things inevitably enter in, consciously or unconsciously. The best any evaluator can do is the best she/he can. Why is this important to remember? Because you can't control any of it. The evaluator is a human being who usually hears only one performance on one day of your entire life. I believe evaluators always hope to help by various comments, etc., but I am sure most of us are nothing but annoyed when even the most expert evaluators act as if they have all the answers for you, after hearing you play for 10 minutes. They may be absolutely accurate about your performance on that day, even if they disagree. Individuals value different things and hear them differently, too. Keep it in perspective. Learn what you can and move on. 
 
Yes, all people have their own agendas, prejudices, etc., but there is not much you can do about it. Try not to let any one of them or any one experience spoil the real reasons we undertake this sort of thing (in my opinion, of course)-- to challenge ourselves to make meaningful music. The results may not make any sense to you at the time. Keep your head-- even failure at "the most important performance of your life" doesn't mean YOU are a failure or that you should give up. If that were true, I wouldn't have this job which I really, really like. It just means you have more to learn (and WE ALL DO!). Getting a III doesn't mean YOU are a III (of course, getting a I doesn't mean YOU are a I, either). All it means is that on that day, this person (or persons), for whatever reason ("right" or "wrong"), heard it that way. This perspective is equally valid when you happen to win or get a good review-- the evaluator(s) just happened to see it your way on that one day for that one performance. You still have to get up the next day and practice, especially if you want to keep enjoying that success longer than just one day. And further, just because you got a "I" doesn't mean you can automatically attempt brain surgery or have an informed opinion about politics (or music you've never seen or musicians you've never heard). There are no guarantees that the same group of evaluators will have the same response at any other time. Enjoy it absolutely, but keep your success in a healthy perspective, too. 
 
As you can tell, I feel pretty strongly about this issue-- I have spent too much unnecessary time and energy worrying about things I can't control. Competition can be very good for everyone, but only if we keep track of the good reasons for it. Look for your own bigger picture, one that encourages challenges and risks, but leads always to good music.