Greek tragedy with a piano?
Updated: Dec 25, 2018
No other topic causes as many controversies among musicians as competitions. Almost every pianist I know has his or her opinion on this subject. World famous pianists also tend to take opposing stands here. One group becomes 'notorious' jury members, willingly giving private lessons to future participants, recommending competitions to their students and developing various tactics to help them succeed. The other group continously denies being involved in the competition business in any way, thay also strongly discourage or even forbid their students to participate. What's the big deal with all of this? Let's try to get a closer look at the reality of a piano competition.
Recently, I've taken part in workshops with a great Portugese pianist, Maria Joao Pires. I'm planning to write a few more words about them and piano masterclasses in general in another post, so here I'll only focus on discussions about competitions that we had with her and her assistant. Both of them are strong adversaries of participating in contests. Madame Pires claimed that she took part in just one piano competition in her life and only because she was forced to do it. She said she'd hated the whole experience and had promised herself not to ever put herself through anything like that ever again. And it's not because she didn't succeed - she won the competition. It's a toxic influence of rivalry that made it so unbearable for her. She had a feeling that participants, driven by some inner instinct and the surrounding pressure, instantly changed the attitude from initially friendly, supporting and seing other contestants as fellow musicians, to agressively competitive and hostile. If she ever felt lonely and in some sense excluded from the world of her peers, the experience of a competition only made this conviction stronger and more acute. She believes that this very situation happens during every serious competition. That's why she calls contests destructive and finds no good reason to take part in them.
Her assistant focused on a more substantive side of the issue. He himself participated in plenty of various piano competitions when he was younger, usually winning top prizes. He used to believe that they where a meritorical confirmation of his piano skills. This changed at another very successful contest of his, devoted to Ludvig van Beethoven, where he was awarded the second prize. After the announcement of results all participants were invited to consult their performances with the jury members, as it often happens at competitions. The president was a very famous pianist and a Beethoven specialist so the second prize winner was very excited to be able to get feedback on his rendition of Beethoven Sonata from such an important person. He approached him intimidated, slightly nervous, his mind going places about how the great professor was about to critisize his choice of tempos or missunderstanding of Beethoven's intentions behind the second movement or wrong placement of climax points in the finale. The elderly man at first had problems recognizing the young man but after a moment he gasped 'Ah, yes! The Waldstein' and picked a thick music book up from the chair. Silently, he kept turning pages for a while, then finally opened it on the coda and pointed at his pencil mark around one bar. 'This appogiatura is played from the upper note, not from the bottom one, boy.' Than he patted him on the shoulder with a reassuring 'Very well, very well' and moved on to the next participant.
This story, in my opinion, sums up competitions perfectly. Of course it doesn't show that a legendary piano professor and a great Beethoven specialist is in fact an ignorant impostor. I'm sure that his knowledge and experience is truely impressive. It rather depicts a brainwashing and mind-closing form of competitions. First of all, the number of contestants is overwhelming nowadays. It's a rule that around 200 to 400 pianists apply to preselections. Approximately half to 1/5 of them get eliminated based on submitted video recordings and resumes. Most live rounds start with around 50 participants. Usually, during the first stage each of them has to play about 30 mins of music, often restricted to the precise period, composer or type of a piece. This gives the jury a total of 25 hours of highly repetitive music. After that, at most competitions they have three more rounds to listen to with performances' time gradually extending up to concertos with the orchestra in the finals. All contestants are already carefully selected, from the very beginning, all of them represent the highest standards of piano technique and musicianship. The task to choose the prize winners, from this perspective, seems ridiculously impossible. That's why the story from our example happened, that's why such a practice is so common at competitions that it shouldn't even surprise us. When a jury member hears 50 almost perfect, technically and musicaly flawless performances he naturally gets confused. In order to grade them somehow he simply must resort to a mathematical or sport-like approach. That's why he ends up assigning points to details that are completely meaningless and irrelevant to the value of music.
This was no news for me when I was listening to these stories at the Maria Joao - Pires workshop. At competitions a technical perfection is often praised higher than musical content, participants frequently back out from being truely personal and creative with their renditions in order to please more members of the panel, or first prizes winners in too many cases happen to be connected with one or few jury members. I am aware that it's good to have at least one lesson with some judging professors before a competition, just not to remain anonymous among other participants once you get on stage. I've even been at competitions when it was an open secret who was to win that edition, long before anyone had a chance to play the first note. I know all of this. And yet, I couldn't help feeling irritated and angry during these discussions at the workshop. They were making me feel kind of claustrophobic. Does it mean that the only alternative faced by a young, honest pianist with no connections who aspires to play concerts is to either take part in competitions and end up emotionally harmed, unfairly judged and in the end, continously unnoticed or give up on the contests idea at all and year after year, patiently wait for some fortunate, though highly unlikely, event that will start his career? It can't be so! Even if only for this single reason that I don't agree to it being so.
I hate to bring up a topic, describe all the problems and leave a reader in a state of an increased fatalism. I believe it's better not to mention an issue at all. That's why this post is only an introduction to another article where I'm going to write about ways to deal with our Greek tragedy with a piano. I'll also describe a few alternatives to competitions, ideas that already function in a musical world and the new ones we could try and implement.
Last but not least, I'd be more than happy if you shared your opinions about competitions below. Maybe you have some stories from your experience? Maybe you have some ideas how to fix the current situation? Feel absolutely welcome to post comments below.