By Cathy Fink & Adam Hurt
Cathy: The benefits of preparing for a contest go way beyond the obvious desire to win, or beyond not winning. My love of contests originates in the enjoyment of listening to and watching other musicians. I’ve made friends, written down tunes I need to learn, and even taken lessons from contestants who have styles or techniques that interest me. I also love to support people who are out there sharing their music at the best level they can at that moment.
Since the pandemic, there have been some excellent online contests showcasing great fiddling, banjo playing, ukulele mastery and guitar picking. Several of these will likely continue even as the summer festival season reopens the in-person contests.
So, once you decide you are going to enter a contest, for whatever your reasons may be, how can you prepare? The obvious “P” word comes to mind, practice. But if you love to play, why not replace that word with another “P” word, play. Make a list of the top couple of tunes you enjoy playing. Then, focus on each tune as you play them. Think about your arrangement. Do you play the exact same thing 3-4 times in a row? Can you add any variations such as playing in different registers (high or low), adding a few embellishments, showing your comfort with not only the melody, but ways to enhance the melody? Make notes if that’s helpful.
Most contests include timing in the list of criteria being judged. Playing with a metronome or click track will help you focus on playing in time. Unless it is part of your arrangement to intentionally speed up or slow down, experiment with the metronome’s BPM (beats per minute) to find the sweet spot for your tune. You can also try gradually speeding up the BPM. If you can accurately play something faster than you need to, slowing it down should be easier. But beware of trying to play faster than your fingers will let you, which can lead to sloppy playing.
I look at all of this as an opportunity to improve my playing. Taking the tune apart, listening to the details, recording my own playing and listening back to give it an honest critique of what I want to improve and then working on those specific spots. One of the great rules of practice is not to work on what you already do well, work on the things you don’t do well to bring them up to the same level as the things you do well.
So, let’s talk about nerves. You may play perfectly at home and then get a big case of jitters in front of a microphone or audience. The best remedy for this is to do it often and the more you do it, the more comfortable you become. But of course, that’s not practical. What is practical is to enlist a few friends to listen to you, either in person or even via Zoom or similar software. It definitely feels different to “perform” than it does to play in your own kitchen. Once the camera is on, or an audio recorder, you need to have the same chill yet focused mindset you had playing for yourself at the kitchen table. The more you do this, the easier it becomes. If you have friends who also play, you could start a little group that meets regularly to do this, giving everyone a chance to get over the jitters and play with confidence.
And remember, judges are subjective people. Most contest judges try to be fair and to follow the criteria the contest has set out. Some miss the mark, but it’s totally subjective. I’ve seen and heard some amazing playing be overlooked by judges whose opinions differ from mine. That’s the way it is. It’s also why there are several judges for most contests, to average the opinions of the judges aiming for more fairness.
Adam Hurt has won over 50 contests through the years and retired from “competition” many years ago. I’ve asked him to chime in here with additional suggestions.
Adam: Although I don’t have the occasion to do it a lot these days, I used to enter banjo and fiddle contests as often as I could find contests to enter, and I still really enjoy the process of preparing for and playing in a contest. Cathy’s suggestions all resonate with me, but I can share a few thoughts of my own as well.
Many contest participants seem to see their entry as an opportunity to “wow” those listening, judges, other contestants, and spectators alike. While a very flashy performance that is also really well-rendered could certainly make jaws drop, this type of performance isn’t always the best choice or even a realistic choice in what can be a stressful performance setting. I find myself doing a better job with somewhat more familiar tunes played in dynamic but not over-the-top-fancy ways: these tend to be tunes and ways of playing them that allow for a certain amount of nervousness to enter the picture without slightly shaky hands or frantic breathing potentially making me crash and burn. I also like to dial back my normal performance tempo for a contest tune ever-so slightly, which also helps me get through them more solidly than if I play quite close to the edge of my tempo comfort zone. The resulting performance may or may not be the most dazzling thing that listeners have ever heard, but it will probably be a more solid performance for me than if I had been trying harder to “wow” everyone.
In addition to practicing well in advance of a contest, using the sort of methods that Cathy outlined, I like to make time to practice my tune in the hour or so leading up to my position in the contest. Everything will be different in this practice setting from what it feels, sounds, and looks like in the comfort of my home! I need to get used to the way that my instrument sounds in the space, which could be outdoors, and I need to not be distracted by sounds or movements from those around me. It’s still going to be different on the contest stage in front of a microphone, but at least some of the other variables are less likely to throw me off than if I went straight from taking my instrument out of the case for the first time that day to playing it on stage for the judges to hear. As you practice your tune in this setting, make sure that you are far enough away from the stage and from the audience members to not spoil the other contestants’ performances, though!
Especially for outdoor contests, but even in indoor climate-controlled spaces, instrument tuning is apt to shift over time. Check tuning thoroughly in the time leading up to playing your competition entry, and then be sure to check it quickly once more right before you take the stage. Speaking from my experience as a contest judge, no matter how flawless a given performance may be, judges have a hard time overlooking a poorly-tuned instrument.
When you take your seat—or your standing position—on the competition stage, you may be keen to get your tune over and done with as efficiently as possible. Even so, don’t preempt the MC! In most contests, there will be an official on-hand announcing the names or numbers of the contestants over the PA system, and it is important to wait for this person to finish saying whatever needs to be said before you start playing. Also, make sure that your microphone is properly set—and turned on! The sound crew may be resetting the mic ahead of each contestant, and they need a moment to get everything configured. I have seen many contest entries spoiled because the sound wasn’t yet on when the contestant began playing, and in most cases this wasn’t because the sound crew was asleep at the wheel, but instead because the contestant jumped into the performance too quickly. Finally, unless you have been advised by a contest official to announce your name or the tune name yourself using the microphone, please don’t take this as an opportunity to “talk at” the audience or the judges about the history of the tune, where you come from, or how happy you are to be present. This isn’t a concert set or an open mic spot. Please just play your tune, but wait to do it until everyone is ready.
The Galax Fiddlers’ Convention (“The World’s Oldest and Largest Fiddlers’ Convention”) has what I consider a wonderful feature: a red light, right there on the stage, which comes on after a given contestant has been playing for two and a half minutes. When the light comes on, the contestant may finish the verse and chorus (or the A and B part) currently in play, but if another verse is begun, then the contestant is disqualified. While other contests may not have such a clear signal that an entry has lasted long enough, or may not even have a formal time limit for entries, the point is that the judges will have sufficient information to determine their scores earlier in a performance than one might think. Three or four times through a typical AABB tune form, or around two minutes start to finish, is plenty of length for a contest entry. The longer you play, the more apt you are to bobble, so consider winding your tune down while you are ahead!
Above all, remember to HAVE FUN! A contest is an opportunity to share some of your favorite music, played YOUR way, for an audience—or at least a group of judges—focused on you. Enjoy the experience, no matter the outcome! It’s just a contest, and the awarding of prizes to me is secondary to the diversity of traditional music shared through the whole event.