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The future of music competitions

Competitions are a vital part of the classical music world, whether you like it or not. They offer many benefits to players and to the music community, but there is room for improvement and maybe even for a whole new model. Key people offer their perspectives

Music competitions are much in the news these days, particularly over at Slipped Disc, where Norman Lebrecht is doing excellent work to expose irregularities in some of the less salubrious organisations and their results. He’s doing vital work to shine a spotlight on contests and the people who don’t seem to realise either that what they’re doing is wrong, or that it matters in the wider world. It still baffles me what people think they can get away with in their own bailiwicks, and if growing exposure of the web changes this then it’s a good thing.

There is, however, danger in throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I’ve written an article in this month’s Gramophone magazine about how a growing number of music competitions are offering practical prizes such as recordings to their winners. While I was researching this I ended up speaking to various people, including Barry Douglas, Barry Shiffman, Kyung Wha Chung and Lewis Kaplan, all with different perspectives and fascinating views born of a great deal of experience, and as I didn’t have space for them all in the article, I’ve compiled their testimonies below.

What emerges is a more complex narrative than the standard ‘competitions are corrupt and antithetical to art’ one. There are many good things about competitions – they motivate students, they create interest in classical music, they offer a route into the music business. Let’s not forget that going generations back, many of the finest players have won (or not won) competitions. Gidon Kremer, Leonidas Kavakos, Pinchas Zukerman, Itzhak Perlman, Ginette Neveu, David Oistrakh, Salvatore Accardo, Gary Hoffman, and Kyung Wha Chung were all prizewinners in their time, disproving the idea that competitions do not produce great artists.

However, what also emerges here, from competition director and competitor alike, is the need to make sure that contests are run fairly and that they focus on the good things of music-making and provide musicians with enough support. For Barry Shiffman, executive director of the Banff International String Quartet Competition, having a good voting system, based on sound mathematical algorithms, is vital to this, especially as it is sometimes the voting system itself that causes the problems. Several people mention the possibilities for corruption and how having teachers in the jury can cause problems. Shiffman argues that the World Federation of International Music Competitions must play a greater part in monitoring competitions. (Incidentally, I see that the organisation is currently recruiting a Secretary General with the remit of 'Providing visionary and strategic leadership and management for the WFIMC.')

Barry Douglas and Pavel Kolesnikov both argue for a more human way of running competitions and of supporting the young artists – both winners and non-winners – afterwards. To me, this is the key. Some of the competitions I went to in my time as editor of The Strad were already going this way – the Menuhin and Indianapolis competitions, for example, where the post-competition support is strong, and the event itself is more of a festival.

'Maybe there’s an entirely new model possible, where the subjective nature of the art can be recognised without compromising standards'

But maybe there’s an entirely new model possible, where the subjective nature of the art can be recognised without compromising standards, and where there can be genuine conversations about music, led by the people who know the most, but involving audiences, too.

One of the most interesting competitions I saw was actually a violin making competition run by the British Violin Makers Association, as part of the Genius of the Violin Festival back in 2004, held in conjunction with the Menuhin Violin Competition. Rather than having judges give points towards one first prize winner, they were all allowed to select their own personal favourite instruments. There was complete transparency around these choices, with all the prize winners celebrated. Inevitably there were clusters around certain makers, which led to some sense of objective 'winners', but there was a constructive atmosphere and plenty of discussion about the art of violin making. I wonder if there’s a similar model that could work for performance.

I know I would love to hear how each juror – whether they’re a player, teacher or someone in the music business – interprets performances and the technical aspects of violin playing. This would also engage audiences and young players in the process and be absolutely fascinating. And if it brings to mind, dare I say it, Simon Cowell and X-Factor, then maybe there is something we can learn from the success of that format. If it can work for largely talentless non-musicians, imagine what it might do for youngsters with the levels of talent and commitment that most classical music competitors demonstrate!

Anyway, here are the testimonies. Let me know your views in the comment section.

The competition director – Barry Shiffman

Executive Director of the Banff International String Quartet Competition and Artistic Director of the Centre’s Summer Music Programs, violinist, viola player, teacher, jury member and former winner of Banff Competition in 1992 as member of the St Lawrence Quartet

Not all competitions are the same

‘There’s a significant difference among competitions. There are competitions that make a meaningful difference in young musicians’ lives and there are events that are fun for the week, but have no lasting impact. It’s very important to differentiate between those that are involved in career development in a meaningful way and those that are not. Those that are can have a stunning effect on the winner.

A route to engagements

‘The model from 60 years ago was that if you won one of a few competitions and were then picked up by one of the elite managements who were able to put you into concert rotation, then off you went. Those days are long over. One can’t rely on commercial management picking up the winner because of the changed marketplace. The result is that competitions take on a role that used to be done by the Sol Huroks of the day. With competitions like Banff, Honens, Indianapolis or Van Cliburn, there’s a huge effort put into the relationship with concert presenters. Their trust in the competition leads them to pre-engage the winner, whoever it is going to be. A competition’s success record leads to them offering engagements and that’s fantastic.

