Competitions provide excellent opportunities for students to perform, get feedback and even win something! There are competitions for every level of musician from beginning to professional. The prizes can be a scholarship to study or a performance with a major orchestra or cold hard cash. If you are serious about being a performer, competitions can be an excellent way to get your name out there. Choosing repertoire for competitions is a skill that you need to know because it is that repertoire that is going to make you stand out….or not.
Competitions are different than juries or exams
If you are enrolled in a particular curriculum like the Royal Conservatory or if you are a college music student, you are used to exams or juries. Faculty members or other teachers sit and listen to you perform a requisite number of pieces that fulfill particular requirements. You may have to perform technical exercises and some sight reading in addition to repertoire. The purpose of a jury or exam is to assess your progress in your study and the level of your performance and skill. At the end of it you get a grade, feedback and possibly an achievement certificate for completing the jury successfully. You are not competing against anyone other than yourself and therefore your assessment is not determined by how you compare to other performers.
Competitions, on the other hand, have an end goal which includes some kind of reward given to the “best” or most “appropriate” performer. You generally don’t have to demonstrate technical skill through exercises but instead perform a certain number of pieces for a panel of professionals (mostly) who then compare your performance to the performances of the other musicians competing. A winner is chosen from the performer who stands out the most (and fits the criteria that the competition rules have determined).
Choose repertoire to “stand out”
When you choose repertoire for a jury or exam, you choose music that shows your technical and musical skill that you do well – heck, that you do “great” hopefully! While the same is true for competitions, in competitions you want to stand out. You want to be noticed. You want the judges to remember you. That means you want to choose repertoire that will make an immediate impact. That can of course mean several things.
- Show off your virtuosic skill – choosing a piece that is technically difficult that shows off your virtuosic skill will make an impact if you do it well. Pieces with lots of fast melismatic passages or difficult leaps or other musical pyrotechnics apply here. But again, I must emphasize that you must be able to perform your piece well. Do not include a piece that is technically beyond your ability just because you think it will be impressive.
- Show off your exquisite musicianship – you don’t have to always play the fastest, loudest, highest piece you have in order to make an impact. If you give a moving, sensitive, heartfelt performance of an achingly beautiful slow and quiet piece, you will get noticed. But your performance has to “say something” and “mean something”. If your vulnerability is exposed in the performance, your judges will be moved and that will be remembered.
- Choose repertoire off the beaten path – if you have a rare work that shows off your virtuosic skill and exquisite musicianship, a competition is a great place to pull it out. The judges will be sitting there for hours and hours listening to a great deal of standard repertoire – possibly the same piece over and over. If you come in and play an impressive piece of music that they are not familiar with or have not heard in a long time and you do it well, you will stand out.
A side note for young artist singers regarding repertoire
As a side note, I want to address choosing repertoire for competitions versus auditions for young artist programs or opera companies. When you are auditioning for programs or companies, they want to see that you sing well, give an impactful performance by creating a believable and moving character and that you fit their particular needs. Yes, you want to impress and stand out but you want to show them that they can use you. This means that your opera audition is not necessarily the place you want to pull out really rare repertoire. If the people listening to you have never heard a piece before, they may pay more attention to the piece than to your performance of it. And they may also not be creative enough to figure out how your talents would fit their needs. That doesn’t mean that you should never offer a rare piece. If you’ve got one incredible aria that nobody else sings and you do it great, put it on your list but don’t start with it. If the adjudicators love what you did with your first piece, they might be inspired to hear a second and be intrigued enough to pick this rare work. But stick to standard repertoire for the most part in these auditions, just make sure you sing and perform them better than anyone else!
A last word about competitions
The fact of the matter is that talent and excellent performances don’t always win out in competitions. You can pick the most impressive repertoire, perform it spectacularly and you won’t even place in the finals. Sometimes the judges are given specific instructions about who the competition wishes to feature – a particular age range, a particular instrument, etc. Sometimes the judges are not professionals in the field but instead administrators of the competition and their tastes may differ from a proficient artist. Sometimes a judge will not have eaten breakfast and their stomach is growling so much during your life-altering performance that they can’t pay attention. You never know. But competitions are still an excellent venue to get you out there, give you a performance opportunity, get feedback, network, hear other musicians, learn new repertoire, and more. So how about signing up for one?
Let us know your competition successes (or horror stories!) below in the comments!