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In Tune or Out of Sync? Music Competitions for Kids

Music competitions can be a double-edged sword for children. On one hand, they can offer many benefits, such as an opportunity to showcase their skills, build confidence, and receive valuable feedback from experienced judges. On the other hand, they can also be stressful and even detrimental to a child's self-esteem and development if not handled appropriately.

One of the greatest benefits of competitions is that they provide children with a goal to work towards. This in turn can motivate them to practise more and improve their skills. I recently read a comment from a flute teacher on social media saying “I absolutely LOVE helping my students prepare for large-scaled competitions/auditions … It is SO fun and rewarding to see how much students grow in such a short amount of time when preparing for these types of events.” (Samantha Goes, USA) After my 2022 Young Flute Player International Championship, another teacher affirmed that preparing her ensemble to enter, helped progress their playing, “Thank you for creating the opportunity! They all improved as a result!” (Karen Lonsdale, Australia).

When live competitions were not possible during the pandemic, many competitions went virtual. The international flute competitions I organized were open to all ages from all countries. I know from many comments by teachers and parents, this provided a great opportunity for even the shyest children to perform. For all entrants, preparing a competition video is a great performance goal, but especially for those who are not ready to perform for a live audience.

Competing and doing well can help build a child's confidence, which can benefit them in other areas of life. After my 2021 international flute competition, a parent sent me an email saying, “Erin is thrilled to have come second in this competition. It's really given her a boost in confidence and has resulted in lots of practice over this week, which has been lovely to hear!” (Gillian Johnson, UK) So, not only did this success encourage Erin to play her flute more, it also helped her general self-esteem. Winning or placing in a music competition can be a great source of recognition and validation for a child's hard work and dedication.

Conversely, if a child expects to do well and doesn’t, this can be quite demoralizing. We need to emphasise that this performance is only a reflection of how they played on one particular day in one specific situation, it is not necessarily a reflection of their playing in general. It may be that nerves got the better of them, or it is also quite possible that a good performance is not recognized. If individual feedback is given, it may benefit both teacher and student. However, judges are human beings and have their own opinions, which may differ from those of the teacher. For this reason, it’s important to research competitions and the judging panel carefully before entering children, to give them the best opportunity of it being a positive experience.

Competitions can create a high-pressure environment, which can be stressful for children. Focusing too much on a competition can also lead to neglecting other important aspects of their lives, such as schoolwork, friends, and family. We need to keep competitions in perspective; they are only one aspect of life. It is up teachers and parents to decide whether the student is ready to manage the pressure of a competition.

Competitions can also create a culture of comparison, which can lead to unhealthy competition and a focus on winning rather than enjoying music and personal growth. I encourage students to concentrate on the preparation of their piece. If it is a video entry, we have fun making the video and celebrate once it’s submitted; if they win a prize, that’s a bonus, but the focus is on preparing their piece to the highest standard within their ability, not on winning the competition. In the competitions I organize, this is also the reason that I go to the effort of giving a personalised thank you certificate to every entrant, not just to the winners. It’s crucial that as teachers and parents we ensure our students/children develop a love of music and that we keep music competitions as only one element of many within musical life. For some, competitions are not suitable, and they certainly are not the only way to achieve musical growth.

For those who choose to enter competitions, there can be further benefits. Competitions can provide children with exposure to other musicians and different styles of music, which can broaden their musical horizons. I include works by living composers in the competitions I organize, not only to support these composers but also to give students an opportunity to learn and perform contemporary works. One 14-year-old entrant played a new piece by UK composer Greg Harradine in the 2021 Lyrical Flute Legends International Competition and emailed, “Thank you very much. It was a lovely piece to learn & enjoy!” (Cosimo Dhami-Hounsome, Channel Islands)

Sometimes these competitions have an impact beyond what I’m expecting. The recent Young Flute Player International Championship repertoire included many works I had commissioned from contemporary composers. I was thrilled to hear that one young performer was inspired to not merely play the music, “Playing the works by contemporary female composers has opened my eyes to the fact that together we can close the gender data gap and the glass ceiling as women in composition. You have inspired me to compose too, and I could not thank you enough!” (Caroline Gordon, USA).

I know too that some of my international music competitions have led to further performance and study opportunities for some of the winning players. There can be unexpected bonuses for entrants; after world renowned composer Gary Schocker saw a video I shared of 13-year-old Jack De Ravin (Australia) playing one of his recent works “Shima Enaga”, Schocker then wrote a piece especially for Jack – what a thrill for this young flutist!

Overall, music competitions can be a valuable experience for children if they are approached with a healthy mindset and managed properly. Music competitions are not for everyone, and it's up to the individual and their parents/teachers to decide if they are a good fit.

As parents and teachers, we should encourage children to participate in competitions for personal growth and enjoyment rather than just winning, while also balancing the demands of competition with other important aspects of their lives.

Karen North is a music teacher, mentor and book author. She is passionate about bringing music into the lives of children and adults and has enjoyed working in music education for the past 40 years.

Karen is the author of the popular method books "The Young Flute Player" and has commissioned many new works for intermediate flute repertoire in "Lyrical Flute Legends" and "Inspiring Flute Solos." Karen has written a book "Fun & Games for Music Lessons", and has recently worked with specialist consultants on repertoire books for Violin, Clarinet and Saxophone.

Karen also organizes an international FLUTE CHAMPIONSHIP each year, to give students of all ages and abilities an opportunity to submit a video performance to an outstanding panel of judges. Her workshops for teachers are enthusiastically received and she also offers one-to-one mentoring or consultation sessions.

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