Practice and performance consultant Adam Hockman shares practical habits and strategies for musicians preparing for competitions
High stakes music competitions and adjudications often take place in different cities or countries than where you live, with people you may not know, and in venues and with conditions you’ve not experienced. With all that change and newness, there’s plenty of room for things to go wrong. If you need to direct some of your attention to understanding and adjusting to a different environment, that could mean less of it for your performance. But with some thoughtful planning and execution, you can be steady in your playing, and increase the likelihood of excelling at these big events.
Successful competitors start their preparation way ahead of performance day. They use time-tested habits and strategies to optimise their practice time, and therefore their performance on competition day. You can do this, too, in the weeks and months ahead of the competition.
1: Build endurance in your playing and thinking. Daily practice differs from a performance day in many ways. Most notably, in how long you have to be alert and able to perform at a very high level. You might practice 5 to 6 hours per day, but at a competition you need to be at your top performance level for an extended period of time.
Tip: Early into your competition prep, arrange practice opportunities (run throughs, mock performances) that over time increase how long you are fully alert and playing at a high level. Note how your performance is impacted by longer spans of high-level playing. If you observe yourself growing exhausted, that’s a signal to build incremental endurance over weeks and months.
2: Add a ’stop and stabilise’ date to your calendar. In the month before the competition, set a date for when you will start to focus primarily on stabilising your pieces with the musical choices you made earlier in practice. At this point, you will not be adding new ones, like changes to vibrato or tempo. Competition conditions can produce stress and anxiety responses, so you want to have your core musical decisions locked down and practised many times before you get in front of adjudicators. In this remaining time, you may tweak your choices, but mostly you will want to polish your pieces and stabilise your performance for performance day.
Tip: Work backwards from the competition date and determine when you will stop adding new musical features, and instead move to stabilising what you have.
3: Schedule mock performances that mimic the conditions of competition day. Simulating what you might experience during the competition is a great way to test your endurance and stability in performance. If you’re playing in a competition with a multi-year track record, speak with friends who have already competed in it, or watch past years’ performances to learn what it might be like. Then, set up mock performances that approximate the competition’s environment.
Tips: Consider conditions like the lights, your distance from adjudicators or the pianist, and the sequence of events (e.g., pausing between pieces, getting a cue from an adjudicator to move to the next piece). Wear your competition attire and ask colleagues or friends if they’re available to sit in the audience and play the role of adjudicators. Take each mock performance seriously and make it as realistic as possible.
4: Record your mock performances and view them to see if you’ve met what you set out to accomplish. If you’ve followed the suggestions above, you’ll have ample opportunity to test and adjust what you did during the performance, and the recording is how you can monitor it.
Tips: Observe whether you’ve maintained your peak playing after 30 or 45 minutes in your mock performance (built endurance). Check whether you landed each musical choice as you intended (stabilised your performance). And finally, notice whether your mock performance environment/conditions sufficiently captures the competition experience.
Competitions can be stressful, but you can manage the outcome of your performance by using your preparation time to anticipate and confront the stress that arises with uncertainty. Good luck in your preparation and in your competition. Let me know how it goes!
Adam Hockman is a practice and performance consultant on the faculty of the Heifetz International Music Institute. He applies his training in behavioral and learning science to music practice, performance, and teaching. Learn more at adamhockman.com.