In the past few weeks I have seen a super-positive effect of a tool which gives a wonderful approach to practice. It turned around the learning so effectively that I thought I’d share it: Competition.

Without realising it at the time, competition helped me during childhood as I compared what piece I was up to in a book with friends, or what exam I was up to and how I did relative to others in a music competition. But I also developed a sense of competing with myself as I was learning new material. So I thought I’d muse in this blog about both personal and interpersonal uses of competition.


 Interpersonal Competition

  • Maybe I’m wrong, but being competitive seems to have gone out of fashion in today’s world. Participation trophies and everyone winning is the order of the day. But is it always helpful? Interpersonal competition can be a positive motivator for learning and does not need to be the negative force it is often perceived as.
  • Some learners absolutely thrive on this way of improving in their music and will happily do exams, competitions and concerts wherever possible. Others find comparing their level of ability so challenging that they almost freeze in their learning.
  • I got on really well with a girl who came to lessons with my mother. She was the only person who was at the same level as me, but was a bit younger. We had (what I reflect on now as) a healthy competitive interest in how each was doing. We inspired each other to do better without a sense of the other being a threat. (At least that is how I remember it.) We naturally compared how we were doing and then made adjustments to change the outcome next time. I don’t think I would be where I am today without it.
  • It is important to find that place where someone else’s achievements don’t cripple your learning through self-doubt and you can just get on at your own pace. I have a sister who is 10 years older than me and very clever musically. I have always been in awe of her because of her musical skill. Her dedication to practice was second to none too! But as time went on I developed areas of my own musical skill-set that made up for self-doubt.
  • A few thoughts about competition between siblings:
  1. Sometimes it works well to have siblings who are learning the same instrument learn from different tutor books, especially if they are close in age. If there is more of a gap in age, using the same tuition system can work fine though.
  2. Siblings learning different instruments can work really well if they start learning at the same time. This is especially good for twins. I’ve had one learning cello and the other violin which worked really well. There was enough difference for there to be good encouragement from one to the other.
  3. Be aware of different learning styles with siblings. Some may learn by ear better and others may read better first. Help those children develop a recognition of strengths as being different, rather than feeling inadequate in the areas they have to work harder at.
  4. If there is an unhelpful competition going on between siblings, encourage them to compete with their own learning and mark their own progress in some way.


Personal Competition

This takes us back to the tool I mentioned at the beginning. Basically, it is using visual guides and reward systems worked out between parent, teacher and pupil to help the learner view their own personal progress as competition.

I’ve mentioned before how I use an abacus as a helpful way to show repetitions in practising. Check that here if you haven’t seen it:

Repetition of learning something perfectly gives a sense of satisfaction, like a reward.


Rewards, from small to large

Since I put out the last blog I have used an abacus in a number of lessons for new, young learners as a way of focussing on every little task needing to be done so that the pupil can visually check their work and improvement. Most would reach about 25 beads across by the end of the lesson. It was so simple and yet so effective. Some parents have taken it from there and used the star chart or punch cards at home.

The amazing change in attitude to practice as a result has reminded me afresh just how much rewards motivate, whether small – like beads on an abacus, through to saving up tokens for a great reward like going to a musical concert. It is worth taking the time to think through what will work for your child because rewards are a significant way for your child to compete at their own level of achievement without having to compare to others.  The more they improve quickly, the more they want to move on to the next thing and gain the ‘prize’.


I thought it might be useful to think of competition this way because every learner faces the issue at some point along their musical journey. Instead of being a massive negative that puts someone off learning music for life, let’s press through to make it work best for them whether in a personal way, interpersonally, or a what usually turns out to be a healthy combination of both.

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