Rethinking Competitions

I’ve never been a competition teacher. Whether it’s because I never participated in competitions growing up or because of some of the negative aspects I’ve observed in those who compete, I just haven’t seen them as having much value. But thanks, in part, to a workshop I attended this past summer at our state conference, I am warming up to the idea of having students participate in competitions. In fact, I had a student participate in our district auditions this past weekend and it was a fabulous experience! Here are a few random thoughts that I’ve been formulating about competitions.

Approach competitions with the attitude of a learner. I am not a good competition teacher. Therefore, that leaves lots of room for improvement! 🙂 My natural tendency is to focus more on functional skills and less on perfecting repertoire. Once a piece is “good enough” we just move on to the next thing and don’t spend great amounts of time honing in on the details. Of course we work on correct dynamics, articulations, stylistic playing, and so forth, but we don’t often work toward real mastery. I am inspired now to help students work toward a higher level of playing.

View competitions as an opportunity to increase overall musicianship. One of the reasons I’ve hesitated to get my students involved in competitions is because I’ve known students who spend months (years, in some cases!) exclusively preparing a couple of selections for a competition and yet hardly know how to sight-read or count rhythms or read from a chord chart, etc.  But it doesn’t have to be an either-or proposition. Both of these things can work in harmony to help students become better musicians if the student and teacher approach it with that perspective in mind. I think this would entail the teacher selecting appropriate repertoire that will highlight the student’s strengths and interests while also providing opportunity for them to improve weak areas. It would also mean making a pointed effort to teach conceptually from the particular pieces, rather than just demonstrating or teaching to the individual piece.

Competitions provide the opportunity for students who have a natural bent toward competition or the potential to become very advanced pianists to hone their playing and reach a higher level of excellence. As I served as a door monitor at the competition Saturday, I realized that a number of the students in my studio could play well enough to participate in a competition and would probably really enjoy it if I encouraged them in that direction. Just because I didn’t grow up competing is no reason to rob my students of at least having the opportunity to give it a try. Some of them may be especially gifted toward that aspect of musical study and I want to give them the freedom and encouragement to develop their skills to the fullest potential. As their teacher, I will readily acknowledge that I have a lot to learn in this area, but that I am willing to invest my time and energy to help them be successful.

Remember that it’s about the process, not the end result. Yes, I want to do everything I can to set my students up for success and give them the potential to win, but there are so many factors contributing to a winning performance that you can’t hinge the success of the experience on the day of the competition. Here are some of the benefits that I envision a student gaining: increased musicianship (as mentioned before), more confidence in performing (one thing I learned is the importance of providing numerous performance experiences with the same repertoire prior to the competition), exposure to other excellent pianists, the personally rewarding feeling of investing a lot of time and energy into a piece and being able to play it really well, character development due to the diligent effort required in preparation for a performance, and I’m sure there are many more benefits as well!

This is new territory for me, but I’m actually getting really excited about the possibilities! I would love to hear from some of you who have experience in this area! Do you find competitions valuable for your students? What things contribute most to a successful experience? What tips do you have for a teacher just launching into this world? Any and all advice would be most welcome!

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