Contest Preparation Tips

Get Real!        On Choosing Your Music        What Do the Judges Want?        Judging Particulars        “Off With Your Head!”        Elements That Can Test Well        Any Time Up to Two Weeks Before        Two Weeks Before the Contest
Contest Day!        Other Considerations


First web publication: July 1, 2004; last updated August 2, 2014.

Note: While this article is geared towards competition, many of the same principles are applicable to performance in general.

Somewhere out there year-round there are autoharp and hammered dulcimer players (and fiddlers, etc.) who are planning and practicing for their respective contests at the Walnut Valley Festival and other contests around the world.  It therefore seems fitting, that a veteran champion shares some strategies and tips to help each contestant remain calm and at the same time play his or her best.  Feel free to read all the way down this page from soup to nuts or click on any of the links above that suit your fancy.

Get Real!

The outcome of a contest always depends on who shows up for the party.  Therefore, keep your expectations low, especially if you are considered a favorite to win.  Someone else can always come along and knock everyone’’s socks off (and often that someone winds up being a total unknown).  But face it, everyone wants a challenging contest, and every contest needs to be a point in time where the state of the art rises a few notches.  Otherwise, why bother?

Sometimes contestants who capture second or third place get to thinking that the next year they’ll surely move up a notch because this year’s winner is out of the running.  (The Winfield contests retire the champion for five years.)  To quote the song: “It ain’t necessarily so.”  If you’’re in this position, understand that there is no hierarchy among contestants from year to year, precisely because again, someone new and really hot can always show up for the party next year.  Often, those who place one year don’’t make it to the final round the next year.  There are too many variables contributing to each contest: who competes, how much a past, non-placing contestant improved since the previous contest, the music played, how each piece is performed/interpreted, one’’s quality of sleep the night before, nerves, the weather, general life circumstances….these things affect everyone so differently that the only outcome a past placer can expect is that winning a music contest is still anyone’’s game. And I mean anyone’’s.  If you consider yourself a “lesser” player, tweak your expectations high enough to realize that your chances could actually be quite good.  All too often, lesser contestants back out of a contest once they get wind that a “good” player, such as a past champion, is in the line-up.  But even with that kind of contestant participating, there are still no guarantees.  When I won the National Hammered Dulcimer Championship in 1997, a past champion reached the final round but didn’t place.  And in 2010, five past champions competed in the Mountain Laurel Autoharp Champion.  Only three made the final round of five, and two placed.  So, balance how you view who enters a contest.

It was hockey player Wayne Gretzsky who once said, ““You miss 100% of the shots you don’’t take.””  Even if you’re an unknown, how do you know you won’’t win?!  If you don’’t compete, you’’ll never find out.  If your playing has made drastic, positive changes recently–—and even if it hasn’t!—–take the shot.  So what if you miss?  There’’s always next year.  Is winning the only reason you’’re competing?  Have the courage of your convictions.  A case in point: As contestant #1 at the 1991 International Autoharp Championship (—ugh!), —I decided I wouldn’t be called for the finals after hearing contestant #4, so I sat back and relaxed.  (It was good to figure this out on my own.)  I enjoyed the music for the rest of the contest and got a better feel for the autoharp’s wide range of performance and interpretation possibilities.  At the end of the festival, when I got a 30-second demo on “pumping felt”, I ran with it on my own and subsequently learned all kinds of neat tunes.  Ten months later, I took 2nd place at the Mountain Laurel Autoharp Championship in Newport PA, the most challenging autoharp contest on the planet!  Not a little shock rippled through the grounds that day.  Anyone, even you, could surprise your peers.  But you have to take the shot for that to happen.

So what if you don’’t win?  Even when I didn’t make the final round, I got some wonderful compliments from people in the audience.  Touching souls is worth something!  And some contestants who didn’t make the final round managed to raise the state of the art for their instruments through some new techniques or an unusual tune.  Plus, remember the afterglow reality: Few people who witness a contest (including other contestants) barely remember who competed; they usually only remember the champion, and not even that much after a while.  So don’’t worry about losing face.  A clean slate comes after each contest almost immediately.  Go ahead and take that shot, then give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back for doing your personal best.

