How to prepare for a competition
In the last few weeks, I have been getting quite a lot of messages asking me how I prepared for the Kobe Competition.
It has been very touching to read them, and I did my best to answer. But as more and more people wrote to me asking the same thing again, I thought : 'Well, I'll be damned, it seems to be a matter of real interest, so I guess I'll just write a post about it!'
I can fully understand where all that interest came from. When I meet musicians/performers of all sorts who achieved greatness or/and overcame major setbacks, I cant' keep from asking the same.
'What kept you going even through the bad days ?'
'Do you actually have a routine for your audition preparation ?'
'Do you still have a mentor ?'
And so on, and so on...
I always have been eager to discover what the path to success was paved of.
Now, I don't see myself as someone who "achieved greatness", but I did just get a first prize at a competition I wouldn't even have dared to dream about.
And as I am no prodigy who just managed it on my first try, I reckon my own journey to success might be of interest to someone trying his own luck out there.
So, without further ado, I'll give you my recommandations for the long preparation phase before D-day.
BE A CREATURE OF HABIT
Being prepared to win is like running a marathon. You don't just go and decide you can run such a long distance.
I know there are some amazing guys out there who can just practice randomly at the last moment and make it work.
But let's face it, they have superpowers. I know I don't.
Practicing a long and difficult competition program takes up a lot of time - for most people, myself included.
Don't go and think you can get it all in your fingers and your head in the last few days. Sometimes you may not have a choice, and it is alright. But I don't think making a habit of urgency-practice is a very healthy thing to do. At some point, you are bound to meet a piece tougher than you are fast. And to be honest, you don't need the additional stress anyway.
I am an early riser, and because I am working in an orchestra, I know I don't concentrate very well (if at all) after a whole day of rehearsal. That is why I wake up at six, and generally start practicing between seven and seven thirty in the morning.
But hey, don't go thinking 'I am doomed, for I cannot wake before dawn' and look for career alternatives quite yet !!
I know lots of people who are more efficient in the evenings and practice at night. Actually, I don't think I know many early risers in the musician world...
But the most important thing is not whether you practice before or after daylight. It is, in fact, to have a practicing schedule and stick to it.
I don't mean practice four and a half hours every day of the week. You have to know yourself. How many hours a day do you need to feel comfortable ? And how many not to feel guilty of laziness and fail to fall asleep at night ? If you manage the exact same amount every day and feel good that way, great ! If not, what will make you feel comfortable and ready on time ?
If on some day of the week you are giving lessons and have no free slot to practice, you will have to make up for it on some other days.
If you need a full day off once in a week to feel well and rested in the long run, then when and how will you compensate for it ?
You have to plan in advance, and know that sometimes you will have impromptu events popping up that you will have to live with, and practicing hours to live without.
I personally find that having the most regular schedule possible helps me feel calm and focused on the practice itself. But as musicians, it is practically impossible to have an even week, so we have to plan and adapt accordingly.
PRACTICE A LOT - BUT NOT TOO MUCH
Sorry for stating the obvious, but to win you need to practice, practice, and practice.
There is such a thing as too much practicing!!
(Now you are either feeling like Christmas came early or very skeptical)
I can say it, because I experienced it : too much practicing can actually happen, and it is damaging for more than one reason.
First, your body needs time to rest. If you push it too much, there is sometimes a heavy price to pay. (I personally am well acquainted with tendinitis...)
What is the point of being ready if on D-day you can't move anymore ? I had the situation once where my lips were so tired that my sound was almost all gone, whereas I had never before been so ready for an audition in my life ! Let me tell you it won't ever happen again, it just stings the pride and hope way too much.
So take care of your body- it is the thing enabling you to play after all;
Another reason for not practicing too much is that your mind also needs time to rest. That way you can start fresh on the next day and not feel frustrated with the same thing you have been practicing again and again.
Your brain also needs time off to digest and mature the music and the informations.
As far as I'm concerned, when I feel like screaming, crying, or smashing my flute against the wall, whether I have been practicing one hour or three in the day, I just pack my instrument away and go out let some steam off.
Which brings me to the next important thing...
SPORT IS YOUR BEST FRIEND
I hear some of you groaning all the way from here ! Stop complaining at once, I promise I have a bit of a different idea on the topic.
I started to go running when I was 17 and I was preparing for the entrance audition at the Conservatory of Paris.
My teacher just told me to stop crying already and go running, and as I have always been a very fervent and obedient student, I did just that (although it didn't really help with the crying).
I never was- and never am going to be- a great athlete. Even at the peak of my form, I rarely run more than 45 minutes. But I discovered from the beginning that the running session doesn't have to be very long to feel deeply exhilarating and above all - liberating.
I have to say, until four years ago, I was strongly convinced running was the one and only sport to keep my mind off things during a preparation phase. I had tried swimming or walking instead and it was not for me. And so, with the naively judgemental conviction of youth, I thought if it didn't work for me it didn't work for anybody. Thankfully I am a bit older and wiser now, and I acknowledge this : anything remotely tiring can do.
Yes. You read right !
You don't need to go and sweat for hours under the rain. You don't have to experience sore muscles if you don't want to. Although I find both experiences great and need them in my own preparation phases, I think the most important thing is to find the one activity that empties your mind from difficult pieces, instrumental setbacks and demanding teachers.
I also think it is better if that activity is physically demanding, because as a performing artist, we have to be fit to give our best even under stress. It is even more important as a wind player, for a good physical condition means a better lung capacity.
