Thursday, October 21, 2010

Song Selection for a Fiddle Contest

I thought with the Illinois State Old Time Fiddle Contest behind me, and The Bluegrass Shack Fiddle, Banjo & Flattop Contest ahead of me, this would be a good time to write about what I personally do to prepare myself for a fiddle contest.  In particular, I thought I would focus on the IOTFA contest that I just competed in.

The first thing I do is decide how many songs to prepare.  This is based on how many songs the competition requires.  I always try to have more than what is required.  This allows me some freedom of choice in case I hear my selection played several times before I reach the stage.  It also allows me flexibility in the case that I don't seem to be playing up to par on the contest day.  Most contests require, at a minimum, a waltz and a hoedown.  Many also require a tune of choice.  If there are multiple rounds in the competition, you will probably have to prepare different songs for each round. 

Next, I narrow down the songs that I think I want to use in the competition.  This can be hard to do, but it is based on a number of things, not necessarily in this order: 

1) How well do I know the songs?
If I am starting my preparation several weeks ahead of time, and I really SHOULD, I take into account how well I currently know the song(s).  If it is something that I haven't done in a while, I will need to brush up on the song.  I might even want to learn a few new variations.  If it's a new song, I will have to try to make the determination as to whether I will know the song well enough and be confident enough to perform it in a contest.

2) How much time do I have to prepare?
If I've waited until the last minute to decide to enter, or if I didn't know about the contest early on, my selection will be limited to what I already have up to speed.

3) Who are the judges and what will they be listening for? 
If you know who your judges are, this may help you with your selection.  Many big contests publish the list of judges.  If it is a local contest, you still can probably find out ahead of time who your judges are.  If you have played in a contest with this judge before and you were able to view your scoresheets, this will give you an idea on what to work on.  If you know past winners of this competition, and if you know what they played, this will also give you a good idea of which songs to prepare, or at least what style of songs you should prepare.

4) What are the rules of the contest and which songs will fit best into this scenario?
Is this an old-time fiddle contest?  Texas swing?  Is hokum bow allowed?  Are you allowed to play in different tunings?  These are all things that you need to know ahead of time.  If you are entering a strict "old time" fiddle contest, the songs have to be a danceable speed!  That means not too fast!  Texas swing?  Then you will need something in that style.  You get the idea...

5) How well will I be able to perform this song under pressure?
This is actually a very important question to ask yourself.  When preparing for the IOTFA contest last week, I was thinking of playing Leather Britches.  It was a good song selection all around.  It fit all the criteria I listed above.  I even play it remarkably well.  The problem with it?  I am not comfortable playing it.  I don't know why, but I simply am not.  I continued practicing it all the way up until the contest day because it seemed to fit so well.  In the end, I still chose not to play it because I could just picture myself up on stage feeling nervous and uncomfortable.  If I didn't have many choices, I would still probably have to play it.  Thank goodness, I had other options.

6) Is it a tough enough song?
One thing about fiddle contests is that there is no "standard."  You are really at the mercy of what impresses the judges.  This can be a difficult question to answer because it really depends upon how you play the song.  In other words, how difficult is your variation?  Some songs, no matter what you do to them, are not good for a competition; e.g., Bile Them Cabbage is many times the first song a fiddler learns.  No matter how hard you make it, it is not a good choice for a more advanced fiddler.  It is fine for beginner.  If the song you choose is too easy, or if your variation(s) are too easy, then a perfect performance might not give you enough points to win.  If your competition is not too great, then it MAY be enough.  You probably won't know this until the day of the competition, though.  Generally, the harder the song is to play, the more points you'll score IF YOU PLAY IT WELL.  If your judges aren't fiddle players (and shame on the contest if they aren't), they simply won't know how hard a song is to play on fiddle.  You might as well pick something that SOUNDS hard...

7) Is my goal to win, or do I have a different goal in mind?
Maybe this sounds like a funny thing to ask, but it is actually very important.  Not everyone who enters contests, and not every contest that a person enters, does it to win.  Maybe you just want to support an up and coming local contest.  Perhaps you have friends that are entering and they want you to enter as well.  Do you just want to get on stage to play and have fun?  Maybe you want to get some experience.  Particularly if you are a new player, your goal may just be to make it through your songs.  If you are so nervous that you can't perform well, this may especially be true for you.  When I first started entering contests, I was an experienced musician, but was surprised to find out that I could not perform on the fiddle well in contests.  I was just too nervous.  I was king of the fiddle in the livingroom, and it was king of me on stage.  Very frustrating to say the least!  My goal, early on, was simply to get through my songs and do them well.  I chose songs that were easy for me.  This allowed me to not be so nervous about making mistakes and forgetting on stage.  I did this for a while so that I could gain some experience and confidence.  I gradually increased the toughness of my songs.  I also decided that I would not enter any song into a competition that I had not previously played on stage.  Playing a song in front of others really shows you if you have any weak areas in the song.  It gives you a second chance, so to speak.  If you find you are making mistakes on the song when you are nervous, you know what to work on.

8) Will I have competent accompaniment, or do I need to pick something with very minimal chord changes?
I am very lucky with this one.  The guitar player for my band, Zane, almost always accompanies me in contests.  We are able to practice ahead of time, and Zane has played backup for fiddle players for years, so he knows (or can quickly learn) all the chords to just about any song.  He is also a fiddle player himself.  If you are not so fortunate, you may have to pick up a guitar player at the competition.  My advice?  Ask the guitar player just to warm up with you first.  Don't ask him/her to perform on stage with you immediately.  Why?  Because if it's not a good match and they aren't what you expect or need, you won't be stuck with them.  If the warmup goes well, then you can ask them to back you up in the contest.  If you find a good rhythm guitar player, but they don't know too many fiddle tunes, you may have to stick with songs that don't have too many chord changes in them.

This is just one aspect of playing in a contest.  I plan on writing more.  Hopefully, this will be helpful (or at least interesting)!  Good luck!

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