• Eduardo Fernandez

On competitions (but not only)

(Photo: Achraf Baznani)

This pretends to be some incoherent, contradictory, maybe trivial and probably ineffectual but well-meant advice and warnings about entering competitions.

I have been quite often in juries of international guitar competitions, which might not be the best way of passing your time. I would honestly prefer sitting in a tropical beach, or failing that, a pool, with some Campari at hand. But duty is duty.

The three good things about being in the jury are: 1) you do not have to play; 2) you get to meet again old friends; and 3) it gives you a very good observatory from which to see the trends and fads prevailing in the younger colleagues.

Since certain things keep recurring every time, I thought maybe it could be useful to talk about them. I am sure the following is obvious to many, and also I'm pretty sure some people will think me naïve or idealistic, and they might be right. And rereading, I find out that this advice is not limited to competitions. Too late now to rewrite it, so this is what I would advice:

  • Guitar playing is not a sport, and it is not (or should not be) judged on how loud or fast you played, or how many mistakes you did not make. That is for the Olympics. We play a different game called music (an art, really) in which you might play all the notes and still play very little of the music. This is not a licence to be amateurish, of course, but so-called “professionalism” (not making mistakes) is only the first step. In connection with this: slow pieces are also music.

  • Remember, the juries WANT you to do well, if only because they will have to listen to you to the bitter end anyway if you don’t. They are on your side, in principle (or at least they were, before you started playing). No need to be afraid of them before you start, and after you start, it is too late to worry. Keep going.

  • Never enter a competition just to “gain experience”. You will not gain anything, believe me. If you just want to see, live, what your colleagues are doing, go there to watch. If you just want to network, go to a big festival. Being eliminated in the first round might be a good life lesson, in the long run, but it is not a pleasant experience. And, worse, some of those nasty vengeful ogres who are in the jury have an elephant’s memory, and are likely to remember you as that person who had the cheek to enter a competition without being ready. So, the next time, some knives might be more sharpened than usual.

  • It is very rare for competitions to make or break the career of a guitarist, nowadays. But there will be some people listening who will form a lasting impression, they might have some say in your future, and they are not necessarily in the jury. So relax, and do your best.

  • If you do take part in a competition, please be natural and do with the music what you honestly think should be done. Don’t be afraid of putting your own ideas about the music to work . There is this advice floating around, and even being actively promoted, that you have to play to “please the juries” (whatever that would mean) and “adjust” your interpretations to what you presume to be the jury’s tastes, so you can "win". This is very toxic (as well as pretentious) nonsense. First: how can you pretend to know in advance what kind of playing a particular jury would like to hear? Specially, when that person is likely to be far more experienced and knowledgeable than you are. And even if some member of the jury does have preferences of style, or whatever, they will recognize quality or the lack of it above all else. Hopefully. Second: if you are a real musician and not a vulgar hack, you couldn’t possibly play your program in any other way than you do. You arrived to your decisions by a good deal of hard work and hard thinking, your whole self is at stake when you play, and there is no possible other way that you could play that piece. If you did, you would be a traitor to yourself. (If you do not have these kind of strong conviction, maybe you are not ready yet.) So, just do your best, give yourself entirely to the work you are playing. The rest is not in your hands. And believe me, integrity (or lack thereof) is one of the first things even an amateur listener can detect. Many things can be forgiven if you are perceived as authentic. Better to be convinced and wrong, than to be correct and not convinced.

  • When playing (for yourself, for others, or in a competition, never mind) your goal should be to serve the music, and not to try to make the music serve you. Competitions can be dangerous for your soul if they encourage you to pass to the dark side of the Force and choose the latter frame of mind. Your business is with the composer, not with the jury. The juries are just watching how do you go about it (if they are knowledgeable, of course, but most of the time they will be).

  • Don’t do eccentric things that you don’t really believe in, just to be “original”. Start by doing what the score says, and use whatever common sense you have. Yes, tempo indications are not absolute, but if the score says “Allegro non troppo”, and you play "as fast as possible" you are not being impressive, you are just showing lack of musical discernment and bad taste. If you play a Tárrega Mazurka as slow as a Mahler Adagio, you are just being ridiculous, not profound. If you play the “Prelude” from “La Catedral” doing constant crescendi and diminuendi completely unrelated to what is happening in the music, as if there was some drunken audio technician manipulating the controls, you are not showing musicality but cluelessness (I did not make up these examples! I wish I had!).

  • Some guitarists think that dynamics indications are some kind of superfluous calligraphic decoration to the score. Not the case. A loud note is DIFFERENT from a soft note, musically speaking. The same applies to the agogic indications. (By the way, it would be a good idea if you try to find out why both types of indications are there, in that particular place, before you ignore them. If you can find the logic behind them, they will come out a lot better). If you have done your work well, it will still be original, because (fortunately) we all see things differently - but you will not worry anymore about being "different" because you will have found something far more interesting to do.

  • Having said that: we all know that a score is not itself music, but only instructions for (hopefully decent) music-making. But the first step is to follow those instructions. Plenty of leeway within them.

  • Your programming will say something about who you are as a musician. Choose good, solid works – they do not need to be long but they do need to be good music. "Solid" and "stolid" or "solemn" are not the same - good music can also be fun. Resist the temptation to include that showy but substantially empty piece which “everybody” (this means, everybody you know, or your classmates) is playing now and which will be forgotten five years from now. You may think you are impressing the juries with your virtuosity, but the juries have seen a lot better, believe me. Of course if the g.s.w. has virtuosic passages, and you are comfortable with them, no need to be shy about it either. And if you do not feel comfortable with a piece, do not play it. Repeat: DO NOT. If it happens to be an obligatory piece, study it until you love it.

  • You do not need to fill up all the time available. If you have worked out a nice 18-minute program and the competition rules allow up to 20, you do not need to add “El Colibrí”. Nothing to be gained, and potentially a lot to be lost.

  • This is so obvious that I am almost ashamed to say it, but it has been known to happen. Do consult with your teacher before entering a competition and planning your program, and if he or she says “Don’t”, then don’t. Your teacher is your teacher because there is a pretty good chance that she or he knows more than you do – and knows your strengths or weaknesses too.

  • Good luck!


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