‘I was in the St Lawrence quartet in 1992 when the quartet won in Banff. We had a small handful of possibilities, the most significant of which was to be presented in Paris, at the Opéra Bastille. Many other concert presenters from Europe came to hear that and pretty much overnight we had a career across Europe. Something like that opens up doors.

Everyone’s a winner

‘It’s important to look not just at the effects on the winning quartet. If there are ten quartets at Banff there’s definitely more than one group that could win the competition in terms of their level of artistry so we have to accept that we better be doing more than identifying one group and throwing everything at that group. There has to be a tangible benefit for everyone who comes to competitions. It’s important that nobody leaves feeling they didn’t get something positive out of it. That’s why we don’t eliminate anyone until the night before the final round.

‘The benefits are also in creating a festival-like experience for the audience so that you’re creating a market for the music that you are promoting. The hundreds of people who come go back to their towns inspired by what they’ve heard. They get more involved in their local chamber music organisations and they often engage quartets they’ve heard. The result is that little concert series pop up as a result and it creates a market for our winners, which is hugely important.

‘As a teacher, I tell my kids that if they’re going there just to win the competition they’re going to be disappointed. Their statistical chance of winning is next to zero'

It’s not the winning that matters

‘As a teacher, I tell my kids that if they’re going there just to win the competition they’re going to be disappointed. Their statistical chance of winning is next to zero. There better be other reasons for them to do it. I like to ask them who won the last major competition – they can never answer. So I say, ‘You’re in the field, and if you and I don’t know who won then that means it doesn’t matter.’ It’s not about that any more – it must be about more than that. Competitions are extraordinary goals for young people. They inspire a type of work ethic that is very useful.

The science behind it

‘At Banff we employ mathematicians to put together algorithms that protect the voting system from undue influence, which allows us to remove votes of jurors who have significant relations with competitors. Indianapolis, Banff and Honens are all models of integrity in terms of voting procedures. The many competitions that have not properly consulted with mathematicians to put together the voting systems do not always give the results the jury wanted. You can take the same votes from a jury and using a different mathematical system, you get different winners. It’s not as easy as just tallying up the votes.

'Glenn Gould probably would not have done well at the Tchaikovsky Competition'

‘Voting systems affect the type of winner you come up with. Sometimes they can eliminate the votes that were more polarising, and those are often for the more unusual performers, so you end up with the more conservative playing approach, which wasn’t rejected by jurors but wasn’t stunningly loved either. It’s quite possible that the more idiosyncratic and highly stylised performer may not have wide appeal either to the public or to the jury. Glenn Gould probably would not have done well at the Tchaikovsky Competition. The middle of the pack can have more weight because of the lack of sophisticated voting. That’s why numbers are important. There are some competitions that still remove the highest and lowest votes, which doesn’t work, because it promotes the middle of the pack.

‘So the nuance behind voting systems is significant. I would like to get to the point where there are the accepted and approved professional voting systems. There is a lot of discussion at the World Federation of International Music Competitions, of which Banff is a member, about how we can take a stronger role in sanctioning different systems that guarantee fairness. It’s not only that some competitions that don’t employ such standards are looking to skew results, but I think they often don’t understand the implications.

The future

‘My concern is around the need for a more judicious oversight of voting procedures. Let’s get the Federation of International Competitions to mandate more aggressively a series of requirements. If these are not met the competition is not sanctioned. We are moving in that direction but I’d like to see us moving a little quicker. It’s a matter of getting its members to promote the adoption of these sorts of guidelines. Many of these competitions are a staff of one. Indianapolis, Banff, Van Cliburn are big, but many don’t have the resources to put into everything that’s required, so that’s where the World Federation can take a more involved role.’

The past winner – Barry Douglas

Pianist, winner of the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1986, juror

Benefits vs pressures

‘I was building up my career slowly and steadily, but winning something like the Tchaikovsky Competition is of vast importance. People invite you if they know that they’ll get an audience and you’ll be in the news because you’ve won. But it brings vast pressures. There are certain musicians who can handle it and others who can’t. The problem these days is the lack of repertoire of many of the musicians who get thrown into the limelight. They’re far too young and inexperienced and they’re learning as they go along.

‘A lot of people can handle this and do well but many come apart. It’s sad when their day in the limelight is finished because they were probably very talented. I understand how competitions need to have success to keep their name alive and keep a high level of publicity but musicians are often very fragile beings. They need time to mature and discover, and to make mistakes. You can’t be playing at Carnegie Hall and Berlin’s Philharmonie all the time. You don’t want to make mistakes there. You want to make them in a backwater first, to be really well prepared. The pressure is astronomical.

