Are competitions fair?

January 2, 2020, 4:12 PM · My son doesn't do all too many competitions (well, compared to most of the kids his age who have already done 25-50 by high school age) but in just the small number of ones we've done, we have experienced some really crazy things.

In one competition, the judge was running a half hour late, so they had my son and the other kids scheduled for that half hour play for a crappy camcorder which the judge would then review later. All the other kids played live for the judge. That's not even remotely fair.

In another, they sent my son out to start before all the judges had returned, and as his pianist began playing, one judge signaled for him to stop, and another signaled for him to play. He didn't know what to do and just started playing, obviously confused, and I have no idea how they scored him since not all the judges even heard him play. (He placed so they must have figured something out.)

In another that I have been watching, the older division always seems to have strange results with amazing players from one program passed over. I heard from a kid who has done that one a lot that the judges aren't allowed to pick the winners. They pick out a bunch that they think play well, and then the person who runs the competition (not in the room) picks who he wants to win based on who knows what (there are video recordings).

And in another one (that my son actually won), the judges were school music teachers and other people without even formal music expertise. They picked the kids who were cute or who were showy as winners.

These are all local competitions for children. I just don't get how they can be run so unprofessionally. In fairness, there are some that are run really fairly and organized well. But it seems those are the exception.

Replies (25)

January 2, 2020, 4:30 PM · [Isaac Stern wants to know your location]
January 2, 2020, 5:14 PM · Competitions for children vary tremendously. Some are essentially money-making operations, whether at the local level or at a national level (i.e. American Protege) or participation-trophy mills. You can tell the latter by the fact that they award a large number of "prizes" at each level. (The "first prize" awarded to half the kids essentially is the equivalent of a score of "1" at something like Solo-and-Ensemble.) Nevertheless participation-trophy mills that have good-quality judges can be useful as a source of third-party comments about a kid's playing. All competitions are also useful for the experience of playing under pressure, and for coping when things go off the rails (all of the experiences you describe are a useful contributor to learning the art of shrugging off the unexpected mishaps).

Competitions where performing with orchestra is part of the prize tend to have the repertoire as part of the consideration when it comes to picking the winner among several good candidates.

Competitions that consistently have high-quality competitors, high-quality judges, fair results, and good prizes tend to have better local reputations -- i.e. the local teachers and some music parents will understand which competitions are worth winning. A handful may be meaningful from the perspective of future conservatory or music camp applications. From the perspective of a general college application, the participation trophy mills are probably just as valuable, as long as the win sounds impressive (again, American Protege, with its Carnegie Hall recital, understands exactly that gestalt).

Running good competitions is actually not easy. Most of the time, the judges are unpaid, and you have to persuade people to take the time and effort to do it. The venue costs you money, and there's generally prize money as well; most competition organizers are trying to run at a profit so they need to make entering attractive enough to accumulate entrance fees. Organizers may have a personal agenda as well, of whatever sort.

I'll note, for your future contemplation. that in general, All-State judges tend to be school music teachers. All-State is often perceived as high stakes, but the quality of the judging varies wildly from year to year, in most states. Some nontrivial percentage of the violin-playing kids in a state like Illinois will, at All-State, be able to play rings around the string judges.

Don't bother taking competition results seriously unless there's a good pool of competitors, and good judges. (You can probably determine judge quality by the quality of the comments you get back.) I wouldn't bother to compete otherwise, unless you have nothing better to do with that day and your son wants to do it for the experience. (It's generally good to do a work at several meaningless competitions to see what falls apart under pressure, before playing it for something meaningful.)

January 2, 2020, 5:50 PM · I don't know that much about the reality of being in a competition, but I think that any participant that can understand it to be an opportunity to perform and stretch themself, and that doesn't internalize the result (whether they win or not) will probably get the most out of the experience. It's probably best to stay out of shoddily-run competitions even besides the weird politics that I imagine are endemic to just about all of them.

For me as a listener, paying attention to competitions, and I'll give the latest Tchaikovsky Competition as an example, it gives me a chance to hear players that I really dig and wouldn't otherwise hear, even when they invariably don't end up being the winners. In the last Tchaikovsky, the best player in my opinion, Donghyun Kim, came in 3rd. For him, he got chances to perform with orchestras and still got prize money and his name out there, and for me, I have someone whose career I would like to follow. And the level was really high, so the 1st and 2nd prize winners were certainly excellent players as well, so if we are assuming there is nothing conspiratorial going on, when the level is really high, the difference between a "winner" and "loser" may be hard to define.

