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What use are musical competitions?

The Queen Elisabeth Competition has crowned the winner of the 2013 piano competition! Unfortunately, Boris Giltburg doesn’t know whether to be elated, or enraged. In the link, the talented pianist goes off on the concept of competition as it’s applied to music. Basically, music competitions place an absurd amount of pressure on the soloist. Says Giltburg,

“I’m a bit angry with the world for not having come up with another way of discovering talent other than competitions.”

Competitions do seem to be a bit miscast in the world of the arts. Unlike in the sports world, there are no tangible measurables by which to compare the entrants. Music has no equivalent to a batting average, or a touchdowns to interceptions ratio. Robert Vernon, principal violist of the Cleveland Orchestra, has five core components by which he judges all auditionees – articulation, intonation, rhythm, sound quality, and musical direction. Even those allow for too much personal preference to be a reliable and objective view of quality. Is this player’s sound quality deep and dark, or muddy? She played that phrase very fast! Did she rush it, or was it a savvy decision to move the music along to the climax? There’s even room for interpretive quibbling in the seemingly black and white realm of intonation. No, you can’t tally up the number of things that a musician does well, but you can count their mistakes. This, in turn, has lead to a growing number of complaints that music schools and competitions turn out musicians that play mistake-free music, but maybe aren’t willing to take the musical risks that really define an artist (I’ll let you decide whether this affliction has stricken Mr. Giltburg). I’ve been on all three sides of competitions – audience, entrant and judge – and have very rarely said to myself “I feel like the judges got every single decision right, or at least most of them” when walking away. The bottom line is that it’s a very inexact science.

So if it’s impossible to objectively rate musicians, what’s the use of holding musical competitions at all? Why subject musicians to the harrowing stress? Here are a few reasons…

  1. Competing is a real life skill for musicians. Do you think that the true artist doesn’t compete, but simply creates? Think again. When in middle school and high school, students in New York compete in the NYSSMA solo competitions. The prime purpose of these competitions is to get exposure to a well qualified judge who can offer points of improvement to the young student. A very important secondary point is to select students to participate in weekend long festivals with the best students in the county, area, or state. Coming out of high school, musicians audition at music schools and compete for a spot in the studio of their favorite schools and teachers. When there, those schools and teachers will offer courses in auditions, hold competitions of their own, for the right to solo with the school orchestra, or for the best seats in the band. They do this because when they graduate the vast majority of them will jump right back into the competition pool – almost all musical associations audition their members just like colleges do. Auditions – and competitions – are how musicians get places.
  2. Competitions are a good teaching tool. One of the perks of most auditions and competitions is the exposure to teachers and experts in the field. Nearly every competition that I’ve taken part in has allowed the competitors access to the judges, sometimes through a written response to the performance, and in some cases the judges hand their phone numbers out to entrants so that they can have a discussion about what the entrant can do better next time. Imagine what a great experience it would be for young scientists if they could send their papers to experts in their field for a free review. Sometimes this can be frustrating (“you thought that I was too soft? But my teacher’s been telling me that I’m too loud! AAGH!”), but usually it’s very helpful to get another expert opinion.
  3. Competitions are an effective way to network. Last year, I took an audition in northern Pennsylvania. Though both the audition committee and I thought that I played very well, someone else played better than I did, and he got the job. A few weeks later, though, I got a call from another orchestra in that neck of the woods for whom I had not auditioned – the personnel managers from the two orchestra had been talking, and when one complained about not being able to find any violists, the other mentioned that I had auditioned very well for them, and passed my contact information along. I got essentially a full year of work from the second orchestra. Bottom line – good things happen to those who are willing to compete, whether they win or not.
  4. Competitions are wellsprings of activity and awareness. In the early 20th Century, a patron of the arts named Elizabeth Coolidge had a child who played the viola. Unfortunately, there were not very many high quality compositions for the instrument, in her view. So she launched a composition competition! Here’s one of the pieces that resulted from the competition.

And here’s another…

It’s documented that work on each of these compositions was begun after the competition was announced. Would these compositions have ever seen the light of day without the competition? Perhaps it would have happened eventually, but I’m not sure that I’m willing to bet the existence of the above gems that the competition was unnecessary.

The point here is that for all of the impracticalities inherent in picking out the best musician, there are many good things that happen as a result of competitions that probably wouldn’t happen in other circumstances. Maybe when it comes to music competitions, we all need to appreciate these other things a little bit more, and worry about the crowning of a champion a little less.


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