Violinist Benjamin Baker has just been selected for the final rounds of the Queen Elisabeth Violin Competition. Such contests are notoriously stressful, so why would anyone put themselves through that? He explains all here
Participants were announced today for the prestigious Queen Elisabeth Violin Competition in Brussels, Belgium, in May. The only UK player going forward is Benjamin Baker (also representing New Zealand), who is a seasoned competition winner: he came first at the Windsor International String Competition 2013, won the Royal Philharmonic Society Emily Anderson Prize, and was runner-up in the Postacchini International Violin Competition 2012. I spoke to him last year in my research for a Gramophone article about violin competitions and for this blog, and he was clear about his goals and the benefits of the process. Here is what he said:
What is the point of competitions?
‘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.'
How have competitions helped your career?
‘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.'
What advice would offer a young player thinking of entering a competition?
‘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.
‘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.’
Photo: Kaupo Kikkas