• Alexandra Mena

Competitions and the teaching artist

Updated: Jan 8

In the course of my thirteen year career as a teaching artist, I’ve had the enormous pleasure of preparing many a student in my private studio for local, national and international competitions.   In fact, I dare say that this part of my teaching work is one of the areas I enjoy most. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing the foundational work I do with my students, both in terms of vocal technique and artistry, coming together in performance, and performance under significant pressure, at that.  

My first stint at a national competition came in 2014, when a student got a pass to audition for American Idol.  They were holding auditions in San Francisco that year, and having that pass meant that she didn’t have to stand in the long lines. Instead, she was advancing directly to sing for the producers, and I only had a week to pick and perfect the forty-five second, a cappella cut of the song that she would sing for her first round of auditions. Yes….nothing will get your heart rate up faster than something like this. But since I have a bit of a daredevil spirit, plus a methodical process, I found the challenge incredibly exciting, not to mention interesting. Since I’d already been working with her for three years, we had already established the framework needed to put together such cut in a short period of time. Rachel made it as far as the celebrity panel on her first try; a process which included two weeks of interviews, plus ongoing performances for the producers of additional songs we had to prepare, all from a long list they had provided.  

Since then I’ve trained singers for several national competitions, a bevy of local ones, and the Water Cube International Voice Competition, in Beijing. Someone once asked me, “Don’t you get nervous for your students?”, and my answer was no, because I’m too busy willing them a good performance. And as a teacher preparing students for such events, it is my duty to keep a cool head, and to be the voice of reason under pressure from producers and all involved. And above all, to do what's right by the student's instrument, regardless of what's at stake. Because without a healthy instrument, a singer has nothing. This past February I was fortunate to attend the final round of the South Bay Teen Idol Competition, where my student, Felicia, won second place. As I drove home I noticed my body in a bit of pain throughout and couldn’t understand why. Though I was my usual collected self that evening, I suddenly realized that I had been sitting in my chair, tightening every muscle during her performances, in an effort to will her to success!  

The truth is that, as a teacher, it’s never about you. It’s about the student. It’s about the trust that you build in the studio through a million vocal scales, through the study of repertoire, and through work on interpretation. The trust that comes from time spent building students' artistry, and their knowledge that you’ll be doing your very best by them, every step of the way. More importantly, it’s about the time that you spend in preparing their mindset to compete well. By this I mean, instilling in them the wisdom of focusing their efforts on what they bring to the picture. The wisdom of appreciating the talent around them without it taking anything away from theirs. The wisdom of preparing well and, above all, the wisdom of enjoying the journey through the nerves, and all its ups and downs. As my son told me right before an important audition I recently had, “If it doesn’t scare you a bit, it’s not worth it.” I couldn’t agree more.