Las Vegas Music Teachers National Association Piano Competitions


Daniel Chong

With COVID-19’s various effects on our lives, one competition is still operating despite many challenges: the Music Teachers National Association Competition. Originally an incredibly high-level competition where the top musicians of our age group gather to qualify for national and international competitions, much of the competitive scene has changed this year.

Normally, almost everything is a factor during performance: clothing, motion of the musician, even the structure of the room to expand or muffle a sound. The venue provided during past years helped solidify a stage wherein everyone could compete on equal grounds, and only skill and preparedness distinguished competitors. However, the pandemic has had a drastic impact on the competition, utilizing recordings of the players. Although not uncommon, this method was generally used for preliminaries and auditions to provide judges with enough information to determine whether or not they should listen to a player. However, these recordings have become the main avenue for judges to listen to a player, which is just one of many different changes that players face this year.

For one, the entire mindset of the competition and competitors has changed. Originally, players had one shot to impress, and heightened nerves could either make or break a performance. You could change an entire repertoire of music based on your “touch” and the clarity of the sound you produce. However, now, you can retake recordings over and over again, learning from previous failures and improving musicality with each video. This new mindset is not necessarily bad, but enables a level of “reset” comfortability that allows them to play over and over again. This has some adverse effects- competitors are completely exhausted, redoing takes repeatedly. and a massive disparity has risen in recording equipment that allows high quality mics to far outperform a simple phone. However, according to Mrs. Grace at Clark’s piano department, this disparity should not have too significant of an impact on competitive fairness.

“[The judges] are top level judges who have become renowned throughout their own careers as pianists, so of course they are going to take into account the various equipment used by the competitors… they would try their best to remove themselves from the quality of the video and try to only focus on the musicality.”

The only problem is that video recordings can limit the “amount” conveyed to the listeners. Listening to recording can significantly limit the amount of musicality produced. You can hear the technique and understand the effort, but the dynamics or intensity can be lost without significant efforts to highlight it, which would be extremely difficult, even for professional pianists. At this point, the main factors in showing off skill would be clarity of the pieces and the quickness/lightness of the fingers, which is a talent found in many but not all pianists. It may not necessarily be their strength, as many pianists are good at various things. Some are incredibly talented at creating moods and an atmosphere to trap the listeners in their melody, others can produce a beautiful melody line that compliments Chopin perfectly. Various musicians are wonderful at showing off intensity mixed in with a full sound and a touch that isn’t too harsh on the ears that elevates Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky wonderfully, and others could produce the smallest sounds that still ring clearly throughout the halls due to the same touch. All these strengths and weaknesses can be conveyed, and depending on the usage and timing of those skills, music can be created. Yet a large portion of that aspect of the competition has disappeared.

So many variables exist when changing an event so significantly, but it may not be as bad as some think. This is just another test of what makes a musician: the ability to adapt to uncertain circumstances and still maintain the production of beautiful music.