Competitions in Theory and Practice

CompetitionsCompetition, as we are all told, is as old as music itself; found even in the myths of antiquity like that of the competition between Apollo and the satyr Marsyas. Like Pan, Marsyas lost this ancient duel, and was punished in a most brutal way.

Luckily, the stakes are not quite so high in modern competition, but the pressure to perform has never been higher. Only fifty or so years ago, there were only a handful of major piano competitions, and placing in one nearly guaranteed a fruitful career. Today by contrast, a pianist can place in any number of international competitions and still struggle to find a modest paying teaching job.

As August approaches, we as teachers begin to plan for yet another round of competitions. For those of us who specialize in pre-collegiate teaching, there exists  a whole industry of more modest events. These are the festivals, grade-level competitions, concerto competitions, and music-teacher-association events that we all know, whether we like it or not.

Here in Austin, like other areas of the country, the level of pre-collegiate competition is amazingly high. Forget about entering your 4th grader if she can’t play a Haydn Sonata or Fugue from the WTC. Forget about entering your 9th grader without a polished Alborada del Gracioso.

This astonishing level of playing isn’t something to denigrate. I’m deeply honored to hear it every year, and I have a lot of respect for the teachers who work behind the scenes with these talented students. Nor, if the following seems to take a critical tone, do I have any sort of “sour grapes” motivation – as my students do very well in these competitions.

However, each year when I enter students, I always make a point of telling them what I think is the truth about competitions. There are three major points:

Competitions Are Not Indicators of Future Potential

The most prevalent myth surrounding competitions is that they are a good indicator of talent level or future success. This is simply not true–especially at younger ages. Does a 16 year old who can play La Campanella with ease stand more chance of developing a musical career than a rank beginner? Of course. But should a 5th grader who deeply loves the piano, but who places last in a competition, throw in the towel? Not at all.

We are obsessed with the child prodigy, but we should be more obsessed with the artist who develops over a lifetime. In many cases, this means maturing in the later teens and early twenties. We hear so many child prodigies these days, that we forget that there’s another path into the musical profession. I know many performing artists who did not even start until they were 10 or so; people with great careers in music.

Competitions Are Not Objective Measures of Performance 

I’m sorry, but we need to face this fact. A judge may prefer how one pianist looks over another; he may have had a great morning but a sleepy afternoon; he may have indigestion from lunch. You might play a judge’s pet piece, but not in the way he likes it. Or perhaps you played a piece he hates. All of these factors and many more come into play during a competition.

Too often parents are unaware of this fact. They are led to believe that this authority figure listening to their child has some sort of objective means of judgment. *Yes* it is true that some rough lines can be drawn about skill level–and there are some amazing pianists judging competitions who try their best to be fair– but more comes down to individual taste than you might think.

Competitions Are a Great Way to Motivate Practice

. . . but only when approached with a healthy motivation!

We should know not only what we are doing, but why we are doing it. Are we motivated by a desire to be our best, and by a healthy sportsmanship? Or, are we rooting our self-worth in the outcome of a competition. The former is a motivation that can be sustained through a lifetime, while the latter is sure to lead to pain and demoralization when, inevitably, things don’t go our way.

This question should be asked not only by students, but by teachers and parents as well. Are we interested in the happiness and long-term success of our students, or are we seeking a short-term boost of pseudo-self-esteem for ourselves?

The irony is that sometimes the first thing to be lost in a music competition is the music. The bland performance often offends the least judges, at the expense of the exceptional. And art, which at its core ought to be individualistic and self-unaware, is made a matter of social standing and group opinion.

I’m a strong believer that a committed student should put 110% effort into his or her musical goals. And there is nothing better than an upcoming performance or competition to help motivate this level of work; an eager student will always make greater strides with this sort of goal on the calendar. But he or she needs to be careful that the primary motivation is personal excellence regardless of ranking or the opinions of others, and not social approval and false self-esteem.


Want to learn piano but don't know where to start? I've taught hundreds of happy students! Click here for my free beginner lesson course.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.