I paid the $15 fee to enter the banjo contest at this year’s RockyGrass festival. Couple of explainers: RockyGrass is one of the nation’s top bluegrass festivals, held annually in July in Lyons, Colorado, just outside of Denver.
Many festivals hold contests for individual instrumentalists, and for entire bands, shortly before the main acts take the stage. At RockyGrass the contests play out over two days, with the preliminary phase on Friday and the finals on Saturday.
I’ve been attending RockyGrass for 30 years, but I’ve never participated in a context. There are several reasons to do it. First, it’s an incentive to upgrade your playing. It focuses the mind on self-improvement. Second, it’s a prestige thing. To have placed in the top three (and maybe simply to have entered) is a badge of honor among fellow pickers.
Recently I did some googling, trying to find guidance on how to succeed in a contest. I didn’t find much in terms of direct advice. I saw plenty of video of actual performances by past contestants. Here are some observations and conclusions.
Looks like most of the contestants are quite young. Many are teenagers who couldn’t have more than a few years of playing experience. They have prodigious technical skills, especially speed. My guess is that (unlike me) most have plenty of time in their lives to play and practice and prepare for their big day on the contest stage.
To be competitive, I can’t focus on technical skills. My edge will be in the imagination department, devising solos that are surprising, innovative, unorthodox. Using rhythms and chords and maybe song selections that would not occur to an 18-year-old.
Notably, fortunately, the performances are judged “blind,” with the contestants not visible to the judges—striking a blow, I hope, against age discrimination.