With a competition right around the corner, I wanted to give parents some tips on things they can do to help their student have the best possible experience.
Every performance is important to prepare for, but a competition is especially important. This is one of the few times that someone is going to dissect every aspect of your child’s playing. It is usually a very positive and affirming experience for students if they are well-prepared and know what to expect.
The day of a competition might go something like this:
- Your arrive early at the location of the competition.
- Sign in. (There’s usually a table staffed by piano teachers and helpers.)
- You’ll be directed to your students performance room.
- When you arrive at the performance room, there will likely be a door monitor who will ask for the student’s music. (They are usually making sure it’s not photo copied and that the measures are numbered.)
- Since you arrived early, you’ll wait outside the performance room until your students turn. They may be ahead of or behind schedule, so go with the flow and be patient.
- When your student’s name is called they’ll go in the room and perform for the judge. This will pretty much take exactly the length of your students song. For very young beginners, it will take less than a minute, for many students they’ll probably take 2-3 minutes and advanced students might take up to 10 minutes.
- Your student will come out and mostly likely need to wait for the door monitor to bring their music back out along with their critique sheet. Often times, this is when you find out your student’s rating, but occasionally you have to wait to find out how your student did.
- What happens next varies by competition. At the competition my students participate in, all students who receive the highest ratings (a 1+, 1, or 1-) go to an awards table to receive their award. There is not usually an award for 2’s and lower. The students go home and later in the day, the teacher call will winners to notify them. Sometimes students are performing for ratings only and there is not a specific winner. Other times, there is public announcement of winners, perhaps within a recital or awards ceremony.
- Some competitions also include a written theory test. If this is the case, be sure you know if the test is only offered at a specific time, or if students can show up to take it at any time. My students can take their test either before or after their performance.
All of this usually doesn’t take very long, but it’s an important moment for your student and one that you want to be as prepared for as possible.
Once you decide to participate in a competition, here are things that parents can be checking in on to make sure their student is ready for the big day:
Memorizing (except in the case of ensemble playing) is really important. If a student uses music at a competition, they will likely receive a big deduction from their score or maybe even be disqualified. I aim to help students have their music memorized 1 month before the competition date.
This timeframe allows for plenty of time for the music to “settle in” and become second nature. It also takes the pressure off in the event of lapses of practice due to travel or sickness. During this final month of practice, there are a lot of small details that students will need to pay attention to so having the memorizing out of the way is crucial.
Check in on your student’s memorization progress frequently. Provide many opportunities to test out the memorization in non-judgemental environments. Have your student play when you have guests over, if you’re at a friend or relative’s house with a piano, or any time you encounter a piano available for playing (like at school or church during non-busy times.)
Since these types of informal practice performance are purely for the purpose of testing out memorization, don’t be critical if your student makes mistakes. This is a learning opportunity and a good chance to discover where to focus the practicing at home.
Presenting Themselves With Confidence
I’ve judged many piano competitions over the years, and the students who walk, talk, and act the most confident almost always perform the best.
Most competitions don’t require the student to say anything. Sometimes it feels more comfortable to break the silence in an unfamiliar setting. If your student is inclined to chat, coach them to do so with grace and poise. Come up with a brief introduction including their name and the name of the piece they are performing that they can tell the judge. Including the name of the composer would be ideal, but that might be asking a bit much, especially for very young students. (Other teachers may have a different experience with this, but in my area, students generally are not required to say anything.)
Regardless of if your student wants to say anything, be sure they are prepared to walk confidently to the piano, take their time getting situated, use good posture, smile and appear to be enjoying themselves. The judge will not only see all of these things, he or she will hear them in the performance as well.
It’s always nice when a student takes a bow or verbally thanks the judge after his or her performance.
Tune In To The Details
At a competition, the judge is looking at every detail of the music. If you’re not sure what details your student should be focusing on, just ask your teacher. Even if you’re not a musician yourself, you can probably learn to pick up on these details pretty easily.
