Filtering by Category: Competitions

Build a Foundation

Added on by Greg Anderson.
Dear Greg,
I'm very confused. I just turned 11. I have been playing since I was 3 and studied under the Suzuki method with one teacher until I was 8. I had finished up the fourth volume. Most of the pieces in Volume 3 & 4 are Sonatinas by Clementi, Kuhlau, Mozart, and Beethoven. My teacher moved so my dad hired another teacher. My dad spends most of my practice time with me. I began to learn Beethoven's Sonata Op2 No1. I love this piece but it took me eight months to lean the first three movements. He has me working on Hanon, scales, Czerny Op599, for technique. I am also playing the Inventions and Sinfonias along with some romantic pieces from Denes Agay's book. My current teacher wants me to put the Beethoven Sonata aside and start learning all the Clementi Sonatas because he believes that physically I am not ready for these pieces. He also wants me to avoid playing Chopin for now which I really love listening to. My dad spoke with the former teacher of mine and he said that if you want to seriously compete in the major competitions, which I do, I have to start learning the Sonatas by Beethoven, Mozart and Chopin works like the Preludes and Etudes now. He disagrees with my current teacher because he believes that the teacher may not have the patience or knowledge of how to teach a younger student advanced pieces. My current teacher is very detailed and we spend vast amounts of time on Clementi alone and expects to spend two years on these pieces. I'll be 13 then. He believes that Clementi works are a precursor to Beethoven works. What concerns me is that when I see the bios on winners that win the major competitions most of them were playing concertos among other advanced pieces when they were 9. What are your thoughts about the direction I should proceed with?
 - Celina

Dear Celina,

I responded to a similar question on this "Ask Greg" page, and I'm going to answer yours in the same manner: listen to your teacher. Your teacher, especially in this case, seems to know what he is doing.

You've certainly hit upon one of my pet peeves: students trying to tackle pieces beyond their skill level. It is dangerous physically, pianistically, and musically. If you rush through advanced repertoire, it is very likely that you will miss opportunities to explore your musicality or your personal approach to the piano. It is also likely that you will develop some bad, bad habits in your technique - habits that will follow and plague you for the rest of your life.

I remember being just as confused as you; I heard about the teenage prodigies who brought a new concerto in for their lessons every week, and I thought I had to do the same thing. Instead, my teacher taught me patience. She was extremely detailed in her approach to the music, and that sense for detail opened my ears to a new world of precision and craftsmanship at a very early age. It was invaluable training, in my opinion.

There is no hurry! My parents wanted nothing more than for their three sons to be "well-rounded," happy children, and I believe it made all the difference. I certainly wouldn't be the pianist I am today without having spent all that time outside building tree forts, participating in the science clubs, and visiting the public library on a weekly basis. I know plenty of young pianists who spend eight hours a day practicing, but I think it is completely unnecessary. There are SO many child prodigies out there, and although eight hours of daily practice may give you early fame and a host of compliments, it will do very little to provide any sort of career later on.

Build a firm foundation as a pianist now, and later you will be able to pursue anything you want. Truly elegant, insightful, and beautiful playing is so rare in people your age. Not that it really means anything, but in high school, I won competition after competition playing Mozart and Bach, not Rachmaninoff and Liszt like my competitors. (That is not a slam to Rachmaninoff and Liszt - I love their music - I truly do. It just shows that Mozart and Bach played well can be more impressive than more technically difficult music.) And the Clementi sonatas! Some of them are masterpieces! You shouldn't be complaining! How lucky you are to be able to play them at such an early age.

And now that I've already said more than enough, I feel I must take a moment to state my passionate thoughts on the matter of competitions. Be wary. Please don't turn competitions into your driving force, into your reason to be. Competitions can be so dangerous.

Competitions train audiences and pianists to listen critically. I found that after spending too long in the competition circuit, I lost my ability to listen and enjoy. When I was eight, I listened to a Mozart concerto for the first time and I nearly squealed with delight. It was bliss. After attending competition after competition, I found that I couldn't listen to a Mozart concerto without picking the pianist apart; I listened for what was wrong rather than what was right and beautiful. And even worse, I found myself continually making comparisons; "this is better than that!," "I liked his interpretation better than hers," etc.. Comparison is healthy to a certain extent, but it becomes detrimental when we lose the ability to listen with an open mind or the ability to simply enjoy what each person has to offer. (Please see the Anderson & Roe music video for a satire on the subject of critical listening!) I'm confident that I'm not the only music listener who has been jaded by the prevalence of competitions in our culture.

