Sunday, November 6, 2011

Competitive Edge

This time of year is when the Texas band students gear up for individual competitions.  My Junior High and High School kids are all getting ready for the Region Band auditions, my sixth graders just had their Honor Band auditions, and we are starting to pick music for Solo and Ensemble contest in February.  This is a time of nerves, anxiety, and self defeat.
Many of my students are struggling with how to deal with the pressure they encounter while playing by themselves, in front of other people, for a score.  They are nervous about how they will play, the impression others will take from hearing them, and the results of the auditions.  Many of them crater under the pressure.  
One student in particular confided in me that her anxiety sometimes reaches a point where she blacks out.  After the audition is complete, she doesn’t have any recollection of what happened.  
Each of these students attempts to manage their nerves in their own individual way.  They all have little rituals they perform the day of their big audition: some will not play at all before the audition, some will play entirely too much; some will wear special clothes, some don’t care; some bring coloring books into the room, some a book to read, and others will sleep.  One student told me that she had heard bananas tame your nerves, so in the three days prior to the audition last year, she ate something like 3 pounds in bananas.
What many of these students find is that they only way they really are able to successfully manage their nerves is to practice them.  In an effort to help them prepare, I would do mock auditions in their lessons, taking excessive notes, sitting in a way that suggests an audition setting, and looking at them intently.  I also will randomly invite a band director or another student into the lesson to listen to them play.  While this helps, ultimately, the student will only improve at auditioning if they take their efforts into their own hands.
As an adult, to prepare for job interviews, I would ask myself questions, crafting my answers to make sure I said exactly what I wanted to say.  I would have friends or my wife ask me questions randomly, trying to knock me off balance.  The only way I could improve at interviewing was to do it.  The same goes for my students.  I tell them to play for their friends, their significant others, their parents, to call up Grandma on the phone and play for her, for their band directors, for other teachers, etc.  Putting themselves in that situation is the best way to get ready for it.
Of course, none of this matters if you can’t get out of your own head.  As a teenager, the  one thing you care about more than anything in the world is self image.  During an audition, a student that centers in on their mistakes is going to perform poorly.  I call it the snowball effect - you focus on your first mistake and not on what is coming next, so you make another, and another, and another.  Eventually every note is incorrect, the music sounds nothing like what is on the page, and the student’s spirit is crushed.
I encourage them to imagine putting their mistakes in a box which they won’t look in until the audition is finished.  They are more than welcome to be aware of any mistakes they might make, but into the box they must go.  Ideally, this prevents them from distracting their focus from the job at hand and keeps them from snowballing to the end of their piece.
When I interviewed at Conroe High School in the summer of 2006, I felt confident going into the interview.  I thought I knew all the answers to any question they could throw at me and was ready to knock them out of the park.  I met with the Band Director and the Fine Arts Coordinator first and felt confident.  Then we went to meet the principal, an imposing force of a man.  Finally, a question was thrown my way I hadn’t prepared for - “Do you have any questions for me?”
Wow, I froze.  I had no questions.  I had never thought to have questions.  I didn’t know what to ask.  So, I told him no.  He smiled an intimidating grin and said, “Wouldn’t you like to know how the principal views the Fine Arts, and band specifically, in the fabric of Conroe High School?”
I gave him the only answer I could think of - yes.
No matter how diligently you prepare for these encounters, there is always something you won’t anticipate.  This is when it comes down to character and personality.  My students may have to deal with broken reeds, an instrument problem, forgetting their music, or a simple brain fart like forgetting a fingering.  At this point, they get to choose: push through and find a solution or succumb to the pressure of failure.
For me, as a teacher, these auditions are less about the rankings at the end of the contest and more about the growth the student experiences during the process.  My job is to guide them to their best potential, offer them a set of skills that can help them reach that potential, and give them some tools to deal with the pressure of the moment.  For some of my students, simply showing up, sitting down, and playing, is the victory.
The same can be said for most of us.  In any situation in which we feel pressure to perform, avoiding the costly mental badgering over any perceived errors should help usher us towards a more successful attempt.  Remember, competition is about the growth involved, not just the end result.  Focusing only on the result can leave you cut from getting too close to the competitive edge.

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