Nicole Dieker is still going to learn the Ricercar a 6, even though she is no longer required to produce a Bach fugue by next year.

So… we’re probably not going to Paris in 2022.

L and I mistook each other; I said “let’s do this” and he said “let’s do this” and I said “let’s learn French” and he said “it should be our lingua franca,” and I said “let’s take a week extra and tour Europe” and he said “let’s take a month extra and find somewhere to live while we work remotely. Greece? Romania? The south of France?”

And then I said “let’s send in our applications” and he said “wait — neither of us are actually ready to play this piano competition.”

“We have ten months,” I said. “And we don’t have to win. We just have to do well enough to not disgrace ourselves.”

“I’m not sure I want to do that,” L said.

So we talked, as we often do, about what we really wanted.

I wanted to go somewhere. (Preferably somewhere romantic, or at least romance-language-based.) I wanted to meet other people who were doing what we were doing. Serious amateurs. Magicians-in-training. People who wanted to pursue excellence and live an extraordinary life.

I also wanted a very good excuse to pursue excellence at a slightly higher level than I had previously been pursuing it. I wanted to ask myself, every day, if whatever action I was about to take was something that a person training for the International Competition for Outstanding Piano Amateurs would do.

I had spent enough days, by that point, asking myself that question to understand that it could be life-changing.

And I didn’t want to have to change my life back.

L, though I don’t want to speak for him (and will run all of this by him before I publish it), wants actual excellence. We can pursue excellence at home, for as long as it takes; we should have it, in our hands, before we have the audacity to enter any competitions with the words “outstanding piano amateurs” in the title.

Because neither of us are quite yet outstanding. We’re just standing.


“But I don’t want to have to change my life back,” I kept saying.

“Well,” L said back, “why do you have to?”

“Because if you’re not working towards something,” I said, “then what are you working towards?”

“Excellence,” L said. “The ability to play something not just as well as you can play it, but as well as you know it can be played. Real magic.”

“I guess I could ask myself is this something that a person who is training to be a magician would do,” I said.

“It’s probably a better question,” L said.

“But you still need a reason to do it,” I argued. “Otherwise, why bother training?”

“Isn’t making magic it’s own reason?”

“Not if you’re just doing it by yourself,” I said. “You need other people. You need to meet other magicians, and you need to find your audience. You need a way to share what you’re doing, and to learn how to do it better.”


The solution worked itself out, as these things often do, in practice.

When my parents visited this past weekend (YES, WE’RE ALL VACCINATED, JUST ASSUME ANYONE WHO APPEARS IN ANY OF MY BLOG POSTS HAS BEEN VACCINATED), I shared what I had been working on — and I immediately understood that I was in no way ready to take any of what I had been working on to Paris.

I told L afterwards that if he hadn’t said we weren’t ready, I would have said it after that performance. He said “I know.”

But I also said — and I said it in front of my parents, which made it extra-important — that I wanted to do more performances. I wanted to play for them every time they visited. I wanted to set up that recital that L and I had talked about doing together, once we were ready to do it. I wanted to play for Mom’s piano students, and I wanted Mom and Dad to help us set up a gig in Mount Vernon, and maybe we could play in Iowa City after that, and we all agreed that it could all happen.

“You need a hundred performances,” L said, “before you’ll be ready to even think about something like Paris.”

“I’m just thinking about making magic,” I said. “And what kind of choices I can make, every day, to support the work I need to do to get there.”


There’s one more bit. We’ll call it a coda, because you kind of have to.

L and I finally made it out on our first date — and then, the next night, on our second one. (We went back to the same restaurant because we liked it so much the first time. We’re going again this evening.)

It was on that second night that I told him that I had thought, for a minute, that I wasn’t used to making my dreams smaller. I was used to publishing my own novels, recording my own albums, not letting anything get in the way of what I had set my mind to do.

But, once I thought about it for more than a minute, I realized that I hadn’t made anything smaller at all. This idea of playing for my parents and playing for our friends and setting up a recital in town and then another one in the next town over — it wasn’t a smaller way of going after what I wanted.

In many ways, it was a bigger one. A hundred performances, each of them teaching me something new about music and magic and mastery, is both more challenging and more interesting than dashing off to Paris for a weekend with the goal of playing just well enough to not look like you don’t belong.

So we’re not going to Paris in 2022.

I mean, not to play any amateur piano competitions.

We could, as L reminded me, still go just for fun. ❤️

6 thoughts on “On Piano Competitions, Part Two

  1. I know it was not the point of this story, but I want to know the restaurant that is so good that you’ve gone thrice… or what kind of food, anyway! It sounds absolutely lovely, as does the excitement of growing your dreams together. 🙂

    1. This sounds amazing – just looking at the menu, I can fully imagine what I would order over the course of 3 nights!

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