Not everyone can be a winner. The statistics of the most rigorous music competitions show this all too clearly. Take the latest edition of the prestigious Neue Stimmen Competition, which took place in Gütersloh, Germany, in October 2017. There were 1437 approved applications, out of which 44 singers were invited to take part in the finals. So just being one of these 44 and being able to take part in the master classes and career strategy workshops was a great privilege and “win”. In the final round, just six (three female and three male singers) were chosen, plus a public’s choice prize. Seven winners – that works out to just a 0.5% chance of winning. These statistics apply to most competitions.

Prize winners of the 2017 Neue Stimmen Competition © Neue Stimmen
Prize winners of the 2017 Neue Stimmen Competition
© Neue Stimmen

There is a lot of truth in the old saying, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. This is what a competition is all about – without the element of competitiveness, you would not be able to judge your positive and negative characteristics against each other.

Brian Dickie, one of the most experienced jurors, said in a recent blog post: “Singers take heart – a competition is a snapshot taken through multiple distorted lenses”. What does he mean by this? That every juror has his/her own way of judging a singer based on his/her own experience and history. Just like reviews of performances, there will be favourable ones and unfavourable ones. Sometimes even to the point of the reader questioning whether the writer attended the same performance. Brian Dickie further adds: “One person’s meaty ten can be another’s poisonous zero!”

Other than cashing in on prizes and prestige, there are some sure wins to having participated in a competition. Here are 10 – pick the most important for you.

10. Reconsider and reassert 

Not winning forces you to reconsider your pledge to yourself about having chosen this career path. If you decide to continue on it: great, this experience strengthens your resolve and you can move on. If you decide to opt out: also great, now you can open yourself up to the many other opportunities and challenges that make use of all that you have learned and experienced so far.

9. Experience with choice of repertoire 

What you prepare for a competition will come in handy for other auditions. It pays to not only learn the aria musically, but to also understand the dramaturgical context. Seek out a coach who can help you to get to know the character – Is Pamina really so insecure? Is Leporello proud or ashamed of Don Giovanni? How do these characters relate to the 21st century?

So you have rehearsed your audition arias ad nauseam and have sung them to the best of your ability on the day. If you have not passed on to the next round and if the competition rules allow it, go up to the judges individually and ask them for their feedback. While you will not find out if they voted for or against you, you may get valuable comments on your strengths and weaknesses. The goal is always: “How can I improve my performance?” It’s like getting mini-lessons with experts. Don’t be shy about asking about specific issues – stage presence, intonation, diction, appropriate “Fach” repertoire and other points. And don’t be surprised to receive contradictory answers. Trust your instincts in accepting the advice.

8. Networking with colleagues 

A competition always means meeting many other like-minded singers and yes, they are competitors for the top prizes, too. But, to paraphrase Sarastro in Mozart’s Magic Flute, “mehr noch, er ist Mensch” (“even more, he is human”) – your colleagues are contacts and hopefully many will become friends and members of your very own personal network.

7. Exposure to casting and artistic directors

Here’s the thing – most casting and artistic directors have little time but they want to hear “the next big voice” in person. Attending the first and second round of a competition is most time-efficient for them: they get to hear all the voices that have made it this far and therefore represent the “cream of the crop”. It is at this stage that they can already judge if there is a voice that will fit their casting needs. There is no need for them to stay for the finals since they will find out via the news and the grapevine who won.

6. Exposure to agents

As above, the same principle also applies to agents. They, too, will be more likely to attend the first two rounds, will make up their minds as to who they think will “make it” in the opera circuit and may already approach them prior to the finals.

5. Experience performing under stress 

Let’s not kid anyone – taking part in any competition means subjecting yourself to a high degree of stress. It is up to you to find out how to best deal with this pressure. Some meditate, others do yoga, still others pray or clutch a talisman. Find what works for you.

4. Experience performing on stage

If you are just starting out, it will be a definite “win” to be able to sing on a real stage, hopefully with rehearsals and a full orchestra. Enjoy the experience.

3. Working with coaches

For those singers reaching the final stage, many competitions offer master classes with coaches, diction specialists, body work and more. Take advantage of all these offerings: they are invaluable bonuses that will take your performance to a new level.

2. Press coverage 

Along with having agents and artistic and casting directors attending, a top competition will attract press coverage. Nowadays that almost always also means social media and live streaming of the finals. These are invaluable tools for the participating singers to be noticed, get media exposure and free promotion.

1. Finding out about job opportunities 

Especially in a situation where the participants come together from all over the world, such as at the Neue Stimmen, Operalia or the Concours musical international de Montréal, there’s bound to be a lot talk – so it is good to listen and note any opportunities that sound fitting. The important thing then is to follow up right away on any leads!

No matter if you win or lose, you will learn that it is best to be yourself, not trying to impress anyone. Always remember that you are delivering an emotional experience, you possess a talent and a passion for an art form where individuality and uniqueness are highly rated. Good luck!