Monday, May 6, 2013

Grace Under Pressure

... OR How to Survive Contest Weekend Without Losing Your Friends Or Your Marbles.

I have been attending Sweet Adelines competitions since I was in the womb.

I know that sounds like a cute hyperbole. But nope. It is indeed a fact. My mother was pregnant with me in Minneapolis. That's right, friends. I was part of a gold-medal-winning performance before I was born. (I never got my medal, btw. Someone ask headquarters about that for me.)

Since then, I have gone to contests, both regional and international, as nearly every kind of participant. I've been in the audience. I've competed in choruses. Small choruses. Great big choruses. Medium-sized choruses. I've competed in a quartet. I've been an outgoing champ. (regional and international.) I've gone as a coach. I've been a quartet hostess. Two weekends ago I went as a member of a quartet whose other three members were competing but I'm CAL so I was designated cheerleader. You get the idea.

Participating in Sweet Adelines was a driving force behind my career choice. After spending my whole life watching my mom coach quartets on our couch, only one choice seemed logical: Music Education. Now, after earning a Bachelors Degree in Music Education and Masters Degrees in Secondary Education and Vocal Performance, I freelance as a music teacher in the Greater New York City Area.

I tell you all of this only to explain that I attend contests with a unique point of view. I've done it my whole life. I have some professional training behind me. And since I am now in a different region as my more famous mom ;) most people have no idea who I am. I slip through contests undetected, able to observe. (Unless I'm in the big fancy recliners at the front of the international audience. That was me in Nashville.)

One of my specialties as a voice teacher is the psychology of singing. All of these aspects combined- my lifetime (literally) of participation, my training, and my psychological approach- help me get through a contest weekend in a zen-like state. And I have to tell ya, it's the most fun way to do it.

So, how do I do it?

Practice. Lots of practice.

But I've outlined some rules below to help you achieve contest zen. I'm not gonna lie to you. They're tough. And they take commitment. But I promise you, if you follow the rules below, you'll leave contest with even more friends and marbles than you had when you arrived.

1. The Five Block Rule
As students at NYU, we were taught the Five Block Rule. Thou Must Not Say Anything Bad About Any Performance Within Five Block of the Theatre.
You just never know who is a producer. Or mom. Or friend. Or Actor no longer in costume. Get five blocks away. At least. THEN discuss.
This is tough at a Sweet Adelines event because, let's face it, you never get one block away from the venue, let alone five. So for Sweet Adelines events, I have adjusted it to be The 24-Hour Rule.
I am serious.
Not even quietly.
Not even in your room.
24 full hours.

I have this rule for a few reasons:

A. You are not as subtle as you think you are.
Friends, I love you. But you are in sequins. And if you and other people wearing the same color sequins immediately put your heads together and whisper the moment a competitor takes the stage, it doesn't matter that we can't hear you. We know what you're saying.

B. It is good for your soul.
You'll just feel better if you spend the weekend being positive. I promise.

C. You'll learn more.

Which leads me to...

2. Look for the Good
It is far more difficult to state what someone is doing correctly. Challenge yourself. Actively LOOK for the good. Make it a game. Can you find three specific things to say about each competitor? You will learn MUCH more about the craft this way. If you can't find three things, ask a director or a judge or a coach. It will change the way you watch contest.

3. Thank You!
There is only one correct response to a compliment. "Thank you!" That's it. Period. If someone compliments your performance, thank them. Listing all of the things you heard that went wrong is essentially telling the compliment-giver that she is incorrect. Is that what you meant to say? Probably not.
This takes practice. I make my students practice in their lessons. Practice complimenting each other at rehearsals. Practice responding with "Thank you."

4. Be the Light
Another tough one. It is human nature to want to criticize. There is going to be a lot of criticism around you. It will be extremely tempting to join in. So have a response prepared. When I'm pushed for criticism, I say "I know it seems silly, but I have a rule for myself. I only say positive things about performances for 24 hours." It's tough to argue with this. And others may even join you!

So let me answer an objection I hear in four-part harmony singing at me from across the world.
"But we want to learn from our experiences!"

To this, I have three responses.

1. See Rules 1C and 2 :)
2. That's why you get those handy DVD's and score sheets. To review things when you are in a better mental and emotional place to do so.
3. Carry a notebook. That's what I do. Then you can write down all of those less-than-nice things without sharing them out loud. (Guard that notebook with your life.)

I know I'm suggesting a lot, and that- as I admitted- it takes LOTS of practice! Maybe I'll post some practice tips as International approaches! But I promise- PROMISE- that you'll leave contest without losing your friends or your marbles.

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  1. Peggy Jones-Speed of Sound quartet-SAIMay 7, 2013 at 6:44 AM

    LOVE this!!! What great ideas, for so many reasons! There should be an SAI class on these FIVE rules alone! Please alert the SING list when you do another blog post like this-I don't wanna miss it!

    1. Thanks, Peggy! I would LOVE to teach a class like that! I will for sure post any related blogs on SING. Feel free to share this one with your friends ;)

  2. Jacqueline Broekman of Cadenza Quartet-CALMay 7, 2013 at 5:09 PM

    What fantastic and SENSIBLE advise! I'll certainly try and do that next week at the Perth Convention, but it's also very valid within our own quartet-circle! Thank you so much!