When I recently competed in the first Netherlands International Harp Competition 2010, I decided to share my experiences of this momentous feat with all the young harpists who aspire to compete and perform to their best ability - in concerts, competitions and auditions. It's a lonely journey and I thought it should be shared....a journey of immense dedication and commitment that so many embark on. Not everyone completes the mission, it has to be said - it takes a determined character to keep going when times are hard, and supportive friends and family to push us on when we want to give up. Here are my some of my experiences:

Written on 28th April 2010, the day after the competition finished.

"I am writing from a restaurant in Wijk Bij Duurstede, a lovely town in the Netherlands, where I have been staying for the duration of the competition. It is not too far from the festival city, Utrecht, and is peaceful with a lovely river flowing through. I stayed with a lady called Mieke – a quiet, artistic lady who lives with her cat, Rafal, and some canaries. She looked after me like a mother and provided me with a calm environment to return to after each demanding day of competing at the Utrecht Conservatorium. At my age (27), I was apprehensive about staying with a ‘host family’. However, I am so grateful to Mieke and have many fond memories of my stay, including two beautiful little harp paintings that she gave me as a momento! Having a quiet companion really helped me to relax and focus, plus her fantastic breakfasts and pack-up lunches kept me going in a more practical sense!

The end…

It is now the day after the Final of the competition and it is all over. In the final concert (or ‘The Final’!) I achieved my goal of performing the Ginastera Harp Concerto with a wonderful symphony orchestra and a conductor who would help me realise all my musical ideas about the piece. Etienne Siebens, the Belgian conductor who was directing the orchestra, really wanted each of the three soloists – the finalists – to have an individual voice and to lead the performance in terms of the tempi and style. I wanted really steady tempi with the wonderful colours and South American rhythms clearly audible – in particular, the dazzling interplay between 3/4 and the 6/8 that brings the first and third movements alive! Both in the rehearsal and performance, Etienne created the easy, relaxed atmosphere of a concert - rather than a tense competition atmosphere. At least, this was how I felt. He also helped me to forge a great relationship with the orchestra, which allowed the music to really breathe.

Etienne referred to me for every musical idea and I was honoured that he felt able to encourage me to further pursue my intentions with the dynamics and create the softest, most distant pianissimo at the end of the 2nd movement, which is marked lontana. The excellent acoustics of the Main Hall at the Conservatorium were designed by Peutz, so it was even more wonderful that I was fortunate to get the most votes from the live audience and thereby win the special Peutz Audience Award – an immense achievement that makes me feel both proud and humbled at the same time!

As I sit here and write whilst eating this lovely meal, I feel I should confess that this is the first time in over half a year that I have done anything like this. Preparing for an international contest requires dedication and focus throughout the process – which can be as much as two years preparation leading up to just one competition! Obviously, other things are going on at the same time, and hopefully lots of performances and working with other musicians, but I find that once I set myself the task of preparing for a big contest, it’s on my mind every day until it’s over. So, things like luxurious long meals go right out of the window!" Go to the next blog post for part 2!