By Avani Papadopoulos
Well, first off, what is ISSMA? ISSMA is a state-wide musical competition for all students who are involved in their performing arts program. ISSMA takes place during February and continues for a second round depending on whether or not you will go on to the state competition. Students are allowed to enter as a soloist or as part of a group with other students. You can also enter yourself with multiple instruments.
Being part of a small group is a good way to express an interaction with others through music, showing how different parts can blend together to form something even greater. Musicianship can really stand out when performing as a group. At University, doing small groups is always a highlight for our music concerts!
Jada Swearingen is a senior this year who plays the cello and has been doing ISSMA since 7th grade. She wishes that she had entered the competition with a group at least once because “you have to learn how to syncopate with your partners and it’s a group effort. I think you could make way more beautiful musical art by being in a full group.” She says she does ISSMA because she has found a better understanding and appreciation for music, and that it’s a good way to prove that she’s progressing as a musician.
To enter ISSMA, you must first put yourself in one of the five categories, five being the most amateur group, and one being the most challenging (based on skill level). A judge will score you on things like tone quality, musicianship, note accuracy, etc., and you will be awarded either gold, silver, bronze, or participation based on your performance. If you compete in group one and get a gold medal, you move on to the state competition to then try and earn another gold.
Our school’s music teacher, Mr. Knox, has always attended almost all of his students’ performances. He says you know the judge is impressed when they’re not writing a lot. “It is really cool when you know it’s a gold rating and then later in the day you find out it was indeed a gold rating, that’s my favorite part, seeing the success.”
ISSMA isn’t really a competition against other musicians, but rather a way to show your skills in a piece chosen by you to the judge evaluating your performance. Being that the piece performed is typically one practiced for several hours over the span of maybe two or so months, the judging of ISSMA helps you get more of an understanding of how you’re improving and how to become a better musician by picking at major and minor flaws as well as pointing out deserving commendations when need be. It can also help you become more comfortable playing in front of an audience you don’t know very well, since the environment is fairly relaxed and you can invite anybody you want into the room.
Mr. Knox thinks that ISSMA is helpful in building up practice skills like confidence as well as being good preparation for interviews in the future. He likes that ISSMA isn’t a contest against other people. “It’s just you vs. you, so if you mess up it’s not going to ruin your reputation or anything, it just counts against you. You get the scoresheet back and the judges give you feedback on how to get better.”
Mr. Knox also says that nerves don’t necessarily go away, but you get more comfortable with them. The first time in ISSMA is always scary, but you become a better performer each time. “It becomes less about impressing the judges, and more just sharing your music with them.” As a friend once told me, some nerves are fine, it just means you care.
Like many other musicians, Jada agrees that performance anxiety never goes away entirely, but doing ISSMA has definitely helped her control it more. Jada encourages other students to try ISSMA because it’s proven helpful to her through the judges’ feedback, saying that even the little tweaks they pick on can really add up and change the overall perspective of the piece.
In addition to the constructive criticism from somebody other than your teachers, it can push you to see whether you may or may not want to pursue a music-related career or continue playing your instrument later on in life.
Sophia Hwang, a junior, plays the violin and has been doing ISSMA every year since 5th grade. She says she does it because it gives her a way to challenge herself outside of school. Her first time being in group 1 was in 8th grade, and though she thought it was going to be a lot more difficult than the other levels, ultimately, the experience wasn’t too different.
Sophia says at the very beginning she used to get really nervous, but over time she just got used to playing in front of a judge. “It’s definitely intimidating, but it’s ultimately a rewarding experience because you learn a lot about yourself as a musician and it takes a lot of hard work and practice.”
Creating good-sounding music can be very tedious and it takes a long time (minus some very talented child prodigies), which can be extremely frustrating. My teacher says it takes ten years of good practice habits with the violin to finally have a tone only somewhat near a professional’s, and even then you may still not be satisfied.
Being a musician, however, you don’t just reach a certain level and stop. It’s like with most anything else, you never stop learning or getting better.
Image courtesy of Huntington North Bands