How to foster positive experiences in a competition: concerns in preparing a Suzuki contestant



Aluna Júlia do Centro Suzuki ganha 2º prêmio em concurso na Holanda

A Teacher’s Challenge

I have taught using the Suzuki method for 17 years, and I always try to supplement the daily lives of my students with information and opportunities related to the recorder. This means that I talk with them about ongoing concerts, courses, events, master classes, opportunities to play with an orchestra, travel—and why not, contests?
I know some teachers are against the participation of their students in competitions. I’ve heard a number of comments related to negative experiences of children—and especially of Suzuki students, who are taught about the joy of playing and to respect and encourage other students rather than to compete against them, which inevitably changes as the students become old enough to join a youth orchestra.
I began to change my mind in 2001. Before that, I was also mostly against this type of activity, until experience demonstrated the opposite: we can learn a lot in competitive situations, especially if we know how to choose the right event and prepare in accordance with work already being done.
In 2001 I attended a recorder contest with different categories in southern Brazil. At the time, I took a student I had taught for six years. It was a very positive experience for her and for me. We both shared the preparation for the contest and also shared the results.
I remember that my impression of entering contests improved at the time, because I learned that the preparation was the most important part of the whole process. The repertoire selection, rehearsals, classes, and even having the chance to watch the other participants at the competition—all of these situations seemed to be worth much more than any prize (or unsuccessful results) from a competition.
Nevertheless, I have remained wary about the possible negative experiences in contests, and especially the effect on the emotional state of a child: expectations, frustrations, comparisons, etc. I always take great care when I place my students in competitive situations.
For this reason, let me share with you the most recent experience in the participation of one of my students in an important recorder contest.

The Contest11264965_1085112411504453_1640219147736588395_n

When I received information about ORDA (Open Recorder Days Amsterdam) for 2015, I forwarded it to all my students and their families. Many of them had technical and musical skills advanced enough to participate and were of sufficient age to enter one of the categories. I thought the major difficulty would be financial. Travel to another country, with the unfavorable exchange rate, is almost unfeasible.
Families had different reasons for not going to ORDA. In addition to financial, for some it was not the time for the student to risk such an investment of time and money; other families prefer to avoid competitive situations for their children.
My approach at times like this is always to talk about the event with the parents and students. They decide whether to participate, not me. And even if the answer is no, I continue talking about future events. It is important for parents and students to know that there is life for your instrument outside the classroom or the immediate music community.
For ORDA 2015, the family of Júlia Abdalla (7 years old) accepted the challenge. Júlia would be able to participate in the category for children up to 11 years old. She might be the youngest competitor, but it would be a great experience.
Why did I share the information about ORDA? Because it was not just a recorder contest, but also a great recorder event happening in The Netherlands—a country known for its superb recorder players.
The ORDA schedule included lectures, concerts and an instrument exhibition, as well as various contests in different categories of the competition. Júlia could fill her eyes and heart with music for the recorder. This may be the best scenario to present to a recorder student, and the ideal opportunity to enter a competition without the burden of its being only a contest. The many other activities may serve to diminish the importance of the competition.


Júlia’s parents, Thiago Abdalla (a professional guitarist with Quaternaglia Guitar Quartet, which often tours the U.S.) and Gabriela Vasconcelos Abdalla, are also musicians; they know the importance of such an event in the life of a music student. When they decided Júlia would compete, I began my strategy to help her prepare.
For ORDA, Júlia would have to play 10 minutes of music—a big challenge for a person who has studied an instrument for 18 months!
In addition, since the financial investment would be significant, I had to prepare her in a way so that she had a chance of success in the contest. For me the goal of success meant: selecting a repertoire technically and musically suitable for her age and skills, and that can be easily memorized by a student who does not read music (as in the Suzuki Method); and playing this repertoire musically.
What was needed to achieve this?
1) Repertoire: the choice was not an easy task. A contest repertoire should be well-thought-out. It should show off the player’s skills and must be within the contestant’s capabilities. It must present a certain challenge to the player, who must work hard for a long time on the same pieces. It must be attractive for the jury, which could be tired of hearing similar pieces during the long contest. Here were my strategies:

• We chose something she had already played: Larghetto from the Handel Sonata in F Major (taken from Suzuki Book 2, which she had completed).