January 2, 2020, 5:52 PM · They might be a bit fairer if the participants all played the same brand of instrument. Say if Snow Instruments sponsored a competition in China or Taiwan they could require the participants to all play the same Snow instrument model. That might level the playing field a bit, assuming the instrument set-ups were of a similar standard. Just a thought.
January 2, 2020, 6:33 PM · Players who normally use a better instrument already have a significant advantage because the violin is a teacher unto itself; what they learn from it will give them an advantage even if they play on an inferior violin. Put an excellent instrument in the hands of a student who normally doesn't get to play on one, and it actually creates a disadvantage. The requirement to play a bad violin is probably likely to result in fewer competitors, not more.

Plus, not all violins are equal in size and proportion, and for kids, there's already a disparity between those on full-size violins and those playing fractionals. The instrument is something of a sideshow to more meaningful differences between competitors (though at the level of the big international competitions, it certainly helps given the narrow differentiation between top-notch violinists).

January 2, 2020, 6:55 PM · We don't really have pay-to-play competitions as much here in Illinois as they do in places like NY, but we definitely have really poorly run ones! My son just started doing the comps in the past two years and his teacher's strategy was basically to do a bunch of them so he learns how to do them. But in the future we definitely are going to be more selective.

My son prefers doing the ones where you win a performance with orchestra. He hates the ones where you win a bit of cash and perform on winner's concert nobody goes to. He also learned this year the difference between a poorly run comp and well run comp, as well as a poorly judged comp and well judged comp. Lots of lessons learned! Since he has at least placed in most of the major competitions here in some way or another, I think we won't be doing a lot of them again. They are already on his resume and just don't seem worth it just to eke out a first instead of a second or HM.

Lydia - he won't even touch All-State and that whole system. His philosophy is that if a competition asks for scales, it's too low level. Perhaps an oversimplification, but in general it is accurate.

January 2, 2020, 7:31 PM · Yes ... lessons learned. Lesson No. 1 is that when you work in a field where merit is judged almost entirely subjectively, things can get really weird.
Edited: January 2, 2020, 7:41 PM · Good comments here from everyone. I'll add that at this age, after one or two events, my kids are pretty tired of playing the same pieces again and again and keeping them in top form instead of moving on to the next cool thing. Being selective helps keep them sane and motivated :-).
January 2, 2020, 8:33 PM · They aren't remotely fair. Some kids have moms who can barely get it together to get them to the competition on time. Others have moms who lurk on violin forums for hours, trying to get one tidbit of advice that gives their kid a slight edge. Life seems to even out for everyone eventually somehow...
January 2, 2020, 9:38 PM · I wouldn't dismiss the experience of All-State so casually -- or more importantly in Chicagoland, the Regional that precedes it if you live in the area that encompasses much of the Chicago 'burbs, especially the North Shore, which has historically been more competitive than All-State itself. The cattle-call experience is worth having, and I really found joy in the massive orchestra that rehearses while the auditions are going on. (The sheer wall of sound was unmatched by anything else; do consider earplugs, though.)

As a teenager, I found the whole All-State experience to be fun -- the long bus ride down with friends, the night away from home, etc. The music was mostly secondary to that. Seating, in years where judging was competent, used to pretty much exactly mirror CYSO seating. Dunno if it's like that now; it wouldn't surprise me if it was.

Winners concerts are a thumbs down unless the venue is actually useful. (Here, good comps may do their winner concerts at historic venues, embassies, or museums, which draw a walk-in audience.) As a kid, my competition winnings funded my extremely expensive Lego and computer games habits, though. :-)

January 2, 2020, 11:35 PM · Our local concerto competition will let someone win just because they're graduating soon.
Is that fair?
January 3, 2020, 3:27 AM · I'd say don't take them seriously, just go to see if you are in the top third or not; and if you do better than that, it's all gravy.
However, I don't know what the fees are.
And in America you have beauty pageants for foetuses, so good luck!
January 3, 2020, 7:50 AM · when one wins a competition, it's fair.
if one loses, it's politically rigged and the judging was poor.
January 3, 2020, 7:53 AM · Scott, if it's that close, I'd say sure give it to the senior. Same with seating.

Lydia I had almost written exactly what you wrote about all-state, at least in our state...a good experience for the kids, and they are expected to do it in the schools that have orchestra programs.

January 3, 2020, 8:46 AM · I did All State as a kid, and it certainly was fun, though I seem to remember we also managed to get in a lot of trouble in Atlantic City where it was held!

Lydia, my son is not in the competitive suburban region since we are in the city. The kids from his school who made Region and All-State are about the playing level he was at when he was 10/11 years old based on their CYSO placement. Here they take equal numbers from each region, so the overall level of All State tends to be pretty low. I know where I grew up it was a separate audition with everybody competing statewide, so the actual top players made it in. Not so much here.

