Article - 8 Myths of Performance and Competitions
A Judge’s Perspective (written in May 2003)
by Kerry Pound Shaffer
Now that the dust has settled on the 2003 San Diego Flute Guild Flute Festival, I
thought it might be helpful to talk about the kinds of things we judges (or at the very least,
I) look and listen for when sitting at those judging tables and pass along a few other pieces
of advice when preparing for a competition.
These 8 common "myths" I’ve listed come from my experience as both a competitor and a
judge. For a number of years I was doing a lot of competing overseas (21 competitions in
five years), not only against other flutists, but pianists, string and other wind players. In
almost every competition, the judge/judges would make a presentation discussing each of
the winning performances. It was interesting to see why certain performances were
rewarded (including my own), despite "mistakes" being made. The winners were not always
the most flashy, technical or ‘perfect’.
Myth #1: It needs to be "Perfect"
I think a lot of young flutists today think that we judges are looking for "perfection" – if
there is such a thing! If they make a mistake, they think they’re opportunity to win is lost!
This could not be further from the truth. If you make a mistake, so what? Just keep going;
stay focused – music is not about the notes you miss, but what you do with the notes you
don’t. Judges sometimes hear the same piece three or four times within a short amount of
time. So what makes one performance stand out? I would not presume to speak for all
judges, but I can tell you what impresses me: a performance where the flutist takes risks;
has something to say; can inspire an emotional response; has paid attention to the beauty
of the small details in the music; is dedicated and completely involved in their performance.
Is there an accent? Then play it! Is there a large dynamic change? Then play it! Is there a
story in the music? Then change your tone color, style to express it. The world is full of
flutists who can play all the notes on the page. To stand out, you need to be making music
– beautiful, exciting, elegant, intense, at-times spiritual, passionate music. I have never
forgotten how true musicianship was defined to me by a wonderful musician and teacher,
Damian Bursill-Hall. He said a musician must strive to achieve the following four
characteristics: intelligence, integrity, elegance and emotion. However knowing these and
attaining them are two very different things!
Myth #2: Presentation doesn’t matter
Presentation IS part of the total points scored. It is important that you dress
appropriately, because this is a performance. It shows respect to the judges and to the
music that you are performing. Keeping your composure is equally important: rolling of
eyes, shaking of head when you make a mistake or at the end of your performance could
count against you. It’s important that you stay involved in your performance and not let
those mistakes get the best of you. If you did not play as well as you had hoped, you need
to "act" like you did: compose yourself and bow deeply to the judges/audience once your
performance is over. Sometimes this is very hard - I've had performances where I have
been in tears after leaving the competition room. I think the reason is that we put so much
of ourselves in our music, that when things do not go well, we feel that we personally are
being judged or we are afraid of what others (our peers, private teacher, the judges) will
think. Just keep in mind that some days we will have truly inspired performances, some
days we will not - we cannot for one second believe that what happens in those 5 - 10 - 15
- 30 minutes determines who we are as a musician.
Myth #3: If I play a harder piece I’ll score higher
Piece selection is a very difficult decision, not only because you need to work with your
private flute teacher to pick out a piece that shows off what you do well, but one that will
also challenge you and help you grow as a young musician. And you need to pick
something that you truly enjoy playing! You can sense when a musician is 'into' their piece.
Know your strengths and improve your weaknesses! There are many young flutists who
spend hours practicing those scales and technical exercises to allow them to play the
more technical pieces, but have not spent equal (if not more) time on long tones, creating
greater dynamic and tone color range. Just because you have "fingers", does not mean
you are ready to play some of those more mature pieces. When I see certain pieces
listed, for example a Mozart Flute Concerto or the Prokofiev Sonata – I am going to be
listening for a lot more maturity and understanding of these quite advanced pieces. You
must capture the spirit, energy and style of each piece. This cannot be emphasized
enough! Style is much more important that getting all the notes right! Because when we
are nervous, the fingers sometimes ‘forget’ – but the quality of your interpretation will
shine through. I have found that an elegant and stylistic performance of a Mozart
Concerto can 'beat' the more flashy (and at times, more technically difficult) Concerto's
of Nielsen, Khachaturian or Ibert. Someone playing a less difficult piece, but who plays
with great sensitivity, understanding and style, is likely to do better than a more difficult
piece played without those things. Choose your pieces wisely.
