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Win, Lose or Draw

I have a love/hate relationship with competitions. When I was a student myself, I was always up to enter and play, with a widely varying level of success. Now that I’m a teacher, while I have some students who are equally gung-ho, it can be so hard to impart a very basic lesson: in the end, you have no control over whether or not you win, only over your attitude and the time you put in leading up to the event.

Recently, I had five students in a local competition that required a Superior score at an earlier event that is decidedly not a competition—no one is compared or ranked, just graded on their own performance. Three of those five students were in the youngest age group, and no one else had entered any. It was clear from the outset that one of my girls would win, and the other two would not.

All these girls play like angels. They work so hard, rarely come to a lesson unprepared, and they’re beginning to have artistic ideas of their own. The thing I’ve heard most about them this year is, “Wait…did you say she’s an eighth grader?!?” (Yes. Yes, I did say that. There are five of them in total and this class…they’re rock stars.)

So, back to the competition day. I was the room monitor, so I did hear each performance, albeit through the door. The judge was a good friend, someone I knew would give excellent advice and balance constructive criticism with compliments. All of these girls played beautifully. There were tiny memory slips and other small mistakes that just happen because we are human and not robots. Still, I was proud of them all and they seemed mostly happy with themselves. It was, however, pretty clear that one of them had brought just a little bit more to the table that day, and I was fairly (and correctly) sure she would be the winner.

Fast forward a few hours to the winners recital, where all the winners of each category were announced and then performed one piece from their program. Afterward I saw one of the girls who didn’t win standing outside the hall and I went to talk to her, to congratulate her on having such a good day. I was not expecting her tears, her frustration and her anger over the result. We talked for a moment, but I learned later that she was so beyond consolation that she declared, “I’m done with flute!” 

At first, I felt horrible. Had I pushed her too far? Did I make her enter this competition and then not prepare her to the best of my ability? Did I give her music that was too difficult? I worked really hard to make it my fault, even though she was not angry with me. I found myself worried that she would really quit—lessons, orchestra, school band, everything. A little more time passed and I was feeling angry, myself. Why was this child so externally motivated? How could she not see how far she had grown over this school year? Was winning the only thing she was interested in? Had I ever tried to talk to her about playing for your own satisfaction, even in a competition? At the tail end of a really busy, really stressful school year, I honestly couldn’t remember.

A couple more weeks have passed now, and she is excited about going to a week-long masterclass this summer, excited about rehearsing with piano next week for a different competition, and just generally back to herself. I am so relieved and happy to have her back, no lie. And I do think that I could do more to prepare students before a competition to understand that judging is subjective. All you can do is prepare yourself as well as you possibly can, and then go play your heart out.

We all have wins, and we all have losses. I once came in 2nd in two competitions in a single day. It was disheartening at the time, because I saw it as losing two competitions in one day. Now I see it differently, 21 years into the future. Can you believe it? I won 2nd place in TWO competitions in ONE day! Ultimately, perspective is everything.

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