21 August 2012

Competition Overkill

Writing on his Pianomania blog, Chang Tou Liang bemoaned the fact that “Singapore has organised more Formula One Grand Prix races than international piano competitions”.  That caught me up short.  There seem to be an endless stream of piano competitions in Singapore and, if by international, you mean attracting players from Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and possibly even as far afield as Australia, most of these fit that bill.  I’ve adjudicated at a couple, and only the other week I turned down an invitation to adjudicate at yet another on the sound basis that I won’t be in Singapore when it’s held. 

But then the penny dropped.  These have all being MUSIC competitions, ostensibly open to any musical instrument.  The fact that music in south east Asia is almost synonymous with piano means that they are all dominated by that instrument, which cleverly disguises the fact that they are, technically, open to all.  So I image Tou Liang is right in this odd and, if I might suggest, pointless statistic.  Is he right, though, in saying it’s a “very encouraging attempt to bring Singapore into the world of international music competitions”?  I think not.

There are, without a doubt, too many competitions around and, like music exams, they have become a self-serving exercise breeding a crop of pianists whose sole interest in music is to get top prize at a competition.  Let’s forget the fact that most  winners in the top-end competitions seem to burn themselves out in the first year and it is the second, third and non-placed people who go on to achieve musical stardom, are there not now so many competitions that they have become a pointless exercise?  Students feeling the need to flex their muscles against their peers in a competition have so many to choose from they can almost select who they want to be pitted against; “So-and-so’s doing the Beethoven Competition in Balikpapan, so I won’t do that as he always wins.  He’s not doing the Chopin competition in Chiang Mai so I’ll do that one”.  It’s a bit like the world of boxing where, I gather, there are several different World Championships resulting in the ridiculous spectacle of these pugilists slogging it out in totally different contests in order to claim World Titles differentiated by various sets of initials.  So are the days of the Singapore International MAR Piano Competition, the Singapore International CTL Piano Competition or the Singapore International YST about to dawn investing different people with different titles all of which claim to be THE Singaporean standard?  In short, if there’s more than one international piano competition in a country (or possibly a region), there are too many and ultimately dilute whatever value they may have had.

Competitions are not without their value.  They can give prestige to a venue – provided they attract the star names as adjudicators and are able to set the winners off with such riches as recording and broadcast contracts and international concert tours – and it has to be said that, for all its excellent musical life, do not most people in the world of music associate Cardiff with the eponymous Singer of the World Competition?  They can also give a huge boost to the fortunes of those who compete, fast-tracking careers which otherwise might have languished long in obscurity.  In some cases, they can even promote the work of a forgotten or underrated composer – and I’m the first to praise Chopin competitions when they encourage sensitive and artistic performances of that composer’s over-exposed output.  On a more local level they provide a useful barometer as to the standards of teaching in a country; the Thailand Trinity Piano Competition is an absolute eye-opener when you see the extraordinary quality of work being done by teachers across that country.  And they certainly provide students with a goal in performing to a wider audience than just their teacher and their immediate friends.

But against those benefits lie the very real issues of integrity.  A great many competitions are more intended to give prestige and financial kudos to the organisers or sponsors, and have little regard for the musical outcomes.  I once adjudicated at a competition sponsored by British Nuclear Fuels.  At a time when the words Nuclear and Fuels were about as unpopular a combination of words as Assange and Ecuador, the clear intention here was to legitimise this organisation as a force for artistic good.  Vast amounts of money were spent on hospitality and in giving the whole thing an air of respectability.  Who won?  I have no idea, and I chose the winner!  And I suspect that most competitions start up to create an interest in the work of the sponsors as much as to raise artistic standards. 

I can’t really see the world standing back and saying “Wow” when they read that Zheng Qingshu got First Prize at the 1st Ars Nova International Piano Competition in Singapore.  (And, for the record, as one of my former students at Yong Siew Toh, I can vouch for the fact that she is not only a very fine pianist indeed but an intensely astute musician who should not need competitions to secure her on the path of a very creditable musical career – I’d recommend her to any concert promoter.)  But when it comes to piano competitions, fewer is most definitely better.  Rather like the huge wisdom of Alastair McCall Smith who suggests that the number of Mercedes Benzes in any third-world country is in inverse proportion to the wealth of the general population, I believe that the more International Piano Competitions a country hosts, the weaker are its artistic credentials.


  1. Of course, I would beg to differ! Music competitions tend to bring out the gladiatorial aspects of performing and more often than not the person who thrashes out a good Rachmaninov prevails against the true musician who sings rather than plays Schubert, but that's besides the point.

    In this world over-populated by musicians (can that ever be a bad thing?), it is difficult for a young unknown to stand-out from the crop, so competitions serve as a platform for these talents to shine and hopefully get noticed. Unfortunately the opportunities for public performances are limited, and so competitions have become almost a de facto means for young musicians to get heard. Its sad but a reality of life.

    As for Singapore, the big competition is the National Piano & Violin Competition held every 2 years, and its winners have invariably become the standard bearers of music in Singapore. What Singapore does not have yet is an international competition to match those in Sydney, Hong Kong and Xiamen (to name a few good Asian examples). So the efforts of Ars Nova and Steinway are to be applauded, and if these can develop and become established as big events that can attract the best the region can offer, I am all for it.

    We do not need the Formula One race to fatten the pockets of Ecclestone, Hamilton, Alonso et al, but music competitions and their associated festivals can do far more good than harm for the musical scene. (Besides they provide professional adjudicators some extra employment, income and prestige!)

  2. For the record, there are 5 international competitons held in Hong Kong at various times. Do any have any prestige outside Asia? - BeenyM

    1. Only one of these international piano competitions in Hong Kong has some sort of standing or significance outside of the SAR, and that is the Hong Kong International Piano Competition organised by the Chopin Society of HK and headed by Vladimir Ashkenazy. If Singapore can even come close to organising a competition of such stature, it would be a major achievement.

    2. This can't be allowed to pass unchallenged. The Hong Kong-Asia Open Piano Competition has been running for 16 years and attracts jury members of international standing. www.musicina.org

  3. For many parents in Asia, learning an instrument without aiming for grade or competition is pointless..