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Music Competitions - Who Wins?

Linda Engelhardt By Linda Anne Engelhardt

As devotees of classical music, most of us are likewise interested in knowing about the musicians whose performances enchant – or annoy – us. We turn to CD booklets, websites, concert folders and radio broadcasts for information. And regardless of the medium, the message usually reminds us of one thing – that the artist is very special because he or she has won a music competition. Or several of them. Institutions of music education recruit using references to their students’ competition successes, as testimony to excellent instruction. Concert presenters are delighted when they can sell tickets for performances by laureates of international music contests. Does all this mean that music competitions are nothing more than a public relations tool for pupils, teachers, concert agents and recording companies? Do they have any intrinsic value in today’s music world?

Lest we forget: music competitions are one of the oldest forms of public performance in our culture, stemming back to that mythical contest between Pan and Apollo, judged by King Midas. The juror was blatently partial to Pan and awarded the prize to him, which angered Apollo to such an extent that he caused donkey’s ears to sprout from the top of Midas’ head. Music competitions have come a long professional way since then (though there surely are contestants today who would love to have Apollo’s powers when hearing the jury’s voting results). In any case, competition between musicians is obviously as old as music-making itself. Sweeping criticism of music competitions as a stress-filled phenomenon characteristic our post-industrial, economically global day and age is neither correct nor convincing.

Most of the students attending music conservatories or similar institutions have grown up “in competition”. Indeed, their professional life will be no different, although the word will usually be “audition” instead of “competition”. So it’s not bad to get an early start! Around the world, there are local competitions that music teachers send their young pupils to as a way of getting them accustomed to performing before an audience and being evaluated by critics (usually called juries). This experience, if well prepared and properly mentored, can teach a young musician how to deal with success and with failure, both of which can be a challenge. Such competitions can be goals in themselves and thus an opportunity to discover how hard work leads to the satisfaction of achievement. They sometimes help youngsters decide whether music should be their career path or, instead, a wonderful enrichment of their leisure time.

All serious students of music performance are, at some point, faced with the issue of national, regional or international music competitions – to go or not to go, that is the question! And while there are a number of well-known performers who claim to be proud of never having attended a competition, such abstainees are, at least in Europe, Asia and the United States, a definite minority among top-level students.

So why go to a music competition? What can a young adult musician expect to experience at such an event? The World Federation of International Music Competitions, a Geneva-based umbrella organization of more than 120 of the world’s finest international competitions (including the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition and the Sydney Piano Competition), defines international competitions as follows: “a celebration dedicated to a particular discipline or disciplines of classical music, held periodically to present aspiring young performers or composers from throughout the world. Usually held in preliminary, semi-final and final stages, an international music competition awards at its completion prizes to the most outstanding competitors chosen by a jury, gaining for the award-winners widespread recognition that helps further their careers.”

The main points in this rather dry definition apply, as I see it, to good music competitions of any geographical orientation. They should be festivals, not battles. They should have a clear definition of instrumental or composing focus, which guarantees similar footing for all competitors. They should have long-term organizational goals (to take place annually or every so many years). They should provide various stages (with varied programs) for the musicians to display their musical personalities in.  Prizes should be awarded and the laureates’ futures should profit from their successful participation in the competition. 

No one music competition is quite like another, and that is a definite advantage. Some are part of a larger music program that includes year-round concert series, while others focus solely on the days of the competition itself. Some have impressive media partners and corporate sponsors, while others rely on fund-raising and volunteers. Some stand out as contributors to national or international centers of musical activity, while others pride themselves on contributing unique cultural content to their local or regional area. Some provide high tech media coverage of the competition, while others do not or cannot. Some engage in out-reach projects to schools, while others aim at a (much) more mature audience.

In any case, the competition’s primary focus should be on the young artists who come to perform. The organizers’ top priority should be to provide an atmosphere in which the artists can display their talents in the best possible way. This means a maximum of audience attention and a minimum of organizational upheaval, a maximum of fair adjudication and a minimum of bias and favoritism. 

In the final analysis, every competition prize should be seen in context. Each prize says something solely about the one particular moment in which one particular jury reached one particular decision. And of course, the prize is a marvelous reward for having worked very hard. But no prize in the world can pave the way to an audience’s heart. This is the path the artist travels alone, with his or her artistic gifts and a passion for sharing them with those who chose to listen.

© Linda Anne Engelhardt
1991 – 2008, Executive Director of the Hannover International Violin Competition „Joseph Joachim“
1999 – 2008, First Vice-President of the World Federation of International Music Comeptitions
2003 – 2009, Vice-Chair of the Council of the Hannover University of Music and Drama (Germany)
Since 2009 – Chairman of the Board of the Hitzacker Summer Music Festival (Germany’s oldest chamber music festival)

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