On Choosing Your Music

Play music you love, because your heart will shine through your playing.

You don’t have to prepare new music for a contest.  Consider those pieces you’ve performed before and play well.*  You’’re more likely to be rock solid with them on stage than with something new.  But if you’’re going for new music, be sure to give yourself at least a couple months of prep time; see click here for more.

*Because I thought the judges might recognize me by the pieces I planned to play at the 2003 International Autoharp Championship–—we’’re a small community, after all–—I concealed my identity by playing tunes I’’d performed for years for everyone except autoharpists.

Another tune-choosing tool is to perform pieces you’’re considering before several different audiences and pay attention to each audience’’s response.  If you get a consistent response each time, the judges will likely be engaged similarly.  (But be honest!  One contestant played a tune that folks at the nursing homes loved, but because the pinnacle melody note was not present on the diatonic autoharp’’s tuning, the judges lowered the contestant’’s score on this point.)

Once you choose your music, you must also decide which tunes to play for the preliminary round, and then for the finals if you’’re selected to go on.  (For those who are unaware, the Winfield contests, and many others based on them, require two tunes for the prelims, with another two tunes to be played by five finalists.  From these five, first, second and third place are chosen.)  Consider this: There are many more people in the prelims, so it’’s important to play something that will engage the judges’ ears—–in positive ways, of course.  You might want to play your strongest pieces here, and then back off a little in the finals.  On the other hand, that strategy could backfire depending on the complexities of music played by the other contestants.  (What did I say earlier about variables?)

When you pair up your tunes, create contrast between them, such as each piece being in a different key, or with different tempos if they’’re in the same key.  Treat them as a set that together demonstrate the sum total of your skills and ability.  Don’’t put all the same techniques in both tunes, or play two reels or two waltzes or two of anything the same.  Sameness is one of the single biggest mistakes contestants consistently make.  Distributing what you do best over both tunes will keep the ears of everyone, including the judges’, fresh and attentive.

Of the two tunes chosen for each round, which should you play first?  (This question is less applicable to fiddlers, who must play a hoedown, waltz and tune of choice, in that order.)  On this point, you might be able to flex.  Let’s say you’ve decided your first piece will be a driving reel, to be followed by a melodic waltz.  But, the contestant just before you played a driving reel for his/her second piece.  Would it behoove you to play the waltz first?  Maybe, so consider well in advance if the reverse order also works.  The contrast may help refresh the judges’’ ears, but if for any reason switching your order feels uncomfortable, stick to the order you’’ve chosen.

Should you prepare only four tunes?  Five or six would be safer.  Reasons:

  • If there’s a tie, you’’ll have to play one more tune to break it.
  • If someone else plays one of the tunes you’ve (it’’s happened), and you deem his/her version to be more breath-taking than yours, you can comfortably switch to another tune at the last minute.  However, note that different contestants sometimes choose and play the same tune.  However, it is certainly acceptable to repeat a tune that was played by someone else, especially if you are confident about your arrangement.

Whatever you do, don’’t choose only two tunes because you believe you won’’t make it to the final round.  Many a two-tune contestant has been caught off-guard when called back to the final round.  As long as you’’re taking that shot, be prepared for “the entire shootin’’ match.”

What Do the Judges Want?

This question comes up amongst contestants more times than I can count.  Mostly, the answer contestants come up with is to play the tune or technique played by previous champions.  (“”This year’’s winner patted the autoharp’s strings; I’’ll do that next year.””  ““This year’s winner played ‘’Alabama Jubilee’,’ so next year I’’ll play a tune that sounds like that.””  “”This player included some color chords, so I’’ll incorporate some.””)   In truth, the judges simply want contestants to talk to them through their instruments.  So, to a certain extent, tunes and techniques don’’t matter.  What does matter is that the tunes sing from your heart through your instrument (not all do; I dunno about “”Melancholy Baby””) and that any special licks you apply fit each moment (many do no’t).  So, don’’t follow the leadER.  Instead, trail-blaze with the intention of raising the state of the art for your instrument.