We've experienced quite a lot of situations where older players are given more opportunities than younger ones. I don't have a problem with that, as it is at least an objective way of sorting them. For example, my son has to sit in the back of the firsts in his school orchestra because he is a freshman. Yes, he finds it a bit annoying, but he gets that the older kids should get those opportunities.

Edited: January 3, 2020, 9:06 AM · I seem to always recommend reading on this forum, so here it goes again. There's a book by a Polish sociologist based in France, Izabela Wagner, titled "Producing Excellence: The Making of Viruosos." She examined elite violin studios on the continent, mostly France, and pretty much concludes nothing in the entire process of becoming a soloist is fair, including international competitions. At the time of writing (it was published in 2015, so presumably a bit before then), her own son was hoping for a soloist career, and, as she learns more about what's necessary, the odds of success, and the amount of sheer luck (if not machinations) involved, she becomes horrified that the odds that her son's dreams will be dashed are exceedingly high. Susan might find the book interesting because Wagner describing the politics of international competitions in considerable detail.

To Julie's point, Wagner quotes a teacher saying that he didn't need gifted pupils to produce superstars, only gifted mothers. :) I don't think it "evens out" at all. Without parental support, there's really no chance at all.

January 3, 2020, 9:47 AM · "...he didn't need gifted pupils to produce superstars, only gifted mothers."

The whole concept of Suzuki moms (or tiger moms) has been trodden quite thoroughly in these forums now for some years. I have made only one consistent observation regarding the mothers of young violinists who are conservatoire-bound (or who have actually gone to a conservatory) from our area: They mostly do not work outside the home. Interestingly, it's a different story for cellists. But of course my statistical sample is very small.

January 3, 2020, 12:13 PM · I echo a lot that has been said, particularly Lydia. Competitions, even if the judging was sub par, were a great way to motivate myself to perfect a piece, gauge my own playing and receive comments. I competed a bit more as a college student, and I probably would have been more peeved about any disorganization at that point (given the higher stakes).

It sounds like you are in Chicagoland, and I found Illinois all-state to be really fun experiences (if not just for the social aspect). I was also in a youth orchestra (Midwest Young Artists), so it was fun to play with different players and conductors.

Edited: January 3, 2020, 12:27 PM · The short answer to the title question is: Competitions (not just in violin, in anything) are not fair. Losers should keep that in mind. Winners should be even more aware of it.

I wish people would aim less at playing well AGAINST each other and more at playing well TOGETHER. That way music can be made.

P.S. I am so glad nobody made me enter a competition when I was a kid!

January 3, 2020, 12:44 PM · I always laugh when I see that big dog show at thanksgiving. How can you possibly judge one breed against another? Although I must say that all poodles and dogs under 1 lb, or any dog that makes a yipping sound should immediately be disqualified.
January 3, 2020, 4:04 PM · "How can you possibly judge one breed against another? "

I have asked this question as well. Off topic answer from friends who show their dogs: You don't judge breeds against another, you judge how well one breed conforms to the standards of that breed.

(Exactly like how you can't judge which concerto is the best, but you can judge which competitor best conforms to the expectations of the piece.)

January 3, 2020, 4:06 PM · To clarify an earlier comment, when I said " Life seems to even out for everyone eventually somehow..." I meant generally, not specific to music. I don't recall meeting anyone who went from a potential solo violin career to a hobo. They just go on to other, usually successful, careers.
January 3, 2020, 5:51 PM · They’re fair if you’re a student of Zakhar Bron or Boris Kuschnir.
January 3, 2020, 6:23 PM · Yes and you are one of their favorite students.
January 4, 2020, 5:40 AM · IF a youngster plans to audition for college, then any/every competition is another chance to play in front of an audience which has power over that youngster. And the more such situations a youngster places him/herself in the better to understand how performance nerves can affect his/her performance and thus eventually when it really really counts, such as a college audition or for a professional audition, they will be no big deal and that youngster's chance for a better musical performance increase.

In my opinion, it's not the winning/losing which matters, but more a matter of the experience which counts. And the more a youngster is exposed to vagaries of the judging, the better that youngster can develop personal psychological tools for dealing with those situations. Winning means nothing if the judging is not fair, and losing means nothing either. And all such judging is not fair since the judges all have preconceived notions of what they like/hate about violin tone as well as the interpretation of whatever pieces are being played.

Competitions and auditions are more a matter of the judges playing "guess what's on my mind" than they are fair and accurate appraisals of a person's musical ability.

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