Piano Competitions – the risks and the rewards

There are some who feel that music should not be a competitive experience.  Some of these individuals find that creativity can be stifled and other skills like sight reading can be shortchanged because of the need to live with the same pieces for an extended period of time when preparing for a competition.  Béla Bartok famously said "Competitions are for horses not artists". In spite of views like these, music competitions have persisted over the years and there are reasons for this.

Piano competitions are a unique opportunity to hear musicians of all ages play a wide variety of repertoire of various levels. Most are open to the public and do not charge an admission fee so they are very economical for the listener.  For the performer, they are opportunities to showcase skills and share music with a larger audience.  Piano competitions can be confidence builders too. Many students will blossom after a positive competitive experience.  However, this is not always so and it is for this reason I am careful about who I recommend them to.  Additionally, unlike a recital where I encourage students to play as many pieces as they can, I am much more selective about which pieces are played at a competition so that a particular student can put their best foot forward.

I encourage my students to consider piano competitions because of their many benefits.  For example, they are often great tools for improving playing as both verbal and written feedback is given on each performance from individuals who are distinguished in the field of music. Additionally, they are great for motivating students to practise and put in that little bit of extra effort so that they can effectively rise to the challenge that a competition brings.   Students work harder when there is a deadline and a goal. Whenever I have students enter competitions or examinations, I always see acceleration in these students’ musical development.   

Competitions can bring out both the best and worst in students, parents, and teachers.  The best can come out in many ways. There are some students that just relish the opportunity to perform. They are the ones that might be described as 'hams'. Typically, they are very extroverted individuals who thrive when they are the center of attention.  They offer up a truly entertaining experience to the listener.  Sometimes there is a student who is rather reserved in other areas who loves to let the piano do his/her communicating.  At other times, personal bests are achieved in a competitive setting because some students do better when there is a certain amount of competitive pressure.  Alternately, the worst often comes out when one or all parties are focused exclusively on winning.  Winning is not easy.  This is because not everyone can win and generally speaking, all of the competitors have been preparing and working very hard.  

I believe that with the right attitude and approach, a competition can always be a winning experience no matter the competitive outcome.  Each year I have a number of students who prepare for competition and that number is growing. In 2016, just over 40% of my students participated in some kind of competitive experience. The two festivals I usually enter my students in are the North York Music Festival and the Oshawa-Whitby Kiwanis Music Festival.  The North York Music Festival is the largest festival of its kind in Canada with over 2700 participants in 2016.  These well-run piano competitions take place in April and sometimes early May.  In addition, I have students participate in the Scarborough ORMTA Honours Recital Auditions. Rather than focusing on winning and beating the other competitors, I encourage my students to compete with themselves.  This approach involves setting realistic personal goals.  These goals could be things like "I will not start before I am ready", "I will remember to let my music breathe", or "I will remember the dynamics of the piece I am playing", etc.  A student can claim success if he/she is able to achieve or move closer to these goals. If a prize is won, then that is just icing on the cake.   

Finally, sometimes the greatest learning comes from problem performances.  Problem performances allow students to learn to finish their performance with grace and to pick themselves back up and focus on the next performance experience. Exploring what went wrong can make their following performances that much stronger too. If this does happen to any of my students at any time, you can be sure that I will be there to see them through it.