1. “Am I ready for a competition?” 🤔
The first question is likely one you’ve asked yourself countless times… Whether you’re looking to get your feet wet with your first competition or you’re ready to be the next GFA winner, this is an important question to consider!
To help you decide, we asked Scott Tennant at what point he advises his own students to begin doing competitions…
“I think the only way to know if you’re ready is just to do it at some point. If you have a good sense of the level of competition and you think you’ll have a good chance, then it’s worth giving it a try. You won’t really know if it’s your thing unless you give it a try.”
As Scott points out, there isn’t exactly a correct time to start competing. If you are new to the scene, however, I would definitely recommend finding one that is at your level. Naturally, the big competitions — GFA, Boston Guitarfest, Parkening, etc. — get the most attention, but there are literally 100's of small, local competitions around the U.S. and even more in Europe that would be a better fit for new competitors and lead to a more enjoyable first experience.
2. “What repertoire should I select?” ️🎼
Ok, you’ve picked a competition that’s the right level for you and you’re ready to hit the wood shed. But wait! There’s one very important preparation step to consider first… What you’re going to play!!
The truth is, the repertoire is the ONE part you always have complete control over (well, for the most part…) and therefore should be taken very seriously. There are many aspects to consider when you are picking out pieces for a competition, but as Scott points out, there is one thing you should avoid…
“One mistake I see is that people pick repertoire that they think the judges and audience will want to see. It’s really important to play what you feel sincerely represents your musical taste.”
Picking music that you actually ENJOY playing seems obvious, but it is perhaps the most overlooked aspect of selecting repertoire.
There are SO many people now who can shred Brouwer’s Sonata or Rodrigo’s Fandango that to do well in a competition, you need something in addition to “flash” that makes you stand out. Showcasing your musicality and love for playing then becomes an essential part of doing well in competitions, and that all begins with your choice of repertoire.
Along with selecting music you enjoy, it’s also important to compete with music that is unique to you as a player…
“Not playing something that everyone is playing is really important because if you’re playing something everyone is playing, then you’re already in a comparative setting. This is what you want to avoid in music in general, you need to be an individual.”
A final bit of advice when it comes to selecting music is to try to pick pieces that you’ve been playing for a looong time.
I once discussed competition repertoire with 2011 GFA Winner Vladimir Gorbach, and he said that in general, the guitarists who win large competitions have usually been playing the same music for at LEAST three years. Of course in large competitions, there are often required pieces that you don’t have three years to spend learning… But if you want to feel comfortable on stage, your core group of pieces should be ones you’ve been playing for years and years.
3. “How should I practice?” 💪
Now that you’ve selected a solid group of pieces that represent both your musical and technical strengths, you’re ready to get to work!
If you followed the advice from above and picked pieces you’ve been playing forever, you may be thinking, “I’ve already practiced and performed these pieces countless times — I can skip this step!” NOT.
While you may be a master at playing these pieces for your grandma and all her friends, it’s important to approach your preparation for competitions with a different mindset from that of a normal performance. The emphasis most competitions have on playing every note perfectly results in a lot more pressure on your performance and is likely to bring out gaps in your preparation. For example, when Xavier Jara practices for a competition, he makes sure to cover all his bases…
“I try to get a little bit of everything: some practice with the metronome, some practice that is completely musical with breathing, some practice that is just by score... And the idea is to have a good balance of everything so that nothing comes out too focused.”
From my personal experience in competitions, it is incredibly important to feel technically secure with EVERY aspect of the piece. While this might seem obvious, it’s often hard to be honest with ourselves and admit that a passage is just too difficult the way it is. However, when a particular section has turned into a struggle fest, it’s worth taking the extra time to find a better solution. This often means trying out a new fingering, dropping non-essential notes, or adding a little more rubato.
Along with all the detailed practice, Xavier highly recommends running both individual pieces and your entire set as often as possible…
“My advice would be to actually play the pieces many, many times because to play a whole piece with enough energy and enough stamina all the way throughout is another thing. So to practice playing the piece not stopping is really important because once you get on stage, problems can happen, so you need some reliability for yourself that you’re going to continue no matter what.”
Personally, I find running pieces when you aren’t warmed up especially good for reproducing the physical sensations you have when you’re nervous, such as cold hands and the general feeling of unfamiliarity with the instrument. But that’s just me.
4. “How am I supposed to perform well under so much pressure?” 😵
So speaking of nerves, let’s talk about the competition performance itself. Everyone has different emotional and physical reactions when it comes to playing in front of other people, ESPECIALLY when it’s for an intimidating panel of judges.
Of course, the most simple and effective method for combating nerves can be incredibly difficult to achieve. Learning to focus on the music and being able bring your attention to the present moment is a crucial skill for not only staving off nerves, but also for staying emotionally connected to the music, as Xavier explains…
“When you’re on stage you need something of a single minded approach where you’re not worried about what has happened or what is going to happen and you’re just sort of in the moment. I try to give all my energy on that one moment.”
In the end, you know yourself best and you should prepare and be ready for any negative emotion you have experienced in the past to rear its ugly head.
5. “I won!!! 😄 / I lost… 😭 … Now what?”
For all of us, there is no better feeling than walking off stage after nailing a performance! On the other hand, nothing can make you doubt yourself more than a performance gone awry… No matter how you played, however, it’s important you look at the whole experience from a positive light and use what you have learned to make yourself a better guitarist.
This is especially true for the competition results. Not getting first prize certainly does not mean you will fail to have a career as a guitarist, as Scott points out…
“I think those that do well, not that win first place necessarily, but those that do well because you can get fourth prize or not even in the first four and still have a great career if you really want to do it.”
The bottom line is, most competitions are a crap-shoot anyway, especially when you get to the level of competitions like GFA where every player is extremely solid and it all depends on the jury’s personal preference. So it’s important to go into a competition knowing that you could play your absolute best and still walk away with third or fourth prize.
I hope this post inspired you to take on a competition this upcoming season. If you do feel ready to do so, my final piece of advice would be to just sign up! Nothing will get you more motivated to put these tips to good use like a good ol’ self-imposed deadline. 👍 Good luck!