by Lucille Reilly
First web publication date: July 1, 2004;
last updated September 21, 2010.
Note: While this article is geared towards
competition, many of the same principles are applicable to performance in general.
read this, I’m sure there are many
autoharp and hammered dulcimer players (among others) who are already planning
and practicing for their respective contests at the Walnut Valley Festival and other contests around the world.
It therefore seems fitting, then, as 1997 National Hammered Dulcimer
Champion, 1995, 2003 and 2010 International
Autoharp Championship and 1995 and 2010 Mountain Laurel Autoharp Champion, that I share
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 above
links that suit your fancy, or that you want to review again.
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 place 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
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
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?
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 sat back and relaxed
after hearing #4 and decided I wouldn’t be called for the finals. (I
wasn’t. And it was better for me to figure out that I wouldn’t be.) I used
the rest of the contest to enjoy the music and get a better feel for the
autoharp’s wide range of 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 be the surprise among 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.
Play music you
love, because your heart will shine through your playing.
You don’t have to prepare new
material for a contest. Definitely 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, see The two weeks
before the contest.
thought the judges might recognize me by the pieces I planned to play at the 2003 International Autoharp
Championship—we’re a small
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 and then to listen 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 one
of the prime melody notes was out of the diatonic autoharp’s scope, the judges lowered
the contestant’s score on this
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 selected. 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
other contestants’ music. (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 was the single biggest mistake made consistently by contestants in the
2007 Mountain Laurel Autoharp
Championship. 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, which will 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 start with the
waltz instead? Maybe, so consider well in advance if the reverse order
will also work for you. The contrast may help refresh the judges’ ears, but if for
any reason switching your order feels uncomfortable, stick to the order you’ve
Should you prepare only four tunes?
I’d say five, or even six, would be safer.
there’s a tie, you’ll have to play one more tune to break it.
If someone else plays one of your tunes (it’s happened), and
you deem his/her version to be more breath-taking than yours, you can switch to another
tune comfortably at the last minute. However,
note that different contestants sometimes choose and play the same tune.
acceptable to repeat a tune already played by someone else, especially if you are confident about your
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 to play again in the final round.
As long as you’re taking that shot to
begin with, be prepared for
“the whole shootin’
comes up amongst contestants more times than I can count.
the answer contestants come up with is that they need to play the tune or technique that
previous champions have used. (“This
year’s winner patted the
autoharp’s strings; I’ll
that next year.” “This winner played
Jubilee’, so next year I’ll
play a tune that sounds like that.”
“This player included some Belgian sixth
chords, so I’ll throw some in.”)
In truth, the judges simply want someone to talk
to them through the instrument. 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 don’t). So,
don’t follow the
leader. Instead, trail-blaze a new path with the intention of raising the state of the art for
Take a look once
more at how the 100 points for the Walnut Valley Festival divvy up for each
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
of those points go to arrangement the parameters described for those points are
a bit cerebral. Forget all of that and focus on what the word arrangement
means. What you come up with may just resemble something quite a bit different.
Whatever it means to you, play in response to
that, 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” major infractions
(you’d really have to break down for me to reduce your score due to mistakes), but some
judges may in fact lower scores for miniscule 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, although
some judges might. Make your goal
musicality and “storytelling” through each tune, and you 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 shoot higher.
Is there any credence to the thought
that the judges may not like the tunes you play? I think not. The
judges are 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 the champion, the next section will shed some light on how to
evaluate your playing to improve your chances.
If you would like to have your contest pieces reviewed
(at least a few months before an upcoming contest), click
To do well in a contest, you’ll
want to 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 sounds 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
pulse. If this or other rhythms come up early on and sound rickety, “off with your
Playing a tune incorrectly on purpose. This point goes well beyond “folk process.” I
remember an autoharp contestant who played a familiar jig with a third of the
notes missing! (I’d never heard that
tune played that way before, and it took a while to recognize it.
Not that I have to know the tune to judge it, but this rendition
eventually revealed itself to be a known tune.) If this version had been followed
with the full version the next time through the tune, the contestant would have
redeemed him/herself, but the full version never came around, so “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 turning a jig into a reel, or a reel into
a waltz, etc. Or playing a major-key tune in its parallel minor key 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 may cost you. The occasional ritard works when placed
well, of course, but I’m talking
about playing with a non-descript tempo all the way through a tune.
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, but I would recommend establishing a firm pulse somewhere in the piece on which freeness of
pulse can then lean.
tunes by known composers, you’d 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 resounded through all the added fluff. In another instance, I couldn’t find the
melody within one autoharp contestant’s very note-y rendition of a tune until the last four bars of the piece.
(By then it was too late
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
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 could well 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 my intention. If one of the
judges knows the tune and knows it to go faster, it could mean a
significant loss in points.) 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 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.
a fiddle tune that’s played far faster than dance tempo can be perceived
a blur of sound by everyone, judges included, rather than your best attempt to impress with dazzling technique.
(Listening to the 2003 National Banjo Championship contestants caused me to assume that
most of them 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 now), 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. You have enough to do rendering existing tunes well,
let alone composing something original, too. 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 other
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 is apparent.
