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Music Competitions: Getting Into The Right Mindset

Among the primary auguring forces in the development process of young musicians, in addition to examinations and concerts and the like, are competitions.

Each level up the ladder progressing into the higher echelons of classical music has a complementary series of competition tiers.

Local festivals and teacher organizations strive to provide the student with a balanced experience between the intensive demands of putting his/her hard work on the line in front of one’s peers, and the holistic. The latter pointing to an emphasis on collegiality and group learning and evolving their musical gift alongside one’s peers.

It is human nature to summon the competitive spirit in the pursuit of progress for any venture. Music is no different. Competitions can serve as a forum for motivating the student to perfect their craft and general delivery to the highest levels within a designated time frame.

At the international level, competitions offers good opportunities in which to receive the feedback of internationally acclaimed professional performers and pedagogues. In rare circumstances, doing well at an international competition can open up career opportunities in the short, medium and even longer terms. Therefore in this larger sense, I do believe that competitions have an important place.

The question for the serious student is how to strike a balance between the pressures and demands of preparing for these events, handling the inevitable political shenanigans which inevitably take place at these levels, and dealing with their outcomes - “winning and losing”.

The serious student should always keep in mind that if they are truly committed to music and art as a lifelong pursuit - which the gift of music truly is -  then the stepping stones along the way need to be honored. However, they should not be the defining feature as to how the artist or the aspiring artist views his/herself. If one enters such events to be victorious only, then circumstance will inevitably and often quickly teach another lesson. In regards to this latter point, how one responds to adversity in any circumstance is an expression of your current mental fortitude, and a barometer of future focus and drive.  

In my student days I did two international competitions. One I placed in, the other I didn’t.  Neither altered my ultimate focus to push myself to the highest limits of my gift, nor my desire to share a deep love of music. Therefore, I would put to the serious student and reader that if competition preparation is the only forum in which you will push yourself to the highest state artistically, then you should seriously reconsider whether you should be in music.

So, does winning a national or international competition make you a better pianist? Yes and no. Any opportunity to perfect repertoire and to perform it at the highest level is a welcome one! However, students often get put into the rut of recycling the same competition repertoire over and over again, when in fact the serious student should be doing almost completely the opposite. The formative years should first and foremost be geared to learning as much of the standard repertoire as possible. 

Does winning an international competition mean that the floodgates to a performance career will open for you? Absolutely not! Who here can immediately name the winners of the last five Van Cliburn competitions?  

We live in a day and age where there are international competitions on virtually every street corner. It is of great concern to me that students and even professional artists and teachers go to great lengths to outline their victorious conquering achievements as the centrepiece of their artistic persona. Artistry and performing should be a communal experience, not a gladiatorial sport!

I write this with a great sense of irony because a significant portion of my career to date has been adjudicating music competitions at all levels. Inevitably, what I always look for as an adjudicator is that spark of ingenuity, charisma and above all commitment to the music. I am fully aware that as individuals we are human beings and not human ‘perfects’, that results could be very different on a different day and as such should be taken only for what they are…and that is snapshots of one moment in time. A lifetime of experience and growth is much more important than any one moment.  

Inevitably the cream will always rise to the top, regardless of which direction the universe dictates that it froth up from. So my message to students is that regardless of the forum  in which you participate, let your first and truest dedication be to the music. Honour your gift, be less of an adversary and more of a sharer of your hard work with your collective brothers and sisters. Don’t get too attached to the outcome, but be fastidiously laser focussed on each step of the journey.

Glenn Gould didn’t win every competition that he entered, and neither did Lang Lang. Nonetheless, they turned out just fine. The universe has a way of working things out just the way they should be.

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