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why compete?

For me, music is an emotional and, at times, spiritual endeavor. Within the musical world, I see lots of space for all kinds of music, from all over the world, played by all different sorts of musicians.

So, why compete?

It’s a fair question, and one I have to ask myself – frequently. Every time I enter a competition, I have to make certain I understand and have clear answers to a few questions:

(1) Why am I competing?
(2) What do I hope to gain?
(3) Are the benefits greater than the cost?
(4) How will I know if I’ve done well?

So, I would say anyone who is thinking about entering a music competition, or putting one-self into a competitive environment that focuses on the arts, such as a grant competition, should consider these questions. If you have a clear expectation, then you will be more likely to sustain a positive feeling throughout the competition process – entering, preparing, competing, and handling the results.

Before I try to answer the questions listed above, here are some variables that affect all competitions; your competition experience will be happier if you embrace these ideas from the outset:

    Competitions with Judges are subjective events. At any given competition, where judges will determine the results, you have to bear in mind that judges are people, and that they are subject to all the emotional variations and personal tastes of anyone. So, one day, one judge might think your playing is the best in the world; on another day, that same judge may think you stink. Different judges will view your abilities differently (just like anyone else – not everyone will be a fan of what you do); and, individual judges will change their opinions about you from one competition to the next.

    You will have Good Days and Bad Days. In the same way that a judge may be feeling differently towards your performance on any given day, you too will experience some inconsistencies. Chances are, you will rarely have your absolute best playing when you want it the most. Practicing – a lot – can help make it happen more often, but it’s no guarantee.

    The Competition Environment can work Against you. For example, a few weeks ago, I participated in a competition at an outdoor festival. That day, the humidity felt like it was 600% (it was at 100%). My hands kept sticking to the fingerboard of the violin, making it impossible – IMPOSSIBLE – for me to play my best. Of course, all of the competitors had the same disadvantage, but I simply couldn’t control my instrument as well as I would have liked, nor as well as I am capable of doing. That’s the way things went that day.

    Practicing will not Completely Prepare You for the Actual Competition. Think about the previously mentioned variables. Unless you have a practice environment that can simulate all of the variables of a competition, you will not be able to completely prepare. Practicing at home in your personal studio is definitely not the same as standing in front of an audience – an audience that includes other people who are also competing – and dealing with whatever environmental and psychological factors that may arise that day.

In short, on any particular day, at some competition, with a certain judge, events will go in any number of ways. On another day, they may all go differently.

And now for the guiding questions:

1. Why am I competing?

Make certain you can answer this question, because your answer frames your expectations. For me, I am competing to make myself a better musician. Competitions require preparation. I have to search, find, and choose music. I have to interpret, arrange, and practice the music I’ve chosen. And then I have to put myself through a fairly stressful event – the competition itself. Dealing with the stress is part of the experience – through dealing with the stresses the variables apply, I improve my ability to concentrate, and yet still bring heartfelt emotion into my playing.

2. What do I hope to gain?

OK, now that I’ve answered #1, the answer to this question is easy: I hope to gain knowledge of new music (through the selection process); I hope to improve my skills as a composer, arranger, and performer (through the preparations); and I hope to improve my “live performance” abilities (through the actual competition experience) and my concentration skills – something which will help me far beyond the competition, because I believe that life requires concentration.

3. Are the benefits greater than the cost?

Competitions can be expensive in a variety of ways. Obviously, a competition may have some sort of an entry fee. And then, on the day of the event, you may have to travel some distance; even if the competition is in your hometown, you will spend something to get there. Prior to the competition, you may have had to buy some music. Your instrument may need work or new strings or whatever. Some competitions have a dress code, so you may have to buy competition-specific clothing. Beyond cash, there is certainly a time cost. You’ll spend time preparing and practicing, time travelling, and time at the competition. This is all time you could be doing something else – including spending time with friends and family. So, a competition – or any gig – can cost a musician money, time, and emotions just to prepare and participate. So ask yourself: Do the benefits I’ve identified outweigh the costs?

4. How will I know if I’ve done well?

For me, “winning” isn’t the point at all. Suppose you compete and play horribly. On that day, everyone else plays even worse, and so, you win. Hooray. You played like crap and you know it, and you were rewarded for playing like crap because the judge had to pick somebody, even if, on that day, the judge secretly wanted to not award any prizes to anyone.

I know I may do well if I’ve sufficiently prepared. If I’ve gone thoroughly through the process, then I’ll be feeling fairly confident that I can deliver a good performance at the competition – this confidence will also reduce the other stresses associated with competing. If I am not sufficiently prepared, then I’ll be feeling anxious, and at the competition, my emotions may get the better of me and further affect my performance – negatively.

I know I’ve done well if I play well, and if I feel I’ve gained the benefits mentioned in #2. If I prepare, play well, and have a good time, then it was a successful competition.

Anything else that may happen – winning; getting a trophy, getting some sort of cash prize or other accolade – is simply a bonus on the day. That’s all.

The competition, the preparation for the competition, and the musical benefits are the point, and the answer to the question – why compete?