Judging Particulars

You’ve probably seen the judging criteria already, however it reads. Just to be sure, take a look at how the 100 points for the Walnut Valley Festival divvy up for each tune:

40 points    Arrangement: Contestant’s version of the tune selected.  Is it appropriate to the tune and instrument?  Difficulty and originality will be considered.

40 points    Execution/Tuning: Fingering, picking and dynamics will be considered.  Is the instrument in tune?

10 points    Show Value: The music should be played with life and feeling.  It should not appear listless, nor should it drag.

10 points    Overall Impression.

You can try to follow all of these “rules” to the letter, but why not play above them instead?  For example, while 40 points go to arrangement, the parameters described for those points are a bit cerebral.  Forget all of that and focus on what “arrangement” means.  What you come up with may just resemble something quite different.  Whatever it means to you, respond to that in your playing, and you’’ll automatically include the gist of those 40 points plus so much more, like musicality.  Isn’t that what a contest is supposed to reflect?  (If you are still looking for some kind of magic “formula”, this Juilliard commencement speech might be a worthwhile read, once you get past some non-eloquent “patter” at the front end.)

I can’’t and won’’t speak for how judges do their business.  If I were in their position, I wouldn’t consider a couple of “wrong notes” to be major infractions (you’’d really have to break down for your score to fall), but some judges may in fact lower scores for minuscule errors.  (Maybe that’’s because the contestants give them nothing but mechanics to judge?!  Think about “”arrangement”” a little more.)  Conversely, if flawless playing sounds lackluster, I wouldn’t give it high marks, but other judges might.  Make your goal musicality and “storytelling” through each tune, and you’ll increase your chances of doing well across the board.  And the more you can play with a tune, through melodic/harmonic variations and the like (in ways that make sense to each moment, of course), your score is likely to rise even higher.

Is there any credence to the thought that the judges may not like the tunes you play?  I think not.  The judges need to be willing to listen to anything.  It’’s how the tunes are presented that contributes to each tune’’s ultimate score.  While you’’ll never know how you scored, or how close you came to being a finalist or even Champion, the next section will shed some light on how to evaluate your playing to improve your chances.

Off with Your Head!

Avoid anything that puts a question mark in a judge’’s mind, such as a lick you’ve conjured up intentionally but which to a judge may sound like a mistake.  The list can include:

