Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Dealing with Student Competitions

IMG_1292.JPGFebruary has been an extremely busy month for my studio. About half of my students participated in various competitions. Some of them did extremely well, some of them did about as good as I expected, some of them didn’t do as well as they could have, and some of them did amazingly well but unfortunately did not get recognized.

Music competitions are not for every student or every teacher. It does take a strong heart! Some students excel under pressure, some don’t. Some students deal with unfavorable results gracefully, some get heart broken. The toughest part is when you as a teacher disagree with the judges. And that happens quite a lot! Music is subjective. Music speaks to different people differently. Sometimes a chord is struck and there is chemistry, sometimes there is no connection. The same performance could wow some people, but not move others.

Like it or not, competitions are not going to go away. They are everywhere in life, not just in music. There are many types of competitions, some more “friendly” than others. In general, I do feel they offer many benefits for both students and teachers. One thing I can honestly say is that whether I agree with the result or not, every time I present a student for a competition, I grow and learn as much as they do from the experience.

Still, it is nerve-breaking to sit through a student’s competition and wait for the results to be announced. I admire those who do this at a high level constantly. At the same time, I can understand why some teachers or parents do not go the competition route at all. If you are a seasoned competition-oriented teacher, I welcome your thoughts on how you deal with the emotional ups and downs of preparing students for competitions. Here are some of my thoughts:

1. Look on the bright side.
If a student wins, great. If not, have you or the student learned something from the experience? If yes, it was worth it!

2. Competitions are eye-openers.
I have great students. Others have great students, too. I think I am a good teacher, but there are other excellent teachers. Competitions often inspire me to greater teaching. How did those other kids do so well? How did their teachers inspire them to work so hard? What can I do to inspire my students more? What can I do to better prepare my students next time? What professional development should I undertake to better my teaching?

3. Be prepared to gain/loose students.
I have gained new students because my students win in a competition. I have lost students because my students don’t win in a competition. I have even lost students after my students did win in a competition! I don’t let that bother me anymore. It is the nature of our business that students come and students go.

4. Celebrate the success of others.
It is ok that someone else wins this time! Here is an open letter I wrote to my students to prepare them for the outcomes of a competition.

5. Stay humble and do not be discouraged.
There is a saying in Chinese that goes something like this: the next mountain is taller┬áthan this one. The standard is so high in today’s music competitions, that one must remain humble even if one wins. At the same time, one must not be discouraged if one doesn’t win. There is next time. The world does not end. There are other opportunities.

I would love to hear your thoughts!

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. Neil J.

    My experience in dealing with competitions, band and vocal, at the high school level, is that students need to realize that they are not competing with other musicians, but with their own capabilities. Hopefully, that is what the judges are determining: do I feel that this student is meeting his or her own potential? If they can understand THAT, then they can improve. My first clarinet solo got me a IV, the lowest I could be, but I didn’t quit; I loved music

  2. Mag L

    Hello, as a music teacher, what do you think of between ABRSM vs RCM exam in comparsion?

  3. Yiyi

    Neil – that’s a great insight to tell the students, that they are competing with themselves. Thanks for sharing! Most music exams do focus on that, ABRSM, RCM, Piano Guild, Certificate of Merit (CA), etc. But the reality in most competitions is that students ARE being compared to other students, in terms of technical abilities and musical interpretations. It’s tough! My feeling is that it is not a path for everyone, but it is a valuable life experience, whether one wins or not. A small taste of what it is like to prepare for and be in a competition can teach students many things, and those that excel at it can pursue more.

  4. Yiyi

    Mag – I have been asked that question many times! I think I will make it my next blog post? Stay tuned!

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