Here are some common details that students tend to gloss over:
- Note values, especially long notes – Whole notes and half notes (and other long notes such as tied notes) need to be held for their full value. This might seem like an eternity to some students, but it is correct and what the judge is listening for.
- Rests – rests are silent beats, but just as important as the beats that have sound. Students love to plow through rests, because similar to long notes, they might seem awkward or too long. Once again, they’re super important and a detail the judge is listening for.
- Dynamic variation – This refers to the loud and soft parts of the song. It is very common for a student to think they are observing dynamic changes when in fact, the music sounds all one dynamic level. Dynamics must be exaggerated in order to be heard by the listener. If your student’s music sounds monotone, remind them to be thinking about dynamics.
- Pedaling – Sometimes when a piano student gets really focused on their hands their foot lands on the pedal and doesn’t move. This is bad news in a competition! A judge is really listening to the pedaling technique, so make sure your student is practicing it. A lot of kids think it sounds really cool to hold the pedal down for a long time without releasing it, but to a judge it sounds messy and improper. There are only a handful of pieces that would require a student to hold the pedal down continuously.
- Musical expression – Musical expression is what makes music move from a mechanical process to a form of art. This often takes many years to develop. If your student’s playing sounds too robotic, you might help them tune into the story that the music is telling or what feelings the notes are expressing.
I’m sure this list might seem overwhelming, especially if you don’t have a music background. If you’re not sure which details your student should be focused on, or if you notice your student continuously neglecting details, just mention it to your teacher to get everyone on the same page.
Know How To Respond to Mistakes
If a student makes a mistake when performing, the very best thing to do is to leave the mistake behind and keep going. I drill this into my students before performances, but in the heat of the moment, you never know what’s going to happen.
Sometimes students are inclined to go back and try to “fix” their mistake, but that’s a slippery slope. Fixing a mistake can lead to more mistakes, or it could make a student get stuck on a trouble spot that they could have otherwise glossed over.
If the student comes to a complete stop, it’s ok to start over, but a better option would be to start at the beginning of a phrase either just before or just after the trouble spot occurred.
For this reason, it’s really important that students practice starting at places other than the beginning. It’s so important for students to have a good mental map of their piece and know all of the important starting points.
What Parents Should Do The Day Of The Competition
- Help your student plan for appropriate clothing well in advance. Competitions are relatively formal events. Students should dress nicely. Don’t be searching for clothes the day of the competition and don’t let your student perform in something that has never been worn before. (Squeaky shoes, a too long skirt, too long sleeves are all things that could be really distracting at a performance!)
- Make sure your student’s sheet music is ready to go. Most competitions do no allow photo copies and ask that measures be numbered.
- Make sure you know where to go and when to arrive before you leave the house.
- Arrive to the location of the competition with plenty of time to spare. Even if your have a calm and collected student, there’s a good chance that nerves will start coming into play before you even leave the house. If things feel rushed or chaotic, it will just add to your student’s stress.
- Don’t plan a lot of other activities the day of the competition. Help your student be focused on the upcoming performance.
- Be your student’s biggest cheerleader! It’s too late to make any major changes to the performance the day of a competition so just encourage them to do their best.
- Tell them that you are proud of them, regardless of how they did.
- Celebrate with your student if they did well.
- If you think things may not have gone well, don’t say, “what happened?”, instead ask how it went and let them tell the story.
- Remind your student that judges are human each judge has their own opinion that may be different than the opinion of their teacher. For this reason, you have to take ratings with a grain of salt.
- If your student is upset or disappointed, the best thing the parent can do is to show support. Let the teacher coach and offer advice.
A lot of students are hard on themselves and may have had a slip up or two or feel like they messed up their song. They might be surprised to see that they got a good rating. This happens pretty frequently when a student has a good, strong recovery from a mistake or plays confidently, despite a few inaccuracies. It’s definitely a time to celebrate with your student and emphasize that even though those details are important, the bigger picture is more important.
As you can see, there’s a lot that goes into preparing for a competition. Thank you for helping and supporting your piano student and good luck!