Not only do competitions transform the way we listen, but they influence the repertoire chosen by pianists for performance. Even if the competition repertoire is "free choice," only a select portion of the piano repertoire is appropriate. Schumann's Davidsbündlertänze is a great work but rarely programmed in competitions - it's too long and it isn't flashy enough. The music of Satie is completely inappropriate on a competition program - it's too simple and esoteric, and it can be very polarizing with the judges. Grieg's lyric pieces aren't serious enough, Handel isn't as good as Bach, too many transcriptions are bad, too many unknown pieces intimidate the judges, and Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies are deemed "cheap" music by some. And goodness, if your specialty is New Music and not music of the Classical era, too bad, because you won't satisfy the judges desire to select a well-rounded pianist. And goodness, if you like to compose yourself, don't try to program your own compositions in competition programs.

Then, there is the whole element of winners and losers. In most major competitions I've seen, amazing pianists (truly amazing) are cut in the first round. It seems that creative and personal performers do not do well. They may win over some of the jury members, but they are bound to offend others. Competitions are kind to the consistent and predictable - very kind - $50,000 kind - lots of engagements and press kind. But interestingly enough, very few who win secure sturdy concert careers. Audiences don't return to hear these winners again, and concert presenters don't reengage them. Who won the last Queen Elizabeth? the last Tchaikovsky? the last Leeds? I forgot.

I passionately believe that competitions have done significant damage to the world of classical music. It has transformed music from an art to a sport.

Instead of playing the piano to win competitions, I offer an alternative: play music to change the world, to discover yourself, to explore humanity, and to bring people together. Play music that is relevant to you and find ways to make it relevant to others.

Happy practicing!

- Greg

Mozart Sonata K. 310 & Competitions

Added on by Greg Anderson.
Dear Greg,
Well I would first like to thank you for creating such a wonderful website. It looks like you've fulfilled your mission! And for sure, you are my new inspiration! So my question has to do with Mozart Sonata K 310 in a minor. I've been playing this piece for about over a year, I think. I've performed it a few times and will soon be playing this at another competition. I've received several adjudications on this, and people all seem to have different opinions! I'm especially confused about the beginning of the 1st movement. Some suggested that I pedal every quarter note, and my teacher and I decided to try it because I can bring out more of the tragic feeling that way.. but once I started doing that some adjudicators were VERY strongly against it. Could you offer me any advice on this? What do you think? Thanks!
 - PianoGirl in Canada

Dear PianoGirl,

I am very humored by your question! I played the same piece during my first year at Juilliard and dealt with the exact same issues when I performed it in competitions. It seemed that no matter how I tried to play the opening, every adjudicator objected. Should the grace note come before or on the beat? Should you pedal the eighths, half-pedal the eighths, not pedal them, connect them with your fingers, keep them dry? How loud should they be? Are they noisy, almost ugly, like a janissary band? Full of passion and drama? Should they be respectable and restrained, as if "you were playing on a fortepiano?"

Later, my teacher explained to me that "the piece is bad for competitions," because it's one of those divisive pieces with the tendency to incite strong opinions from professionals (sort of like Chopin's Barcarolle or Fourth Ballade). So I stopped playing it.

It wasn't until later that I realized how much competitions controlled my life in this manner. Nearly every decision regarding the repertoire I learned was made in deference to competitions and judges. Certain pieces, like the Mozart, were out due to their divisive nature. Other pieces were out because they weren't serious enough. Other pieces were too unfamiliar. Other pieces were too canonic (Appassionata, much?). Some pieces were dismissed because they didn't showcase enough (variety of emotions, technical challenges, etc.) in an appropriate span of time. Some pieces don't make a good impact on the audience (or judges) unless they are played in their entirety... and what if the judges didn't have time to listen to the whole piece? And I certainly couldn't play my own compositions...

In the end, you get the same old hackneyed, compact, virtuosic (but serious) competition pieces; pieces I didn't really feel like playing: Rachmaninoff's Second Sonata, Prokofiev's Seventh Sonata, and Ravel's La Valse.

Too much calculation. Too much strategy.

