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Preparing for competitions

Piano instruction in France

I grew up in France, where the system of piano instruction is totally different from that of the United States. It is virtually free to the student, costing about three hundred dollars a year. To continue lessons, however, students must pass rigid examinations in piano performance; these include twelve progressive levels of repertoire and technical skills. In addition, students must also pass examinations in solfege, which also include twelve progressive levels of theory, ear training, sight reading, sight singing, and rhythmic and melodic dictation. Students must study solfege, which is taught in classes for three to ten hours a week, for two years before beginning any musical instrument. The solfege study must remain two levels higher than the applied area or lessons are discontinued. 

All teachers at French music conservatories are licensed by the state and must pass examinations to receive the required diploma for teaching. Conservatories are organized into three tiers: city, region, and national. Most cities have one conservatory, called the Conservatoire Municipal. There are about 8,000 of these in the country, and the teachers all hold the required Diplome d 'Etat. Many city conservatories have a six-year waiting list, so parents often register for lessons before their child has been born!

There are ninety-five regional conservatories (Conservatoire National de Region) where the teachers hold a more rigorous diploma, the Certificat d'Aptitude. Students at these conservatories play at a higher level than those at the city conservatories. At the highest or national level are the Paris Conservatoire and the Lyon Conservatoire, each with a faculty of internationally renowned artists. 

Competing for advanced study


In addition to rigid requirements for passing each level, there are also age limits. For example, a Level One student cannot be more than eight years old. The maximum age for Level Nine is sixteen, and twenty-one is the oldest age at which a pianist can be accepted into the Paris Conservatory. Exiting a level does not guarantee entering the next higher one. There may not be enough "spaces," so eligible students often compete against each other for placement in the next level. Each year about 250 pianists in France are qualified for the Paris Conservatory, but only twenty are selected. About half of those accepted will graduate; the others will only be able to claim they were accepted. Graduates of the Paris Conservatory usually enter international competitions, and if they do not achieve a performing career, they become accompanists for conservatories, dancers, or choirs. They may also become piano teachers, though they still must take the required examinations to be licensed to teach at a city or regional conservatory. 

The Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris (CNSMDP)

This overview illustrates an elitist system based on competition; students have to compete just to continue progressing through the levels: This high level of competition, along with the broad knowledge base of music taught from the very beginning, almost guarantees the production of highly-trained pianists and teachers. Those who "make it" are skilled and competent, while many others are pushed aside and become bitter musicians. It is not an open system–it is more like the training for the Olympic Games, where weaker candidates and those with a more casual interest are not supported by the system.

In the United States, anyone who wants to learn to play the piano can study, and everyone can find beautiful music at a suitable level. This system encourages people to play for personal satisfaction rather than professional careers. Yet carefully selected goals or competitions, with thorough preparation, can help U.S. students advance their skills and knowledge and reach their full potential. 

Preparation for competitions

If competitions are approached with proper preparation and the right attitude, no one loses. There is a famous quote: "A goal is a dream with a deadline," and a competition can provide the deadline. Students usually work more efficiently (in addition to just working more) when there is a visible deadline. The real goal should be for students to learn how to play their very best at any given time, be it a studio class, recital, or competition. This requires hours of practice and preparation for the "deadline."

A student needs to carefully prepare and plan (with the teacher) each note, each musical phrase, the message of each composition, and how to communicate this. All music should be memorized and performed at least one month before the competition so the final month's work is about perfecting the performance and rehearsing for the event. Elements of stress and performance anxiety must also be considered, and mental preparation for these factors should not be overlooked.

Numerous performance situations or rehearsals should be arranged before the actual competition or recital performance to help students gain experience playing in unfamiliar settings and on different pianos. Playing for friends and peers who make comments can be helpful. Learning to remain focused throughout an entire performance, even if there are flaws, must also be rehearsed. Adapting to different instruments, acoustics, and even the bench must all be mentally "pre-organized" so students do not become overwhelmed or lose concentration during the performance. Each practice performance should be recorded and listened to within 24 hours, so students can objectively notice progress and target areas for improvement. A clear plan must be made on how to "fix" things, and students should listen intently to these areas in their next practice or performance. The preparation for the competition should be so thorough that the performance will be a personal best. The dream is to come 100 percent prepared for the competition. In this way, "winning or losing" takes on a totally different meaning. 

Winning and not winning

Everyone wins in a competition, including the judges who may get to hear new repertoire or unique interpretations. Students who are fortunate enough to be declared winners will usually gain a tremendous boost in their confidence. Winning serves as confirmation that the practice sessions before the event were done properly, and that practice should continue in this way. Students must also realize that winning does not mean the work is finished.They have simply moved one rung higher on the ladder of learning.

Not winning can also be a learning process, if students are willing to reflect upon what could have been improved, either in the preparation or actual performance. Judges should offer constructive criticism, and they can often pinpoint exactly what needs attention to help a student become a better musician and pianist; things like dynamic contrast, articulation, or better rhythmic control and flexibility. Since judging is subjective, it is important for contestants to take the time to understand constructive critiques from high-quality judges.

Competitions give a deadline when a student will have to be ready. Life has many deadlines where we are required to give our best at a certain time. Winning a competition is the icing on the cake; it is the preparation that is the real life-lesson! 

Music is art

Should students continue to enter competitions, even if they have not won? I say a definite yes! Music is not like a horse race or golf tournament where the winner is the fastest or has the lowest score on a given day. Music is ART, and art does not accept the concept of"the best." Art makes people think and react emotionally. It is therefore impossible, and somewhat dangerous, to believe that everyone will respond positively to every work of art. If everyone likes a certain work of art, it is probably banal and tasteless. Art provokes and creates a deep love or pure hatred. Otherwise it is dull and therefore not art. A strong reaction is very objective, while a specific reaction of love or hate is very subjective. 

A performance that instantly pleases an audience may or may not be quality art, and a performance that is rough, edgy, provocative, or mind-blowing might not be quality art either. That is the problem with art. Only time will make it clear. Looking back at music history, Beethoven's Third and Fifth Symphonies were booed by both critics and audiences, yet the motive from the Fifth has become one of the most famous musical ideas in the world! His sixteenth string quartet was thought to be a "prank" by the quartet hired to check it for inaccuracies. Stravinsky's Rite of Spring created a riot at its premiere in Paris, as critics called it the "massacre of the Spring." These works are now considered compositional milestones in the musical world. 

Examples of misjudgments are numerous, and many composers who were quite famous in their lifetime are now unknown or forgotten. Should the quality of a composition or an interpretation be based upon what is agreeable? In art, or in a piano competition, the agreeable tends to prevail. This is somewhat understandable as judges are very different people with different backgrounds, personalities, cultures, and opinions. How could they then agree about a musician's performance? When they do agree, it may mean the candidate did not stir any controversy or emotion in them. 

Art is about communication, and I do not believe communication should only be politically correct (PC). People react to non-PC people in different ways. Some ignore the non-PC part of the message and dig deeper to understand the spirit of the message, while others are so offended by the tone that they go no further. Along the same lines, we should not be surprised when judges have startlingly different reactions to the same performance.

W e must never give too much power to critics or judges. As human beings, we all make mistakes, wrong statements, and misjudgments. We should remember that Johann Sebastian Bach was the third choice for the position in Leipzig, with the mayor of the city commenting, "Since the best cannot be had, we must accept the mediocre."

Let time make the selection while we enjoy what is presented to us, and continue to refine and increase our own knowledge, skills, and appreciation of what is offered in this wonderful art form.

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