For musicians, but especially pianists, life is always about dedication, practice, and constant improvement. You have competition after competition, recital after recital, playing the same pieces over and over again until they are the best they can be. The question is, when, really, are you ready to show the world what you’ve got? What things can winning pianists do that the pianists who never rise to the top can’t?
Disclaimer: I’ve never been to a world-class piano competition, and as the information in the blog post comes from my head, this is not the best blog post for you if you are going to one.
1. The Notes and Rhythms are 100% Accurate
This is obvious—of course you should know the pitches and rhythms of your piece if you’re going to enter a competition. But every year, pianists go into auditions thinking they can fudge through their piece and miraculously land their fingers on all the right notes at the correct times. That doesn’t work. Circle notes and write on your music, get someone to listen to you play, use a metronome, do whatever it takes to never miss a note or beat. Take it slow until you can play your piece without messing up a single note/rhythm ten times in a row, then gradually increase the tempo. One missed flat or not on-time syncopation is all it takes to go from first place to nothing, so 99% is still not enough.
2. Your Memorization is Perfect
Nearly all, if not all, piano competitions require you to memorize your pieces, something both beneficial and detrimental. Not having to focus on the sheet music enables you to put emphasis on emotion (more on that below), but competitions have a way of short-circuiting your brain so that you trip over your best pieces. To prevent this from happening, don’t just rely on pure muscle memory, especially on harder passages. At any given point, know exactly which note comes next and which note came before on both hands, not just where to place the fingers. Be able to start from any measure. Put yourself in stressful performance situations so you have a better understanding of what you might forget in the actual competition.
3. You Infuse Emotion Into Your Playing
No one wants to hear sound. They want to hear music. The difference is that while sound is caused by vibrations in the air, music makes people feel things they’ll never be able to feel and transports them to places they’ll never be able to go. Yes, we’ve already stressed how important notes and rhythms are, but emotion is just as important. Unlike accuracy, you can’t always get it through raw practicing. Rather, spend time listening to and finding the character of your piece, whether it’s happy or sad or nostalgic, and ask yourself what the composer might have been thinking when writing the piece. When you play, think about the things that make you feel the emotions you want your listeners to feel, and soon the sound coming out from the piano will turn into something else and touch your audience.
4. You Genuinely Care About Your Piece
You can play well. You can play with emotion. But if you don’t play with passion, everyone will know. In a typical piano competition, pianists are able to choose from a list of pieces the ones they want to play, based on skill level, composer, time written, etc. If you take a piece you really could not care less about to a competition you don’t truly want to win, it will show through when you play, no matter how talented you are. We get it—there are times when you don’t automatically click with a piece. There are times when you don’t think you’re the right person to play it (though you are). That’s why you need to make it personal; make the piece connect to your own life, your own memories, and suddenly you’ll start to like it a whole lot more.
5. You Have Your Own Unique Style
A lot of amateur musicians listen to a YouTube video and get it into their heads that they must sound like a professional or the piece is wrong. That theory is false on many levels, partially because you will scientifically and legally never be able duplicate someone’s way of playing. and even if you could, why would you? There’s no point in learning a piece for the sole purpose of playing it the exact same as someone else. If you find a particular rendition that you like, study the specific things that make it better than all the others (such as a well-placed rubato or accent) and copy those aspects, however, take the sections you want to put an unique spin on and make it yours. At the end of the day, it’s totally fine to imitate other pianists—just don’t let their influence overshadow your style.
6. You Have Nice, Professional Clothes On
Believe it or not, what you wear says a lot about how you view piano. If you’re wearing a casual, haphazardly put-on outfit, you probably don’t care about music very much. If you’re wearing a crisp outfit that at least looks expensive* (though it does not always have to be), it says the opposite. Unless you are doing a competition where the judges cannot see you, something that is more common in orchestral auditions than competitions anyhow, judges will place the person who wears the professional clothes higher than the person who wears casual clothes. And even if you are doing a blind competition, a more professional outfit will give out an ego boost and cause you to do better.
7. You Are Courteous to the Judges
At first, judges can seem like crazy robots from Mars who feel absolutely nothing and are out to make sure you fail. While I don’t know for sure that they’re not, I do know for sure that a warm, “I’m totally not internally panicking right now also a crazy, obscure blogger told me to do this!” smile goes a long way. Communicate with the judges. Attempt to make conversation with them, but if they’re not in the mood, don’t force it. When you’re done playing, thank them for their time and tell them to have a good day. If you played well, they’ll remember you as the really good pianist who was also really polite. If you played okay, they’ll remember you as the really polite pianist. And if you failed, at least they’ll remember you as the pianist that was polite but couldn’t really play, which is infinitely better than just being the bad pianist.
8. You Learned Something From The Piece
If you ever feel as if you’re not getting something out of your piece, then congratulations, the past year was worthless. From the moment you lay your eyes on the sheet music to when you walk out of the competition venue, from those first notes you played of your new piece, all alone, to the last measure you played in front of judges and maybe even hundreds of people, your piece is a journey of learning. You take what you got from your previous piece and apply it to the next one, gaining more knowledge as you go. You realize what mistakes you made the last year and try your best to not make the same ones this year. You make new mistakes, bigger mistakes. In the end, it’s not the money or trophies or fame that you’re the most proud of, but the lessons you got along the way.
Thanks for reading this post! I had a great time writing it, and I hope you learned something worthwhile. Have a spectacular day!
*I recommend a nice, dark-colored or white dress (not black, as it does not work with the piano) for ladies and a suit and tie for gentlemen. Keep your shoes flat so you can feel the pedal, and either tie your hair back (preferably into a bun) or comb it so that it’s not hanging in your eyes.