  • Ungrounded rhythm.  syncopation (not the dotted rhythm) is a dead give-away for a rhythm that loses the tune’’s underlying pulse.  If this or other rhythms come up early on and sound rickety, “off with your head!”
  • Playing a tune incorrectly on purpose.  This point goes well beyond “folk process.”  If you play a familiar jig with a third of its notes missing, is that really folk process, or are you instead telling a judge you can’t play all the notes in the tune?  Don’t give a judge an excuse to assume the latter case and say “off with your head!””  To this end, don’’t assume that the judges won’’t know the tune you’’re playing.  At least one of them will, and all of them will listen for structure, anyway.  Don’t even try to bluff.
  • Another tune-altering scenario is to turn a jig into a reel, or a reel into a waltz, or playing a major-key tune as minor or vice versa.  Personally, my ear never jibes with these tactics.  Yes, they are different spins on tunes, but they pull the tune too far out of shape from the original and so tend to undermine scores rather than help them.
  • Playing a tune without a precise pulse.  The occasional ritard works when placed well, of course, but I’’m talking about playing with enough of a non-descript tempo all the way that it sounds like an amorphous blob.  The judges may interpret this as lack of precision, no matter how precisely you’’ve practiced this kind of poetic license.  Imprecision is a grey area, so I recommend establishing a firm pulse somewhere in the piece on which free-ness of pulse can then lean.
  • For tunes by known composers, you better get the notes right at the onset!  On the other hand, the harmony may be out of whack in spots for the sake of getting a particular melody note (very true in autoharping circles; —I’’m still waiting to hear an autoharpist play the correct chord in m. 19 of the chorus to “”Over the Rainbow””).  Related to this point is:
  • Dressing up a tune beyond recognition.  One hammered dulcimer contestant was inevitably docked for playing a well-known tune whose first two phrases of melody (occurring about three times) never got a chance to emerge through all the added fluff.  In another instance, I couldn’t find the melody within a very note-y rendition of a tune until the last four bars of the piece.  (By then it was too late to discern what the tune was.)  So, make sure it’’s clear to the judges what and where the tune is, whether the tune is familiar or not.  The best way to accomplish this is to play the tune unadorned (save for normal harmony) the first time through.  After this, getting fancy makes a lot of sense.
    Along these lines, know that if you’’re dealing with an instrument whose hallmark is sustained sound, when it’s out of control, it can also bury a tune.
  • Playing the tune at other than its intended tempo.  A quick tune, especially a familiar one, that’s played slowly may be a death sentence.  (I have one fast tune that I play slowly intentionally.  I wouldn’t use it as a contest piece, because there’’s no way to announce this intention.  If one of the judges knows the tune and knows it to go faster, it could mean a significant loss in points because a very good player may sound more like a beginner.)  If you know a tune is supposed to go faster, and don’’t comply eventually, you might be better off choosing a tune whose tempo you can manage.  Remember: Don’’t think the judges won’’t catch on to tempo because you believe they won’’t know the tune.  They know more than you think.  But now the exception: You can always use tempo as an arrangement strategy.  My rendition of the fiddle tune “”Rickett’s Hornpipe,”” played in the 1995 International Autoharp Championship, starts slowly and lyrically as a kind of introduction, after which I immediately rev it up and stay at the normal tempo the rest of the time, with variations to boot.
    Conversely, a fiddle tune that’s played far faster than dance tempo can be perceived as a blur of sound by everyone, judges included, rather than your best attempt to impress with dazzling technique.  (Listening to the National Banjo Championship one year caused me to assume that most of the contestants believed faster is better.  Not necessarily.)  Record your playing and try to listen to the recording with a judge’’s ear in regards to tempo.  If the notes are indiscernible at lightning speed, you can slow your tempo a bit to improve the tune’’s impact, and your score.
  • Are you playing a tune at all?!  Hammered dulcimer contestants continually fall into the trap of composing something original when they’ve never composed before.  (This, I believe, is due to their interpretation of the statement in the WVA rules for the dulcimer contest only: “”Originality is encouraged.””)  The resulting quasi-new-age music heard in this contest is long, overly repetitive (one contestant played the same melodic motif eleven times—–really!), limited in melodic scope, and, when you zero in to really analyze it, sounds more like accompaniment than a tuneful melody.  My advice: If you don’’t compose, stay out of the composing business.  Arranging existing tunes is more than enough on one’s plate.  There are plenty of good tunes out there to choose from, with which much can be done in the arrangement camp.
  • Playing the tune over and over without variation.  It isn’’t enough to play the tune over and over again cleanly.  Variation tells a judge what’s in your head as well as your hands.  Key changes as a variation ploy tend not to translate as variation, regardless of the instrument, or how difficult it may be to do.  (Exception: If the key change makes sense, just like another technique, it’’s great.)
    And just what is variation?  Many times it seems that contestants think they have to replace a “normal” version of a tune with something fancier.  The result is that the piece starts with the second or third time through the tune, instead of the first.  Think carefully about the progression of events in the tune as you arrange it so that your story line makes sense.  Remember: It’’s okay to think outside the box.  Just make sure that the judges know where the box is!
  • Making up variations on the spot.  The judges have no way of knowing whether you’ve planned or not planned your arrangements in advance,* how your pieces are coming out as they hear them.  No one gets extra points for on-the-spot creativity, so it’’s senseless not to prepare, and dangerous should you lose your footing, which is easy to do when you don’t know how the final product is going to turn out.  I know contestants who do this, and if they get anywhere with it, it takes them years to win the prize.  Don’t frustrate yourself with this tactic.
    *By ““in advance,”” I mean at least one month’’s time.   I was aghast to learn that one contestant decides a few days ahead of a contest what to play and how, and that planning “so far ahead just [wasn’t this person’s] style.”  Note that this last-minute “plan” isn’t arranging; it’’s improvising, which is subject to the same degree of faltering that no contestant need entertain.  If you mean business by competing, the music you play needs to mean business, too.  Every sound needs to count!  Map out ahead of time how you’re going to render a tune.  (Keep reading for how-to.)
  • Pieces that are too long or too short.  As I mentioned a few points ago, self-composed pieces traditionally go on forever, putting the judges to sleep.  Conversely, a piece that’’s too short may not give the judges enough material to go by.
    There is a statement in the Walnut Valley rules stipulating a maximum playing time of five minutes for all contests except fiddle.  That’’s a sticky spot in my mind, given that “”hit length”” back in the 1960s was three minutes.  But the reason for stating a time limit is simple: Some contestants will play single pieces lasting up to eight minutes (which, as one judge pointed out, also increases the ’margin of error).  If enough contestants go that route, they collectively risk throwing off the festival’’s performance schedule, aside from boring the judges to tears.  Many of the pieces in my personal repertoire hover around three minutes, and they say quite a bit in that amount of time.  While no one is going to drag you offstage with a hook if you go even a little over the five-minute mark, the advice here is simple: Don’’t wear out your welcome, and always leave ’’em wanting more.  (By the way, the average length of each piece way back in the 2006 Fingerpicked Guitar Championship at the Walnut Valley Festival was 8 1/2 minutes.  Ironically, the winner’’s pieces lasted three minutes apiece.  What was that about hit length?)
  • Playing without expression.  One volume all the way through risks wearing on the ear and soul, despite your best variations.
  • Playing a “war horse.”  Ah, this one raises question marks: Dare you play ““Golden Slippers”,” ““Wildwood Flower””, ““Soldier’’s Joy”” or some other ““overdone”” tune?  Unfortunately, judges may look askance initially at such choices, but they a’re still obliged to listen to your playing and consider the arrangement value applied to each tune.  Note that I say arrangement value.  Because there is too much doubt about war horses, you might want to avoid the well-played tunes (guitarists: it seems time to retire “The Flintstones” theme music).  This does not, however, mean that you shouldn’’t play a “common” tune.  One of my winning tunes in the final round of the 1997 National Hammered Dulcimer Championship was Fisher’s Hornpipe, which I almost didn’t play after a passer-by labeled it as “common.”
  • Playing in a way that just plain sounds annoying!  If your instrument buzzes, the piece repeats the same brief melodic or harmonic motif ad nauseum, your playing sounds like you’’re beating your instrument to death, that original composition never wants to end because you’’re making it up as you go, or your dazzling techniques refuse to let the music breathe, etc., well,….off with your head!

