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How to Prepare for Online Competitions

I have just spent the last week (interspersed with teaching and practising) adjudicating the senior classes of a really outstanding music festival in the GTA.

As we get on into June (the OMFA has their online provincials competition, CMC has opened a video contest) there are several international online piano competitions taking place, and many international music festivals such as Orford and MMB have switched to online formats.

As such, I want to put out some suggestions and observations from the adjudicator's perspective on the dos and don’ts of preparing for competitions in your home setting. 

Disclaimer: these are my own views and are not in any way representative of specific guidelines by any festival or arts organization. They just represent common sense perspectives on my part as well as general observations drawn from an experienced adjudicator.

  1. The Visual: It is important to create the feeling of distance between the viewer and the viewed. As such take care not to have the camera to close. Ideally 6 feet away (at a minimum) from yourself, with a profile view from the right if playing the piano. You are not making an arts film (multiple camera angles are a distraction) and it is important to create that sense of distance with the artist on stage, even if the stage is your home studio. For pianists; camera should be slightly elevated above key level.  

  2. Audio: The difference between those who have a good quality microphone and those who are using older laptop/cell phone microphones is very noticeable. For reasons which extend well beyond contests, it is a good investment to purchase a good quality microphone. I have linked my all-time favourite microphones at the bottom of this post.

  3. Lighting: particularly if you are making your performance video at night, ensure that if you have a lamp with a moveable shade, you do not orientate the light in the direction of the camera, as it can essentially blind of your viewer. You will want to make sure that you test the lighting just like you would test your microphone. Lighting shone from the top of the keyboard directly can create quite a glare off the veneer of the piano. If possible, a lighting arrangement in which the rest of the room is somewhat darkened except for the piano, like a spotlight set up, is extremely effective.

  4. Get familiar with how you look and sound. Don’t make your first recording experience with hearing and viewing yourself your actual contest tape. Practice extensively with your recording device. Get a feel for how you are projecting and make adjustments. With the microphone often so close to the piano, it gives us a wonderful opportunity to explore the many shades of colour and touch that are required for more reflective dynamics. Pay particular attention to the quality of your sound and phrase endings. What works for the hall does not always work for the microphone.

  5. Formal dress: Suits and tuxedos for gentlemen. Concert dress for ladies.  Particularly for those of you performing in provincial, national, and international festivals, formal dress is an absolute requirement. That means no slippers with your tuxedo (which I‘ve seen in an audition tape), or tracksuit with your dress!

  6. Presentability: treat your performance as if it is a concert performance. Smile to the camera, introduce yourself and the pieces that you are playing, along with the composer‘s name. Make your audience feel welcome in your home.  Bow and set the ambiance before you play.

  7. Piano lids: up completely for uprights. On the small stick for grands. If you have a grand piano over 7 feet do not put it on full stick, otherwise your listener will be caught up in an eardrum threatening tsunami of fortissimos. 

  8. Pets, Siblings and Phones: The worst thing that can happen when you are doing single take run-throughs of anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes worth of repertoire is to get to the end of your performance and have someone‘s cell phone go off, or someone’s pet start yapping, etc. If you’re preparing for a big event make sure that everyone in the family knows what’s going on, and that proper accommodations are made.

  9. No rings, brightly painted fingernails or bracelets: You want the judges focus to be on your music. Otherwise, radiant colours mixed with mile-a-minute fingers colours can be a most blurring visual distraction. For pianists/instrumentalists, you don‘t want anything weighing down your hands. 

  10. PDF scores: If you are sending your music in by PDF, do not send separate PDFs for each. Have it enclosed in one PDF. Further to this, do not send score pages individually. It is a major hassle for the adjudicator.

  11. YouTube Video Access: Remove the privacy or other restrictive items on your YouTube account to allow for public access to your video. 

  12. Pacing: These competitions require more than one work to be performed and as such you should treat the time taken in between your pieces, just as you would in a recital format. Take the time you need to take to change the ambiance from piece to piece. The same goes for linking individual movements of a sonata.

  13. Visual Attention: do not stare into the camera to see if your adjudicators are watching! Rest assured that they will be!  You won’t be able to see him or her anyway, so there’s no point in engaging in a staring match. Keep visually focused on the matter at hand, which of course is your magnificent music making!

  14. Get Lost: what any good adjudicator is looking for is a student to get completely lost in what he or she is doing. Make a statement!  Be the performer and just get lost in the moment. Honour your work to the best of your ability for the moment it happened and be true to yourself.

Good luck one and all!!!

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