Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Competitions – Yes or No

Ok, this is going to be controversial!

It is competition season where I live. We just had the Southern California Junior Bach Festival (read my previous blog), and last weekend we had the Temecula Young Artist Piano Competition. I have established a reputation of being a teacher who prepares students for competitions, so obviously for me the answer is yes – I believe in competitions!

Here are my reasons:

  1. Provides motivation – This is the biggest reason. Just like preparing for exams, competitions motivate students to practice more. They put in extra effort because there is the potential to win something. Kids love medals and trophies, and teenagers love cash! Money motivates!
  2. Opportunity to learn – Listening to others perform in competitions can be extremely beneficial for a student’s growth as a musician. Sometimes a fellow competitor may play something they learned in the past – they learn to critique and form an opinion on whether they did a better or worse job. Sometimes they hear someone play something that they don’t know and they are inspired and want to learn it, too. They can also learn a great deal about stage presence and expression from watching others. 
  3. Life is a series of competitions – Whether we like it or not, competition is a very real fact of life. Most people have no problems with sports competitions. Think Super Bowl. When it comes to music competitions however, many people frown. “Competition is for horses” they say. Getting into a good college is a competition. Getting a good job is a competition. If we shelter students from competitions because we do not want their feelings hurt, well they are going to get the shock of their life eventually. 
  4. Reality check – Sometimes, students or parents have a different perception of how good they are. Competitions can open their eyes and ears. The world is full of very talented and hard-working students!
  5. I learn, too – I learn a great deal from attending my students’ competitions. Especially when other competitors play a familiar piece, it is good to hear a different interpretation than the one I have taught my students. It also opens my eyes to some amazing performances by other teachers’ students. 
  6. Dealing with unfavorable results – Sometimes the results of a competition is strange. We can never understand the judges! For the most part, they do a great job selecting the winners, but sometimes, it is very different from our own selections as to who the winners should be. Oh well – that is life! Music is subjective. Don’t let one competition result destroy your faith. Here is an open letter I wrote to my students about dealing with competition results.
  7. Keeps us all humble – No one wins all of the time. This is good for students to learn. We can never take success for granted. If we are not successful this time, it is ok. Try again next time!

This does not mean that I think every student should do competitions. I also have students that don’t compete at all, and I love teaching them just as much! But certainly, if a student wants to compete, or if I feel they are ready and will benefit from competing, I will not hold them back. 

What are your thoughts regarding competitions?

About the Author

Yiyi Ku
Yiyi Ku is a pianist and teacher. Born in Taiwan, she grew up in New Zealand and obtained her Master of Music degree with Distinction in Composition and Piano Performance from the University of Canterbury. Yiyi also holds a Licentiate in Piano Performance from the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. She is a Nationally Certified Teacher of Music in Piano from Music Teachers National As... [Read more]

1 Comment

  1. matt

    While I totally support every teacher doing what they think is best for their students, and understand that competitions do have positive aspects, I do just want to offer a couple of counterpoints to your case for competitions:

    1.) Most of the benefits you mention can be achieved by cross studio recitals, student attendance at musical performances, and masterclasses. I would argue that the competition aspect adds a level of stress that detracts from the opportunity to learn. Instead of really listening to and appreciating another performer, the student often focuses on whether they will place higher or lower in the competition than that perfomer. Clinicians can give students constructive criticism without having to rank them from best to worst, and students can be motivated and nspired by hearing other performances without having to be told where they rank out of a hundred.

    2.) While I agree that life is full of competition, one of the great things about music, and art in general, is that it has value regardless of competition. In sports, competition is the whole point; seeing who wins or loses is by far the main element that makes the games engaging, not the actual act of playing the game. A football game would be pretty boring if there was only one team! Music (or dance, or theater), though, is engaging in and of itself, and in fact is at its best when everyone on the “field” is working together, on the same team (orchestras tend to sound lousy when the sections are working against one another). We live in an extremely competitive society, avoiding music competitions isn’t “shielding” kids from anything; they will get plenty of opportunities to learn how to be competitive. If anything, children need more opportunities to collaborate in a circumstance that isn’t a zero sum, win/lose scenario. Imagine how much more effective our government would be if politicians were better at working collaboratively, rather than combatively!

    Ultimately, I do understand that competitions can be used as effective learning tools, and that some competition in music is a fact of life. However, we, as teachers, need to realize that competition and art are, at best, uncomfortable bedfellows. Music (and art in general, for that matter) is fundamentally collaborative, not competitive; otherwise music competitions would be more common than concerts. Furthermore, art is largely about developing one’s one unique voice, and competition is about matching someone else’s ideal; and while there is value in working toward the latter, it is extremely easy to allow the pursuit of other’s ideals to eclipse the pursuit of one’s own ideals, and for the study of music to become more about proving how “good” one is, rather than experiencing the joy of the art itself. I personally feel that those risks outweigh the possible benefits, especially considering that most of the benefits can be achieved in other ways.

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