Friday, March 19, 2010

Is the Honors Concert a Prize?

The winners have been chosen for the annual state piano solo contest. The big blessing at my studio this year was that I had no alternates. Being an Alternate is the highly feared no man's land of not quite winning. An alternate waits for the winners to claim the prize of a Northrop on stage appearance. If a winner can't make the rehearsals and/or concert, the alternates are chosen, one at a time, from a list. (Students do not know what number they are on the secret list, it takes someone in the know to find out the likelihood of a call.) This ranking is done on the final contest day by the judge in their room. If you are deemed an alternate, you get a critique stamped in red indicating that you may have won. I always equate it to seeing Ed McMahon's face in my mailbox. This has been the bane of my teaching the last two years as we wait over a month to see if anyone cancels or misses the first rehearsal. Then my student might be called. My studio won outright this year! No dead zone, no maybes, they got outstanding critiques, only one didn't win!
I sent out congratulatory emails immediately and gave out the details of the honor they've been awarded. It is an opportunity to play before 4000 people in a duet, in an amazing historically significant space, with a conductor, with the other state winners on June 12. 20 grand pianos grace the stage. It is a magnum event with gala gowns and proud parents. With this duet comes rehearsals at a central location north of my studio about 45 minutes one way, in a music store warehouse. Many from around the state book hotel rooms and make weekends out of these rehearsals. This was a huge award for me as a child. We got to the big city several times, made a day of it, ate out, got a pretty long dress and shoes, went to a mall! I was so excited to win and perform in this event. I loved the idea of playing with all the other really good pianists.
Times have changed. I am starting to hear my parents' email replies to my wonderful news. "Well, we're not sure we're going to do the Honors Concert thing; we have several conflicts on Saturdays in the spring." "It's great that we won, but we did the concert last year, so we're going to take a year off." "This is expensive to buy music, drive all the way up to the music store 3 times, and twice to the U of M, buy clothes and then they charge for tickets?" "I will have to get back to you about the Northrop concert, how many rehearsals can they miss?"
Yikes! What is going on here? Who would work so hard, pay entry fees twice (to the one who thought it was expensive), win, and not take the prize? Is it indeed a prize?
Here's what I'm hearing.
1. It's time intensive. Yup, sure is. The duet needs rehearsals, with the conductor, all together, many times. This involves 4 Saturdays in the spring/early summer. We are lucky to live in the metro area. It does not involve sleeping over, or 4 hour car rides. The concert is lengthy and we can't play games on our iPhones.
2. It's about the music. We have to learn a new piece, quickly, and it's not a solo. Across the state, 600+ win, from ages 7-20. This would be the longest solo concert ever. We got to choose our solo piece, but sometimes the duets are poorly written or not in the styles students wanted.
3. It's about the money. Lessons are not cheap. Renting the warehouse and the auditorium and pianos are not cheap either, but I also think MMTA makes money on this event, which in turn is spent developing more programs to help students succeed. I consider it a "paying it forward" mentality.
4. It's under the radar of the world. There's no trophy or media hype; at least when they win other things they are mentioned in the paper. Wow. You would like a trophy for a piano event? You're right, there is little in potential scholarship money, college tuition or Nike commercials going to come from your performance.
5. It's just too much effort. Now, that one I believe. I see my families zooming to every soccer field in the county more Saturday mornings than they're home. They have no qualms about paying big dollars for grass and referees and shin guards. An away tournament once per month? No problem. So, what's the difference? I've given this some thought.

I think it comes down to the culture right now of "sports reigns supreme". The world understands and acknowledges a baseball tournament. It is not well educated on the work of a musician behind closed doors for months to prepare for 3 minutes or artistry. At this musical event, there is no blood, no shouting from the sidelines, no whistles. At the final concert, you're expected to dress up, sit quietly, with no food or beverages. Rather than beat a team for the championship, the music students work cooperatively together for a sonorous outcome. It's peaceful and loving, and potentially boring as hell for those used to bad mouthing the opponent.

There are lots of analogies I could make. But my question today is this.
Why would you try out for the varsity team, and when you make the team, you turn it down? Why did you try out?


  1. It's all in the priorities you set, isn't it? I had one winning student who can't play too. Makes me sad.

  2. Wow, it's hard to imagine someone NOT feeling honored to be part of this! My niece will play in the Honors Concert tonight and we ALL are going to hear her! We are SO proud... I got to take her to one of the rehearsals when her parents were out of town. The coaching they got from the music director/conductor was a great learning experience. It was amazing to hear the improvement in the kids' playing just over a 30 minute class period. They were treated like professional musicians, with respect and rigor. I can't wait to see them again, on stage.


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