Elements That Can Test Well

  • State the tune as normally as possible before developing it further.  Even if you’’re sure everyone knows “”O Susanna,”” don’t be tempted to charge into your best licks or variations right away.  Consider playing it first the way everyone knows it.  (There just might be someone out there who’’s never heard the tune before.)  You’’ll set the audience up to expect something the next time around—–and you had better deliver!  HOWEVER,….
    The flip side of this thought is to have the normal tune somewhere in your arrangement.  In my autoharp arrangement of “”Were You There?,”” the first verse harmonizes the tune with dissonant chords (a hallmark of the ultratonic autoharp), and then the second verse gives way to the normal chords the listener expects.  Note that such exceptions can be two-edged swords in the arrangement camp.  You have to know ahead of time that they’’ll work, so do some ““out-of-body” listening” to see if you can determine audience/judge response, then give those tunes a performance workout in the ears of a couple other audiences before presenting your efforts to the judges.
    As a judge at one contest, I was thrilled when a couple contestants got me eating out of their hands right from the beginning of their pieces.  The way they started out made me ask myself during their first time through the tune, “”What’’s next?””  (And if they hadn’t delivered what I thought they would after setting me up, I would have been sorely disappointed.)  Both contestants let the tune run the second time around, and I loved being “had.”  And in the case of the contestant with too many notes: All those notes would have worked the second or even third time through the tune had that player stated the tune plainly from the start and then developed it.
  • Play the piece at its intended tempo.  Not too slow, and certainly not too fast.
  • A solid melody with equally solid harmony.  Does every extra note and every alternate chord mean something?  Choosing other than an optimum chord actually makes a tune “sink,” so any harmony you inject is worth thinking through carefully.
  • Melodic and harmonic exploration.  Playing a tune straight may get you accuracy but—–ho hummmm….  There’’s something to be said for venturing outside the box; again, this tells a judge what’’s inside your head beyond all the technical know-how.  But whatever you do, it’’s got to make sense at that moment.
  • Let the instrument do what it knows how to do naturally.  Stringed instruments want to ring (this is true for fiddles, banjos and mandolins, and especially for hammered dulcimers and autoharps).  Do you know what “natural” sounds like for your particular instrument?  Too often, players fill up the spaces between notes, detracting from the aura and “breathing” in the sound.  Show the judges that you understand your instrument, too, beyond all the fancy techniques.

