On top of the black, upright piano in my living room, there are awards and trophies I’ve won in music competitions during the past few years: second place in Musical Composition for the Reflections Program in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District; second and third place in the Southwestern Youth Music Festival (SYMF) for piano performance; third place in the Asia America Symphony Association (AASA) International Composition Competition.
Notice anything strange? There’s no award for first place. Nope. Absolutely none. While some people would look at all the awards up there and be impressed, I used to feel ashamed.
When I first started my piano lessons, I played just to have fun. Even when I entered my first piano competition in fifth grade, I didn’t really care about the awards. I entered for the heck of it. But as my hard work began to bring in certificates and trophies, which I proudly displayed in the living room, I wanted more. Up through sixth grade, I used to dominate every type of competition that I entered. In fifth grade, I won first place at a county-wide Bible memorization competition as well as in a school-wide math competition.
Surrounded by competitive kids, I started to change
It was when we moved to Santa Monica for middle school that I started to fall behind. Before, I had lived in Downey, and the kids there were not as competitive as the ones in Santa Monica. I couldn’t even place in the musical composition competition in seventh grade, whereas in fifth grade, I easily won first place in my school in the same competition. In eighth grade, I placed second. Not bad I guess, but it didn’t change the fact that I didn’t win.
Then I moved on to Palos Verdes Peninsula High School, where students are even more competitive. I started to participate in a ton of competitions in hopes of making myself look more appealing to my dream colleges, like Columbia, Cooper Union in New York City, Berkeley and UCLA. So at the beginning of my freshman year, I began to participate in math competitions, since I figured that I was good at problem-solving. Instead, I found myself bombing every single one of them. “Why am I so incompetent?” I would frequently ask myself in despair.
All around me, I would hear my classmates winning various competitions. I always tried to put on a smile and be a good sport about it, but I’ve got to be honest, inside I was jealous. The thing that annoyed me the most was how the same students would win these competitions over and over again. There were the kids who won specific competitions such as math, science research, Model United Nations, and Speech and Debate. Of course, then there would be the superstars who seem to be able to place first in whatever they entered.
During my freshman year, I prepared for SYMF, a countywide competition, by practicing for five months. When I got home from school the first thing I did was practice piano. I toiled away, trying to master every little technique and musical phrase. I would often get on my computer and listen to other people play my competition pieces over and over again, studying each performer’s interpretation. Feeling inspired, I would go to my piano and practice for three hours until my arms and fingers would cramp up from playing so much. For five months, six days a week, I repeated this process.
But when the competition came, I got nervous and I screwed up the very places where I practiced the most. I placed third out of around 10 people in the American music category and second place in another category. I was disappointed, but I figured that there would be more opportunities for me to win in the future.
My entire freshman year went by without any awards. Feeling desperate, I looked for other competitions to enter during sophomore year, like Model United Nations, Solar Cup and Bay Math League.
All sophomore year, I struggled with jealousy, sleep deprivation and stress. Everything about my life became mechanical. Every day, my afterschool schedule would be to practice piano, study for upcoming math or Model United Nations competitions, do my homework and squeeze in time for dinner and sleep on top of all that.
Winning was more important than having fun
The only thing that drove me to participate was the greed for awards and the desire to crush those who continually made me envious. But even though I wanted to stop competing in areas that I didn’t enjoy like MUN and Solar Cup, I wasn’t able to because I was continually reminded of how poorly I compared to my classmates.
At the start of this past April, I was discussing an internship opportunity with my school’s internship coordinator who showed me resumes from past students. Their lists of achievements stretched at least half the page, which intimidated me. So I went home and tried to write my own. I dug through my memory, trying to think of all the awards I’d won and accomplishments I had ever achieved that might have even a remote significance: member of Bay Math League, section leader in my school orchestra, vice president of the engineering team. It took me almost an hour to finish the one-page resume. I kept comparing the lengthy lists I saw from the examples to the short one on my computer screen and I couldn’t help but feel incompetent.
It wasn’t until after the APs last year that I really started to examine why I was putting such a burden on myself. I finally came to a turning point. I was sick of stressing. I was fed up with not getting enough sleep. I wanted my life back. Throughout May I had little or no homework and most of my competitions were over for the year already. I found myself with lots of free time; finally, I felt like I was in control of my own life. I got more sleep, and the free time let me focus on things that I genuinely enjoyed, such as playing the piano.
I’m finally beginning to understand that I need to participate in competitions, not out of jealousy or the need to please the colleges, but for myself. Over the years when I kept feeling the pressure to place first and beat my peers, I lost the joy of competing in the fields that I really had a passion for, like music (playing piano and composing), chemistry and engineering.
Now that I’m about to start my junior year, the pressure to win these competitions is greater than ever, partly to fulfill my ambition but also to have a better chance of getting into my dream colleges. But even if I don’t win, I think I am now better able to cope with the losses and stress.
As of now, I’m studying for next year’s International Chemistry Olympiad and focusing on future piano competitions. I still look forward to the day when I’ll finally be able to shine the words “First Place” on my piano; it will be an accomplishment that I can truly feel proud about. But the most important thing is that I never lose that sense of joy again in the things that I do.