Have a little humanity

‘Competitions should take responsibility, and the big ones do. There are many good human faces, people with soul and integrity, but there are some competitions where they cut competitors loose. The young players have all signed contracts in the application form. They have to promise to do the gigs, because the competition is setting these things up and they can’t let the orchestras and festivals down. That’s the way it should be, but if you get a young musician who suddenly has 50 engagements in the first year and they start to feel a little wobbly, they can’t cancel without a really good medical reason. I understand that’s the business side of things, but when they’re starting out it’s tough.

'The organisers don’t know who is going to win and it could be someone who’s ready to do a hundred engagements in two years or someone who can only handle ten'

‘I understand why competitions have to exist. They are really interesting for audiences, they are a great way to discover new talent and provide a wonderful opportunity for the winners, if they’re ready for it. I’d like to see much more flexibility with the engagements, so that there’s a strategy. The problem is that the organisers don’t know who is going to win and it could be someone who’s ready to do a hundred engagements in two years or someone who can only handle ten in the first year because they agonise over everything. There should be more flexibility, understanding and humanity.

Teaching mafias

‘It’s useful to have teachers on competition juries as long as they’re not connected to the applicants. The problem is that there are teaching mafias around the world, and they all go to each others’ competitions. There are many fine, honourable teachers who sit on juries, so I’m not branding them all, but there are teaching mafias who support each others’ students and I think that’s a crime.

‘You need performers, too, because performers know what it’s like to be on stage. The only problem is if they’re inflexible as people they may say, ‘My way is the only way to play that.’ You get that and it’s a bore when you meet someone like that. Life is not like that – everyone’s going to play differently.

'Good talent always shines through – the audience always knows real talent. You can’t manufacture that'

Talent always shines through

‘My advice to students is not to get too het up about competitions, whether you win or lose. Good talent always shines through – the audience always knows real talent. You can’t manufacture that. I know audiences get criticised because they like popular music or romantic melodies, but if someone comes and plays a mean Schoenberg, even if the audience doesn’t warm to the particular music, they know it’s great. Somehow they smell it and that’s what counts. Music is a language that if you communicate to the audience. That’s what we all want – to go out and have a nice evening and listen to great music.

The future

‘The organising committees have to have a mission statement and a modus operandi. This has been going on for years. We’re all human and people make choices for different reasons. You have to stamp on collusion and make sure the rules are watertight.

The past winner – Kyung Wha Chung

Winner of the Leventritt Competition in 1967, violinist, teacher

‘Competitions can be a good thing. They give you a chance to stand out and to get yourself engagements and a chance to be heard. You have to be at the right place at the right time, also meeting the right musicians, the right sponsor, the right management. When it works it offers you a chance, but otherwise it doesn’t mean you’re not as good as the player who won.’

The juror – Lewis Kaplan

Violinist, teacher and jury member for several international competitions

High hopes

‘Students today are remarkably sophisticated. They don’t have illusions but they have high hopes. They can not but be aware that statistically if you take all the major competitions every year, how many first prize winners, let alone second or third, are going to have a major career? You’d have to be stupid not to realise that. Many students have told me that the reason they enter a competition is that they have no choice. Their only hope is to enter the competition and hope something will happen. They have tuition to pay and they’re hopeful that a cash prize will help them out of a financial dilemma. But they’re quite realistic about the possibilities.

Finding consistency

‘In the first rounds of a competition you will frequently hear one, two or three players who are outstanding, some that are very good and a few who have no possibility. As the process develops through the semis and the finals it becomes clearer to a degree, but it can also become more blurred. For example, in the first round they play great Bach and superb Paganini; the second round they play a mediocre Mozart concerto; the third round they play a Brahms Concerto that was not as good as their Bach and Paganini, but better than their Mozart. And the reverse happens with someone else.

'Inevitably most of the jurors give it to the person who doesn’t make mistakes, really socks it out and has some sex appeal or audience appeal'

‘The most frustrating things about being on a jury is that inevitably most of the jurors give it to the person who doesn’t make mistakes, really socks it out and has some sex appeal or audience appeal, and that’s the winner. I don’t think they go deeper into who plays beautifully but also has a great soul.

Dishonest juries

‘I’ve seen all sorts of dishonest things happen on juries. No matter how hard the administration tries there are still things that go on which are very difficult to stop. Of course in any of the major competitions you can’t vote for your own students, but there is a certain quid pro quo. ‘I can’t vote for my student but you can; you can’t vote for your student, but I can.’ Teachers have their lives at stake. They have a parental love for the student and it’s also going to be good for their career if their student wins, so how can they possibly be objective. I do feel that I was completely honest which is why I’ve been asked back many times.

