Welcome to the blog of Miroslav Georgiev - classical pianist and conductor. Here you can read and discuss interesting stuff from the world of music, life, politics and more.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Music competitions - more damage than benefit.

In this article I will discuss the nature of music competitions, and how it ultimately damages the art.

Because music is a performing art – that is, an art which actually happens in real time life events, and is executed by people – it is particularly 'suitable' for competing. And it is true that in the history of western music, competitions have a serious legacy. However, they were initially something very different of what we see today.
When they began, music competitions were little more than show events, standoffs between two or more performers, where each one would try to demonstrate his superiority over his opponents for the pleasure of the public. We have historical records of competitions as far back as the Middle Ages; of baroque-era improvisational competitions between organ players like Buxtehude and Bach, or romantic-era virtuosos like Liszt and Czerny. But their character was much different: before the romantic era, the players wouldn't even play what today we would call 'a piece' – instead, they would simply improvise on a given theme, or they would play their own compositions. It was thus much easier to judge one of the performances much better than the other, although 'stalemates' were also known to happen. Today, in all major classical music competitions, all contestants play largely the same 'competitive' pieces, derived from the same pool of 100 or so most popular and flashy compositions of the last 250 years. It is a very rare occasion when we hear a new composition in a competition (excluding the special new pieces, composed for the biggest competitions), and it rarely brings any advantage to the candidate. In the new trend of pop music competitions, we have practically the same situation, with the candidates performing some hit from the last 20 years, although there's some more space for creativity there, since the songs aren't usually written down.

 But it is not so much about WHAT is played at these competitions, as HOW and WHY it is played, and how it is judged. Before, the public would decide, according to their immediate impressions of not only the quality of the music, but also the general artistry of the performers. They would hear vastly different music, most of it unknown, see the way it is performed, and base their evaluation on what we could call an immediate and genuine impression of the senses. Today we have a jury of experts, often listening behind curtains (for supposed impartiality), taking notes on tables with standardized criteria, for example perfection of performance (whether you're playing the right notes), fidelity to the part (whether you're following the author's indications), quality of tone, etc. Sounds a lot like something a machine would do, right?
In short, where 300 years before it was all about innovation and fantasy, about creating the liveliest and most impressive performance, today it all boils down to how difficult the pieces performed were, how perfectly (without mistakes) they were played, and how 'correctly' they were interpreted. That's right, after decades of listening to the same 'standard' competition pieces, we now have definite ways of playing them, and (almost) any deviation from the standard is punished. Although, this is the least of the problems the competitions create. It is the WHY that matters most:
In the past, competitions were primarily entertaining events. The 'winner' would, of course, win fame, and count on a bigger audience for his next performances, but the importance of these events was nowhere as close to the importance of music competitions today. Today, competitions are institutions that are an imperative gateway to the classical 'big scene'. That is, if you haven't won, or at least appeared on one of these big competitions, you are simply ignored as a performer by music producers. Which means, if you aspire to a big career in the classical music business, you have to submit yourself to the competition process, with everything that it involves:

- Studying the exact pieces required. Depending on the level of the competition, these range from medium to the most difficult pieces in the repertory for that instrument/voice. Even in cases when easier pieces are accepted, they don't net you so much credit as the more difficult pieces, which means candidates are practically forced to exclude most pieces of their repertory, in order to be competitive.
- Perfecting them for years, using the widely accepted interpretation, and most of the time, studying with the professors which would eventually make part of the jury.
- Forget about everything else in your life for several months before the competition. Practice X hours a day, only the pieces you are to play at the competition. This, of course, effectively stops your artistic development, while you get so fed up with these pieces that you don't want to play them again for years after the competition is over.
- Experience nervous pressure as you've never experienced before. Whoever has taken part in a competition, even a relatively small one, knows exactly what I'm talking about. For the rest, imagine the stage fright when you have to speak in front of hundred people, even words you have practiced over and over again, then multiply it by 10. Every performer has one chance, and one chance only, to prove their mastery to this particular group of people. If you have a headache, or haven't slept well, or are so nervous your whole body is shaking (all of which happens to be caused by all the nervous pressure you're submitted to), well, that's part of the challenge! And it won't do to perform later the very same pieces 10 times better than you did at the competition hearing, because you've already lost your chance.
- Experience huge disappointment when you don't win (which happens to 90% of the candidates). After all, you know that so much is at stake.....