Remember; It’s okay to think outside the box. Just make sure that the judges can find the
Making up variations on the spot. The
judges have no way of knowing whether you’ve planned or not planned 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 to attempt, and
dangerous should you lose your footing, which is easy to do when even you
don’t know how the final product is going to turn out. I know
contestants who have done this, and if they’ve gotten anywhere with this
strategy, it’s taken 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 when one contestant said he decides a few days ahead of a contest what he’ll play and how, and that
planning “so far ahead just [wasn’t his] 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 have traditionally gone 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” in the 1960s was three minutes. But the reason for stating a time limit is simple: Some
contestants have played single pieces lasting up to eight minutes (which, as one
judge pointed out, also increases the contestant’s 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 I can say quite a bit
through a tune in that amount of
time. While no one is going to drag you off the stage with a hook if
you go 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
in the 2006 Fingerpicked Guitar Championship at the Walnut Valley Festival was 8 1/2
minutes. Ironically, the
winner’s pieces lasted three minutes each. What was that about hit
Playing without expression. One volume all
the way through risks getting a bit wearing, 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 tend to look askance initially at such choices,
but they’re still obliged to listen to your playing and consider the arrangement value
applied to each tune.
Note that the operative words here are arrangement value. Because there is too much doubt about
war horses, you might want to avoid the well-played tunes (guitarists: it is
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 National
Hammered Dulcimer Championship was Fisher's
Hornpipe, which I almost didn’t play after a passer-by labeled it as
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 bits, 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,
or etc., well,....off with your head!
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 at the
start. Play it first the way everyone knows it, as musically as you
(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
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.
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.
was thrilled when a couple contestants got me eating out
of their hands from the beginning of their pieces. The
way they started out made me keep asking 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 go 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
true 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 in this
detail, beyond all the fancy techniques.
Choose your music.
The earlier you choose, the larger the window you give yourself 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 in Denver, so when those circumstances disappeared and I could
go, I had to think mighty fast about what to play and then practice as much
as I could before devoting my time fully to driving 1600+ miles to the Mountain
Laurel Autoharp Gathering in Pennsylvania. So, it is possible to sustain
last-minute decisions on tunes if you are well-practiced, anyway, and have a
lot of good 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 judge hears 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. (It doesn’t matter whether the judges
know the tune or not, but it sure does if they can’t find it while
Note that a tune that lacks
clarity may be due to clunky fingering/hammering technique, which no amount
of practice will improve, and 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 a
beat, so cancel that from your practice sessions by internalizing the beat in
your body. The microphone does
pick up the foot; if we in the audience can hear it, certainly the judges
can hear it,
too. (Some wonderfully sensitive pieces
have been marred by foot tapping, and at least one contestant may have
missed the final round due to the foot.)
When you eliminate foot stomping, 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 resort to a metronome, this device has
much to say about where a tune speeds up and slows down, and so I rely on it
heavily. Set it to sound four clicks per bar,
not two; this will help you stay with it readily. If you’re still
mystified about staying with the metronome, set it in motion and sing
the melody of your arrangement to it instead of playing your instrument.
Planning on an accompanist? Get
one now; don’t wait until you get to the contest site to find one. Then,
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 (see 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
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). Also, the judges don’t hear the
accompaniment, so any back-up 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 too heavy duty and can put you into overkill. (If you
lose any tune in your head or hands, back off on practicing it so
hard.) Playing some other music
will refresh your fingers, ear and mind.
Claim the space. 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 your 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 in your mind as
No more arrangement changes from now
All you do now is clarify the playing of the
pieces you’ve chosen. If you change notes,
chords and fingering now, they won’t stick.
me; I’ve tried and failed on this point.) If you have an accompanist, don’t let
this person badger you about changes, either. What is at this time, must be.
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. Don’t fix
errors right after playing each piece; the idea is to simulate the contest
experience where second chances will not be 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 “Diatonic
Corner” column in the summer 2004 issue of Autoharp Quarterly.
Visualize yourself playing each tune.
Visualizing is great to do on airline flights when there’s no way to
practice directly 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 probably a spot
you’ll flub when you're actually playing. “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?
(I hope you got a good night’s sleep! Warm milk the
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 once the night
before. The point here is not to
obsess: You don’t
practice up to the last minute for other performances, 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
know your music by now. (At least, you better.)
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 now. 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.
(You can use the distraction. Again,
If you make it
to the final round, repeat the above for your next two tunes.
I always get a lot more nervous after turning in
my registration fee, so I register close to the last minute in the interest of staying
calm for as long as possible. (This
strategy also prevents contestants from bowing out of registering once they
see my name on the list.) 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 out 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. I’ve worn these gloves while warming up in
cold temps, and then take them off when it’s time to
perform. It’s your call
whether you leave them on or not. (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
Keep breathing! And do you feel your feet on the
floor? Avoid feeling like you’re levitating.
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 you a
little slack here (although an obviously out-of-tune instrument won’t help
matters). Get the tuning as close as you can, 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
*There are always differences in
instruments and how each contestant pulls the sound out of 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 you are
introduced by the MC. If the sound is bouncing off the walls, it may be wise to
gesture to the MC to adjust the mikes a little further away so that you can play
with the same technical weight that you’ve practiced with all along.
One year in the National Hammered Dulcimer Championship, I discovered too
late (I was 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, and the sound man turned the mike volume
way up); during the performance was not the time to adjust my 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
Remember that the time you are onstage performing is your
time and space, and no one else’s. And
the long run, you’re really competing with yourself. The judges score on individual merit, not by
comparison. (Once your tunes are scores, the score sheets are turned in to an auditor for tabulating, so there’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
forget that there are any other contestants around, or that the judges are
somehow conspiring together. (They’re not.) Smile, have fun, and push
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 a Power 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 and let me know. It's always good to know
how people find this page!
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 by .
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