Developing a successful mindset towards competitions.
I’ve done a lot of competitions, competing in approximately 60, winning prizes in over 35 of them, and 13 ‘First’ prizes, and with much more recent success over the past several years. That also means I’ve ‘lost’ at least 25 competitions.
Not everything I did when doing competitions worked or was the best idea, so I hope to share some of what I’ve learned. Apart from the camaraderie and ‘networking’ done at festivals, when we think about competitions in the best light, it is where you showcase your performing abilities in a high-stakes environment. It’s not necessarily an indicator of who will have a ‘performing career’, it’s simply showing who’s playing well at that exact moment. Competitions are, if anything, moments of impermanence that temporarily honor a select few.
Over the 9 or so years of my time of ‘doing’ competitions, I’ve developed some approaches to preparation, as well as my mental framework about them. You’ve heard and you’ll find plenty of practical practice advice, but in my opinion, one of the most overlooked aspects is the aftermath of these events. We need to understand competitions for what they are, while preparing ourselves for both success and failure. How we respond is often more important than the competition itself.
Having a pragmatic and honest approach to what they are – somewhat of an ethos about them, if you will, has been one of the most helpful things in responding to the natural adversity that competitions create. And I found this out the hard way, because early in my professional career, competitions became more important to me than they should be. I was desperate to make a positive change in my professional status and I thought that if I simply did a bunch of competitions that I won or placed in, that would do it. And so, I did competition after competition.
And they may do that.
But it doesn’t mean they will.
So in your preparation – which, if we’re honest – is simply your continued discipleship of the guitar, build an ethos, and a perspective of how you will think about what it is that you’re doing.
Know why you’re doing something. You’re playing guitar, and you don’t play guitar to win competitions.
Know what you’re going to do, what you expect to get out of it, while deciding beforehand how you will view either a ‘win’ or ‘lose’ results.
Even more importantly, frame this perspective in a minimized attitude compared to the music you are creating. Your development and improvement shouldn’t stop simply because you ‘won’ a competition. If you played amazing and won, you’ll generally have varying amounts of deserved kudos. And it’s great. Everyone loves winning. But keep it in perspective, we don’t stop working hard even after achieving at a certain place or point in time! How unfortunate it would be if that is the best we’ve ever offered!
And losing? That’s a little harder.
I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve anxiously awaited results, expecting to pass, advance, or even win, only to not hear my name at all. It’s difficult, and I often need time to remind myself of what I already know in that moment. Accept the competition for what it was. Furthermore, for every competition you do, you must be able to accept losing, and not allow that to taint your perspective of guitar, or your love for music, otherwise, don’t do them! Or if losses are especially hard to handle, even for the very good guitarist, then time away from competitions, spent towards other professional investments may be a better choice! Everyone reacts differently to these things, and we need to be honest with ourselves on how we can process them.
Sharing a little bit about my own journey, I remember a turning point in 2017, when I had competed in the Guitar Foundation of America International Concert Artist Competition. I worked very hard preparing. Several hundred hours for a ten-minute performance time slot. I played decently well, but you can’t play ‘decently’ and advance in the GFA ICAC.
Was that time wasted? Was that time lost? No, because real practice always creates fruits for the time spent. We improve and learn. We accept the disappointment. The next four competitions that year, I would place 2nd twice, and win the other two. If we’re counting, since that time I also won one 3rd place, six 2nd prizes, and six 1st prizes.
Competitions and music are somewhat of a dichotomy. Music is idealistically perfect, while competitions are an imperfect, yet useful platform of professional and personal development. Very honestly, I do not care about my latest win or my last loss. Instead, I care about making a beautiful contribution and cultivating a lasting perspective of appreciation and love for the music I share.
You may not be preparing for the GFA, (or you may!), you may have a local competition that you have your eyes set on. My advice, summed up: Keep it about the music, before, during and after. Results may vary, but that way, the music lives on.
Samuel Hines is an avid performer, teacher, and competitor who lives in Mora, Minnesota. His cat's name is Koda.