So I cut competitions out of my diet, and now I can play what I want, when I want. I can play a program of music composed entirely during the Classical era. I can play Chopin's Barcarolle. I can play Satie. I can mix children's pieces into my programs. I can play my own arrangements. I can construct my programs to make a statement about society. I can play music I like! Ultimately, this made me a better musician and a happier person.

Regarding the Mozart sonata: I went for dramatic effect. I never got the feeling that Mozart would have restrained himself... and a fortepiano can make a nasty racket when played in one of those old, reverberant European castles. Besides, I like playing the opening that way.

- Greg

Considering a Career Shift

Added on by Greg Anderson.
Dear Greg,
I am 20 and a pre-medical student at a State University. Yet, I am unhappy because I wish to pursue music. I guess you can call it the "Berlioz Syndrome". Majoring in Piano or Music is bad because the State University that I attend does not have any good piano professors. I am wondering - do I continue to do pre-med and be the normal person with a good salary or do I go do something that I am passionate about even when I am old? What if I have a small repertoire that includes mostly Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin? Do you think that music is only pursuable for those who study it professionally at the age of 15 or younger and for those who win competitions in high school and college? I really dislike competitions, and I didn't compete at all in my younger years. I've asked this question (making music my life) to my piano teacher (who is very good-she is a moscow conservatory grad) and she told me that I certainly have the musicality and the emotions and some of the techniques down. I just need to practice practice and practice. Any advice?
 - Anonymous

Dear Anonymous,

I certainly do not want to be responsible for a decision that you regret later in life, but I will cautiously offer a few random thoughts on the subject:

  • Remember that choosing one path doesn't necessarily exclude the other; the decision isn't an "either/or" decision. You can still play the piano if you pursue another careers. "Amateur" can be defined as a "lover of" something; quite a noble pursuit, if you ask me!
  • There are plenty of career paths for a pianist in today's world (teacher, accompanist, writer, composer, music series director, educational outreach performer, "music as medicine" researcher, etc.), all of which require loads of dedication and passion.
  • It takes an unimaginable amount of skill, determination, and luck to succeed as a concert pianist, and it's not everything it's cracked up to be. Skill: the bulk of a pianist's skill is developed while they are young; it get's harder and harder to learn new music as one grows older. Determination: Some would say I don't have a life (I "work" 16 hours a day), but I'm having a ball; although I become obsessive when I'm doing something I love, it's also when I feel the most alive. Luck: self explanatory.
  • I went into my career with the knowledge that I may not come out with much, but I knew that as long as I had the music, I would be happy. (Cheesy, but true.) I'm not nearly as career-oriented as I probably should be, but my perspective goes beyond that of becoming a notable pianist. (Yes, many would argue that I have an extensive, self-promoting website, but if you'll look around, you'll notice that every page was built with very real intentions to fulfill my mission - to demonstrate that classical piano music can serve as a powerful and relevant force in society.) I'm not terribly daunted by what the future may throw my way, because my priorities are substantial enough to ride the waves. Humanity, artistry, and the divine will be present no matter what happens. Virtually everything I do is fueled by my mission.

Good luck and best wishes!

- Greg

Overcoming Stage Fright

Added on by Greg Anderson.
Dear Greg,
I'm 14 years old and has been participating in small competitions for 3 years, performing roughly 4-5 times a year. Last year, I entered a big competition (which I've never experienced before) and managed to get into the final round. However, my nerves got the better of me during my performance of the sonata for the final round and I did not win. I am not obsessed with winning any competition (I don't really mind losing, as long as the experience has been of some benefit) but after the competition experience, I am afraid to attempt such large competitions or to play a sonata in front of an audience again. Can you please give me some honest suggestions in how to overcome such a fear or should I simply stop entering competitions anymore (maybe for the next few years)? Thanks, Greg and I love your playing! XD
 - Anonymous

Dear Anonymous,

Nerves are definitely a part of the performing process. Most of the time, I consider nerves to be a wonderful thing; they keep my performances exciting by giving me just the bolt of adrenaline I need. On rare circumstances, however, they can be downright detrimental!

I've actually found that the less I think about my fears, the better! I used to have a pre-concert routine worked out (to simmer my fears), but I found that it was just a waste of time and it made me more nervous. (Besides, things never went as planned, and that just ruffled my feathers even more.) Instead, I acknowledge that I'm afraid and walk on stage and have a blast.

It really only takes a brief, concentrated moment and a couple deep breathes to center oneself. From there, sit down at the piano and fall in love with the music all over again.

- Greg