02 February 2016

Music Competitions by the Thousand

Whether any other artistic activity has as many competitions as music I very much doubt.  There are, quite literally, thousands of them.  Competitions for pianists, violinists, singers, organists, harmonica players, whistlers, drummers, rock bands, orchestras, string quartets, composers…if you play or sing, conduct or teach, research or write, there’s a competition for you.  There are competitions for babies, children (usually demoted to “Kids” to signify a classlessness which music endeavours to believe it promotes), teenagers, young adults, middle aged adults, senior citizens, amateurs, professionals, the blind, the deaf, the limbless…the list just goes on and on.  And there are music competitions in any city, town or village in just about any country on any continent.  (If there was a kazoo competition for legless Emperor Penguins of post-egg-bearing vintage, I would not be surprised.)  In short, the most rabid musical competitors can have their thirst slaked at any time, in any field and at any place.

Poets, novelists, biographers, sculptors, water-colourists, oil-painters, acrylic-on-canvas designers, graffiti-merchants, classic actors, comedy actors, bit-part actors, bad actors, one-legged deaf mute mime artists, they all have a competition or two in their specific fields, but none has as many on offer as musicians.  And still the list grows.  A nation can’t call itself a nation if it doesn’t have a “National Music Competition” or two to its name; a musician can’t call him- or her-self a musician unless they have participated in at least a half-dozen competitions in as many countries.

There is a World Federation of International Music Competitions based in Switzerland (as is FIFA, but the connection ends there).  They claim to represent 120 of “the world’s leading music competitions”.  Wikipedia lists 220 “Classical Music Competitions” which excludes all those thousands of school level, county level, regional contests as well as the dozens of Eisteddfodau and similar competitions which are primarily, but not exclusively, devoted to music.

 For some years I was a member of a panel of adjudicators based in the UK who were called on to adjudicate at music competitions the length and breadth of the country.  In my 15 years with them, I adjudicated at over 120 different competitions.  My name remains on some list of international adjudicators, it seems, for barely a month goes by without my being invited to judge at some competition or other, and in the last two years I have adjudicated at competitions in Hong Kong, New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, India and South Africa.  In previous years  have adjudicated at music competitions in Sierra Leone, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Botswana, not countries one might immediately identify as being hot on musical activity.  And I have colleagues and friends who do much more of this sort of thing, to the extent they almost seem to make a living out of it.

What is it about music which encourages this profusion of competitions?  The answer, for me, is simple.  I have not the slightest idea. 

I recognize that an awful lot of people derive an awful lot of pleasure from them, and the fact that they are (usually) held in public and the competitors perform before an audience is certainly a big draw in an activity where public performance is at its very core.  But is that the main reason why so many crave music competitions?

The music world is, of course, highly competitive.  Composers have to compete to get their music heard, conductors have to compete to get on the podium, orchestral players have to compete to get a seat in the orchestra, singers have to compete to get a booking be it with a band,  choir or opera company, pianists have to compete to get a Concerto slot with an orchestra.  But is that any different from any other of the arts?  All art involves creation and execution, and once both have been done, the work is, in every sense of the word, finished, and one has to compete again for the next job.  I fail to see why music is so very different.

The Oxford Companion to Music opens its entry on “Music Competitions” with the phrase, “The urge to compete is basic to human nature and musicians are no exception. Reports of music contests go back to ancient times”.  It mentions the famous competition in Die Meistersinger but includes the astonishing claim that “the modern form developed in the late 18th century in Great Britain”.   Is that true?  Are the British responsible for music competitions?  If so, why did nobody think to patent the idea?  Surely the royalties on that idea would have cleared the national debt and put enough in the government’s coffers to weather the most stormy period of fiscal stagnation.

Wherever and whoever started it, music competitions have become such a fact of life that we rarely question their value.  Yes, we point to famous “losers” who actually won (Bryn Terfel famously lost out on First Place in the Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 1989 – and that did him no harm) while the adjudicator of last week’s Concerto Competition finals in Singapore mentioned that in one competition at which he had recently adjudicated, he knew that the first place winner would never make it as a professional yet the second place person had all the promise of a glittering career in front of him.  Every adjudicator has a similar story; obliged by an accident of the occasion to give first place to a performer whom one instinctively knows is inferior to those placed lower down in the rankings.
So, given the fragile reliability of competition outcomes, what is the value of music competitions at all?
Well, you only need to pick up a concert programme to realize that they do provide very useful publicity for an artist.  An organ recital I attended yesterday by an organist of whom I had never heard (and I think I am more likely to have heard of organist than most) included the claim that he was “winner of the 20th Grand Prix de Chartres”; and despite having never heard of him or of the Grand Prix de Chartres, I was nevertheless impressed and my expectations for his playing were duly raised.  Even famous performers cannot escape the lure of competition success in their biographies: Stephen Hough, who surely needs no competition victory to reinforce perceptions of his pianist prowess, still boasts in his biography that he took “First Prize at the 1983 Naumburg Competition”.  I frequently come across artist biographies that boast of “Second”, even “Third” place in competitions; such is the cachet of taking part.

The trouble is, that for a great many musicians, music is seen more as a competitive sport than an artistic endeavour, and nowhere is this more prevalent than in South East Asia where every opportunity is taken by pushy parents, determined teachers and egotistical youngsters to compete in an art form where competition should be incidental rather than an end in itself.  Generations of young players have their musical futures thwarted by an ingrained belief that the only worthwhile musical activity is a competitive one.  Gone is the pleasure of playing quietly at home: what’s the point when there is nobody with whom to compete?


I am a firm supporter of competitions as being a valuable means of getting exposure, of drawing in an audience who might not usually be attracted by the more esoteric notions of emotional and spiritual enrichment, and of giving performers the opportunity to play to an audience.  I am vehement opponent of competitions which have at their heart the notion that only one person ever comes out a winner.  In music competitions, the winner is hardly ever the person who gets first prize.