The Cons (and Pros) of Competitions

August 8, 2019, 2:31 AM ·

I lost a concerto competition a few months ago, and I didn’t know why. I couldn’t blame it on a memory slip or an ensemble issue with my pianist; in fact, I felt I’d done everything right. I had picked a concerto (Prokofiev 2) that was very difficult and relatively popular in the repertoire, especially in a competition setting. I spent nine months preparing the concerto with wonderful mentors before the actual competition. I had a great accompanist who braved the nightmarish orchestral reduction of the piece and followed me as well as I could have asked. I did the entire Prokofiev from memory.

My two performances in the concerto competition process went exceptionally well, at least according to me (the first round I performed the first movement with a 100 degree fever, and somehow still advanced to the next round). But, I still didn’t win. Maybe they just didn’t like my dress (side note: I’ll do another post on the wardrobe malfunctions that I’ve had in performance/audition settings at some point that will have you all in stitches). I was told several times: whatever, well, there’s always next year, right?

I felt so many emotions for at least a week or two after the competition. Sad, hurt, angry, confused, questioning my existence, etc. I’m only slightly kidding, but for those of you who have been here and who know what I’m talking about, you have my sympathies. I unapologetically cried in my office a couple times and started listening to country music frequently, which is when those who knew me well began to think there was something seriously wrong with me.

Those of you reading this probably think I’m a little crazy at this point, but when you put so much work and emotion into something for a long time and it doesn’t turn out the way you want it to, it's an inevitable part of life, but it also just plain sucks. I mean, this all happened in April, and I’m only starting to unravel how I feel about everything NOW.

Luckily, there’s a happy ending to all of my emotional turmoil; I had a chance to perform the entire concerto with my pianist at my recital in May, and it went very well. Performing with piano accompaniment is like driving a sports car, while performing with orchestra is like driving a bus; there’s a lot less room for error with an orchestra. I have luckily had the chance to perform other concerti with orchestra, which were great but somewhat stressful experiences.

The point of what I’m trying to say:

#1 Competitions are like comparing apples and oranges and mangos and bananas…

How does one say a clarinetist is “better” than a pianist? A violinist better than a soprano? A saxophonist better than a euphonium player? Even a violist better than a cellist? How do these comparisons make any sense? An even better question: why do we need to make these comparisons at all? As Béla Bartók once said, “competitions are for horses, not artists.” He did okay. We’d all be well-advised to listen to him.

#2 More often than not, performance level and artistry are not the highest priorities.

In all of the competitions I’ve done, the highest priority has been repertoire and instrumentation. Sometimes, this has worked in my favor, other times, it hasn’t. I played a Mozart concerto for a competition when I was a young undergrad and wasn’t surprised at all when I didn’t win the competition-playing Mozart is like standing under a bare lightbulb with no makeup, not even moisturizer or chapstick, on. Basically, if you’re in the right place at the right time playing the right piece on the right instrument, you’ll do well.

#3 Take it all with a grain of salt.

If you lose every single competition you ever do in your entire life, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad musician. Really, I’m not just saying that; it doesn’t. Frankly, it means you can learn something from every single one of these experiences and use it to help further your playing. I did with the Prokofiev. That’s the best, and only thing, you need from those experiences. Let everything else go.

#4 Remind yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing.

At the end of the day, when you’re feeling like life is pointless and why are you even trying when you can’t even seem to win a local competition, just remind yourself how you got to be where you are. Why did you practice for 20+ years? Why did you put so much effort into that one thing? Why did you decide to dedicate your life to performing and teaching your instrument?

I promise things will feel better if you remind yourself of the bigger picture (I’m trying not to make this sound cheesy but I’m not doing a very good job). Learn what you can from everything you do, and if it happens to work out in your favor, it’s just the icing.

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August 8, 2019 at 08:02 PM · I know this is tough, Clara. You have my sympathies. And I agree 110% with everything you said.

