5 Tips to Survive Contest Season

contest ownership performing perspective rehearsal tips urgency Feb 05, 2024
5 Tips to Survive Contest Season

By Rob Chilton

It’s February and ensembles all across the country are preparing for local and state contests. Today, we’ll discuss five tips to help you sustainably forge ahead during this stressful time of year!

#1 - Create Shared Ownership

In Texas, we have a statewide performance evaluation called the University Interscholastic League (“UIL”) where ensembles perform three selections for judges and are rated on a scale of 1st through 5th division. For the purposes herein, I’ll use the term “UIL” to describe any contest where ensembles are adjudicated against a standard. For those residing outside Texas, please substitute the term “UIL” with your own.

This time of year, one of my favorite things to do when visiting campuses is ask the students, “can anyone tell me about UIL?” Surprisingly, this question often goes unanswered. Ask yourself, “can my students answer the following questions?”

  • What is UIL?
  • Who performs at UIL?
  • Who judges UIL?
  • What types of ratings are given at UIL?
  • What do the ratings mean?
  • When is UIL?
  • Where is UIL?
  • Why do we do UIL?

The point is, we often assume our students know more about their upcoming performances than they really do. If we want them to perform their best, they must have at least an awareness of what they are preparing for, why they are preparing for it, and when their preparations will culminate in performance. Consider the Five W’s–the Who, What, Where, When, and Why–as a solid framework for preparing a conversation with them.

For years, I’ve dedicated an entire class in January or February to explain the UIL process and field questions. Doing so has led to deeper shared ownership of the process–a burden I feel is often carried solely by the director. All groups of people, regardless of age or activity, perform better when they understand the destination!

#2 - Foster Appropriate Urgency

With looming performances on our minds, we often teach with extreme urgency.  In stark contrast, our students often appear totally lacking in urgency.  This dichotomy can create unproductive tension in rehearsal that is felt, but not wholly understood, by our students.  It’s imperative we provide them with a concrete measurement of the distance between the present and the performance–or a “performance countdown.”  A “performance countdown” can be as simple as a dedicated space in the corner of your whiteboard!

I’ve commonly allowed student volunteers to update the countdown after each rehearsal.  They often took great pride in updating the countdown and even decorated it!  (Some truly exceptional dry-erase artwork was created over the years!)  In addition to the countdown, I suggest starting each class with a statement that reiterates the time remaining.  My usual greeting went something like this: 

#3 - Rehearse the Uncomfortable

Do you have a spot in your music that you fear or avoid rehearsing? Just as we advise our students to practice the most difficult passages, we must prioritize the unrefined in rehearsal. They’ll never get better if we don’t play them! It’s obvious, but over the years, I’ve caught myself making excuses such as “we’re going to skip this section today because it doesn’t sound good” or “we’ll work on this after we spend more time on it in sectionals.”

Regarding the latter, sometimes working a passage in small groups or sectionals before trying it in the larger ensemble can be highly effective! However, I’ve also observed–and been guilty of this myself–using this as a reason to avoid addressing large areas of challenging music.

#4 - Don't Forget to Practice Performing!

In 2018, I called legendary Texas band director, Robert Herrings, seeking guidance during my preparations for a performance at the Texas Music Educators Association Clinic/Convention.  At that time, Herrings had already played TMEA twice and was about to play it a third time. I was certain he could provide me with some experience-based wisdom. Of the many things he told me, one thing stood out. Herrings told me I should do run-throughs of my pieces weekly–something he typically did on Fridays.

He explained further that the act of performing in full was different from regular rehearsal. In rehearsal, errors are periodically addressed by stopping, providing feedback, and picking back up. In a run-through, the students are responsible for recognizing and recovering from their own mistakes without a safety net. He went on to emphasize that developing the skill of performance recovery was essential for a smooth stage performance.

Prior to this conversation, I had always felt that running through music before every detail was worked out was an inefficient use of time. Perhaps it was because I hated hearing and “allowing” mistakes without stopping to address them. Still, I gave it a shot. The results were that my ensembles became more stable and predictable on stage–something that brought me great relief on performance day!

#5 - Keep Perspective

My team and I were conversing after a rough day in 2015.  After we’d finished venting our frustrations, my then student teacher, Kevin Thompson–who is now an accomplished band director–turned to me and said nonchalantly, “I. J. B.”  I must have looked puzzled because he quickly followed up with, “it’s just band.”  Little did he know, that simple acronym would have a profound effect on me for years to come.

As music teachers, we take our jobs very seriously.  After all, we made it our careers!  However, it is important to maintain perspective.  For many of our students, we’re just another class period in their day.  That’s not to say they don’t enjoy our class or that we aren’t making a positive impact on them.  It’s just a reminder that while music might be the only thing we do all school day, it’s not the only thing they do.  I’m not sure about you, but when I was in 7th grade, my biggest concerns were not my 16th notes in “West Highlands Sojourn'' or my Db scale.  Truly, I was more concerned about what I was going to eat for lunch/dinner and whether or not the girl in 6th period liked me or not.  (Spoiler alert–she did not!) 

Enjoying this article?  Check out our music literacy program!

Final Thoughts

Your worth as a human being, your value to others, and your contribution to your community are not defined by your contest ratings.  That’s not to say that ratings don’t matter.  They do within the specific context they are relevant.  Just be careful not to assign ratings to your own self-worth.  Even worse, try earnestly not to compare your own perceived self-worth against what you perceive is the worth of others.  Comparison is surely the thief of joy and can cloud your ability to appreciate all your hard work and growth.  Best wishes for a happy and successful contest season!

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About the author:

Rob Chilton is the creator and owner of Readymade Music, LLC and its content. Previously, Chilton was a middle school band director from 2007-2021. His most recent teaching position was the Head Band Director at Killian Middle School in Lewisville, Texas from 2014-2021.

Under his direction, the Killian Honors Band was named the 2018 Texas Music Educators Association CC Honor Band and performed at the annual 2018 TMEA Clinic/Convention. In 2019, the Killian Honors Band was invited to and performed at The Midwest Clinic in Chicago. Additionally, the Killian Honors Band was named a National Winner in the Mark of Excellence National Wind Band Honors Project in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019.

Chilton is a graduate of Southern Methodist University where he had the opportunity to study music education under the tutelage of Lynne Jackson and Brian Merrill. During his years as a middle school band director, Chilton continued his professional growth under the guidance of his primary clinicians, John Benzer and Brian Merrill.

Chilton’s mission for Readymade Music is to promote the overall well-being of music education and support school music teachers by providing solutions to help make teaching music more efficient and inspirational while increasing engagement for 21st century learners.

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