Competition Preparation

February 15, 2012

In a little over two weeks time I'll be presenting a piece of mine at a competition for evaluation. The Kansas State University chapter of the American String Teachers Association (KASTA) hosts and adjudicates the Wildcat String Festival each year with the goal of preparing sixth, seventh, and eighth graders for the annual district and state string competitions. The idea is to give them an introduction to solo and ensemble competitions, and it gives the KASTA experience in hosting and adjudicating a competition. I'm being afforded a change to perform that day as an "adult beginner".

The competition requires a scale or two be played for warmup and then a solo piece of not more than 5 minutes duration. On my own I've decided to perform the eighth grade scales, F: and A:, both two octaves. And for my competition piece I'm going to play Minuet No 3 from Suzuki volume 3. This was my recital piece from December and it's one I like. David said the piece should be one I already know completely. For a competition, he said, you don't want to be learning it up until the last minute. Sibylle, my wife who has taught piano for a quarter century, added that you want it to be something you really like since you'll be playing it, practicing it, living it, and breathing it until the competition.

In the two weeks since I learned of the competition I've regained my memorization of the piece. Now I'm ready to start truly practicing it. My strategy, if you can call it that, is two-fold. First I need to tear the piece apart measure by measure and truly cement my understanding of the piece. Today I can play it by knowing the flow of it. My arms and hands have memorized the sequence of movements necessary to play it, but I don't truly know the piece. When I stumble I can't pick up at that note, or even the next downbeat - I have to return to the start of that section to regain my place.

The act of imagining to play for others drastically alters my ability to play. In setting up to play together last night I managed to spook myself enough that it was hard to start the piece -- stage fright in the comfort of my own home. Last December I discovered that videoing myself made playing tremendously harder. I need to overcome this fright in order to play with confidence. Tearing the piece down into individual measures and really focusing on them until I know them backwards and forwards will go a long way toward eliminating this nervousness. One idea I have for overcoming my nervousness at the though of others watching me is to set up the video camera for every practice (maybe not even turn it on at first). That way over time the presence of watchers will fade.

The second objective is to learn to play with piano accompaniment. Since Sibylle is a pianist and since we have pianos I can practice with accompaniment on a daily basis. Last night was the first time we tried it together and it was a learning experience. When David accompanies me on his cello it is very hard to hear myself. Both instruments have the same tonal range, and I get lost. With a piano it is far easier to hear myself, I can almost ignore the piano or treat it like a sophisticated metronome. Like most beginning music students I tend to be somewhat fluid about rhythm and tempo and this become very apparent when you play with someone else. I'm learning how to hear the extra notes the accompaniment plays during my long notes, and how to tell when it's my turn to play something new.

Hopefully the next two weeks will give me enough time to build my confidence so that the 3rd goes smoothly. Only time will tell.

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Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.