Tag Archives: contests

Red Henry

Some of you may have entered a music contest from time to time. A few of Murphy's students enter contests as often as they can. If you live in a part of the world where there are contests, you might consider entering a few yourself.

There are several benefits from entering contests. The first reason (and maybe the biggest) lies in the preparation. This works into the "Quality" theme of Murphy's post yesterday. Your tunes need to be thoroughly learned, as smooth and good-sounding as you can get them, so that you could play them without thinking about them-- because at first, when you get on a contest stage to play, your mind may go blank and you've got to just PLAY. As well as you can. Without thinking. This simply takes a lot of practice, and practice is good for you!

At contests you get to play in front of different audiences, in different places and situations. You might be indoors in a poorly-lit school auditorium. You might be on stage in a big music hall with good lights and sound system. Or you might be playing on a flatbed trailer outdoors in 45-degree weather. If you can play your tunes well in ANY situation, its good for your music.

And why can you win some contests without being the best picker? It's because of the judging. Some local contests simply do not have musical experts available as judges. So your job at those contests is not to play the most advanced tunes you can. Your job is to play a tune that sounds good, and to look like you know what you're doing. If on stage you LOOK confident of being a winner, you'll have a better chance of actually being one.

At a lot of contests, the best player does not win. The judges may pick their favorite based on looks, facial expression, posture, gender, age, or other un-musical considerations. On the other hand, there are contests where the judges are excellent musicians and very well qualified to judge, in great and accurate detail, how well the contestants can actually play.

But no matter how the judging goes, you accept it and roll with the flow. Playing contests is not about the judging, it's its own reward. You endure the waiting and the drawing for playing-order, you go out in front of the people, and you play your tunes as well as you can. (The first one or two contests, your playing may not exactly be your best. But keep at it.) And when you've played some contests, your music is so much more solid than it was before. If you're placed a few times, your confidence is too.

So if the judging seems weird, don't take it seriously. At a contest, the judging is not the point. Winning prizes is not the point. Your music is.


Casey HenryOne of my students is playing in a banjo contest this evening. First prize is $200, so he's really hoping to win. This is not the first contest he's played in, and I think he'll do pretty well. Yesterday at his lesson we worked on his contest numbers: "Big Tilda" and, if he needs a second one, "Whitewater." We were working on "Flint Hill Special," but the contest rules said no tunes that use Scruggs tuners, so that one had to go.

I'm not a big fan of contests. I played in two of them when I was younger. At the first one I took second place, which I was satisfied with. At the second one I didn't place and, in my humble opinion, the people who won were not better players than I was at the time. That was my last contest.

One reason I don't like contests is that the judging is so often biased. The local favorite often wins, and the judges often know some of the contestants. The only really fair way to run a contest is with blind judging---that is, when the judges can't see the contestants and the players have numbers rather than using their names for identification. That's the way the prestigious Winfied Kansas contests are run (I judged the banjo category one year) and I believe that to be the best way.

But my student is, to some degree, part of a group of kids who see each other at different contests, and his band is playing in the band contest at this same event. I think that's probably the way to go into contests---go to have a good time and see your friends, jam some, and if you win some money, that's an added bonus. Because music, first and foremost, is not about competing, it's about entertainment and social interaction, and if you forget that, it's not much fun at all!