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Polyphony. (Professional Resources).

The Competition Dilemma

This column presents a guest interview with Gary Amano and his colleague Dennis Hirst from Utah State University in Logan, Utah. Both Amano and Hirst have had numerous winners in MTNA national, division and state competitions. We felt readers might be interested in some of their insights and views about entering students in competitions.

Jane Magrath: What is the teacher's role in entering students in competitions?

Dennis Hirst: Teachers have the responsibility of stressing musical development and preparation over winning, and encouraging students to be respectful of other competitors and of the music. Competition results can confirm a student's progress and suggest directions for future musical development.

JM: Gary, your students have been highly successful in competitions. What kinds of students do you enter in competitions?

Gary Amano: Competitions are not for everyone. A lot of people are surprised when I tell them that during much of my teaching career I chose not to enter the majority of my students in competitions. We need to be careful that the teacher's ego does not get in the way. While an outstanding student can benefit a teacher's reputation, if the teacher's attitude is that his students exist to make him look good, he needs to seriously re-examine his role. It is up to the teacher to discern which students are up to the task and which are not. The whole experience can be unpleasant and damaging to a student, especially if a student lacks the ability, vision, discipline or proper preparation for a competition, or if the student has expectations that are not likely to happen.

DH: Teachers must assess their students in terms of musical skills and personality. Some students are terrified of performing or just not interested in competitions. One of my students becomes so anxious during piano recitals that she has to leave, even if she is not performing. I am working with this student on performance anxiety and controlling fear of playing for friends, and will probably never ask her to enter a competition. It is clearly inappropriate in this instance and foreign to her and my goals. Another of my students has previously been a prize winner in several competitions. Due to a recent ice-skating injury, she was forced to withdraw from the last competition she entered. Since that time, her practice hours have dwindled, and she has not been as interested in learning new repertoire. At her last lesson, I challenged her to enter an upcoming competition that required a concerto movement that she had been dragging her feet on learning. With the goal of a future competition, she has returned to her former practice habits and is literally devouring new repertoire.

JM: What do you feel are the student's responsibilities in competition preparation?

DH: The teacher has the important responsibility of understanding both the competition guidelines and the performance level of the competitors. This is a step many teachers miss--that of matching the competition to the student. An obvious example might help here. The performance level at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition is much different from that of the Elementary Division of the Utah State Fair Music Competition. Of course, a teacher would not encourage a student toward a competition for which he was currently not suited. While it is appropriate to dream, a student's feet must be planted on the ground, and the student should be shown how to take one step at a time in terms of entering competitions. It is not appropriate to take chances on whether the student is able to learn a sufficient quantity of literature for a forthcoming competition. He must know that the student is able to achieve it.

The teacher also has the responsibility of selecting competition repertoire that highlights the student's strengths. We all have different abilities, and no one person is the best at every musical and technical skill. I do not select the same repertoire for competitions as I do for basic skill development. I have witnessed many competitions where talented students have not advanced or won prizes based largely on repertoire choices. Simply put, if a student is not ready to play a difficult work such as Ravel's Scarbo, do not assign it for the competition.

JM: What about student expectations with regard to competitions?

DH: The student must have reasonable expectations in terms of competition preparation. Recently, a student asked if he could enter an upcoming competition. The competition required submission of an audio recording that included performance of a complete concerto performance. This student had only learned one movement of his concerto. When I asked the student about this, he assured me that he could learn the remaining movements in the time before the recording needed to be submitted. Then, I asked him when the recording was due, and he sincerely replied, "In ten days." Clearly, his was not a reasonable expectation. This happens frequently with students. I have often inquired as to a student's progress in competition preparation only to be told, "Don't worry. The competition is not for two more months."

GA: Very few students have a realistic idea of how well they need to have a competition piece prepared to be successful. If the student has no way of knowing, then it is the teacher's responsibility to make sure they know. Too often, students enter a competition and unfortunately practice without any plan or goal in mind other than the date of the competition. When the day arrives, then they just play and hope for the best. This is not a formula for success. One has to plan in advance how one expects to reach a certain standard to really make it by the competition time. I make my students reach specific goals at various stages of preparation well before the actual competition. Our goals are written out and carefully structured so the student knows exactly what must be accomplished and at what levels along the way.

JM: Many students enter the same competitions year after year, and some of them play the exact same repertoire as in previous years. Should teachers encourage students to keep studying the same competition pieces for years to achieve a higher performance level?

DH: Although major works remain a part of a pianist's repertoire for a lifetime, continual focus on the same few pieces for competitions is a surefire way to stunt musical growth. When I first started teaching at Utah State University, I had the pleasure of accompanying one of Gary Amano's college students in the MTNA performance competitions. For her first year of competitions, she learned a program of new repertoire and successfully competed in the state competition. Following the competition, she immediately began learning new repertoire. She competed in her second year with a completely new program and this time won the state competition and was awarded alternate at the division competition. She again learned a completely new program, and in her third year won the state and division competitions and was awarded third place at the national competition. My point in relating this experience is to indicate that a student can be successful in competition while still learning new repertoire and developing their musical potential. Encouraging anything else is not true to the fundamental mission of a music teacher.

JM: Since a competition usually names only one person winner, how do you believe teachers can prepare students for the very real possibility of not receiving first place, and perhaps receiving no official recognition?