Socrates said it first

‘There is too much focus on sterile perfection in performance. I came across an article that Socrates wrote about competitions 2,500 years ago and nothing has changed. He said that in music competitions, which were held in conjunction with athletic competitions, the ones who won were always the people who just had technique and nothing was given to a deeper understanding of the art. He totally blamed the teachers for only teaching technique. He said one should have just enough technique to express what one wants to say and that’s all. Nothing has changed.

'If you really believe what you’re doing your chances are better than if you win a competition'

The future

‘The world is changing faster than it has ever changed in history. This presents opportunities and the days of ‘I’ll make my debut and if I have a good review I’ll have a good career’ are over. Students should use their imaginations and go and do what ever they feel they want to do. But whatever they do, they must do it on the highest level. This is no longer my world, it is their world and they have to dream. They have to come up with their own ideas and it’s going to be a long hard struggle out there. Isn’t that the alternative to competitions? If you really believe what you’re doing your chances are better than if you win a competition.’

The recent winner – Pavel Kolesnikov

Pianist, winner of the Honens International Piano Competition in 2012

Audience participation

‘Careerwise, winning the Honens Competition has changed my life completely. I was given numerous and truly wonderful opportunities. I have played concerts regularly for almost two years. Being on stage is a unique experience and as performing artists we are very limited in our development without an audience. Only through interaction with the audience can we really learn the communicative aspect of music. I received from Honens a generous share of invaluable experience, a very intense and important lesson.

‘It makes me very sad to see quite often how little support and interest talented young musicians receive from the professional music business. It seems to me that it is one of the major problems of the musical world now. I suspect that my life at the moment would have been very different without Honens.

'For young musicians a competition is the most realistic way to earn money, but the price is high'

‘”The Best” doesn’t exist in art’

‘In my opinion, the concept of a competition is not fruitful in the field of art, and it can even be dangerous. “The Best” doesn't exist in art, and elimination, which is in the nature of any competition, is not right either. To cultivate a creative environment and artistic development one has to support variety. This may sound idealistic, and indeed it is very far away from the reality. What we see today is that most competitions hardly pursue artistic goals. For young musicians a competition is the most realistic way to earn money, but the price is high. Competing creates terrible, unnatural stress, frustration, and, sadly, artistic compromises.

‘Music competitions have become a significant part of musical life, but the way they work is still imperfect and sometimes damaging. We all have to work hard to reorganise their structure gradually, bringing them to accordance with their initial function – to help young musicians on their artistic way. The world of competitions, regular participants and juries is so separated from the world of concert halls and the miracles of true art.

The future

‘Competitions need to put masks on their faces and wait for these masks to become their real physiognomies. They need to pretend to be something different in order to get rid of a competitive spirit and to create a normal, healthier atmosphere. It might make them less attractive to the audience, but if we care about the ecology of our planet, although sometimes it is difficult, unpleasant and expensive, why don’t we care about the “ecology” of music? It would certainly bring some positive changes. Another big step is in adopting the idea that the most important thing is not the competition itself, but what happens after.

The recent winner – Benjamin Baker

Violinist, winner of the Windsor International String Competition 2013, winner of the Royal Philharmonic Society Emily Anderson Prize, runner-up in the Postacchini International Violin Competition 2012

A growth business

‘Competitions serve two purposes. They offer great exposure and a chance to separate yourself from the herd. When you’re a young musician you want to show what you’re made of and competitions are a great way to do that, however tough they may be. And from the personal development side, you have to prepare a big programme and perform under pressure, so there’s a lot of growth that can come out of it. I’ve learnt a huge amount from the competition experiences I’ve had.

‘Windsor was probably the biggest competition I’ve done well in and the best set up. The many parts of the prize meant that it helped develop my career. There are so many competitions now and so many competition winners so having wins on your CV doesn’t necessarily get you much in terms of work and concerts. I made my debut with the Philharmonia Orchestra in the Windsor Festival six months later, which was a huge moment for me and gave me an exposure to a whole different audience and another chance for me to prove myself. The CD was the most useful part in a way.

'When you’re young it’s important to show what you want to say, to show what your music making is about'

Just be yourself

‘The best advice to players entering competitions is to be yourself. It’s so easy with so many fantastic recordings that we get fixated on playing right, with perfect intonation, never making a scratch or a wrong not. That is a pursuit of excellence we will be following our whole lives, but when you’re young it’s important to show what you want to say, to show what your music making is about. If you can do that in the tough environment that is a competition then when it comes to recitals and chamber music concerts that individuality will come out much richer because you’ve been strong enough to display it in such a harsh situation.

Opportunity knocks

‘I use competitions to challenge myself. I don’t think I’ve entered any competition with the aim of walking away with first prize because music is not a mathematical process where you can say “he got it right” or “she got it wrong”. I’ve always taken opportunities to test myself and challenge myself further. I think for all the criticism of competitions, if people approach them right they can be very useful.’

Read my blog in defence of competitions

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