And because we know that there is corruption most of the time, you may have to also forget you have any conscience or artistic integrity and try to buy your way to winning.
There are, of course, some positive effects from competitions, and according to our current system, these make it worthwhile all the pain and suffering the artists are experiencing:

- Participating in competitions builds strength of character. You need to develop really good discipline if you want to prepare well for a competition - sacrifice free time, concentrate, organize your day-to-day activities...
- Playing in front of a jury is the ultimate test for a musician - if he can withstand this nervous pressure, he can withstand everything the concert stage throws at him. And the opposite - if he bends under the pressure, he's not worthy of the concert stage.
- Playing the same pieces every day for months at a time helps the musician reach the deepest level of detail of the piece, understand it better, and consecutively, interpret it better.
Lastly, but most importantly for the competitive capitalistic mentality:
- The competition process invariably produces the best and most worthy musicians, to join the ranks of professional concert performers and yield the producers the most money.

Well, let's analyze the positive and negative sides and try to come with a verdict: are competitions really doing what they are supposed to do and are they worth it?

First of all, the professional musician, as every serious craftsman, or every grown-up man for that matter, needs indeed to build strength of character. Competitions help here, there's no question about that. But it's even more important for a performing arts artist to be able to withstand nervous pressure, so he could do his best every time he's performing, no matter the circumstances. Stage fright is a very real and very important problem for musicians, and they really need to learn how to deal with it.
Again, competitions help with this. But so does every public performance, every concert the musician does, be it in front of hundreds of people in a concert hall, or just in front of some friends and family at home. And then, we have psychological techniques and training that help too. Do we really need to subject the artist to the torture of competitions, just to prove he has guts to play in front of people?
Secondly, the notion that a piece of music could ever be perfected is deceiving. Yes, you could learn the right notes, you could learn to play them fast and sure, and to produce tone and dynamic differences at will. But that's about all the level of perfection we need from an artist playing a piece. All the rest is standardization, not perfection – playing the piece in the same tempo every time, playing the same dynamics in the same places of the piece every time, the same rubatos, accents, etc. If we go that way, we may as well delegate the task to robots, which will be much more apt to play something according to a certain standard every time.  
Music is an art. Like every art, it needs creativity, and creativity is strangled by perfection. In fact, the very definition of perfection excludes creativity, since achieving the perfect state of something locks that thing in place, excluding any further change. And creativity is all about change. So, when all these competitors work toward perfecting the pieces they'll be performing, and when they pass beyond the invisible like separating musical perfection from standardization (unfortunately that's what happens with 98% of the performers), they are actually working against the very idea of art. You can't win a competition, unless you struggle to be perfect – to play all the right notes and perform all the right dynamics – but in doing so you deny the whole basis of your art.
Thirdly, working on the same pieces for months at a time does indeed help you delve into details and understand the piece better. However, a time comes when another invisible line is crossed, and the level of detail becomes too deep – and you may lose the big picture of the piece, the same way as you lose the vista that you had from the top of a mountain when you descend to its base. Not to mention the tedium that sets in after playing the same music over and over again, and kills all creativity.
Me personally, I've found that time also gives a new perspective to musical pieces I've played before – a new level of understanding which I didn't have before. Every time I pick an old piece from my repertory after a year, I find myself looking at it in a new way, seeing in its text things that I've never seen before, interpreting it in a different way.
Fourth, the choice of pieces – it is true that the big competitions include a vast selection, covering all musical styles from the last 300 years, thus forcing the musician to learn and build a diverse repertory. However, how does it happen that 90% of the candidates perform the same pieces???? (Just take the brochures of the last 2 - 3 big competitions and compare the repertories of the candidates – I bet you'll find more than 50% of the pieces are the same!). The truth of it is that there are established, 'secure' competition pieces, proven to be impressive, not that risky, and yielding good points, which most candidates choose. Yes, they are mostly some of the most difficult pieces written for the instrument or voice, and if you can play (sing) that, you can play anything.
Well, I disagree. The fact that you can play a Rachmanninov concerto perfectly doesn't mean you can interpret memorably and passionately an 'easy'  Debussy Prelude. You could sing the impossible coloraturas of a Haendel aria, but that doesn't automatically mean you can make someone cry with a Puccini aria. Interpretation is not always about how fast and brilliant you can play. 
And lastly, the notion that the process of competition produces the best and most worthy musicians, is a lie. What does the successful competition musician look like? First of all, he practices A LOT – we could say as much as 8 hours a day – which, after considering sleeping and eating, leaves him what, 2 - 3 free hours per day to live? Furthermore, he practices all the same pieces (because repertory requirements for competitions overlap), which means that  his repertory is in fact not that extensive. And because he practices that much, he can hardly think of anything else, so he's narrow-minded, with a limited understanding of world and people, with limited interests outside music. He's single minded, in that that he's always thinking of the next competition, and what does he need to do to prepare for it. When he goes on stage, the first and foremost issue is perfection – he HAS to get all notes right, or risk being eliminated. Art comes after this, if it enters the picture at all. And because the player has so limited understanding of the world and music, how is he gonna achieve accomplished and deep concepts about the pieces he's playing? Oh yes – by paying teachers to show him...
So, how does all the above qualities align with the purpose of art and music specifically? A musician's first and foremost duty should be to music, to playing his instrument in the service of others. He should be an entertainer first, and a good technician second. Meaning that he should be more concerned with pleasing his audience than with satisfying his own ego and showcasing his technique. A musician doesn't need to be perfect, he doesn't need to forget all about life and practice 8 hours a day, in short – he doesn't need to be a robot.

