Children and music competitions

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Today, my nine year old is participating in his first fine arts competition in piano. I am getting some strange looks from people (including my wife) who are shocked that I will not be there to watch. But  I have been involved in these competitions my entire life, as a child and for the past many years, as a judge. And I have some thoughts (for what they are worth) about how I want to be as a parent of a competitor.

First of all, it is silly to take these competitions too seriously. Parents, do not worry if your child wins or not. It does not matter, and that is true whether it is a 8 year old or a 18 year old. And quit comparing your children to everyone else’s.

Secondly, give your children some room to breathe and achieve things on their own. If you think you should go watch your children compete, that is your prerogative, but you will likely not see me there. I want my children to feel the sense of accomplishment from doing things on their own. They need to believe in themselves. If your children need you to baby them and act as their personal cheerleader, I think that is a crutch.

I may change my mind on this, and if there was a significant competition and/or I felt like my children really wanted me there, I would go. But in my experience as a judge, I think parents are largely counter-productive at competitions. And by the way, this idea of parents taking off work to watch their children play for a few minutes in a competition is a new one (at least to me). When I competed in my early years, no parents attended these competitions.

Even over the past few years, there seem to be more and more parents. Some of them are boorish. Their over-inflated views of their child’s talent leads them to confront judges, start conspiracy theories about the winners, and in general, act worse than their child.

A few years ago, a parent accused me of not giving their child first place in a competition because I did not like her teacher. The idea that her child lost because she was not the best pianist there never occurred to her. This kind of thing is actually quite common. If you child loses, don’t blame it on anything other than the fact that they were not good enough to win. If you have to excuse it away, at least don’t do it in front of the child.

Now, here is in my opinion about what parents should be doing for their children, and I am preaching to myself. Parents should focus on creating an environment where children do their best in their proficiency. But just as importantly, their children should eventually leave the nest STILL LOVING MUSIC.

Why is this important? Obviously, you do not want to invest the time and money into a skill that your children will not use as adults (like sports….). But also, you have to understand that your children will increase their capacity for learning as they age if they continue to love music.

They learn quickly as children, but they will learn more quickly in college. And they will learn even more quickly after leaving college if they are motivated to study. For me, college was the beginning of my music education rather than the end.  There is a reason why most great musicians are older; they likely did not come out of college great. Studio musicians probably have the most difficult job in music. Few of them are young because few young people are good enough to be studio musicians.

So if you want to nip that possibility in the bud, go ahead and put too much pressure on your children to win meaningless contests. Make them practice three instruments for hours a day. And then watch them walk away from it all when they get older.

Last year, I made a decision to stop teaching my child piano and get him another teacher because of this reason. I was guilty of creating an environment where my child would hate music some day. Because of my nature, I constantly have to guard against this. I cannot count how many times I had to apologize to my son for being too hard on his music.

Yes, it is hard to balance between expecting a child’s best and making music enjoyable. Unfortunately, a parent’s inflated opinion about their child’s natural ability does not help. Make sure you are only asking for a child’s best rather a fulfillment of your personal dream of raising a prodigy.