How I Choose Tunes for a Contest

Recently and in one week’s time, two autoharpists asked me how I choose tunes for a contest.  (There must be some contest karma going on out there.)  Here are some things I look for:

Tune quality

I look for a melody that sings on the instrument, both melodically and harmonically. While many tunes are playable, some sing better than others.  When my heart sings, too, I know the tune is worthy of arranging!  Note: A chorded tune on the autoharp is nothing more than a chorded tune.  Thoughtful arranging transforms that tune into a story.  Take a look at this post about one of the tunes I prepared for the 2015 Mountain Laurel Autoharp Championship.

If you read music reasonably well, you are free to venture outside of the “usual” tunes some contestants can only choose by ear.  It’s never too late to begin cultivating music-reading skills, and the more you keep doing it, the more comfortable you will be with it.

Difficulty level of the music played

A tune needs to at least sound complicated, even if you find it easy to play.  If you’ve been playing for 20 years, play music that reflects this amount of experience.  A tune that suggests a beginning player to the judges, no matter how well it’s played, won’t score high points.  The judges will certainly listen to you (they have to), but your ability to impress them as champion material will be marginal.

Along these lines, you also don’t want to remove a lot of notes from, say, a difficult fiddle tune to make it technically palatable for you.  A judge who recognizes the tune (who sometimes has been me) will deliver low marks.  Either take the time develop your fingering skills so that you can play all the notes, or find another tune.

Fast vs. slow music

Many contestants lean towards fast tunes, thinking that speed suggests difficulty.  However, I find that slow tunes are more tricky to phrase well, so don’t turn away that lilting waltz you love, especially one that sings well on the autoharp, from your contest picks.  In fact, pairing a slow tune with a fast tune in a contest round does a better job of displaying all of your capabilities.

“Crooked” tunes

By “crooked,” I mean tunes whose meter is uneven by the presence of an intended, extra beat in a measure.  If you are reasonably sure the judges won’t know the tune, that extra beat may be perceived as a mistake, resulting in a lower score.  As some extra-beat situations sound and feel fine to me, you’ll need to listen very carefully to how comfortable the jog makes you feel.

Recycled tunes

I can’t say that my playing style is necessarily recognizable to the judges (who live and jam within the instrument community), but one of my personal goals, anyway, has been to ensure that they don’t know who I am to ensure a fair, blind judging process by which everyone can be content after the champion is announced.

While it’s true that contestants who don’t aspire to win may recycle tunes year after year simply for the experience of playing on a contest stage (never mind winning), a viable contender does well not to approach a contest this same way, for two reasons:

  1. The judges (again, who live and jam among us) have a harder time judging fairly when a viable contender becomes recognized by his/her repertoire.  I as a judge become visibly dismayed and saddened when I know who is playing.  I would rather be in the dark about who’s behind the instrument in order to judge the music–and only the music–fairly.  I don’t want to also entertain whether I know and like the contestant.  Or not.
  2. A viable contender who repeats tunes year after year can create ill will among the other contestants, especially other viable contenders who work hard to ensure their own anonymity.  Some years ago, one contestant finally won after playing the same four pieces for at least six consecutive years!  (If the thinking behind this tactic is that reruns will eventually appear “more worthy” as the competition field “narrows” each year–really?–it is seriously flawed and BORing!)  When this particular contestant finally won, other contestants became disgruntled: they wondered if the judges had at last succumbed to doling out high scores because they, too, had had enough of the same music year after year, which also made the contestant a known entity to them.  This is supposed to be blind judging!  Honor that.  The rest of the instrument community will appreciate your diligence in this regard for years to come.

My contest tunes include those I’ve known for a while but had not played before (the contenst was their first performance), some that I’ve played a lot for anyone but those in the instrument community, and tunes that I played in competition 20 years before that no one else would remember.


Forty points per tune go to arrangement in a contest, so let’s take a close look at it:

Things I would do in arrangement

(Note: I do not necessarily apply all of these to every tune I play.)

  • Harmonic variation
  • Melodic variation (esp. adding or subtracting notes between the exiting notes)
  • Rhythmic variation
  • Adding a descant over a tune

Whatever you apply, do it tastefully.  To that end, I ask the tune what it wants during the arrangement process (it often tells me!).

Things I would not do in an arrangement

  • Simply chord the tune: The basic progression merely opens the door to arranging a tune; it doesn’t transform it.
  • Remove notes from a technically challenging tune: I spoke about this earlier, but this tactic can work if you can confidently play all the notes in one play-through and then remove them later for variation interest.  Grain of salt here.
  • Change the meter: A waltz played in 4/4 time can be distressing to the judge who knows the waltz, rather than a disguised variation.  Don’t think for one moment that the judges won’t catch on.  It takes only one judge to lower that tune’s ultimate score, and your chances of a favorable outcome.
  • Play a major tune in a minor key, or vice versa: This, too, can be distressing to a judge who knows the tune.
  • Cycle a tune through several keys: There is very little substance here.  On a chromatic autoharp, the chord buttons needed per key occur in exactly the same relationships, while the playing hand moves to a slightly different area of the string bed to access melody strings for the key.  On the hammered dulcimer, the hammers move to another place over the soundboard where the visual patterns look the same.  No challenge to this.  However, a key change can be okay if it makes sense within the arrangement.  Don’t insert key changes mindlessly.

Practicing at Home as the Listening Audience

As I practice each tune, either for a contest or a performance, I test its audience impact by circling the sound back to me as the audience.  How does my own music making impact me?  (Record yourself if you need to, to draw the same conclusion.)

The hardest part about being your own audience is being honest with yourself about what you hear.  If I can strongly reach myself from the audience’s point of view, then I’ll probably reach the judges, too.  In fact, after the 2015 Mountain Laurel Autoharp Championship, one of the judges revealed him-/herself to me and then commented about not only hearing my music, but feeling it as well.  That, in my mind, is the optimal situation.

Practicing at the Contest Site

You of course will need to practice onsite to keep your contest judge,judging,blindtunes in shape.  Just do it in private where no one, including the judges (who still live among us) can hear.  This, too, honors and ensures fairness in the blind judging process.  Also, do not seek advice by playing for folks during this time.  It is too late to make changes.


So there you have it!  Feel free to ask questions in the Comments area below, and I will be happy to answer them.