• Because I think it’s not artistically appropriate to play only part of a larger work, I challenged Júlia to play the Gigue from the same sonata. She would learn this movement later in her studies, in Suzuki Book 3.

• To fill out the 10 minutes of repertoire, I asked what Júlia could offer to an audience and jury that is unique. Brazilian music was a great choice! My challenge was to find original Brazilian music for recorder that was within the capabilities of a Suzuki Book 2 student. I chose a set of five Brazilian miniatures by Edmundo Villani-Côrtes (b. 1930).

2) Preparing the entire program, “without haste, but without rest”: this took place in the period from February to April. Our choice was to meet for extra classes to have time to prepare everything, without procrastinating. Working gradually and with tranquility produced a resulting calm later, when Júlia needed it.

3) Practice at home: I had the help of parents who knew what to do because they were already accustomed to the process. We decided that she would play the contest repertoire accompanied by her father on the guitar, which would give her more security when she played in a foreign country.

4) Preparation and emotional practice: I talked to her parents about Júlia’s performing the contest repertoire before ORDA—in different settings, to different audiences. Simulating the contest situation was extremely important in the process. Partially we worked on dealing with emotions, but also on navigating instrument changes (condensation, temperature, usual recorder concerns), tuning and on-stage presence.

It was vital to involve Júlia in the preparation process. For this, we made a schedule where Júlia kept track of the extra recitals, extra classes, rehearsals— and the travel dates. At the end of each day, Júlia pasted a sticker on her calendar, a concrete way to show the passage of time and completion of tasks.
We set up three recitals before the contest. As one of them approached, Júlia had a fever. She was not feeling well in the morning; we thought she would be ill. By the time of the recital, the fever was gone and she was fine the following day. What became very clear to the adults (parents and teacher) was that the Júlia’s fever was caused by her emotional reaction.
At this point, I was sure that we were on the right track, because we were also working on dealing with her emotional skills.
My philosophy was always to convey to Júlia what it meant to participate in a contest. The outcome of the competition would be an opportunity for good performance, plus the experience she would learn playing in a contest in another country. Her parents reinforced the same ideas; all of us were speaking the same language.
The next recital was set in a bookstore for children, which sent out announcements about the recital and about Júlia’s story. Thus, a few journalists came to us to interview Júlia and report on her adventure.
Now Júlia’s attitude was so positive that—when interviewed by Folha de São Paulo, a large media company in Brazil— she replied, when she was asked what she thought she would find in The Netherlands, “I imagine a lot of people who play well together. And an audience in a circle, so that you can see the musicians everywhere.”
“Whoever plays better is going to win a trophy, but the best award for me is to go to Amsterdam.”
In reading her responses, I felt even more that our work up to that time had been successful: her expectations were not whether she would win or lose. Her attitude was more one of: I’ll take whatever I can, so long as I go!

The full interview in Portuguese, plus a video, is at FOLHA SP

The Contest

Júlia arrived in Amsterdam with her father and participated in the preliminary round. I received many e-mails and messages from professional colleagues who were there and saw her performance. Everyone was delighted! She enjoyed every experience possible, and she played beautifully. For all of us, the results there, combined with the preparation we had at home, were already amazing.
When she went to the finals, her parents told me they did not imagine she would get this far.
I knew she was well-prepared, but never mentioned anything about expectations beyond the process we had followed. I could not predict what would happen there. Which children would be in her category? How well would these other children be prepared? What contest criteria would be used to choose the best recorder player?