Myth #4: I should tune as fast as possible so that I don’t waste the judges time
Be very careful when you tune. I prefer to play my "A" first, let it ring, then have the
accompanist play his/her "A". This helps me to hear the pitch a lot better. Sometimes
musicians are so nervous they tune very quickly and don’t really listen. If someone has
started a piece and has tuned too high/low, I will stop them and allow them to re-tune (but
keep in mind some judges may not allow this). The judges want to hear you at your best!
To my ear, it’s always better to be a little high than a little low. Practicing tuning and
bending pitches with your teacher or a tuner will help, because sometimes the piano can be
very badly out of tune – and it is up to us to make those adjustments necessary for an in-
Myth #5: Rhythm doesn’t need to be exact
Most of the standard competition repertoire is fairly well known throughout the flute
community, so you better have those rhythms down. For example: Prokofiev Sonata, Mvt.
I – the dotted eighth/sixteenth rhythm is always a killer – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve
heard it as a triplet rhythm! There are certain things that immediately become obvious to
the judges: good/bad intonation and rhythm. Yes, we have a certain amount of license as
musical interpreters, however some things cannot be changed just because of a technical
deficiency. Some pieces rely on their excitement/forward momentum to come from the
meter and rhythm – so spend the time to really learn them with a metronome.
Myth #6: I don’t need to read the judge’s comments, because I already know what
they’re going to say
If you receive the judge’s comments and they reflect the same things your private teacher
has been telling you, well then, perhaps you should look at those areas discussed a bit
more closely. Or you may feel that the comments were based on a performance that was
not your best effort. Either way, it’s important to go through the comments with your
teacher and discuss what was written, taking what you can to help you. Be prepared for
sometimes a wide variety of comments. Different judges (with their respective
strengths/areas of expertise) may be focusing on different areas of your playing.
Myth #7: But I thought I played so well, shouldn’t I win something?
One of the facts of life for us flutists is that we always will have a lot of competition: for
entrance to college, for professional playing jobs, for competitions. You have to
remember that what one or two judges think of your performance on that particular day
should not affect your dedication and desire to improve and enjoy music. The outcome is
never known. I have competed against people that were, by reputation, ‘supposed’ to win,
and didn’t. I have competed and felt pretty confident I had done well, but didn’t win. I have
competed and not played my musical best, but technically well (one performance of
Dutilleux comes to mind), and I did win. You just never know what a judge is looking for in a
performance. Some are most impressed with technique, some with memory, with sound,
with musicality, with style.
Myth #8: I don't need to stay for the awards/recital, because I 'know' I didn't win
I would have to say that other than dedication to your musical performance, how you
behave afterwards is equally if not more important. Let me reiterate that you never know
the outcome of a competition, even if you feel you did not perform as well as you had
hoped. Being a gracious winner is easy, but being gracious when you either didn’t place or
placed lower than you thought you would, shows tremendous character and a true
musicians heart. We must applaud our peers when they do well, because next time it could
be us up there, and we would hope that we would receive similar support. Always
congratulate and be supportive of the winners. Attend winner’s recitals because you just
might learn something! And you will get to hear wonderful flute music, which is always a
joy! You have been given a wonderful gift – if you place too much emphasis on ‘winning’,
then you have sadly lost sight of the whole point of why we play, to express ourselves, to
express music, and as corny as it sounds, to express love, to the best of our ability.
Your next performance/competition
The most important thing when performing is to enjoy yourself. You've done all the hard
work (well, hopefully!), now it's time to just relax and play. I found the best way to deal with
nerves is to take out all those 'scary' parts of the equation: forget about the judges, your
teacher, your main 'competitor' who just played the most incredible performance you've
ever heard, or whoever else is listening. Stop all that talking in your head. It's just you and
Beautiful Bach. You and Magical Mozart. You and Passionate Prokofiev. Yes, it is
hard when don’t play your best, or play your best but don’t win or place. But it is how we
deal with those ‘failures’ that propel us to improve and be better musicians and people
The pursuit of musical knowledge, excellence and growth takes determination and
courage. It is a noble and rewarding cause, one that I hope will stay with all of you for many
years to come.
|Kerry Shaffer, BMus (Honors) Flute Performance
Private Flute Teacher for Middle Tennessee:
Brentwood, Franklin, Arrington, Nolensville, Spring Hill, Murfreesboro, and the surrounding areas
1019 Valley Forge Drive Arrington TN 37014
Home: (615) 395-9291
Mobile: (615) 879-4688