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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 6, No. 8

The Young Performerís Guide to Competitions

by Michel Fournier / May 1, 2001

Version française...


Since the middle of the 20th century ó for better or worse ó competitions have become an almost inevitable part of any professional musicianís journey. This, without a doubt, is due in part to an increase in the number of professional musicians, the importance of the media, and the need to stand out in a restricted and highly competitive market. Regardless of their musical discipline, up-and-coming artists will undoubtedly be requested to compete, whether for an orchestra position, a teaching position, or even for a contract or concert.

Once survived and thoroughly understood, competition experience can prove to be a precious tool for an artistís development. A healthy and realistic approach can have many benefits. Itís simply a matter of physical and psychological preparation, judgment, and balance.

Rule number one

This is a ďgame,Ē therefore rules, results, and any unfairness are accepted beforehand.

Nothing is ever perfect. Try to avoid blaming the judges, the hall, the piano, the time, the organization, the bench, the acoustics, the lighting (and Iím probably skipping a few !) to defend an unsatisfactory result. And remember, arenít all competitors put to the test under the same conditions ?

Rule number two : recognize competition issues for what they are

These events are selective, subjective, and based on luck. It is also important to know that competitions are not the only possible paths to glory and fame (if thatís what youíre interested in !). More and more, young talented artists succeed in making a career for themselves without going the self-flagellating competition route. Two excellent examples are the American violinist Hilary Hahn and the Russian pianist Constantin Lifschitz, both barely 20 years old, but with out-of-the ordinary musical personalities. Itís rare, but possible.

Rule number three : be prepared, prepared, and more prepared

Preparation is indispensable for successful participation. Thatís why you must be ready several weeks (or months !) ahead, and hopefully have played the whole program in recital many times yī A well-prepared participant will certainly feel more confident and better able to create the right conditions for a sense of accomplishment. A lack of preparation, however, will definitely lead to blunders, slips, and memory lapses, elements not generally associated with a positive experience, but rather with tears and grinding of teeth.

Psychological preparation is just as essential. Now that you have a healthy attitude towards competitions because of the meticulous attention paid to rules number one and two of this very article, you have to focus on creating optimum living conditions leading up to the event. Make time for plenty of rehearsals and rest, as well as a balanced lifestyle including physical exercise and a lighter workload (except for your instrument !). And, perhaps this isnít the best time for an existential crisis ! (In any case, youíll probably end up having one after the competitionÖ)

As a final reminder regarding the unforeseen and last-minute surprises, remember : Be ready for anything !

Rule number four : judges are not ogres

How participants perceive the judges is also a key factor to a successful experience. (Attention all teachers : this can be taught !)

Results are not definitive judgments, and judgesí comments must, above all, be used to improve and work on oneís weaker points.

However, some competitors will deem certain comments to be ďmean and stupid.Ē In such cases, try to meet the judge involved. From time to time, judges must write quickly, and cannot express their ideas as fully (or as diplomatically) as they might have wished. The judges often work long days, may be tired, and always judge based on their perceptions, their value system, and their personal taste. Evaluating an unquantifiable product is not an easy task. When it comes to youth competitions, where the purpose is above all educational, judges should always make a point of delivering constructive criticism. It is the duty of competition organizers to select jury members with care, as well as to specify the competitionís goals and mission, and ideally, to supply a clear and comprehensive assessment grid. (Yes, this is possible !)

Rule number five : the teacher must be directly involved in the event

The teacherís role is critical. It is his responsibility to choose a suitable repertory of pieces that reasonably challenge and reflect the participantís personality. Furthermore, it is ultimately up to the teachers to decide the significance of participating. They are entirely responsible for their students. Itís definitely better to cancel participation in an event than to suffer through a bad experience. By the way, in case you werenít sure, miracles donít happen ! If the participant isnít ready, the experience could have potentially disastrous consequences on their motivation and future interest.

The teacher should also be aware of the various levels and particularities of different competitions, whether they be national or international, in order to guide young musicians through these dizzying labyrinths. Each studentís case is unique, so selecting a competition should take into consideration individual personality, goals, and abilities.

Donít forget :

A competition can measure only what is measurable. Technical ability can be gauged, as can wrong notes, resistance to stress, memory capacity, and nerves. Your musicality and sensitivity cannot be measured. Comments can be made only about what is perceived at a specific moment in your artistic development.

Above allÖ

Be yourself ! Donít try to please the jury, and do not compromise your musical and artistic convictions. Be part of the new generation of artists who speak out, take risks, and have no fear of making mistakes or playing wrong notes ! Music comes before everything else !

[Translated by Deborah Kramer]


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