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Competitions, Revisited


It was written all over their faces, as plain as day. As they left the hall and stepped into the street, they were disappointed, disgusted, and done. It was heartbreaking to see, for they were about to miss a major opportunity.


They were an extremely promising chamber music group. I was a judge in the competition from which they had been eliminated the previous day. The hall we had all just left was the site of a major competition; the first of two semi-final rounds had just concluded.

Competitions … win one, win a few, and your career can appear to be made. Concert managers know that the seals of approval bestowed by those wins make it easier for an artist to be noticed, marketed, and heard. Scores of presenting organizations wait every year to fill selected spots in their season’s programming with the newest winners. Audiences love the idea that the performing world’s equivalent of an Olympic gold medalist has arrived in their community, giving them an opportunity to hear this artist, get a taste of that Olympian event, see the “best.” And for the artists who enter the competitions and spend months or years preparing, they arrive with their hearts and artistic spirits on the line, hopes and dreams in their heads.

Keep your eyes on the prize! How many times have you heard this exhortation? A folk song that became a powerful hymn of courage during the American civil rights movement of the 1960s has also become a guiding light for some in the consideration of whether or not to enter a competition.

I would like to propose an alternate exhortation. Take your eyes off the prize! I would like to suggest that competitors abandon the notion that entering a competition is about winning. I would like to suggest that entering a competition should primarily be a framework for learning. And I suggest this from my vantage point as the winner, non-winner, and judge of quite a few competitions.

That day when I saw the expressions on the faces of my young colleagues, this is what I would have loved to tell them:

Entering a competition is a huge undertaking. The repertoire lists are long. Preparing a screening CD or DVD is time consuming. Practice hours are ramped up in the months prior. Nonetheless, daily life must also continue during this time—schoolwork, employment, and family needs. This level of preparation is very much a kind of boot camp. But it is a boot camp that can serve to either calcify the artist into a pre-programmed product, or spark and fertilize an unprecedented level of exploration and growth. There is no question that the intention of the artists, working to prepare every note, every phrase just so, is to be ready to share—under the most strenuous of conditions—their most deeply-held convictions about the music with an audience they are yearning to affect. But if that work results in a highly toned technique at the service of an inviolate road map yielding a pre-planned moment-by-moment product, the performance may be impressive but the music will be dead.

Yes, there must be serious attention paid to the technical demands of the music. But it must be done in a context best expressed by a sign hanging in a Juilliard dance studio, by an unknown author: “The only reason for mastering technique is to make sure the body does not prevent the soul from expressing itself.” Sitting in the secluded juror’s section, too often I have heard artists who have focused so fiercely on perfecting their technique that even as I admire their dazzling perfection, I am left searching for what they have to say and finding little there.

I have also seen the opposite. The group that has a powerful story to tell, that has reached into the audience and grabbed my heart and spirit, might mar the performance with inattentive slips, too-many mistakes, and other flaws.

Rehearsals must prepare the artist for what will happen on stage. Preparation that, in the case of a chamber music group, builds experience and trust, so that if something goes in an unexpected direction—or even goes wrong—it still leads to a magical moment, rather than a train wreck. Preparation that embraces risk-taking and experimentation. Preparation that ideally brings the group to a place of such growth that the result of the competition becomes almost immaterial.

Once the artist or group has been accepted to the live rounds, there are more challenges. Live rounds are long, usually taking place over many days or weeks. If international travel is required, language barriers and tending to housing, meals, and suitable practice space can become wearing. But it is essential to not allow the preparation to put you in such a state of frenzy that a disappointing result leaves you with no inner resources to listen to and learn from other participants.

For the most important lesson of a competition is that it can be the ultimate master class. I have seen too many competitions where the artists, once eliminated, are never seen again. Understandably, they head off to relax and enjoy the city they are in. But they are missing an extraordinary opportunity to learn. For a chamber music competition is an unmatched chance to examine how groups from all over the world function in their tonal palettes, dynamic balances, and leadership styles. It also provides an opportunity to observe the role of the musicians’ inner voices and the expression of individual personalities. Exposure to this can be eye-opening.

In the case of the event that sparked this column, once the competition ended, the winners were announced, and the jury members could finally speak with each other about the competitors, we discovered that we all felt the same way. If we could do any one thing for the competitors we had spent a week listening to, pulling for, agonizing over, and finally voting for, it would have been to find a way to have them listen to each other. For the learning would have been profound, and that would have been the best prize of all.


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