Julien Van Mellaerts - Competition Success & Dealing with Nerves
How do competitions like the Wigmore International Song Competition and Ferrier Awards help young singers? What is their purpose, and how can they help the emerging artist in a world where jobs and opportunities in the world of performing classical music are becoming increasingly more, well… competitive!? Here, we take a look at just a few of the reasons singers enter into the world of competitive performing, and do a Q&A with baritone Julien Van Mellaerts following his recent competition successes.
So, the big question. Why do singers take part in competitions? The answer, like many things in the complex world of performing, has many answers and varies from artist to artist, but here are just a few examples of the benefits of competitions for young singers.
For many artists, competitions act as a platform to practice repertoire and performance skills as well as to gain exposure in the industry. Even if you don’t win, competitions enable artists to meet with other performers of a similar standard, to get ideas for new repertoire from listening to other competitors, and to pick up useful skills on performance style and technique.
For many artists, competitions act as a platform to practice repertoire and performance skills as well as to gain exposure in the industry.
Competitions also prove to be a valuable tool for gaining feedback and networking. Competition panels will usually showcase a range of prestigious members of the music industry, from heads of departments from the world’s best conservatoires, to directors and internationally acclaimed performers. The panel offer a plethora of expertise from inside the industry and are therefore in the prime position to provide the singers with invaluable, honest and critical feedback on their performances from an outside and unbiased perspective. The panel are not only looking for technical precision from these artists, but are also looking for exceptional skill in the expression of text, characterisation, individuality, accuracy and precision in their sung languages, and overall poise, elegance and commitment to the performance.
Equally, many singers take part in competitions in the hope of gaining a title that can be added to their CV. Competitions such as the Wigmore International Song Competition, the Kathleen Ferrier Award, or the Grange Festival International Song Competition, go a long way in enabling a singer to have a strong reputation as an award-winning performer. These events give the singers the equivalent of a gold star ‘qualification’ to add to their CV, which will almost certainly give them further performing opportunities as well as a reputable status in the field.
But these competitions, although always ticketed and available to the public, are not usually very popular with the wider musical community, and instead tend to cater to a small pool of classical music enthusiasts and specialists who care about the intricacies and perfection available in competitive performances. Attendance at these competitions can be thought to function similarly to watching sports or athletics competitions. The singers, like athletes, train and compete and the panel and the surrounding audience are interested in the details, intricacies and skills in the ‘sport’. Much like athletes, these artists also draw on similar focusing techniques such as mindfulness or centering in order to counterbalance nerves and adrenaline, and perform to the best of their ability in high pressure, competitive situations.
Here is Julien Van Mellaerts, giving us a quick snapshot into life inside competitive performing:
How have competitions helped your career so far, and how have they shaped your experiences as a performer?
Competitions are a bit of a necessary evil I think. They are terrifying and nerve-wracking but ultimately very important for a young singer to do. They put you in a performance position where you are singing for people who can help advance your career, with work opportunities and contacts, as well as putting you under pressure to develop your performing skills. Competitions have definitely helped my career so far. To be recognised by a panel of esteemed professionals is amazing, and gives a vote of confidence in you as a singer. That allows other potential employers to trust their judgement.
[Just incase you needed a quick reminded of Julien's recent competition successes... take a seat, this will take some time(!): "Winner of the 2017 Wigmore Hall / Kohn Foundation International Song Competition, the 2017 Kathleen Ferrier Awards, awarded a 2016 Kiwi Music Scholarship, a 2016 Countess of Munster Award, Winner of the 2016 Brooks-van der Pump English Song Competition, the 2016 Joan Chissell Schumann Prize and Winner of the 2015 Maureen Lehane Vocal Arts Award"]
These competitions often have significant prize money as well, and for a young singer that is hugely important. Coachings, language lessons and singing lessons are expensive and we need the financial help. Audition costs quickly add up and it is important to be auditioning around the country and abroad. One thing I've really noticed is a change in my career, and that requires being flexible, versatile and taking on different contracts, which in turn limits regular income from teaching or other jobs for example. So I have become much more reliant on regular singing work.
As a performer, you learn so much from competitions. You have to fulfil their criteria for each different round, and the most important thing is to programme what they need but also play to your strengths in each round. Before the Kathleen Ferrier competition had even started, a coach at college said to me 'just be prepared'. That's so important, to be prepared. Practice performing, but make sure you are always playing to your strengths and showing, as much as possible, what range of colours and characters you can do. The more prepared you are, the more relaxed you are, and the more you can enjoy the performance, without worrying about the outcome.
How do you find new music or choose which music to perform for specific competitions?
There is always a criteria to fulfil in competitions, so that is a starting point. But the hardest thing is to choose repertoire I think. I have always tried to choose balanced programmes for each round, showing a variety of languages, styles, and characters. Do songs you know well, and ones that you know you can do well under pressure. Listen to different recordings, get lots of coaching and different opinions on those songs, so then you find how you really want to do them. If I'm looking for new music, I listen to different CDs and see what they have programmed, and then I also try to just use it as an excuse to learn new songs that I like.
How do you prepare for competitions? Do you have any particular routine that you follow?
No, no particular routine. I just practice the songs, take them to different people and work with them with my pianist. I will keep going back to the score, because there is always some performance marking I had forgotten, or hadn't understood. I’ll practice running the programmes in their entirety as well, it’s important to know how to pace yourself. Also, record yourself and take the time to listen back.
How do you handle pre-competition nerves (does it make you nervous hearing the other performers?)
The nerves for competitions are terrible I find. If I am still in the competition I personally can't listen to other performers. If I'm knocked out, then I love listening! I find it doesn't help listening to others as you are then too easily influenced to change what you do at the very last minute. Do what you can do, and don't worry about the outcome. Once you get to performing, you have done all the work and you have to trust that you have done that, and then you can just enjoy the performance. Before going on stage I always take a deep breath, then tell myself to have fun! Once you're in front of the audience you don't have any choice but to perform, and hopefully communicate with them.
Do you think there's a way to bring high standard classical competitions such as the 'Wigmore Song Competition' or 'Cardiff Singer' to the attention of young people?
Any exposure to classical music is good I think. And once there is an interest there, that can develop. The fact that these classical competitions (Wigmore and Cardiff) exist solely for young singers, is an encouragement for young musicians, and I guess it is up to us to share this music with our generation!
Article by Genevieve Arkle