But I am convinced that with so many different sports (how many kinds of yoga are there for instance???), there has to be at least one that fits you !
There must be the one activity that makes you feel lighter at the end of it, and that you even have fun doing.
I personally switched from running (which I still occasionally do) to badminton playing. I discovered real badminton (not the garden version you play during the holidays) five years ago and I have been growing so crazy about it that when I am not injured or too busy I can train and play up to 15 hours a week.
I obviously need to be exhausted for my head to start emptying, but I am pretty sure we are all different people and what fits me won't necessarily fit you.
So what will your sport be ? I wonder...
EAT (MOSTLY) HEALTHILY BUT GIVE IN TO CRAVINGS
One very important topic to broach when talking about a competition is this one.
Because 'we are what we eat', we can only be really fit if we pay attention to our needs.
That said, we also have different ones.
I find myself having incredible food cravings when on a preparation spree. And I always try my best to balance my diet, but in the end, when I want to eat something really badly, I do. The funny thing is, the cravings change with the competition. For my first one I would eat a Nutella jar every week on my own. For my last one I would find myself dreaming of lasagna...
So, in between the lasagnas, I tried to get some vegetables in my body to sustain the workload.
I am no nutrition freak, but I will try to pay attention. In the long run, it is always a safer bet. That said, I guess it is also a matter of noticing what you will need to feel comfortable on your instrument.
DRINK A LOT (OF WATER)
I heard somewhere that during practice time, your tendons needed half a liter of water per hour of playing. Now, I don't know if this true or not.
But I know I drink a freaky amount of water when I practice a lot (up to 6 liters a day). It is never enough!
It helps against injuries, and you just really need it. I am no vegetable nazi, but I will always insist on that one : drink a lot.
It is better to avoid tea or even more - coffee, because they are not so good for the tendons and such.
And let's not talk about alcohol of course... but here as well, I have mellowed competition after competition, be it because I became tired of never partaking in the merriment of after-concert-drinks or because I noticed it doesn't sabotage my sound as much nowadays as it did a few years ago.
Anyway, to each his own take on alcohol and relaxing during preparation. But I personally don't touch too much of the stuff, and certainly not the last few days before the beginning of a competition.
GET AS MUCH SLEEP AS YOU CAN
Here is one thing I am sure we all have in common : sleep doesn't come as easy during the competition as it does during a holiday.
As such, and because you never, never, never know how much sleep you will get as the days creep nearer to perform on stage, you should endeavour to get as much of the damn thing as you can.
Just so you know how precious it can be, I slept well in Kobe for the first three days. And then from the second round on it was over, and I slept three hours a night at most. I spent my days lying on my bed trying to fall asleep when not practicing- all in vain.
So I had a whole week of sleepless nights and days full of stress and worries and pressure.
The fact that I slept (almost) well before flying off to Japan was decisive, I think. You cannot go on and on without sleep, it is too important for your brain to function as its best . So go early to bed, take naps, every hour counts !
TAKE SOME MAGNESIUM AND VITAMINS
Because I am under stress permanently during preparation phases, I help myself to some healthy drugs ! Magnesium, vitamins, and herbal stuff are my best friends.
This last year I also started seeing an homeopath, despite being skeptical about it.
But I had had two years of real insomnia problems, and some friends told me it would help, so I thought 'what can it hurt?' and tried.
It not only solved my hopelessly disturbed sleeping patterns, but the doctor gave me some things for my poor tendons as well. And this Kobe Competition was the first one I went to without having any pain ! It was really comfortable.
So, believe in it or not, it is your call. For me, it worked wonders !
SPEND TIME WITH YOUR LOVED ONES
A decisive thing not to forget is this one. When you practice, you are all alone with yourself and your instrument.
Day after day, hour after hour, you are having inner battles, questioning your worth as a person and as a musician - because, let's face it, we shouldn't mix everything up but we do, and so we are depressed when it doesn't work.
That is why it is imperative you take time to see your loved ones.
It can be your family, your life partner, your friends, your mentor... whomever you will need the most.
But when you feel at your worst, and also when you feel unstoppable, you should surround yourself with people who believe in you, and help your spirits soar.
IF YOU ARE READY, GO TO THE MOVIES
If it so happens that your preparation goes very well - it is not a feeling we often encounter but we never know- don't overthink it!
It is a fatal mistake, to methodically destroy everything you so carefully built in the last few days.
So if it goes well, practice less. Take time for yourself. Go to the movies, see friends, eat some ice cream...
Treat yourself to things that will feed your music, but be careful with your actual practice !
HAVE FAITH IN YOURSELF
Last but not least ! If there is one thing you remember from my very long post, let it be this one.
No matter how the day goes, no matter how you feel today, you must believe in yourself. Have faith in the fact that this goal you set for yourself is actually within your reach.
Because on D-day, when you are on your own with no friends or teacher or family with you on stage, the only one able to believe in yourself is you.
We all know how fickle such things are. To win, you need to be prepared, but you also need your fair share of luck.
No matter what happens, never forget that playing your instrument should be a source of joy and fulfillment.
If it is not your lucky day, then it will be some other one.
But if you don't try, you will never find out.
And that, dear all, is the end of my personal list of requirements in preparation phase. Of course I could go on and on, but these are the basics !
If you happen to still have questions, don't hesitate to ask them.
If you agree or disagree, don't hesitate to comment.
And if you want a PDF recap of this incredibly long post, you can download the checklist here !
I wish you luck on your preparation journeys,
All the best,