Back at Home

Júlia came back super-motivated. She learned a lot about her instrument in such a short time and in the best way: by hearing good examples. Now she carries this amazing experience, having observed the interpretations of others and the relationship of different players with the instrument. She shares this energy wherever she is, infecting the other students with the same joy of making music by playing recorder.
She even said to me, “I can not stop playing!!”
I asked another student (age six) if he had caught Júlia’s virus, and was also playing the recorder all day long, He answered: “I think that all your students have the same virus!”
After this uplifting experience, now it time for Júlia’s parents to describe their feelings about every-thing that happened.

Foto: Yat Ho Tsang - Yatho Photography
Foto: Yat Ho Tsang – Yatho Photography

Thoughts from Júlia’s Parents

Júlia is a child who had the opportunity to experience music and rhythm games very early, possibly even during pregnancy. She could listen to her mother singing, her father practicing guitar. Recordings and videos that include music from different periods and styles certainly influenced her sense of the natural process of learning music.
Since early childhood, she has used musical language elements in her play—singing, dancing, and composing rhythms and melodies.
Beyond this, we as parents encouraged her to learn to play piano and guitar (the instruments we already play at home). However, she lacked the discipline and motivation to practice, at her young age.
We heard about Renata Pereira, and knew that she taught music classes to a girl of the same age as Júlia. We had the opportunity for our daughter to begin the study of another instrument: the recorder. Her motivation and study discipline significantly improved.
Since then, she has made progress, after hundreds of repetitions to learn good posture and to develop beautiful sound, tuning and interpretation of different musical styles (phrasing, articulation, breathing and other elements of interpretation). Following the Suzuki Method used by Renata, we established the link of parent-teacherstudent, supporting Júlia in what we consider to be an excellent technical and musical development.
The experience at Open Recorder Days Amsterdam encouraged her to practice a distinct repertoire, using the following guidelines:

• Focused lessons
• Daily practice with her mother monitoring
• Regular rehearsals with her father, who would accompany her on the guitar during performance.

Since the moment Renata encouraged Júlia to apply to ORDA, we also encouraged our daughter to decide herself whether or not to participate, keeping in mind the 10-week intense study period that would be necessary.
Júlia attended recorder classes two times a week, to absorb all the details needed to interpret the new repertoire. The practice routine became more intense at home. The deadline, which at first looked quite tight, gradually became feasible.
At home, we listened to a variety of music—different versions of pieces by Handel, plus historical and aesthetic interpretations of the Five Miniatures by Villani-Côrtes. To know the context of Brazilian musical styles, as well as to improvise on their sounds, were strategies used in our home study. The more we played, the more Júlia liked to practice.
Small recitals to “warm up” took place before the trip in different venues in São Paulo: the British Center, the bookstore Nine Seven, and São Paulo State Music School–Tom Jobim. In her regular school, Júlia played to classmates. After a while, it became a little routine, which she loved, involving the teacher and the other students.
For us, the goal had already been achieved: Júlia felt great pleasure in making music!
During ORDA in Amster- dam, Júlia was able to watch other children and teenagers masterfully playing music ranging from Renaissance to contemporary, in different ensembles including the recorder. Every day, when we returned to the hotel, she emulated the positive activities of that day. An accelerated development was inevitable, given her immersion in the recorder universe.
Besides watching the performances in the contest, there were concerts and an instrument exhibition with numerous recorder makers and businesses, where she might try many different instruments without restrictions. The entire festival team gave a lot of care and attention to the participants.

And the Winner is …

Júlia returned victorious! She was the second prize winner in her age category and received a cash prize. Even more important, she had intense experiences—and in the end, played a challenging repertoire in a manner that was correct in its musical context. Afterwards, we all feel that Júlia is still the same child—but now the recorder holds its own place in her musical universe.

3 Comments to "How to foster positive experiences in a competition: concerns in preparing a Suzuki contestant"

  1. Como professora de música e mãe, não pude deixar de me emocionar. Parabéns à todos os envolvidos no processo!!!!

    • A Julia tem mais de uma flauta de modelos diferentes. Nas fotos e vídeos deste artigo, ela usa uma flauta soprano Denner da Mollenhauer.

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