With OMEA (Ohio Music Educator's Association) Junior High Solo & Ensemble adjudicated events right around the corner, I'll bet a lot of you have kids practicing away at their solos. (In an ideal world, at least.) As an OMEA veteran who's had experience both with getting "1's" AND with not knowing I needed to play scales until minutes before my time slot, I've assembled some tips for your child to get ready for contest day well before contest day!
Firstly, some practice tips.
1. Practice a little bit every day – not all at the last minute.
Playing just a few minutes every day will help you develop much more quickly – and healthily – than waiting until the last few days to cram-practice. (Cram-practicing doesn't work! Trust me, I've tried!) When you play a little each day, your brain builds “pathways” that become easier and easier to “cross” each time you perform an action, meaning that playing that tricky passage gets easier and more intuitive each time you do it. You build up your mental and muscle memory.
Speaking of muscles! The parts you use to play – fingers, lips, wrists, etc. – are muscles. When you work them too much at once, you wear them out and can damage them. When you build them up a little bit each day, you develop them.
2. Don’t start from the beginning.
As our woodwind teacher Trueman Allison points out, a lot of students can play the beginning of their piece really really well - but toward the middle, it starts to fall apart! You want your playing to be equally sound from beginning to end, especially because it’s important to have a strong finish!
One tip Mr. Allison suggests: start from the end of the piece and work backwards. You know how your music has different sections? Play the last section first, then the next to last, then the one before that, etc. Or start from the middle and work forward, then backward. Shake it up. Make sure there's no part of your piece that you're not familiar with.
3. Focus on practicing the tricky parts.
It’s not always fun to start with the hardest part of the song, but that’s the part that needs the most practice. You don’t need to practice the easy parts as much – you’ve already got them down!
There are many ways you can practice tricky sections. Using a metronome to keep time, play so slowly you can't possibly mess up, then increase the speed one notch at a time. If there is a gap between two or three notes that is causing trouble, drill those notes. If there is a weird rhythm that trips you each time, practice counting and clapping with the metronome. Talk with your teacher about how to make the best use of your practice time.
4. Mark up your music.
Get out that pencil! Write in or circle all the things that catch you off guard or you forget: key changes, dynamics, accidentals, tempo changes, breath marks, or bowings. Also, put a star next to the parts you need to practice the most (as I've done with the music on the right.) Good musicians write in their music (with pencil) to help them remember all the things they need to remember as they play their piece.
5. Practice your scales.
Middle school solo & ensemble contests require soloists to be able to play certain scales (depends on the instrument; check OMEA's website for details.) If you don't have them down cold, start practicing now. Pick one or two scales during each practice, and pick different ones each time. Start at the bottom, go up, then go back down. Start at the top, go down, then go back up. Write them out. Practice your finger positions without the instrument in your hand.
Now, some logistics.
6. Make sure you have an official copy of the music, including the piano part, to give to the judges. Number the measures.
More often than not, you'll need to order your piece and it will take some time to come in. Don't wait - order now!
7. If you don’t already have your accompanist, find one NOW and arrange at least two rehearsals together.
Even if you think you know exactly how your piece goes, it will be really different with the piano part. You want to have at least a few rehearsals before the big day so that you know what to expect and adjust to anything you didn't expect.
(Bonus tip: listen to a professional recording of your piece with the piano part. That will help you know where you're going and what you're supposed to sound like!)
8. Get your instrument fixed now!
(Sensing a theme?) If your instrument needs fixed, get it into the repair shop at least two or three weeks before contest. The earlier, the better! You don't want to get caught in the last-minute pre-contest rush. Also, you want to get some practice time with your instrument after it's been through the shop.
9. Perform your piece!
Even the most confident players usually get an adrenaline rush when they play in front of people... and that changes how you play. It's a good idea to play at least once or twice for an audience besides your lesson teacher so that you have an idea how that rush feels and you're more prepared and confident. (If you can get constructive feedback from your audience, even better!)
Last, but not least...
10. Have fun!
No, really! I know how nerve-wracking playing in front of people can get, especially when it's something you've worked on for a while. Yeah, it's important to take OMEA seriously, but at the end of the day, it's just a performance. It's not a grade, it's not a concert, it's not the beginning and end of your music career. (Trust me, your teacher will agree with me!) Personally, I think the most important part of Solo & Ensemble is not the number, but the experience you gain with practicing and performing. That includes celebrating your successes... and laughing at (and learning from) your mistakes.
It takes dedication to be advanced enough to go to contest, and it takes guts to stand up and perform. Give yourself a pat on the back!
In short, being proactive and patient is the key to Solo & Ensemble success!
For more information about OMEA Junior High Solo & Ensemble, visit their website. Also, stay tuned for tips about being OMEA ready on the day itself!