Monday, April 11, 2011

Wisdom Gained

The wall of happiness and heartbreak
I'm trying to remember how many of my springs have been marked by music contests. At least half a dozen when I was in junior high and high school, then another dozen or so while my kids were of that age. Saturday I was on the school van heading toward contest at 6:30 a.m., and didn't pull back into the home parking lot until 7:30 p.m. This year I wasn't carrying a Boy's sheet music and emotional baggage; I am now the elderly accompanist with the bedazzled t-shirt and piano glasses on a chain around my neck. (Not really on the glasses part, because I wear tri-focals, but I saw that future me many times during the day.)

This year, in my supportive but non-related role behind the piano, I didn't take the triumph or trauma home with me.

Contest is Christmas for musicians, the day they reap the benefits of being naughty or nice. For those who have been nice, who have at least modicum of talent and have put in the practice time (more or less depending on the size of the talent) the reward is a I rating. A judge decides that on that day, during that three- to seven-minute slice of time, the performance merits another performance at state contest. This is triumph.

For those who have been naughty, who have not practiced or whose practice-to-talent ratio was not high enough or who simply have a bad few minutes, the final rating will be a II or a III, or even a IV. This is trauma.

I have seen both of these outcomes dozens of times over the years, and here are the things I've learned:

1. The II rating cuts a wide swath. The highly difficult solo by a senior that isn't quite perfected gets the same rating as the simple melody lisped by a beginning student, and both are the right rating. It doesn't feel fair, though.

2. Although judges are expert, conscientious, and well-intentioned, these Santa Clauses are not omniscient. They only see a tiny slice of this child, and there is no label of explanation attached. I have seen solos over-rewarded and under-rewarded (Husband is right when he points out that I only remember Boys' solos in this category), but in the end, the judge's decision is final.

3. (And this is the most important) No matter what it is, the rating is not a measure of the performer's potential as a human being, but the skills developed from contest participation very well may be.

That final point is wisdom hard-earned. Music is important in my life, and I wanted the Boys to love it as well. One of my regrets in my parenting style is that I placed too much importance on their performances at contest. I knew that the discipline they would gain from really working on a piece, and stretching to master something difficult, and learning to submit their accomplishments to both praise and criticism, would be life skills that would transfer to other areas of their lives. Learning to win and lose is important, and the knowledge that life isn't always fair is an essential morsel of wisdom for my children to possess.

But I didn't emphasize often enough that not a single person has ever asked me what ratings I got in high school music contests, and frankly, I don't remember. I'm so grateful that my parents encouraged (and subsidized) music lessons--of all of my childhood activities, this may be the one that gives me the most joy as an adult. Contest is important as a milepost, but is certainly not the end of the journey.

And that, more than the ratings, is why I still love contest.

High school musicians have the most lovely shoes I've ever seen but the lovely shoes never are on their feet.

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