competitions

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?

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In one of my previous posts, I talked about preparing students for the Certificate of Merit program by the Music Teachers Association of California. In this blog I would like to share my experience preparing students for another very established program available for students in Southern California – the Southern California Junior Bach Festival.

This is a wonderful program. Essentially a competition, this event celebrates the music by J.S. Bach. There are three stages: students perform in the Branch Festival, a selected group of winners proceed to the Regional Festival, and then another selected group of winners proceed to the final round called “Complete Works.” You can read extensive guidelines and rules of the festival on the official website.

What is unique about this festival is that each round has three judges! So, if a student eventually proceeds to the final round, they will have been evaluated by 9 different judges on the same piece! I find this extraordinary! Often, we hear teachers and students complain about the subjectivity of piano competitions – a very common problem indeed! But if 9 judges have heard the same piece and the student is recognized for their effort – that says something!

I have been preparing students for this festival for years, and it is one of my favorite events. Apart from the fact that students are evaluated by 3 judges in each round, I love the “rotating repertoire” – every three years the festival focuses on a different list of the extensive repertoire by J.S. Bach and the list “rotates” – this allows me as a teacher to also explore music that is less familiar to myself, and at the festival itself, it is very interesting to hear different repertoire performed by students of other teachers.

As teachers we read many different types of student reports throughout the year from various exams, festivals and competitions. The reports from the Bach Festival are the ones I look forward to reading the most every year! It is always interesting to see what the judges have to say, as we all know even in Bach, there can be very different interpretations, or actually I should say – especially in Bach!

There are a few key areas that the judges love to comment on, which I will share below:

1. Tempo choice – Bach can work well in many different tempos. The specific tempo choice has to suit the piece and the student’s ability.

2. Steadiness – Bach needs to be steady! Whatever tempo the student/teacher chooses, steadiness is key.

3. Baroque articulation – It is common to detach notes that have longer values.

4. Terraced dynamics – Layered changes of dynamics are preferred.

5. Awareness of compositional techniques – Bach is all about repetition, sequence and imitation. Understanding where these occur in the piece will help with interpretation.

6. Ornaments – these must be appropriate to the Baroque style. There can be more or less than the printed score.

7. Phrasing – often this is what makes a particular performance unique. How is the subject phrased; how many notes are slurred together. Bach can be phrased so many different ways! Consistency is key here.

8. Voicing – bringing out each voice, particularly in the contrapuntal pieces.

9. Pedal – generally very little pedaling, if at all. Definitely no blurring.

10. Structural awareness – especially for the larger works.

What are your favorite tips in teaching Bach? I would love to hear them!

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