August 8, 2019 at 08:15 PM · Clara,

Thank you for giving us the competitors point of view. My wife and I used to assist with the NJSO's "Young Artists Auditions" which has a top prize of $10K and performances with the NJSO.

We've witnessed the anticipation, anxiety, joy and pain of the participants in the competition. We've listened to a lot of the performances and finally came to a simple conclusion - the judging is strictly subjective. We also witnessed the total melt-down of the competitors who came so close, but did not win.

We also learned the lore of that particular competition and how one year a young artist by the name of Nadia lost first place to another violinist who went on to become an MD and Nadia became a celebrity violinist.

Being a very-late-starter competitions were never part of the plan for me. I'm sure they have some value but the subjectivity of it all makes me wince a bit.

August 9, 2019 at 01:28 AM · It’s easy to generalise but each competition is separate.

I went to the final of a small piano competition last year. All the six players were good but when the last pianist played ... wow she had that X factor and it was obvious within minutes.

The judges didn’t take long to declare her the winner.

At another it was so close the judges couldn’t agree. The result was never going to be satisfactory.

You focused on your performance Clara but judges focused on all the players. Obviously I can’t say if they made the correct decision but accept that they may have done so.

If you choose to enter a competition, understand its limitations.


August 9, 2019 at 02:36 PM · I agree entirely with Terry's comment above.

I have judged competitions and auditions. I have also won, and lost, competitions. And I have been outraged at what I thought were unfair competition results (not mine, but for one or another of my children). So I have seen all sides.

Yes, competitions are subjective and yes, judges sometimes make mistakes. Some mistakes are human error and some are political. You have to accept those possibilities when you enter a competition.

That being said, it is actually quite possible to compare and rank performers on different instruments. A clarinetist can outplay a violinist or vice versa and it will be manifestly obvious to the judges.

I do believe that the majority of the time, performance level and artistry are in fact the highest priorities. Don't tell yourself the story that if you had only played *that* piece instead of *this* piece, the judges would have picked you. You don't know that and that narrative will only get in the way of your possible future success.

Losing a competition can be devastating. I've been there and so have many of my colleagues. Reminding yourself of why you're doing this is good advice. I wish you all success in the future.

August 9, 2019 at 02:51 PM · Of course every competition is unique. I’m writing about MY experience, and how this may apply to others’ experiences too. And obviously, I did accept the judges’ decision-I never once said it was incorrect. Clearly, I understand the limitations of competitions.

August 9, 2019 at 03:47 PM · You never know who else might show up to a competition or audition. It is subjective. If it is multi-instruments; violins + pianos + singers, etc., it will be worse, even arbitrary for the judges. And there will be judges who are not violinists, who may not appreciate the difficulty of that Prokovief concerto.

August 9, 2019 at 04:58 PM · I was taking issue with your statements that comparing people on different instruments is like comparing apples and oranges, and that more often than not artistry and performance are not the highest priorities. I understood you to be generalizing to competitions in general. Apologies if I misread.

I do think it very important to understand (and this is also pertinent to Joel's comment just above) that in fact it is often not difficult for professional musicians judging a competition to correctly rank performances on different instruments. And any professional musician will understand the relative difficulty level of famous concertos for any instrument.

August 9, 2019 at 08:52 PM · Thank you all so much for your thoughtful comments! It means so much to me that you took the time to read my post and share your thoughts.

August 10, 2019 at 01:11 AM · A very good post. For those v.commers who have never seen "Jon Nakamatsu's Losers Club," I highly recommend it for putting competitions in perspective:

August 13, 2019 at 05:41 PM · Your post begins with, "I lost a concerto competition a few months ago . . ." and that is just not true. While you didn't win, unless they ranked the participants top to bottom and you came in dead last, you did not "lose."

August 14, 2019 at 06:36 PM · I have been in your shoes too so I can relate. Of all competitions, performance ones are the most unfair/subjective...Yet one always enter them hoping to win when we all know it's basically like winning the lottery...

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