But it is exactly robots that our present practice of competing for music produces.    

Musical competitions are a perfect example of a breeding ground for animosity, neurotic distortions and pretentions. It's 'survival of the fittest' on every level, from the basic ability to the nasty psychological tricks and the pure cheating. We see the kind of musicians it produces every day in the great concert halls – they play fast, they play loud, they play... equally. There is no creativity in their interpretation, because you don't win competitions with creativity. There is usually no passion, because passion might lead to loss of control and mistakes. They play all the same repertory, the one that goes into the competition requirements, simply because they have no time, nor desire, to learn other pieces (I think in the last 20 - 30 years this is being more obvious than ever – very few concert musicians dare or care to include new music in their programs).
And because of the system that has made competitions an imperative gateway to the big scene, no other kind of musicians ever make their way there. But it gets worse – it is actually not a rare phenomenon to see talented musicians drop the art because they lost a competition, to become lawyers, or accountants, or one of the many other useless professions we have nowadays. Many others simply decide not to bother with even attempting a concert career, knowing the kind of pressure they have to withstand, and delegate their talent to accompanying kids at schools, or ballet classes.

Then there are what I like to call 'the Craftsmen' – these people that have few or no talent, but they have enough ambition and psychological stability to practice 8 hours a day and win competitions. They then make their way to the concert scene to produce copycat interpretations of the same old pieces we've been listening to for the last 50 years. Have any of you ever wondered why in the last 20 years there are fewer and fewer noteworthy interpreters? Why there seems to be an endless stream of highly-acclaimed pianists, violinists, singers, etc. that tour the world for a couple of years, dazzle everyone with fast, furious and technically perfect performances (which you forget after you go out of the concert hall), record a couple of CDs, which don't sell very well, and then promptly disappear into oblivion?
Well, you can stop wondering, because that's what competitions produce. Every big competition has, as a part of the first prize, a number of contracts for concert performances around the world, which happen in the year after the competition – hence the tours. Also, there are music producers at every competition that immediately make contracts with the winners for some concerts and recordings – hence the CDs. And then, it's time for the next winner.

That's the result of the market mechanism, applied to art. The competition mentality it creates distorts the very goal of music, promoting mediocrity instead of brilliance, and encouraging behaviors that shouldn't have place in art whatsoever, while providing modest benefits that could easily be achieved in other, non-stressful ways. Competitions could have their place, but as fun challenges, and not as basic building blocks of musical careers And I sincerely hope that we, professionals, and the public in general, will someday soon understand this problem and request the change of the situation.


  1. A very thought-provoking article. But without competitions how are universities and conservatories supposed to sort through the thousands of music students and find the ones that merit their attention?
    (By the way, Jennifer won first place in her voice competition which comes with a substantial prize in scholarship money for college, so I am rather biased in favor of competitions at the present moment.)

  2. Hey Anita, great news about Jennifer!I'll try to respond without keeping in mind your bias :)
    When I'm talking of competitions, I mean primarily the stand-alone music competitions, like Queen Elisabeth, Maria Callas and all other, lesser ones. They don't have any other purpose but to elect 'a winner' and distribute some prizes. The competitions to enter a school, or to get an orchestra or choir position serve a better purpose. Although I still think that selecting one candidate based on only one audition is unfair and presents too many opportunities for corruption, as I stated in the article.
    Another side of the problem, when we're talking about competitions to enter a school/college, is that there are too many people trying to get in there. There are literally tens of thousands of music schools around the world, which I think are more than enough to educate all aspiring musicians adequately, if the music education was more rational. Instead, half of the world's young musicians are trying to get into the same 10 - 15 schools/colleges, simply because they know that this will elevate their chances for a future career. Most of the time it isn't even the teachers they're after - it's the career opportunity.
    The same concept is valid for all other music institutions (orchestras, choirs, opera houses)- the ones which have fame and traditions attract hundreds of candidates each year, while most others are stagnating.
    What this amounts to is the concentration of quality musicians in these institutions, while the other ones simply exist, without any ambitions or hope for improvement.
    But the reasons for this trend are many, and most of them are economical, not artistic. I'll stop here, for now, and maybe I'll discuss the subject in a separate article.