Tag Archives: Ensemble Kiowa

MTNA Competitions & The Big Umbrella Theory

Kiowa Results
Ensemble Kiowa in Fargo, ND

I thought (feared might be a better word) that this might be my final blog about MTNA Competitions, at least for now. But there will be a few more miles for me to travel, in every sense, since the University of Kansas string chamber group of which I am co-coach, Ensemble Kiowa, received First Place in the West Central Division Competition in Fargo, ND and will go on to compete in the National Finals in Las Vegas on March 21.

Below you will find a short video of the students in the group when they heard the announcement that they won. The cinematography (by me) leaves a lot to be desired, but I want you to see how excited they are and how much the MTNA Competitions means to them.

I sometimes hear criticism that our MTNA Competitions take too much from our organization: too many resources and too much volunteer time. Of course there is always a reason to offer legitimate criticism and practical solutions. But not sponsoring MTNA competitions is, to me, a “no go”.

It goes back to my “big umbrella” theory of MTNA. Just as MTNA should sponsor programs in popular music and improvisation, we should also offer events for the highest level of traditional music making. The MTNA Competitions are unique in the world in their range and scope, involving students from all 50 states. I’m very proud that my students and I can be part of them.

Problems? Or course there are a few. As I remind pupils, we are on earth, not in heaven, so perfection is not to be expected. The expense for students performing can be considerable. I estimate that taking Ensemble Kiowa to Fargo cost in total about $1800—and this is just one round of the competition. The cost is definitely a bar to participation for some.

But I can testify about the benefits from my own experience. Another KU chamber group that I coached, the Wakarusa Trio, was the MTNA Chamber Music–Strings winner in 2013. The group has now disbanded as individual members pursue their own dreams.

But before they moved on, they won the Coleman-Barstow Prize for Strings as the Best String Group at the 2014 Coleman Chamber Ensemble Competition, the world’s oldest chamber music competition. This, and their win at MTNA, led to a wealth of personal and group opportunities that we could never have imagined.

More important, though, is the personal growth that each member (including me) earned by setting a goal, working hard to achieve it and coping with all the problems and disappointments along the way. And, finally, the real confidence that emerges when success is achieved. All of this, to me, is the real reason we have MTNA Competitions.

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How to Expect the Unexpected

Today is Ensemble Kiowa’s competition day and, as often happens, there is a problem that requires special handling. The piano on which we will be competing does not have an operational sostenuto pedal.

Not a problem, you think? Who uses it anyway? Our Ensemble Kiowa pianist, a marvelous KU doctoral student named Cong Cong Chai, does. He and I have worked out our pedalings very carefully for this program, including the sostenuto, and its use is notated in our cool, funky contemporary piece Techno-Parade (2002) by the French composer Giles Connesson.

Deann Brown and the MTNA West Central Division Competition staff have been very fair. They gave us an extra 15-minute rehearsal in the concert hall, and will inform the judges about the problem. The North Dakota State tuner was great, too; he tried his best to fix it, but “no go”.

I always tell students that the contestants who remain cool, stay focused and make the best out of a less-than-ideal situation are often the winners. Ensemble Kiowa will have a chance to test that today!

This short video is from the end of our 15-minute session. I have my students review competition pieces in reverse order, ending with the work that they will play first in the competition. It my view, this imprints the all-important opening firmly in their minds. So this is excerpts from their first piece, Aram Khachaturian’s Trio for Clarinet, Violin and Piano, third, second and finally first movements, with loud interjected comments from me. The shaky camera-work is mine, too.


Ensemble Kiowa is Margaret Lambie, flute; Mickayla Chapman, clarinet: Man (Mandy) Wang, violin; and Cong Cong Chai, piano, all students at the University of Kansas. The group is co-coached by my KU colleague, Dr. Michael Kirkendoll and me.


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On Preparation and Performance Anxiety

This is the day before Ensemble Kiowa (the string chamber music group from the University of Kansas that I co-coach with my colleague, Dr. Michael Kirkendoll) competes in the MTNA West Central Division. We all had a good night’s sleep after yesterday’s 10-hour drive to Fargo, ND, and are ready to get to work.

I follow research about performance preparation and I wish there was a clearer model of “what-to-do-right-before-the-event”.  It seems that every successful performer has his or her own idiosyncratic routine.

Shura Cherkassky
Shura Cherkassky at an upright piano

I remember taking the late, great Shura Cherkassky to try out a piano. He played one ascending arpeggio and asked, “when can we go to dinner?” That was it. But he insisted on having an upright piano moved into his backstage dressing room, on which he practiced at an excruciatingly slow tempo right up to the moment of performance. That’s the routine that worked for him.

Back to the research, there are two consistent factors for successful preparation that I have identified. First, be well rested and don’t over practice. Second, do what you need to do to feel confident and “in a good mental place to play”.

Let’s see what we need to do today to make this happen!


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MTNA Competitions

Our MTNA-sponsored competitions are one of the crown jewels of the Music Teachers National Association. Their long history of excellence, starting at the state level and concluding in gala events at the National Conference, is unique in the world. I’m proud to have my students be part of the excitement.

Is music a competitive art? The answer is complicated. In my opinion, the overall answer is, no, it’s expressive. Despite that, I enter students in MTNA competitions every year. I believe that having a goal focuses attention and motivates improvement. Most important, competing in MTNA events gives these wonderful young people a chance to earn recognition for their talent and hard work. They deserve it.

Ensemble KiowaWe’re off again today! My chamber group Ensemble Kiowa (Chamber Music–Strings) and I are on our way to Fargo, ND. Ensemble Kiowa is the Kansas state winner and will be competing in the West Central Division competitions against the other state champs from our region. We’ve been working hard and our hopes are high.

Wish us luck!


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