How to practice for Solo/Ensemble competitions

For my Minnesota-based studio, many of my students are preparing to perform at their regional solo/ensemble contest in March. We’ve picked out pieces, done our research, and are ready to dig in. Although preparing a contest piece shouldn’t be much different than your normal practice, I thought I’d give a few specific tips on what solo performing means in the practice room.

1. Pick a piece that will stretch your talents a little farther, but won’t be so hard you can’t get it prepared in time.
2. Start by listening. Find a recording of the piece and note what the instrumentation or accompaniment is. Think about how you’ll perform it.
3. If your piece has multiple movements, choose the ones you’d like to perform. Consider your order. For example, 3 movement suites don’t have to be done in order if you’re doing, say, the Allegro first movement and the slower second one. You could flip them if it makes sense musically.
4. Start with the big picture. Play along with the recording and note where you may need to spend more time, but get a feel for the piece as a whole.
5. Make your musical decisions early. It’s easier to learn notes and rhythms sometimes when we have a direction for the phrase we’re working up. For example, a fast passage with lots of sixteenth notes also crescendos or has lots of slurs. Sing it the way you’d like to play it, then work it up slowly utilizing all the components.
6. Practice bigger chunks once you’ve got the technical stuff smoothed out. Pieces always feel differently in our hands when we see how the whole work fits together. Breaths may be different, or you may notice that one phrase is hard to get into from the previous one. Work out those new kinks.
7. Practice performing. At least once or twice a week in the beginning, practice running straight through your work as if it were a performance. As the contest draws closer, you should be practicing performing more than you are practicing individual sections.
8. Perform for your friends and family! Play along with the recording again so you can understand how the accompaniment fits in. Count count count your rests.
9. It sounds obvious, but when you get to the performance- have fun! Nerves are a part of performance but remember that your jury wants to hear you do well. No one is out to get you or judge you as a person. Let your musical soul shine through and above all, don’t worry about the parts you think you messed up. They’re gone! End strong.

Good luck, students!