Pros and Cons of Competitions
There are a number of types of competitions.
The big question here is: will your students participate? Will this be your decision or the students'? How much input will you allow from parents?
- True competitions are based strictly on performance. No other criteria are considered. Competitions may be called festivals, examinations, or auditions, but the aspect of playing against other students is still there. Sometimes students are segregated by age. Literature is left to the discretion of the contestant, although some competitions are built around a theme (Mozart, Russian composers, etc.). Prizes can be scholarships, cash awards, trophies, or opportunities to perform in public recitals, perhaps with an orchestra. Competitions wins can be instrumental in securing scholarships or admission to prestigious universities or a renowned teacher's studio. They are also central for a performer's résumé.
- Open competitions are those in which all students play the same piece(s) and are judged independent of their age or amount of training.
- Adjudicated exams are normally written music theory exams but can include music history or an essay on aesthetics. Generally the prizes are trophies or medals; occasionally there is cash.
- For adjudicated playing exams, students prepare literature from a list of acceptable pieces and play before a judge or panel of judges who award points for excellence. Students are compared to an absolute standard or their peers.
- In adjudicated playing and written exams, students prepare literature selected from a list of acceptable pieces. Sight-reading, technique/keyboard harmony, and written tests may be included. Students are awarded pre-determined achievement ranks or compete against one another for the highest overall rating, which sometimes also includes a prize.
Naturally there are strong opinions on each side of the competition issue.
- Students work harder when they have a deadline and a goal.
- Students desire to win trophies, ribbons, medals, rankings, public performance opportunities, or money prizes.
- Students receive extra experience in performing under pressure, usually on an unfamiliar instrument and in an unfamiliar setting. This experience helps them adjust the playing to different conditions.
- Students desire feedback from the master teachers who judge.
- Students meet others who share their interests and goals and see that they are not alone in their focus: other kids their age also value music study highly and are willing to devote the long hours it takes to do well in a competition.
- Students have a systematic way to measure their achievement and advancement. Seeing such advancement is another powerful motivator.
Perhaps you have participated in these activities as a student. You have an insider's knowledge of their effects on students and their positive and negative features. Overall, what did you think of competitions and adjudicated exams? Based on your experience, would you recommend these activities to your students? All or only some? If some, what would be your selection criteria?
- Music should not be a competitive event.
- A competition is very stressful; students don't need more anxiety. Pupils who cannot function well under pressure (and may have no desire for a career in music) and who do poorly are crushed; some even stop music study. Students dislike having their names and scores posted for public comparison.
- Sometimes the entire year's effort is spent preparing only the music the event requires, to the exclusion of other equally-worthy topics or explorations.
- Students who cannot memorize are at a serious disadvantage; they are relegated to a "hobbyist" category, thus belittling not only their efforts but their general musicianship. Competitions are built on the concert career paradigm, but most piano students will play as adults only for their own enjoyment.
- Literature, technique, and theory studies are determined de facto by the writers of the requirement lists, rather than by the teacher who best knows the student's strengths, weakness, and goals.
- Students may be coerced into competition by teachers and parents, as a way to put a feather in their own caps. If given a true choice, many students would decline competitions.
Are competitions in any of their forms appropriate for all your students? Just some? Which students? Which competitions?
If your students will participate in competitions and adjudicated examinations/evaluations, your curriculum should reflect this. Include time to prepare competition music, coach your students on competition etiquette, assist with competition entry forms, discuss judging procedures, and discuss with both parent and student how you feel about non-winning (we won't call it failure; just participating at all is a type of winning).
No matter what decision you come to now, you can change it later. It is important to consider this aspect of the music teaching business, however, because participation means the pace, content, and structure of your curriculum will be affected by competition requirements.
You may be interested in my thoughts on preparing students for competitions and what judges are looking for.
copyright 1997, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
Contact me for reprint permission.
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