Learn the BIGGEST SECRET of Singing Contests

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When you think of Singing Contests what is the first thing that comes to mind? Is it TV shows like Star Search, The Voice, American Idol, The Masked Singer, The Voice, Britain’s Got Talent?  We watch these competitions and are often shocked at our favourites not winning - we become emotionally invested in their stories, get overwhelmed by the exceptional talent on display and it gives us cause to wonder if this is something that we could ever have the nerve to do ourselves. In this blog cast, you are going to learn the BIGGEST Secret of Singing Contests. 

I got my first experiences in the arts through contests in school.  When I was growing up - well, before  the internet & Coachella-  there were competitions in schools called Music Festivals where kids & choirs would compete with performances of poetry reading, acting and music, etc.  You got an honest evaluation from an adjudicator that either encouraged you or destroyed you. If you won, you got a certificate or a medal and earned a place in the regional or provincial competitions. All of this was supported by your drama or music teacher and hopefully your parents.  These educational contests still happen for those involved in academia and serious classical or jazz pursuits…but for pop singers, we tend to look at the commercial aspects of singing contests. 

When I was 18 years old, I entered a ‘Star Search’ type contest at my hometown bar, then a radio demo contest. To my surprise, I won both of those contests that year and wow, that really gave me a lot of encouragement and validation. 

Later, when I moved to Vancouver and started to get into a bigger pond, I started going to karaoke nights at restaurants.  One Japanese restaurant held a karaoke contest that where you could win a trip to Japan and other delights.  I was pretty stoked as I always had a good reception at this restaurant. When I entered the contest, the manager took me aside and asked me if I was professional. I was really flattered and I said no. He asked me again and again, I said no - I’d never been paid for singing other than winning contests. He then allowed me to enter the contest and subsequently, there was a soundcheck rehearsal. 

When I arrived at the 500 seat capacity theatre, I was led to a dressing room area with the other contestants. At no point were we allowed to watch other singers go on stage for their sound & light check.  When it came to my turn, I went out and was blinded by the lights. They gave me a wireless microphone. This was the first time I ever used one and I still find them weird to be honest. Anyway, the manager was in the control room at the back and as I was doing my Whitney Houston song, he stopped me mid-way.  He said, “there is a technical problem, can you not move around on the stage? We’re getting feedback… When you come on to sing, just stay on that one spot, ok? Don’t move.”  I was a bit confused as I thought, what is the point of a wireless mic but I didn’t know any better and just did as I was told. 

So, I rested until the show started. My boyfriend Jason (not his real name) was going to watch me from the balcony and I was excited. I really thought I could win a trip to Japan plus some prize money. I really felt I was on a roll…and unstoppable! 

Well, show time came and I was led backstage to come out to the blinding lights of my performance.  I stood on my spot - just as I was told - and I sang my little heart out. I had never heard the applause of 500 people before and it was breathtaking!  I took my bow and went back to the dressing room area. 

Finally, time came to announce the winners and we were all lined up on stage to await our fate. Much to my dismay, I only came in fourth place and received a special mention along with a watch.  The first prize went to a grandmother in a kimono who sang a traditional Japanese song. The crowd went wild and the Japanese restaurant manager made a huge fuss over sending mama-san to Japan, then introduced her to do an encore of her performance.  As the rest of us went backstage, I could hear her performance from the sidelines and I thought, really?  Her pitch was all over the place and while I didn’t know traditional Japanese music, I really didn’t understand how I didn’t win.  My ego was so bruised. 

My boyfriend Jason had to go home before me and I called him later to complain… I said, “I don’t believe I didn’t place higher as I thought my performance was really good!” 

He wasn’t nice to me about it at all. He said, “Well, you didn’t deserve to win because everyone else used the stage and moved all over. You were the only one that stayed planted in one spot!”  He sounded like he was reprimanding a spoiled brat and I felt just awful. I tried to explain that I did what I was told and he didn’t seem to believe me…what a jerk.  Anyway, I had to accept it and lick my wounds. I knew the truth - that I was set up to lose and that my winning streak in singing contests was well and truly over. It was time to stop being a contestant and start thinking of myself as a professional. 

So…what is the biggest secret of singing contests? Well, I learned that singing contests are absolutely not. about. YOU.  That’s right, the contest is not about you.  You are a player in someone else’s game. It’s not that all contests are corrupt but we have to get real about this game in order to gain the most value from it. We need to understand the psychology to contests. 

Now, competition seems ingrained in our psyche and it plays a dynamic role in almost all aspects of our society, even though someone must lose in order for someone to win. This has to do with the very nature of contests or competitions being an “extrinsic incentive” to do something. In other words, a contest is an external incentive that motivates you into action to receive a reward. 

The opposite of an “extrinsic incentive” is an “intrinsic” one, meaning that one is motivated to do something because we feel it is the right thing to do. We get a that oxytocin neurotransmitter giving us a feel-good factor. In fact, your body temperature will warm up and give you a “glow” when you are doing something compassionate to help others. Think of things like the ALS ice-bucket challenge and other contests that help charities.  Even though these activities score high on the moral compass, one could be cynical and see that some participants are doing this for self-promotion and exposure. 

Now, contests are not always about your technical vocal ability. Contests are sometimes about the story the contestant brings to the overall show.  For example, setting aside the fact that my staging was sabotaged during the karaoke contest, the grandmother singing traditional song in her kimono going off to Japan to visit her family really was the best story and outcome for this contest. The audience just ate it up.  After thinking about this for a while, I could fully understand the appeal of her winning from other’s perspectives. And well, of course, this was also incredible promotion for the Japanese restaurant. 

Contests are sometimes about selling alcohol in a bar. Karaoke contests in bars are often using audience applause to vote for the winners…This method banks on the fact that the singers will bring in as many friends as they can to encourage them while ‘putting bums in seats’ for the manager. In this case, it’s really a popularity contest. 

Contests are also about who is holding the contest. It’s about the ratings of the tv show, the advertisers, and what the contests are designed to promote. The stories told about the performers compel the viewers to tune in to vote and sell advertising or whatever fees are associated by their participation. 

But all this doesn’t have to be a zero sum game. Being a savvy artist, you can lose a singing contest and still win something. You CAN have BOTH extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. 

Winning is a dopamine buzz…in fact, anything gained from an outside force is a temporary pleasure that wears off eventually - this is a short term emotional benefit even though you may gain career goals as a a result. The longer term benefit is to seek out the internal benefits by learning to play the long game. 

Some aspects of contests may be out of your control but here is what you can do to strategize: 

  • You can plan to use it for information - for example, just your general education. 
  • You can use it for exposure - for example, it can benefit your marketing efforts. 
  • You can use it as a demo performance - again for education and development of yourself…just general experience. 
  • You can use it to form relationships and connections - this is very important. Talent scouts, producers and managers have connections with these high profile contests and everyone’s scouting the burgeoning talent. 
  • Most importantly, think of contests as a tool for discipline - the preparation and deadlines are a good structure to focus your intent with practicing. 

Finally, to wrap this up, I’m going to read you a list of names you might recognize: 

Angelica Hale 

Maren Morris 

Jennifer Hudson 


Lewis Capaldi 


Bebe Rexha 

Justin Timberlake 

What do these highly successful artists have in common?  Every single one of these singers is a LOSER.  They have either lost a high profile talent contest…and a couple of them didn’t even make it past their auditions!  But somehow, the participation in a contest benefited them greatly. Seriously. 

Now, you know. You can go out there and lose some contests, people! Being a loser in a contest doesn’t mean you can’t win in music.  It’s all a matter of knowing the game.

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