Welcome to another Flute Friday/Saturday!
Every year during this time, high school and college-aged flutists return to various school ensembles to face the dreaded annual ensemble auditions. We all want to be first chair or the Piccolo Princes/Princesses of our bands and orchestras but often find ourselves in a rat race just to play 2nd flute (which can sometimes be more challenging than playing principal, might I add, but I will save that rant for a future blog). Competition can be fierce as our colleagues strategically select pieces and excerpts that will make them appear to be the strongest player on the roster. The pressure is on! Facing competition head on comes with the territory for most musicians and, like athletes, there are healthy and unhealthy approaches that will either enhance or weaken your position as a competitor. The bottom line is that the old cliché, “You are only truly competing against yourself,” still rings true, regardless of the contest scenario. Today’s blog is devoted to competition in all forms and ways that you may face the pressure cooker without necessarily succumbing to the pressure.
As I was watching the Olympics last week, I was fascinated by the different ways athletes from all over the world retain their composure under the glare of cameras and scrutinizing gazes from teammates, coaches and competitors. A perfect example of two very different ways to handle high pressure competition are from Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt. The meme seen across the world, Michael Phelps’ overly competitive death glare, as seen below, sent shivers of familiarity down spines of musicians far and wide from the Ghost of Competitions Past.
Who hasn’t seen this glare from a close competitor or given this look themselves when so-and-so-flutist beat us out of an opportunity to play principal flute on a Beethoven symphony or was selected as the winner of a concerto competition that we placed a close second? What comes out of this angry effort? A psyche out for competitors? A ‘well deserved’ gold metal? What is gained professionally by using negativity to win competitions? Did we celebrate the victory of Michael Phelps in the same way we celebrated Usain Bolt? If Michael Phelps represented what not to do, Usain Bolt, by comparison represented the other side of that spectrum. In one of his final solo sprints, Usain Bolt shared a smile with his competitor from Canada as he crossed the finish line, finishing a close second ahead of the Canadian runner. Upon conclusion of the race, Bolt embraced his competitor and gracefully shared the spotlight. Usain Bolt thanked his fans and supporters with smiles and handshakes. He approached the track as a place to compete against himself and his own running time, not as a battleground to destroy his competitors.
This is the way that we need to approach the stage. Perform at the edge of your ability. Showcase pieces that you love and play your heart out regardless of who is sitting on the other side of the room. Learn from your mistakes. If you are given second place or second part, ask yourself what you could have done better. Spend some quality time on fundamentals and examine how you interact with your colleagues. Learn from your competitors rather than scheme against them. What do you find inspiring about their playing? How can you incorporate elements that you like from their playing style into your own? Collaborate with them! Practice orchestral parts with your colleagues and pay attention to the difference between your approaches. What can you learn from each other? Is your Achilles heel simply your attitude rather than your playing? Keep in mind that an audition is essentially an interview. Put your best foot forward regardless of who is auditioning in the queue before or after you.
Another healthy way to approach any audition is to focus on the outcome. What types of pieces would you like to play and which parts would you like to be given if you could select the outcome of your audition? I realized in graduate school that the more I performed piccolo excerpts in the high/loud range (you know the ones I’m talking about! Rossini, Tchaikovsky, Lt. Kije, etc.), the more I was programed to play piccolo on the same type of pieces (Barber symphonies, etc.). In contrast, when I performed more lyrical works in flute auditions, I was often programed on lyrical pieces or given longer, melodic solos. With this in mind, select audition material that highlights your strengths but also somehow represents the types of pieces you would like to be featured on if selected for the ensemble.
Finally, a word about rotational seating. Many ensemble conductors far and wide have opted for a rotational seating model in their groups to give all of their strongest players an opportunity to perform principal parts (and alleviate the heavy lifting that sometimes occurs when a single performer is given all of the solos). The concept is a good one with many strong benefits, but it is a bit transparent to most players. There is always a show-stopper piece on each program that seems to go to one particular performer. I have made the mistake in the past of pouting in jealousy when I was not offered that part and instead took the principal parts I was given for granted. Learn from every part that crosses your music stand. Identify why you were given the part you were given. Is there a particular strength that your part showcases? Emphasize this during rehearsals and performances. Listen to the stronger players and identify their strengths. Again, identify what you find inspiring about their playing and incorporate that into your own. Help out the weaker players as well. Everybody can learn from everybody. Work as a team in any ensemble you play in and strengthen your playing both individually and collectively as a section.
Lastly , support your colleagues when they make a mistake rather than snicker. Snickering just invites in bad karma! When I was in the 8th grade, I was given an opportunity by my middle school band director to advance into the high school symphonic band. Unfortunately, this group was extremely competitive and did not like that a lowly middle schooler was encroaching on their turf. I often wished to return to my 8th grade band, but instead tried to learn what I could from the high school players surrounding me, whom were all amazing musicians. They snickered when the principal players made mistakes and even snickered when I made mistakes. I chose to rise above and use the experience to better my playing and strengthen my nerve. I began winning competitions and surpassing those snickering at my mistakes at regional and state competitions. The point of this story is that as I found ways to shrug off the haters and concentrate solely on strengthening my playing and overall approach to performing rather than sink into a petty, competitive, pointless abyss, I was transformed into a better musician. Follow this example and use competitions not as measures of your true ability but as opportunities to strengthen yourself as a performer.
How do you approach competitions? Do you find yourself developing arch enemies or working together with your colleagues? Do you have a story from your past in which a competition changed you as a musician. Please comment below!