Competition's Place in Music: One Teacher's Perspective


Few if any students, teachers, or parents, would deny that competition is very prevalent in music. More music competitions exist now than ever before with ever increasing numbers of students participating from year to year. The prestige of winning a competition can bring varying degrees of glory not only to the musician but the institution and/or teacher. Undoubtedly, many who support music competitions would quickly extol the many so-called benefits in store for players. I was about 14 when I first learned about music competitions. A friend had mentioned that he was going to be competing in a piano competition. At that time, I had been taking guitar lessons for two years but was unaware that such competitions existed. Neither of the two guitar teachers I had ever spoke of music competitions. My ignorance notwithstanding, the initial perplexity I experienced when I learned about music competitions has not waned 25 years later.

"How exactly is a music performance judged?" I wondered. Is it all about being technically flawless? Certainly, a technically perfect performance does not ensure that the music is at all compelling. Many of us have heard a musician perform a piece that was insipid and dull, despite being note-perfect. By the same token, we have also heard performances that were far from technically perfect, yet these performances were incredibly stimulating. Upon which criteria does a judge(s) assess the value of a musical performance during a music competition?

Even if you consider music to be a type of game, is it a serious game with the winners being those who achieve a preset standard of excellence on one side and the losers who fall short of the bar on the other? Or is playing music more about embarking on a journey of discovery, edification, and cultivation for oneself?

A correlation exists between the amount of stress and enjoyment we experience in activities. For most people, the more stress-inducing the activity, the less enjoyment is felt. You can easily observe this phenomenon when children play games. A fun relaxed game transforms into a more stressful activity as the level of seriousness increases; more pressure is felt by the players; and the amount of fun quickly diminishes or completely disappears. Some children decide the game is no longer worth playing and resign themselves from it, while others get caught up in the gravitas.

Seeing as how virtually every facet of life has been turned into a competition, students are often competing on an unconscious level from the very beginning of their music studies. In order to mitigate the anxiety of students, I urge them not to treat music as a competition or worry about how they compare to other players. As ice hockey great Bobby Orr's father would tell his son throughout all of the stages of his career, "Just go out there and have fun. If things work out, we'll see what happens."

Today, few students I teach begin lessons and play music without already having expectations set firmly in place. Despite my encouragement and assurances, the unreasonable expectations of a student eventually bring him or her to the point where the stress is no longer bearable. In many cases, such students become disenchanted with music; sadly, they end up taking a hiatus or stopping without ever resuming.

For those who argue that competition is a necessity for musicians to achieve greatness, I offer you the following story:

Many years ago, I would often come across the legendary jazz guitarist Pat Martino at a Chris' jazz club in Center City Philadelphia. At the time, Martino often attended performances by famed guitarist and my mentor, Jimmy Bruno.

During one of the performances, Martino and I were listening to Bruno's trio. After the song ended, Martino said something that struck me as cryptic: "I never compete." He repeated the sentence once again with a pronounced smile as if he was imparting some invaluable esoteric knowledge. He said nothing more to me for the rest of the night. I was not sure what prompted him to say what he did at that particular time, but not until quite some time later did I fully realize what he had meant.

Pat Martino does not approach music as a competition. In contrary, he views music as a collaboration or a conversation. He is not interested in proving himself to an audience or the musicians performing with him on the bandstand; to do so would be an act of violence, one of separation rather than harmonization. In the end, competing against fellow musicians and/or the audience is self-defeating. Connecting with others is virtually impossible if you treat yourself and the environment around you with contempt.

Though music competitions are here to stay, I do not to encourage students to compete in music competitions. If a student is set on participating in one, I certainly will not attempt to dissuade the player; however. I feel the focus should be on enjoying the learning process and the teamwork involved in playing music with other musicians.

What are your thoughts and experiences with music competitions? Please share them below.

Dr. Seth Greenberg