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Are music competitions really so bad?

Horse Racing

Julian Lloyd-Webber has come out in The Times against competitions, and accused them of being corrupt. That’s quite a broad brush with which to tar them all. Having been to a fair few string ones during my twelve years at The Strad magazine, and commissioned reports from even more, I’d beg to differ. Admittedly, I tried only to visit competitions myself if I knew they were well-respected, but I don’t remember seeing someone win who didn’t deserve to, from some perspective.

There were possibly a couple of instances where the first and second places could have been switched around as a matter of taste. Or where there wasn’t anyone truly outstanding and someone good enough got it. Or where someone hugely talented didn’t win because they messed something up (although I once watched someone win who had a major slip in the finals). I did once see a player win who was studying with a member of the jury, but he was so obviously in a different league from his rivals that no one would have thought it unfair, and I don't think the teacher even voted. But I don’t think I ever saw an out and out misruling due to teacher complicity, so I’m not sure what evidence Lloyd Webber has that ‘You have a situation where a juror is friendly with another juror and there’s a kind of trade-off.’

Having said that, a correspondent did once hear about shenanigans in the jury room of a competition – a Russian one, but not the Tchaikovsky. And there have always been rumours of various great violinists – Menuhin, Szigeti, Stern, and some living ones, stepping in to influence the final decision. So I’m not saying it hasn’t happened, and it doesn’t still happen, but from my experience it is mainly historic, and competitions that still run like that are doomed, even if they don’t realise it – especially if they don’t realise it.

As more and more competitions live stream their rounds (the Menuhin and Indianapolis, for example), the process becomes completely transparent, and the judges can be held to account by the lively music community around the world. It's also important that members of the press and blogosphere are there to highlight discrepancies, adding to the discourse, and the pressure on judges to act fairly. Some competitions also include audience prizes, another way to highlight potential differences of opinion (and don’t believe anyone who says audiences are too easily bowled over by a pretty face – in my experience they’ve usually been right on the money). Of course we never know what really happens in the jury room, but the proof is in the pudding, and the more light that is shone on specific decisions, the less likely they are to be dishonest.

As for Lloyd Webber’s singling out the Tchaikovsky Competition – I didn’t follow the last one in 2011, but I heard two first prize winners – pianist Daniil Trifonov and cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan – perform in a gala concert in the Barbican and was impressed. The stellar trajectory of their careers since 2011 seems to counter Lloyd Webber’s charge that the competition is ‘either highly political or it’s a fix for somebody’s pupil to win it.’

That’s not to say there aren’t issues that competitions need to tackle. I was present at a panel discussion last year where directors of several European competitions discussed what they see as the problems, which you can read here. They all realised that the question of who to have on the jury is fundamental to their survival. Should it be teachers, who arguably know best how to judge someone’s technique and musical direction; players, who know more about performing to an audience; business people who understand what’s needed to make a good career; non-string players, who have a healthy distance from the technical aspects? All of these are options and progressive competitions embrace a varied balance of them, corralled by a chairman who makes the boundaries clear and using a voting system that is logical and fair (easier said than done).

I’d only partially agree with Norman Lebrecht when he describes competitions as 'dull'. Maybe, but in a Zen sort of way. There’s nothing like sitting through three Bartók violin concertos or eight fresh-composed set pieces of an evening to build up one’s attention span. More than that, as a violinist, I learnt a huge amount from the many full days of semi-finals and finals I sat through. I was able to observe the mechanics of playing; compare interpretations to understand what people were doing, or not doing; work out what sort of playing I like and find special. And as a writer, it was a brilliant exercise in trying to describe eight separate performances of the same piece in eight distinct ways. You don’t get much more challenging than that as a music writer, and I’m very grateful for the experience.

So there’s a danger in throwing the baby out with the bathwater here. There are lots of good possibilities with competitions. They can provide useful exposure for players who succeed (and also for those who don’t – some of the biggest names in the business came second or third in major competitions, rather than first). They can provide fantastic motivation for students to practise, as well as performance experience and an insight into the hard work required in sustaining a career. They can be useful networking events for youngsters to forge important relationships with colleagues around the world. They can also be a chance for young players to interact with communities within which the competitions are held, to act as young ambassadors for classical music. Again, the enlightened competitions recognise all these aspects and build them into the tight schedules. The best ones are constantly evolving, in tune with the music business, technology, and the needs of their young talents, and these are the ones to watch.

There’s a criticism often levelled against contests (although Lloyd Webber doesn’t mention this) that they breed performing monkeys – players who are technically brilliant but subsequently fall apart when they are faced with making a career. (As editor of The Strad, I commissioned this article, in which various players highlighted some of the issues of entering competitions and the aftermath.) There’s an element of truth about the accusation. Technical standards these days are dizzily high – there’s nothing unusual about a twelve-year-old whizzing off three different programmes and a perfect Tchaikovsky Concerto in the space of a week. Perfection and consistency are prerequisite for entering major competitions, but that's how the professional musical landscape is these days, like it or not. The good thing is that it also means that in order to distinguish themselves, players have to have more than that, and one does usually see the players with personalities rise to the top, just as they should. After all, they’re not going to make a career without it.

So, there may be rotten eggs in the barrel, but there are some good competitions doing a useful service for the classical music world, developing players and audiences, being responsible, transparent and ethical, and evolving with the modern world. We should focus on these, and let the other ones die out, as they undoubtedly will.

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