It's Spring - the season of music competitions. I've already judged three within the last month (one piano-only, and two concerto competitions for all instruments) and they've been excellent reminders as to what the judges are looking for in the performances .
In each competition the overall level was very high. I wasn't surprised... after all, everyone prepared well and genuinely wanted to give the performance their best effort. But, unfortunately, not everyone can win.
So, in a field of "very good" performances, who stands out?
Here are three of my top criteria for a winning performance:
1. Clean Playing. Mistakes are forgivable, BUT if someone else has a clean performance they will edge you out. The competitive circuit in music is very competitive, so don't kid yourself that your musicality and expression is enough. The easiest way to narrow down the field is to eliminate those who make mistakes. Strive for consistent clean playing in your practicing. And when mistakes happen, recover quickly. I will take a musically engaging performance over a technically perfect but soul-less performance any day, but if two performers are neck-and-neck, judges tend to go with the cleaner and more convincing one.
2. Conviction. Play it like you mean it! This is not the time to be humble or shy or second-guess your interpretation. Decide what you are going to say and then convince us that this is the way it should be.
3. Dynamic range. Lackluster fortes and moderately soft pianissimos won't draw us into a magical musical world. Most performances have a range between mp-ff. If you want to truly get our attention, follow the dynamics in the music, and use a broad range from ppp to fff. And, within these, explore a variety of sounds, colors, and articulations.
Elizabeth Borowsky is a pianist, teacher, and composer. She is a Nationally Certified Teacher of Music in Piano (Music Teachers National Association).