The morning before her live audition for the Elite International Music Competition, Mia Shelton ’21 ate her usual breakfast, a cup of yogurt, and ran through a series of pre-competition rituals.
“I have a breakdown if these [superstitions] don’t happen,” Shelton said. “For example, I need to get out of bed on my left foot, and I have to play through the piece an odd [number] of times before performing.”
During the week prior to her audition, Shelton slept five hours and spent another two practicing technique drills each night, due to pre-competition anxiety. While Shelton usually plays the piano for a total of 15 hours per week, her practice time can increase to 25 hours the week before a major competition.
Shelton entered the Elite International Music Competition with three pieces prepared, among them Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G Sharp Minor, Op. 32 No. 12, a work characterized by light, delicate repeated figures in the right hand and large leaps in the left, she said. With the adjudicators watching and the stage lights bright against her back, she placed her fingers on the keys and began to play. Halfway through the performance, however, she paused.
“I had a memory slip and missed two measures of the climax of the melody,” Shelton said. “Right after, I couldn’t even speak to the judges to say thank you. Right as I walked out of the room, I started sobbing.”
Despite her technical mistake, Shelton placed first in the competition and performed at the winner’s recital in Carnegie Hall.
Practice makes perfect
Competition has been an integral part of Shelton’s musical career since she performed in the Southwestern Youth Music Festival at age seven.
Other musicians, including Kailey Suh ’21, began participating in competitions much later. Suh, an aspiring professional violinist, said that she has already witnessed the ruthlessness of her peers, despite only entering the competition scene in 2018.
“Competitions inspire you to want to work harder and to be better because you want to be at that higher level, but most people just want the awards,” Suh said. “They’re like sharks and will do anything that they can to get what they want.”
Suh practices the violin for at least 90 minutes every day, sometimes beginning at 1 a.m. due to her fencing schedule and academic course load. Listening to and performing for other highly-trained violinists at competitions pushed her to practice more, she said.
“[After playing in my first competition,] I definitely learned how to work harder,” Suh said. “My confidence went up too, because in order to do well in competitions, you need to have stage presence, as well as technique.”
Like Suh, Shelton has become more aware of the cutthroat nature of competitions. The pool of musicians that she usually competes against has narrowed significantly, resulting in increased rivalries and a more hostile environment, she said.
“Not only are competitions stress-inducing because of yourself, but at the level that I am now, I often compete with the same people,” Shelton said. “The circle has gotten smaller, and with this, the competitiveness has gotten worse.”
Because voting in competitions is often biased, some musicians actively seek advantages over their peers by warming up to the judges before their performances, Shelton said.
“I’ve found that even indirect relationships have an impact on [competition results],” Shelton said. “I’ve seen a judge and a kid talk before, [and they] were mutual family friends. That person placed third, and technically, I don’t think they deserved third.”
Violinist Rachel Mugemancuro ’22 said she found her competition experience to be more inclusive and less stressful than Suh’s and Shelton’s. However, she had to learn how to adopt a different mindset in order to avoid succumbing to the pressure, she said.
“For the most part, people are friendly,” Mugemancuro said. “It’s easy to get in your head during competitions, but due to the fact that it’s an equalizing experience, and you have to go through the same stress, you don’t usually see infighting.”
Pianist Andrew Gong ’21 has also found the classical music community to be welcoming, since most musicians respect each other, even in competition settings, he said.
“Although my family comes from a background steeped in music, I’m not immersed in any sort of ‘competition culture,’” Gong said. “I remember numerous times when complete strangers who were competing against me would congratulate me on how I played.”
Gong said he performed in competitions because his parents, who are both invested in the music world, pushed him to compete. However, many others perform only to build their resumes prior to applying to elite universities, he said.
“Some [musicians] may compete to add accolades to their applications, and some may want to showcase a hobby that they’ve poured work into,” Gong said. “I don’t think any of these reasons is more correct than the others. That being said, I think people who play music just to accrue medals are throwing away a valuable opportunity.”
Music as an outlet
Certain competitions are able to provide students with the chance to develop their musical skills and enhance their college applications, while other competitions instead exploit the performers, performing arts teacher Mark Hilt said.
“Competitions can be resume builders, regardless of if you are going to major in music or not,” Hilt said. “Some are very useful because they’re about the person and their performance, but some [competitions] are ways for the organization to make money.”
Despite her mounting anxiety due to the intense nature of musical competitions, Shelton never seriously considered giving up the piano.
Throughout the nine years that she has competed, music has remained a critical outlet for expressing herself, she said.
“Piano is something where I can see clearly for the amount of work that I put in, the more beautiful the product,” Shelton said. “Listening to something that you’ve spent so many hours on is the best feeling in the world. It’s so ingrained in my life now that I can’t imagine not playing.”