Piano Competitions: An Experiential Perspective
What is it that makes a piano competition, or any competition rather, so alluring and seductive? Is it the yearning to perform, to showcase? Or is it the adrenaline rush, that steroid jab that makes your heart thrash against your rib-cage? Is it the sense of satisfaction, self-glorification triumph, when your hand closes around the plaque bearing your name, your title? Undeniably, these thoughts resonate within not only myself, but countless others. Why shouldn’t they? But these are not the sole reasons, for me at least, that makes piano competitions alluring. As cliche as it sounds, the paramount reason why I enjoy joining a piano competition, is the process. It always has been. To me, whatever winnings and fulfillment I receive will be nothing if the days, weeks, months leading up to the competition amounted to nothing. If there was no improvement, not only of the repertoire I would be presenting, but of my personality, my musicianship and most importantly my love for music, I see no point in a competition. Certainly, days before a piano competition intensify in terms of the amount of time I spent thinking, practicing and going for lessons. And it was not easy. What you want to take you must give. I spend hours figuring out how to bring dreary, note-filled pieces of paper to life, and so I had to give it mine.
Time was the easiest to give up, simply because it was a concomitant of my demands. Most of my June holidays was spent alone in the practice room. Time given up for 4-5 piano lessons a week became natural. But what made things not so simple, was the psychological and emotional I had to relinquish. Being branded as “the most unteachable student”, as well as many other austere titles by my piano teacher during the last lesson a day before the competition, was more than a blow. It was more than a pinch of the ego, more than just the spilling of tears. But deep down, I knew she wanted my heart to harden, to stiffen up, and not be drowned by my exuberance and self-contentment of the results of my acceptance as one of the 5 finalists. It was the one of the most selfless acts I had been a recipient of. But, why should I go through all this trauma? Why should I give so much to revive something created so long ago? Why should I suffer? This was the question I asked myself, after every low, every criticism, every self-doubt. And it was a question whose answer became increasingly obvious as time passed. Because suffering is love, and love is suffering. The two go hand in hand. This is by no means, a statement of sadism, but rather the only “moral” I was certain about when all the others seemed distant and nebulous. If music is what I love, I would suffer for it. And if I suffered, it was because I love it. To suffer for something I loved, was a blessing. This was a logic so simple that guided me through so much complexity. It gave me a sense of purpose, of reason whenever I fell, because that belief always dwarfs and supersedes self-doubt, dejectedness and frustration. How many 4 year olds have you heard on television, slurring, “When I grow up I want to be a concert pianist, because I love to play the piano”. I personally am particularly frustrated when the term “love” is so easily showered around like confetti. Love, especially for something intangible, is not as easy as a four year old claims to be. However, if you do something with a sense of purpose, with a grounded reason you will certainly not stray far.
So right before I was about to perform during the finals, I was not scared. Sure, my heart was pounding rapidly, that adrenaline yearning for release was pumping through my veins, but I simply was not afraid. Because I was going to perform, not for anyone, not even myself, but for the music. I had to admit, my performance during the finals was one of the best I had produced thus far. I had never been so engaged and concentrated in something before. It was the first time my presence was not remembered as a blur of excitement, or fear. Not once did platitudes such as “This is your time to shine!”, “Prove you are worth it!” cross my mind music was, is and never will be about the glory of the performer.
The more you give yourself to it and not to thoughts like these, the better off your musical journey will be. Your musical journey is never-ending and limitless, unlike the word count cap I have. What I reminisced most about piano competitions was not only that time on stage when I gave myself to the music, but also the times off-stage, practicing, being reprimanded and most importantly, seeing myself grow. So think past the prize and sense of satisfaction on stage, but rather think about what keeps you doing whatever you are doing.
Do you have the same urge to join a competition if there were to be no winners? Do your fingers still ache for the keyboard when there will be no lesson that week? Most importantly, do you live for the moment, or are you in for the whole ride?
An avid participant of piano competitions, Lim Shi Han is the winner of the Nanyang International Music Competition 2017 Intermediate Category.