Last weekend, my younger son competed at the Great Lakes Regional American Guild of Music Competition.  He’s played piano for a little over two years, progressing steadily, with a teacher we’ve known for the past five years.  This annual event is a chance to play for others and hear others of a similar level play.  At least that’s my take on the event.  It’s not his.

He sees it as a chance to compete and win.  An opportunity to be the best.  Take the trophy.  Be on top.  As the younger brother by four years, he works hard to prove he’s just as capable as his older brother.   Now.  My older is far less competitive, which keeps the tension level down somewhat.  My older competed through American Guild for the previous four years, but with his new piano instructor will move to different venues for competition.  I sense that what he likes best about piano competition is the chance to play to an audience. 

I’d never heard of competitive piano competitions until five years ago.  I played piano for eight years, stopping at age 15 when friends and the phone were more compelling than an hour a day at the keyboard.  Of course I regret stopping, as my father said I would, but I don’t regret never competing.  I just struggle with the concept of music as competitive (aside from personal struggle to improve oneself).  Maybe I’m missing something.

My younger embraces the chance to compete, and for the past few weeks, I’ve heard about his desire to place in the top three, of winning a trophy, of possibilities for various scores.  It’s worn me out.  I’ve given up reminding his that the point is to work hard on learning a challenging piece well, to play it for others and hear them play their pieces, and to have fun.  My words are wasted breath to one whose focus is being on top.

Now, I like winning.  Scrabble, strategy games, duct tape sword fights, backyard soccer scrimmages — I enjoy besting my opponents.  But I’m fiercely competitive with myself.  Throughout school, I accepted nothing lower than A’s from myself, often to my detriment, avoiding courses where I might miss that mark.  I strive to help my boys avoid that trap and structure homeschooling to reduce that risk.  But in music, I simply wanted to meet my standards, always high and stressful enough.  I’m not convinced I’d have gained anything from music competitions.

So I struggle to see music, the language of the universe and the heart, as a competitive arena, yet my kids compete for top honors and ribbons.  And one of the boys is totally into the chance to best another young musician, while my older would be just as glad to just prepare, perform, and move on.  So be it.  But, in the end, I hope the music speaks to their heart, and their joy of playing for others is sharing music for others and that the reward of a song mastered speaks louder that the ribbons and certificates.  Only time will tell.

Epilogue:  My younger placed fourth in his group of ten, just a place short of a trophy.  He’s delighted and tremendously proud.  So am I.


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