Competitions – Just for Horses?

Although music is, of course, not a competitive art form, participating in competitions can shape the development of young musicians. This is the story of how I got into doing competitions, plus some advice for YOUR next competition.
bass competitions wies de boeve

Participating in competitions has been very rewarding for me, both on a musical and a personal level. I got into it very naturally. I had just begun my studies in Belgium when my teacher advised me to take part in the Belgian National Music Competition. I was very impressed with the list of previous winners and dreamed about how crazy it would be if my name were on that list one day. So, I listened to my teacher and started to prepare the program. It was a huge task for me, but luckily the competition went very well. Apart from a big helping of motivation, I also got the opportunity to perform some recitals — an excellent start for my studies.

Just a few years after this first national competition, the 2008 Bass Convention in Paris was to be my very first international competition. The required repertoire was a real hurdle, as almost all the pieces were new to me. It was very stimulating to learn so much new material. Just the challenge of learning all this new repertoire made me want to go for it. As a bonus after this intense time, the competition also happened to go very well for me; I won a prize and very importantly: I made many new contacts.

I continued on the same path, and the next few competitions went similarly. Preparing became easier and easier; on the one hand, my repertoire grew larger, and on the other, I became really fit on the bass. Setting competitions as the goals for my practice process required total dedication, more so than during relaxed, competition-free phases. I think this made me progress faster musically, technically and performance-wise. Double bassists have a hard time getting stage experience as soloists. Players of other instruments have it much easier, thanks to the naturalness with which their instruments take on the role of soloist, as well as the amount and quality of their repertoire. Therefore, as a bassist, it is important to create your own performance opportunities.

Before the preparation period leading up to a competition, you would have ideally already played parts of the repertoire in public a few times. And then the competition itself offers you a few more moments on stage. If you are lucky, you get to perform your entire programme over the course of three or four rounds. That means three or four solo performances, one of which may even be with the orchestra. These opportunities — to play as a soloist with an orchestra — are even more rare and special. Podium experience is essential for improving our solo performance and for our development as musicians. Be it a recital, concerto, competition or audition, the experience on stage helps us get better and better at transmitting the music to our audience. And that is actually the whole point.

The most important things when participating in competitions happen afterwards. Concert engagements, contacts, new repertoire; opportunities arise and doors open. Although we can never predict the result of a competition, it is always a worthwhile investment. With every competition our professional circle expands — I not only gained friendships that I nurture to this day, but I also built a network of contacts with orchestras that later engaged me. I would highly recommend viewing the other candidates not so much as rivals but rather as the human beings and musicians that they are. Competitions are melting pots for people of similar ages and interests. Together, you share precious moments that you don’t often find later in your professional life.

I realise that I might not have followed this path if my first experiences were less successful. Doing competitions is very intense, mentally. The impressions you get, without even speaking about the outcome of the competition, may influence you greatly. I don’t think there is a “recipe for success”; everybody is different. So if I should give any piece of advice, I can only speak from my own experience.

  • Repertoire: this is perhaps the most important step. I recommend choosing a repertoire of pieces you really enjoy playing or want to learn. You’ll be spending quite some time with this repertoire, and you’ll have to know it inside out. Choose music you find interesting, and that offers enough food for thought.
  • Additionally, take some time to work out which pieces combine well within one round. Avoid making the individual rounds too physically demanding. Choose a less physically demanding piece to put between high energy pieces of music.
  • When preparing for a competition, don’t feel as though you have to practice the whole program every day. You don’t even need to do whole pieces or whole movements. The program is far too vast so instead, focus on the passages or details that need more work. Solving one after the other, you’ll narrow the difficulties down, which will in the end make you more confident on stage. Learning to work like this will help you tremendously during your career as, in general, after those few years of study, having time to practice becomes rare.
  • Try to organise some concerts beforehand so you can get a feel of what it is like to play this music on stage. I don’t think you have to organise the concerts exactly like the rounds of the competition. Combine freely to make the best possible concert.
  • Take a day off every week. This is something my former professor, Duncan McTier, used to say to me many, many times, and I’m convinced that it is very important. I typically would plan to take the second to last day before the first round off. You don’t want to be tired when you’re about to start a competition. Also, this day off every week helps to organise your months of preparation and gives you structure.
  • Speaking about months of preparation: start as early as you can. In most cases, you know when there is a competition coming up. Decide if you’re going to participate as soon as the programme is out, and then start thinking about the repertoire. Decide on the best repertoire for you as soon as possible.
  • During the competition, what helps me calm my nerves is to think about the music and not think too much about the competition. I think it’s inevitable NOT to think about the competition you’re doing — at least for me! But when you feel nervous, think about how well you prepared and that now you finally get the chance just to play. There will always be things you can do better, and you’ll never feel totally ready. I’m sure, however, that if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll realise that never before would you have been able to play the music to that level when you arrived at an event like this. So enjoy that!

I do hope these tips help you on your way. There will be times when you think the jury was unjust or when you just wish you hadn’t applied in the first place. There is always a fair amount of luck with competitions, but participating in them can be an extremely rewarding experience in the long run. Yes, winning a prize is nice, but it’s a bonus. Learning how to practice, enlarging your repertoire, meeting interesting people, getting experience on stage, learning how to deal with stressful situations and creating new performance opportunities are things which are essential for life.

Wies de Boevé is the winner of six international music competitions, including the first prize and the audience award at the ARD Competition 2016 and the first prize at the Bottesini Competition 2017. In 2015 he became the first double bass player in history to win the top prize at the German Music Competition. Wies is co-principal double bass of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and regularly appears with many other leading ensembles, including the Berlin Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, Vienna Philharmonic and London Symphony Orchestra. He teaches at the Zurich University of Arts and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra Academy. From September 2022, he will also become a professor at the Reina Sofía Escuela Superior de Música in Madrid. Wies gives masterclasses worldwide and has coached the European Union Youth Orchestra musicians since 2013.

Leave a Reply