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Why compete?

In the grand scheme of things, society generally tries (or likes to think it tries) to avoid competition. Competition has a negative stigma, and now more than ever, in the realm of classical music there can be simultaneous pressure to compete as often as possible but to also avoid competition. The ideology seems to be that a talented student should compete, as letting him play simply for pleasure seems a waste, but at the same time, many believe that competition stifles creativity and musical maturity in exchange for technical aplomb. That is, in the process of attempting to please any possible judge that could be listening, the musician’s unique musical identity is suppressed; anything too extreme is bound to displease someone, right?

So why compete?

As I lay out the reasons that may help you decide to compete (or justify your as of yet unexplained desire to do so), I must first say plainly that reasons fall into two categories: reasons that we would rather not acknowledge, and reasons that we happily acknowledge. I’ll start with the first to get it out of the way.

No one can deny that winning a good prize in a competition feels good. You get a self confidence boost, endless compliments, and most of all, some sort of eternal glory in the fact that you name has been etched into some plaque or history book. There might be a nice prize too. Common prizes at harp competitions include recitals, money, harps, statuses (think Concert Artist, a component of the first prize in the Young Professional Division of the American Harp Society National Competition), and perhaps some other goodies: the good stuff. But don’t these reasons seem somehow superficial? I think that if anyone ever told me that these were their primary reasons for competing, I might ask them to take a look at life; take a look at their choices. If a person’s self confidence is based entirely off their performance in competitions, then something is clearly wrong. Nevertheless, I think that it is important to admit that most competitors – if not all – would count some or all of the above reasons among their personal motivators, even if they’d never say so.

But here are the reasons that are more comfortable to talk about, and, frankly, I think they’re better reasons for competing. I’ll discuss them in no particular order.

1) You learn good repertoire. In general, a harp competition is going to take its required repertoire selection from the standards, so even if you spend years learning only competition rep, you’re bound to learn a good number of the pieces that you should learn as a professional or high level harpist. You have to keep in mind that the judges don’t want to be bored, so the competition will pick pieces that have at least some interesting aspect. That being said, competitions won’t always pick standard or even good repertoire; sometimes you will learn a piece knowing that you will never play it again after the competition. That’s okay. In fact, a situation like that introduces you to music you might not otherwise have heard or played, and that is a valuable experience in and of itself. On the other hand, the competition might introduce you to obscure or new pieces that you love and may not have found otherwise.

2) You force yourself to play at a very high level. With a specific goal, anyone will be more motivated to favor quality over quantity (unless your goal is quantity, but that’s not really applicable here). I know that whenever I play a piece I like, I’m satisfied only half learning it. Once the mystery behind your favorite cool-sounding section has been revealed and absorbed, the piece is no longer special. You put it down after a month or two and move on. In a competition, you can’t do that. You need to spend the maximum amount of time possible working on a potentially very limited number of pieces. The ideal is perfection, and playing a piece that well (that is, not perfectly, but very well) is extremely satisfying. Unfortunately, it’s a concept that’s hard to understand unless you’ve already done it. I suppose this might fall under a category for reasons to continue competiting.

3) It’s fun! Most of the competitions that one can attend are accompanied by some sort of festival or extra activities. It’s fun to interact with other harpists, especially ones your own age. It’s not every day you get a community of harpists to be with. Enough said.

4) It’s good for resumes. Whether you’re applying for a job or school – and it doesn’t even have to be a conservatory – a win will look good. The application reviewer will see that you’ve not only been willing to be in the time and effort, but that you worked efficiently enough for your work to garner results. And that’s what they want. Unfortunately, this reason might not be associated with any true desire to compete. A professional level harpist might compete simply to help secure a job that will allow them to do what they really like, whatever that may be.

In general, one’s reasons for competing will vary with age and overall goals. If you are (or probably your student or child is) still an elementary school student, the primary reason, if they even have one of their own, is going to be number 3. As a student ages, he might be more motivated by the more superficial reasons for competing; however, just because the reasons are superficial doesn’t mean the desire to compete is any less justified. An older student – late high school or college aged – might be more motivated by numbers 1 and 2. Professionals might compete just as a smart career move: number 4.

All that being said, let me synthesize my thoughts. I think competing is good because it really stretches a harpist to play at a very high level. In one sense, that’s nice for personal growth and personal satisfaction in playing the instrument, but in another sense that is good for the reputation of the instrument as a whole. But don’t compete exhaustively. Playing too many pieces is not good for developing musical maturity, and no time to play pieces that you would like to play can be hard too. I must agree somewhat with the school of thought that says that a competition stifles creativity. When competing, a rather neutral approach to technique and interpretation is probably the best way to avoid any harsh criticisms. Moreover, some of the most talented and engaging harpists I have heard were not heavy competitors in their youth. Something about playing music to satisfy no one but yourself can do wonders for the performer. Clearly there must be a balance, but that’s probably an individual preference and perhaps impossible to generalize in any sense, except for the meager attempt you’ve seen above.

So there you have it. Reasons to compete; reasons not to compete. Now it’s time to make a decision!

Any suggestions for me to add here? Comment!


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