Any Time Up to Two Weeks Before the Contest

  • Choose your music.  The sooner you choose ahead of the contest, the larger the window you have to try out new music and consider (and rework, if you need to) existing gems on your tune list.
    Having stated this first point, I must admit that I didn’t pay attention to it for the 1995 and 2010 Mountain Laurel Autoharp Championships.  In 1995, sitting in the doldrums of widowhood, I asked myself four days before the contest: “If I compete, what will I play?”  Fortunately, I had plenty of repertoire to choose from at the drop of a hat.  And in 2010, with even more repertoire under my belt, I initially thought I wouldn’t be able to compete due to unforeseen circumstances at home, so when those circumstances disappeared, I had to think mighty fast about what to play and then practice as much as I could before devoting my attention to driving 1600+ miles to the contest.  So, it is possible to sustain last-minute decisions on tunes if you are well-practiced, anyway, and have a lot of meaty repertoire from which to choose.
  • Process your arrangements.  Nail down all the melody notes, harmony/chords, phrasing, variations, etc.  Explore and find what makes sense to each tune.  Specialty licks need to fit the moment; if you do them just to do them, that’’s exactly how they’’ll sound.
  • Keep your ear alive.  Remember, while it’’s easy to play through each piece 100 times in the six weeks before the contest, at the contest itself the judges hear it only once.  Make sure the melody sings loud and clear, especially if you’’re playing a tune you believe the judges won’’t know.  (Again, it doesn’t matter whether the judges know the tune or not, but it sure does if they can’’t find it while you’’re playing it.)
    A tune that lacks clarity may be due to clunky fingering/hammering technique, which no amount of practice will improve.  This may raise your anxiety level because it was never completely secure from the beginning.  With guidance from a knowledgeable teacher/coach, these techniques can be revised and smoothed so that you can nail the tricky places with ease and clarity, which in turn will help your playing stand out in the judges’ ears.
  • Ban the foot!  There is nothing more distracting than a foot stomping the beat behind each tune you play, something you certainly don’t want coming through the mikes to the judges’ booth.  Cancel the foot from your practice sessions by internalizing the beat in your body.  Some wonderfully sensitive pieces have been marred by foot tapping, and at least one contestant may have missed the final round due to this.  When you eliminate the foot, all of your musical energy will channel through your instrument, where you want it to be.
  • If you can stand it, check your tempo against a metronome.  As much as even I would rather not use a metronome, it has much to say about where a tune speeds up and slows down, and so I rely on it.  Set it to sound four clicks per bar, not two; this will help you stay with it readily.  I have also found it helpful to  sing the melody of an arrangement to the metronome without playing my instrument.
  • Planning on an accompanist?  Get one now; don’’t wait until you get to the contest site to find one.  Then, rehearse with this person at least one month before the contest.  Make adjustments at this rehearsal, because you won’’t have the wherewithal to entertain last-minute changes on the day of the contest (more about this in the next section).  Also, tell your accompanist that you will not entertain any last-minute “suggestions” once at the contest site.  It’’s your performance, not the accompanist’’s (the judges can’’t hear the accompanist, anyway).
    You don’’t have to have an accompanist, by the way.  I’ve always played without one (it’’s one less person to screw things up).  Any back-up you have is strictly for the audience’’s benefit.  If your pulse is routinely solid, consider playing alone.
  • Maintain your perspective.  Play some other tunes in your practice sessions, too, just for fun!  Focusing on only 4-6 tunes for weeks is heavy duty enough to put you into overkill.  (If you lose a tune in your head or hands, back off on practicing it a lot.)  Playing some other music will refresh your fingers, ear and mind.
  • Claim the space you are playing in.  While you practice, play according to the size of the room where the contest will be held, rather than the size of the room where you are practicing.  (This can do marvelous things for overcoming performance anxiety and building confidence.)  If you don’’t know the physical attributes of the room where the contest will be held, just think big.  Remember, there will be an audience to play for, too, beyond the judges (thankfully!), so be sure you claim them as well.

