The idea of competition and the arts is extensive and can range from the local arts festival to a national or international affair like The Booker or Nobel Prize or American Idol.
Competition is a funny thing, isn’t it? It suggests that, based on a one-time experience, a person or group of people is able to accurately declare that one person is a fundamentally better artist than all of the others. Kind of an odd notion!
But there are can be legitimate reasons to compete. Perhaps an opportunity lies on the other end – to get a recording contract, to be published by a reputable publishing house. Perhaps there is a cash prize – always helpful! And perhaps the main impetus is to have your name more recognized and to obtain the bragging rights. As far as I know, an Oscar does not come with any monetary add-on but most people in the film industry would love to have that little ®Academy Award winner attached to their names!
Of course, there are different types of competitions – those which involve real-time performances such as dancing or singing vs. those which involve pre-existing works that are presented, or even nominated, for consideration; those which involve adjudication or critique vs. those in which a winner is announced and nothing more.
So, I would like to talk about the potential pros and cons of artistic competitions, particularly when it comes to teachers who have students who may be interested in competing in real-time events.
It is just my opinion, of course, but I think it’s important to make sure your student is, in fact, in a position to handle competition in the first place. You might want to ask them if they have ever lost at anything before. How did they take it? Did they become really upset? Will they be alright performing under pressure? Can they take a certain amount of criticism?
While encouraging students to try something new can be a valuable catalyst, you might want to think twice before pushing them into something they may not be ready for. Particularly with young students, a negative experience can be damaging and turn them off any future attempts – I have had students who made a mistake during a recital, ended up in tears and were afraid to get on stage again for years afterwards – so it’s important to make sure that you set them up for as positive an experience as possible and be there to support them if things get rough. Even adults can be affected by an adjudicator who matter-of-factly points out only the things you did wrong and fails to mention anything you did right!
As I’m sure you know, as with any performance it’s critical to prepare the student so they know their piece inside and out. If you leave it at the point where they’ve gotten it right once or twice, there could be problems once the nerves set it. If possible, you might want to try creating the vibe of the competition so they feel more comfortable on the actual day by having them present in front of a few family members and pretending they are walking onto the stage and all of that, just like with any performance scenario.
Performing can be rather unpredictable. Even at your most prepared, things can still go wrong – you can get a lump in your throat, your jewelry can get hooked onto your costume, you can forget words – and younger students will likely not know what to do in these situations and might get flustered. You might want to try intentionally distracting them while they perform to dispel some fear of the unknown but be warned that it could backfire and make them even more nervous! But, at the very least, it’s a good idea to remind them that, no matter how they do, the fact that they are getting up there in front of people is a big thing in itself for which they should be commended. And doing really well or winning are just bonuses.
It’s probably a good idea to be with them at the competition, even if you don’t technically have to be there to accompany them on the piano or something like that, until they have a few under their belt and have gained some confidence. If something happens during the performance or they don’t get the results they were hoping for, they will need a supportive shoulder to cry on.
Sometimes in competition there is a clear winner. There is someone whose skill level is obviously higher than the others and everyone sees that. There are also times when there are several good performers and it’s hard to tell who the judges or adjudicator are going to pick. I present as an example the story of a vocal competition where the adjudicator chose the winner essentially on the fact that the song he sang reminded her of her childhood. She apparently came right out and said it and didn’t even disguise the fact!
So, as we know, the winner of a competition may not have as much to do with skills as we want to believe and it’s important the student knows that as well.
If the performance goes well and the student wins, brava! It’s time to congratulate them on a job well done! Enjoy the moment and wait until later to let them know that there is always work to do and ways to improve.
If something goes wrong during the performance – and it may – you’ll want to discuss what happened from your viewpoint and from the student’s viewpoint. Did they get distracted by something? Did something happen musically that threw them off? You need to do an analysis to see what may or may not need to be addressed for next time. Gently let them know that these are just things to work on for the future and it doesn’t mean they aren’t good.
If there is a fellow competitor who is, as mentioned earlier, a clear winner, a student may be inclined to think well, what’s the point? I’m not as good as they are so why should I bother doing this again? I have certainly had these thoughts!
As the teacher, you can use this as an opportunity to inspire the student. Ask them what they liked about the performance and why they thought it was so good. Was the performer dynamic and theatrical? Was there a fluidity about the movement or the voice that they admired? Are there any of those elements that your student could start incorporating into their performances? How much practice do they think would be required to get to that level and would they be prepared to dedicate themselves in the same way?
Then there are the comments from the adjudicator. In theory, the adjudicator should have, in addition to their knowledge of their craft, experience dealing with the age group of the participants they are adjudicating. There are also competitions that are meant for those who just want to have fun and those who are more serious about their craft. Their comments should use language, ideas and sensitivity commiserate with those to whom they are speaking.
But unfortunately, this is not always the case. Sometimes adjudications can be overly harsh, overly complex or just plain rude! And, certainly, the organizers can be notified in such cases but, as far as the participants go, the damage may already be done.
So, once the adjudication has been given, you need to go over those comments with the student and discuss what to keep and what to dismiss – which suggestions are valid and worth incorporating and which don’t make sense. This will help retain the student’s confidence and help them discern what criticism to acknowledge.
Well, those are just a few things to look at! If you are engaging your students in competitions, good luck to them all and may they all have productive, positive experiences!
Have a great day!