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Does success in music competitions really matter?

Violin laureates share their stories with The Strad

Wednesday, 21 August 2013
Contestants report making stylistic decisions not based on their own musical preference, but aimed to please a majority of jury members

New research suggests that what separates the winners and the also-rans in music competitions is as much down to their visual impact as it is to the sound they make.

The idea that competition judges make decisions based more on what they see than on what they hear adds spice to the hotly contested debate over the value of music competitions. It's an area that The Strad explored in the following article from the May 2012 issue, published as the Queen Elisabeth Competition was taking place (Andrey Baranov, pictured, was the eventual winner). In the article, Heather Kurzbauer considered the place of competitions today, and Christian Lloyd asked violin laureates how their wins have helped their careers:


In the 21st century, music competitions are as popular as ever. As new contests spring up around the world, most of the major events report an increase in applications with a record number of countries represented. Many directors maintain strict admission standards, encourage contemporary music, promote new-media access and offer career counselling to winners. That said, the true importance of competitions is still a vexed question, which brings up a multitude of issues.

There are those who argue that in the age of YouTube, Facebook and cultural entrepreneurship, competitions are outdated. Certainly a win at a major contest has never been a guarantee of career success – first-prize winners frequently fade into oblivion while others ascend to the heights of stardom. Then again, the life of a competition entrant overlaps greatly with that of a performing artist – it is a life of discipline, constant analysis and unanswered questions, fraught with setbacks and criticism. If an artist can make it through three rounds of tension and nerves, half-believing that a single missed dynamic could spell disaster, their debut at Carnegie Hall will be a walk in the park thereafter.

Should we applaud the fact that major competitions have lowered their age requirements? David Oistrakh was almost 30 when he won the 1937 Ysaÿe Competition (now known as the Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition). In 2009 the Joseph Joachim International Competition in Hanover was won by its youngest contestant, 16-year-old Fumiaki Miura. A discussion of whether this is an important factor should be replaced by an open consideration of who the ‘ideal’ winners are – fresh faces to develop over time or mature musicians with a well-defined musical character.

But then, contestants report making stylistic decisions not based on their own musical preference, but aimed to please a majority of jury members. ‘If my Bach is stylishly authentic, the old guard will never let me into the next round,’ a German-trained player lamented at a recent instalment of the Moscow International Oistrakh Competition. Could a 21st-century Paganini, with a quirky genius never before seen in the music world, ever be discovered at a competitive event?

For many participants, the most valuable part of the experience is the chance to meet equally committed young players, share personal interpretations, and find a new perspective on the music community. As in all things, the ‘success’ is whatever they make of it.

Jennifer Koh
US-based soloist Jennifer Koh won joint second prize at the 1994 Tchaikovsky Competition. No first prize was awarded.

'I only entered the Tchaikovsky because I was studying Russian literature at the time, and couldn’t pass up the chance to perform Tchaikovsky with a Russian orchestra in Moscow. I’ve always been a little ambivalent about music competitions — to me, the concept seems a little absurd. I didn’t go into it thinking I had to win, and I feel quite fortunate in that I was so young and oblivious to that kind of feeling.

The audience at the competition was totally unlike anything I’d experienced. People were fervent, passionate and even throwing things at the jury! After my performance, people were coming up to me and crying, weeping,
 and pulling at my hair. I found it a little overwhelming.
 They would also speak to me in Russian and assume I’d understand — it was an incredible lesson in the power
of music.

I didn’t continue developing the qualities you might think a competition winner would need. And I would hope that any student who enters a competition is doing it to grow as a musician, as a healthy challenge to do the repertoire they choose to play. Music is not about competitions — it’s about passion and loving what you do.

There’s a certain generation of Russians, Japanese and Koreans who will always remember the competition, as it was televised in all those countries. People often comment on it after a concert of traditional repertoire, but never when I play contemporary music.'


Stefan Milenkovich
Stefan Milenkovich came second in the 1994 International Music Competition of Indianapolis and third in the
 1993 Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition among others.

'I went in for ten competitions in about two years. I was 16 when I started going to them and I needed to show that I was ready to perform as an adult artist. I had had a career as a child prodigy (I gave my 1,000th concert at the age of 16 as well) but it’s a double-edged sword. A lot of people had followed my career already so they knew me and wanted to hear how I sounded, but for me it added to the pressure.

Six months before the competitions started, I tripled my practice time and spent eight hours a day practising. I’m very competitive: to me, competitions mean training like an athlete and performing like a poet.

There is certainly an element of gambling in competitions, where playing it safe might not be the best option. With your preparation you can stack 
the odds in your favour. It might mean making unexpected musical decisions on the spot — you might miss a note 
or two, but the reward is greater than the risk. That was another aspect of my preparation that was always nurtured and encouraged.

When I came fourth at the Hanover competition in 1994, one of the jurors was Dorothy DeLay, who had first spotted me when I was eight. She extended an invitation for me to come either to Aspen or Juilliard, so I came to New York. Now I still live in the US, so that competition has shaped my life to some degree at least.

I always want to understand my students’ motivation for entering. Only a small percentage will invest all their time in it. Most of the others just want something to motivate themselves, but not many are really interested in a big competition with three rounds and 
a huge programme.'

Click here to read Part Two of this article

Subscribe to The Strad to read in-depth reports from major competitions.

Photo: Bruno Vessié





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