Two Weeks Before the Contest

  • No more arrangement changes.  All you do now is clarify the playing of the pieces you’ve chosen.  Don’t change notes, chords or fingering now because they won’’t stick.  (Trust me; I’ve tried and failed on this point.)  If you have an accompanist, don’’t let this person badger you about changes, either.  At this point, it is what it is.
  • Rehearse your tunes in “contest mode.”  There is no need now for the long, intense, repetitive practice sessions done in previous weeks.  It’’s time to scale back (no pun intended) and enjoy the music: Warm up your fingers adequately first,* then play each tune only once, just as you will in the contest.  Let errors happen right now; you want to simulate the contest experience where second chances are not available.  Once you’ve played all four tunes, then go back over those parts that came out less than up to snuff.  Overall, each contest-mode session should take no more than 30 minutes.  If you’ve been diligent with practice in earlier weeks, you won’’t need more time by which to over-practice.
    *When I reverted to contest mode while preparing for the 2003 International Autoharp Championship, I found that my fingers needed a significant warm-up in order for the first piece to flow easily at its quick tempo.  My resulting warm-up exercise can be found in my “column, “The Diatonic Corner”” in the summer 2004 issue of Autoharp Quarterly.
  • Visualize yourself playing each tune.  Visualizing is great to do on airline flights when there i’s no way to physically practice on your instrument.  Practice in your mind, hearing each piece and “watching yourself play” (without moving your fingers or arms).  When you can’’t see your way through a certain area, that’’s a spot to physically play when you next get the chance.  “Play” the rough spot in your mind at least once more, and if you still can’’t see it, you’’ll have to play the tune to see what to do.
  • Continue to maintain your perspective.  Are you still playing other tunes for fun?

Contest Day

(I hope you got a good night’’s sleep!  Did you have a mug of warm milk the night before?)

  • Give every piece one (and only one) run-through several hours before the contest (with your accompanist, if you have one).  If it’’s an early morning contest, play them all once the night before.  The point here is not to obsess: You don’’t practice up to the last minute for a concert performance, so why should you now?  Visualization continues now as a good warm-up tool.  If you’’ve been diligent all along, there is no need to play your tunes to death on contest day.  You should know your music by now!
  • After the performance order of all contestants is determined, warm up in whatever way you established in the weeks before the contest.  T-a-k-e   y-o-u-r   t-i-m-e.  Think about breathing while you warm up.
  • Give your attention just to the prelim pieces.  That’’s enough for the moment.  Visualize just these two pieces as suggested in the previous section.  Instead of playing the pieces right before the contest, play similar tunes capable of giving you a warm-up in that style of playing.  Again, don’’t obsess.
  • If you make it to the final round, repeat the above for the last two tunes.