DH: Winning can be accomplished in a wide variety of ways. For my students, winning is achieving personal goals that we have agreed upon prior to the competition. These may include the stated goal of playing well and knowing it, regardless of whether they advance to another round or receive a prize. My students learn that judging a musical performance is subjective; there is no formula for performance that guarantees a first prize.

One of the best pieces of advice my students have ever received came from a guest at our annual Wassermann Piano Festival. The guest, a medallist in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, was asked about how he prepared for Cliburn competition. His surprising reply, "Which Cliburn competition?" Most of us did not realize that he had competed two separate times in the Cliburn competition, with his medal coming during his second try. The first time he entered, he was eliminated after the first round. Rather than leaving or becoming consumed with self-pity, he attended every performance for the rest of the competition. He made copious notes on each performance and sought to identify the skills he did not currently possess. These notes formed his practice guide for the next four years of preparation, after which he entered and won a medal in the same competition in which he had previously been eliminated.

JM: Many teachers regularly attend competitions and enjoy hearing the many fine performances. I hear them say that the official results sometimes closely match those that they would have selected, while other times they are quite different from their own choices. Is there an agreed upon standard in judging music competitions?

DH: I too have had the same experiences. To the best of my knowledge, there are no accepted judging guidelines for musical competitions. Both judges and competitors wrestle with this. I recently had the pleasure of judging a performance competition where, in one division, I had a very difficult decision to make. I still wonder about that judging decision. One of the competitors was extremely expressive and very entertaining. He had great performance communication; in a word he had "pizzazz." He was also not technically polished. Most of the virtuosic passages in his performance were glossed over with many small inaccuracies. The other competitor presented a thoroughly polished and prepared performance. There was very little room to criticize his technical presentation; however, his artistic communication still had a good deal of room for improvement. He did not possess the dynamic communication of the other performer. I considered both performances outstanding in certain ways; however, it was very difficult for me to select which was first and which was second. Which would you choose?

GA: I find an interesting parallel between ice-skating and piano competitions. In ice-skating there are certain things you cannot do or there is an automatic deduction made to your score. I think there are certain items in a piano competition that are not matters of musical opinion or taste. Many wrong notes or a big memory lapse can be compared to a fall on the ice for the skater. When I see judges ignore or perhaps not hear such lapses, it makes me wish there were some agreed upon standards in piano competitions, like playing mostly the right notes or at least having your piece memorized all the way through.

JM: Since you have had national winners in every division of the MTNA competitions, and have students involved in MTNA competitions every year, what are your thoughts on these competitions?

GA: Some of the most dedicated, hardworking people I know run the MTNA national competitions, and I have a great admiration for what they are doing. Each year at the national conference someone will say how wonderfully all of the students in the competitions play. I am reminded of the story of the Emperor's New Clothes. Does anyone have the courage to say that not all the performances are good? Some of the top performances each year are truly at a very high level, but all too often many of them are not.

JM: Why do you think this happens?

GA: In some respects MTNA'S competition is the most difficult and most unpredictable of all competitions my students enter. One must pass three levels of competition spaced out over half a year's time. This means playing three times for three different panels of judges. Sometimes the very best performances are not those of the students that ultimately get first place at the national level, for whatever reason. The same could be true about any competition, including the Van Cliburn Competition. I am sure that traveling to three different locations further and further away and at greater and greater expense for student, parents, teacher and accompanist keeps many talented students from even entering.

JM: What can be done in your opinion?

GA: I do know that MTNA is now providing some financial support for competitors for division and national auditions. Ultimately, all competitions are only as good as their judges. It is therefore imperative that only good, qualified judges be selected for any competition.

In addition to judges, there are many decisions that need to be based on the needs of the students and not made just for the sake of expediency. These include when to have the competition (A few days after the Christmas-New Year's holiday is not good for anyone.), the location, the condition of the pianos, even-handed adherence to the rules and the list could go on and on. Perhaps there will never be the perfect competition, but just like the performance, we should always aspire to get closer to the ideal.

Gary Amano is director of the piano program at Utah State University and assistant music department head. His students have been winners in MTNA competitions at all levels.

Dennis Hirst is assistant professor of music at Utah State University and the artistic and administrative director of the Wassermann Festival.

Send Us Your Questions

Do you have a teaching question you would like to have answered? Perhaps you have a practice tip for students you would like to share or a studio idea you are trying differently this year. Please write and share your questions, ideas and tips, or other experiences in teaching. Send us your reflections. Questions and other items may be sent to: American Music Teacher, Attn: Polyphony; 441 Vine St., Ste. 505, Cincinnati, OH 45202-2811; fax (513) 421-2503; or e-mail to

Wanted: Teaching Tips

MTNA has a website feature devoted to teaching tips. Please share with us some of your favorite tried-and-true ideas. Send your tips to: MTNA, Attn: Teaching Tips, 441 Vine St., Ste. 505, Cincinnati, OH 45202-2811; fax (513) 421-2503; or e-mail to

--Jane Magrath Norman, Oklahoma Jane is internationally known as a pianist, author, clinician and teacher. She is professor and director of piano pedagogy at the University of Oklahoma.
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Title Annotation:Gary Amano and Dennis Hirst interviewed on music competitions
Author:Magrath, Jane
Publication:American Music Teacher
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2003
Previous Article:MTNA student competitions: national finalists.
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