Last week my colleague and I travelled to Amsterdam to compete in an international recorder competition. We worked really hard, but I’m sad to say we didn’t get past the first round. All is not lost, though, because the experience helped me understand the pressures that students of mine feel when they have to do competitions and auditions. Here’s what I learned from the experience, with some pointers about how to do it with less stress.
What did I learn?
Not making the cut sucks. It just does. If it happens to you, make sure that you plan something nice for yourself after the bad news. Take care of yourself.
But apart from that…
I was reminded of just how many variables in the auditions or competition process that you can’t control.
- You don’t know who else is going to show up
- You don’t know what the judges are looking for
- You are walking into an unfamiliar room with a new acoustic
- You don’t know what time of day you’ll be performing.
What this means is that when you walk into the competition round, or the audition room, you have no idea what you’ll face. You can make guesses about what the panel will be looking for, but you’ll never really know. So it’s a cognitive distortion to pin your sense of self-worth on the outcome, or your belief in your future employability or career success. Ultimately, the outcome isn’t really in your control! The panel are in charge of who gets through to the second round, not you. So if they don’t include you, you have to remember that there were many variables that were outside of your control.
But there are things that you CAN control
Writing in 1923, FM Alexander approached the topic of nerves and performance, and stated something that I don’t think people take seriously enough:
…we must remember that it is only the small minority of experts in any line who really know how they get their results and effects… Therefore directly anything puts them “off their game,” they experience considerable difficulty, at any rate, in getting on to it again.
In other words, because most performers (and FM was using golfers as his example) don’t really know how they are doing what they are doing, they are more likely to be put off by the weird acoustic in the hall, or by the other candidate ostentatiously doing stretches in the warm-up room.
Ideally, we don’t want to be put “off our game.” We can take steps to make this less likely:
- Rehearse in different spaces and acoustics
- Play at different times of day
- Create mock performances for friends, family and any other crowd you can gather together.
Don’t be put “off your game”
But if we’re doing auditions or a competition, we also want to make sure that, if we are put “off our game,” that we can get back to it again. And FM Alexander tells us how:
It is only by having a clear conception of what is required for the successful performance of a certain stroke or other act, combined with a knowledge of the psycho-physical means whereby those requirements can be met, that there is any reasonable possibility of their attaining sureness and confidence during performance.
Alexander’s recipe for success is to control your own performance. You can make sure that you are as well-prepared as it is possible to be under your particular given circumstances. That means:
- Setting goals; knowing what is required for a successful performance
- Working out a means of meeting those goals
- Doing the practise necessary to make sure that you can carry out those means effectively. If that means spending many hours practising one trill, then that’s what you have to do!
The advantage of doing this work is that, once you’ve done the auditions or competition, you have criteria for assessing your own performance. Did you achieve the goals you set? Did you carry out the process you designed? If you’re lucky my colleague and I were, you’ll be given a video of your performance so that you can watch it back and learn what you can do better next time.
By doing the prep work, you can control your reaction to the process. Yes, it’s stressful – I’m not denying that. But you’ll have taken the steps to reduce the stress as much as you can, and you’ll have given yourself the best chance to shine. And in the end, that’s the most important thing.
 Full disclosure: I know that my students have a tougher time than me, because I’m not hoping for a professional full-time musical career. My students have more invested in the experience than I did. But I still wanted to do well!
 FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat ed., p.340-341.
 ibid., p.341.