Other considerations

  • I always get really nervous once I turn in my registration fee, so I register close to the last minute in the interest of staying calm for as long as possible.  However, at the Walnut Valley Festival, numbers for performance order are now drawn by order of registration, instead of all at once.  Consider when you want to draw, if that’’s important to you.  (I am always happy when someone else draws #1.  Keep reading.)
  • The weather: The “”green room”” for contestants at the Walnut Valley Festival is a tent roof outside the contest building.  If temps are cold (and it can get down into the 50s in September), you have more than challenges with tuning to deal with; you also have to keep your hands warm so your fingers stay limber.  To help with warmth, purchase a pair of craft gloves at a fabric or yarn shop (they’’re thin and fingerless).  This way your palms can stay warm and extend the heat to your fingers.  It’’s your call whether you leave them on or not onstage.  (By the way, these gloves are great when jamming in cooler nighttime temps, too.)
  • Keeping your finger picks on when sweaty or cold: The best insurance towards keeping them on is to be sure the bands do not overlap on the backs of your fingers; the resulting space from overlap invites picks to fall off.  If your picks are too big, invest in mini-sized finger picks, and if those still overlap (as is my fate), file down both ends at the same time with two sides of a narrow triangular file.
  • Keep breathing!  And do you feel your feet on the floor?  Avoid that feeling of levitation; you need to feel grounded now.
  • If playing in front of people makes you nervous, when you go on stage, look at everyone’’s noses.  Now there’’s something to laugh about!
  • Your hands are sweaty because of the heat?  So are everyone else’’s.  (Bring along some baby powder.)  Your instrument is slightly out of tune because of the humidity?  Everyone else’’s instrument is affected, too.  Hopefully the judges will cut a little slack here (although an obviously out-of-tune instrument won’’t get you too far).  Get the tuning as close as you can to fabulous, but again, don’’t obsess.
  • Microphone placement: Assuming that the sound check was done to accommodate every contestant’’s playing, the MC will place the mike where he or she believes it will be best for you.*  If you plan to stand when performing, find your spot on the stage floor and stay there.  Moving closer or further away may compromise what the judges hear.
    *There are always differences in instruments and how each contestant pulls sound from it.   You can certainly test how hot the mike is (or is not) before playing your pieces by sounding a couple of chords or a few notes before your number or name is announced by the MC.  If the sound is bouncing off the walls, it may be wise to gesture to the MC to adjust the mike a little further away so that you can play with the same technical weight that you’’ve practiced all along.  One year in the National Hammered Dulcimer Championship, I discovered too late (well into my first prelim piece) that the sound in the hall was almost deafening (the sound check had been performed by someone who was way too light-handed on the hammers, so the sound man turned the mike volume way up); during the performance is not the time to adjust playing touch!  I didn’’t make the final round that year, and imagine that the reason why was because I came across as a “banger,” due to a poorly done sound check.
  • Remember that when you are onstage performing, the stage is yours. Don’t take the rest of the contestants up there with you, because you’ve got an eager audience to play for.  Again, claim the space in every way.  And in the long run, remember that you a’re really competing with yourself.  The judges score on individual merit, not by comparison.  (Once your tunes are scored, the score sheets are turned in to an auditor for tabulating, so there i’s no chance of the judges comparing one contestant’’s scores to another, or comparing the scores of any one contestant amongst themselves.  It’’s the numbers they come up with individually that determine the outcome.)  So forget that there are any other contestants around, or that the judges are somehow conspiring together.  (They’’re not.)  Smile, have fun, and push that envelope!
  • If you’’re the first to compete, know that plenty of #1s, myself included (that was my number more times than I care to count), have made it to the final round.  Fear not: the judges are listening, regardless of where you wind up in the line-up.
  • To reduce brain fog, chow down half of an energy bar about ten minutes before you go on stage.  If you make the finals, eat the other half!  (Have some water handy, too.)

Good skill to you, wherever you choose to demonstrate your talents!

Copyright ©2004, 2005, 2006, 2010 Lucille Reilly. All rights reserved.  No part of this article may be reproduced for distribution in any format without obtaining prior permission.  Interested parties, however, are more than welcome to link this page to their web sites.  If you create a link, let me know.  I always love to know how people find this page. –LR

This article is available in a workshop format to address the listening and performance-anxiety aspects of competition and performance.  To have it, and a host of other workshops presented to your dulcimer/music club, music festival or summer-school class, contact Lucille.

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