This is a potentially fraught topic, but an essential one because competition is currently such a popular option for aspiring singers to gain exposure. I’ll mention a few things that my students and I consider, and hopefully they’ll inspire your thoughts. I’d love it if you add them here in the comments.
Art is not inherently a competitive endeavor. It is an elevated means of communication, a transformative relationship with form, an expression of creative spirit. Great artists speak of their art doing them. They have to do their art because it won’t leave them alone until they do. They don’t create art so they can be compared to others and declared a winner.
Competitions can be heartbreaking if they are entered with the goal of winning instead of the desire to share one’s grace through singing. Any performance, no matter what the setting, must be for the benefit of the audience, and singers are the servants of that cause.
Competitions can be confusing if adjudicators give feedback that contradicts teachers and coaches. Because judges are not ongoing guides they don’t necessarily know where singers are in their process, and they can give information that isn’t especially helpful in the moment. They also might not have a mandate to encourage and support potential. In fact, some believe they have a responsibility to discourage less accomplished singers.
Singers often choose repertoire that they think can win rather than looking for what is best suited to them. Sometimes they look at previous winners or famous artists and try to style themselves after what others do instead of tuning in to their own genius.
- Does a song suit the voice?
- Does it reflect the personality?
- Is it age appropriate?
- Does it inspire the singer?
- Does it meet the guidelines of the competition?
Singers can start to look at one another as enemies rather than as colleagues. They can become jealous instead of admiring others’ gifts. They can lose the spirit of playfulness and experimentation that is at the heart of making music with others.
Grades can be limiting because they measure only how well someone has met a list of standards, mastered a given technique or appealed to the particular tastes and preferences of the adjudicator. We all know of artists with decades of success that would score miserably low grades for their singing in a competitive setting.
Competitions can be the way we engage these issues and learn to navigate them with poise and authenticity.
If you want to do a competition, here are some things I’d encourage:
- Make sure you will be able to use repertoire that’s suitable and that you love to sing.
- Sing to communicate, not to win.
- Accept feedback, but don’t be governed by it. Let your inner artist be your guide.
- Perform the song(s) in other settings outside of competition.
- Be kind to everyone you meet who is in anyway involved, especially other singers.
I look forward to hearing about your experiences with singing competitions, or how grades you’ve received for your performances have influenced you.