How to Prepare for Music Competitions

by Dr. Thomas Swenson –

Music competitions are a regular part of life for many students who plan to go to music school and seek a career in music.  Three “realities” of music competitions:

1. Any performance — whether in a competition, a lesson, for friends, or at Carnegie Hall — is just a “snapshot” of your talent and skills. Prepare and do your best, and then be proud that you did!

2. Music evaluators (judges) love music. They are evaluating the communicative power of your performance; they are not judging you personally.

While accuracy is something to continually strive for, most judges want to be emotionally moved by the music. Even with a few errors, music can magically connect people with ideas that transcend language.

3. Music competitions do not have easily quantifiable scores.  Unlike a soccer game, where you simply count the number of goals, music ratings are somewhat subjective. Judges do their best to take into account many things:

  • overall musicality
  • stylistic elements (somewhat debatable)
  • adherence to the score (creative interpretation versus the minutia of the score)
  • the entire program you prepared (diverse styles performed equally well)
  • the individual pieces (like you, judges simply have music preferences)
  • musical intuition (who can really define this?)

5 Benefits Gained from Participating in Music Competitions

1. An opportunity to overcome technical, musical, and mental challenges.

This should be one of the most important goals of entering any competition. Many times you may overcome a challenge in your practicing, but overcoming a challenge in a public venue is a much more celebrated victory.

2. Exposure to many people who appreciate and support music, including teachers, college/university faculty, and potential employers and fans (who may eventually become financial supporters).

Many students have made important connections at competitions that eventually led to scholarships or participation in other unique programs.  Feedback from these people, especially the judges, can help you identify your strengths and areas to further develop.

3. An opportunity for your “fans” to witness and acknowledge your growth (some competitions allow an audience).

Anyone watching your performance (typically family, friends, teachers) can provide important feedback about your long-term development.

4. A chance to observe your peers.

You can gauge your own strengths and weaknesses against those of your peers. You may also be exposed to, and inspired by, new and exciting repertoire.

5. An honorable recognition of your musicianship.

If you happen to place in, or win, a competition, include it in future applications and your résumé.

Final Advice for Anyone Thinking about Music Competitions

  • Seek out competitions that are at the appropriate level for your development.  Doing so ensures that you are more likely to have a positive experience.
  • Prepare to your best ability, perform your best, and be proud of your performance—no matter what actually happens.
  • Good resources –– books, articles, videos, and even “performance coaches” –– can help you develop strategies for performing at your peak.
  • Be proud of winning a competition, but remember it is only a momentary recognition. Be respectful and sensitive to your peers who don’t fare as well as you.
  • Consider lessons with music school faculty or local lessons within your community on violin, piano, wind instruments, voice, etc. specifically geared toward helping you prepare for competitions.

Dr. Thomas Swenson teaches at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. He has been a national leader in the field of piano pedagogy and in the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA). Dr. Swenson holds degrees from Minnesota State University, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and the University of Oklahoma.

Photo Credit: Interlochen Center for the Arts


  1. I really enjoyed your article. In addition, participants should enjoy the whole process, not dread it. It’s a really beautiful experience taking part in a music competition.

  2. I love what you said:
    “While accuracy is something to continually strive for, most judges want to be emotionally moved by the music. Even with a few errors, music can magically connect people with ideas that transcend language.”

    I am constantly telling my students similar things as I help them prepare for competitions.

    Also this is a book that revolutionized my performance ability: “The Inner Game of Music” by Barry Green. Well worth the read!

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