Are competitions fair or useful?

Edited: October 7, 2022, 2:13 AM · This is a question I ask myself every time the BBC's Young Musician competition comes around.

First the issue of fairness. Trying to select the winner between a violinist, a pianist, an oboist, a trombonist and a percussionist is like comparing apples with oranges with turnips with doughnuts with..er..cricket balls. Like gladiators in the Colosseum, who would you fancy between a man with a sword and shield and another with a net and trident? The pianists get to play a Steinway, the fiddlers an assortment of instruments some of which sound pretty ordinary. Then of course there is repertoire which is very limited for some instruments.

Are competitions useful? Since 1978 many winners have proved themselves worthy and gone on to have brilliant careers but what happens to the also-rans? This year I was highly impressed by all five finalists in the piano division and felt none of them deserved to be passed over or especially favoured. I didn't want to judge, I wanted to listen and enjoy.

Replies (25)

October 7, 2022, 2:42 AM · I'd never heard of this before. The skeptic in me wonders if it's like songwriting contests where the main winners are the contest promoters who collect the entry fees.

Is it more authentic than the various "Got Talent" shows that are phony as can be?

Yes, it seems odd to pit various instruments against each other - I believe all music competitions and the music biz in general is pretty dicey and highly competitive and riddled with politics - I suppose the competition is useful for the winners.

Edited: October 7, 2022, 2:57 AM · I haven't paid any regular attention to the BBC young musician show.
The year Nicholas Daniel won it, a violinist came second playing the Mendelssohn - she is now a physiotherapist or something.
And the cellist who won it a couple of years ago was terrible when he played during an interview I saw.
October 7, 2022, 7:06 AM · I have a lot of strong opinions on this, though I have only loosely followed BBC Young Musician, so I can't really comment too much on that.

My son does way fewer competitions than most kids his level (and my daughter refuses to do any). This is a conscious choice we made after seeing a number of students who became great competitors...and not so great overall musicians. We know a couple kids who do a ton of competitions -- and win a lot -- who play concertos and romantic repertoire amazingly. Unfortunately, they don't have the same technical chops or ability to play stylistic in pieces like Mozart and Bach.

There are, however, cons to not doing competitions much, as my son is not as well-known and hasn't been given as many opportunities simply because he has chosen not to do a ton of competitions. The person who has won 50 competitions playing only 6 pieces looks better on paper than the one who has learned 40 pieces, is extremely advanced in theory, can play anything, and has only won 5 competitions.

A lot of competitions are just money-making scams, and these proliferated during the pandemic. All those competitions where the winners play at Carnegie Hall charge winners a large by-the-minute fee to do so. You are better off gathering a group of friends and renting Carnegie Hall yourself. Anybody can do it. Many of these scammy competitions don't even give out any prizes besides a certificate, and certainly no judge's feedback. We never saw the point of entering competitions that only resulted in a nebulous line on a resume.

And then we get to the competitions that can be really, really unfair. I would put BBC Young Musician in this category, as it is not necessarily just about the playing. They are looking for certain types of winners, who have a certain look, presence, or background story. Others are unfair because they preference students from their own program/teachers, or are otherwise biased for/against certain students. We have experienced this a couple of times personally.

When we think about competitions, we think first about "What am I going to get out of this?" If the answer is nothing, we take a pass. This year, my son did just three junior-level US competitions (and entered one senior one he did not get into). Due to COVID, he hasn't done any overseas ones. He did two major international ones (Cooper and Johansen) and one local one. As is always the case, the preparation was the most important part of the process, as he had to learn to master a lot of repertoire to a high level in a short period of time. He also did make a lot of connections, both with teachers and peers.

Edited: October 7, 2022, 9:40 AM · The competitions seem artificial and stressful, and often, the winner seems to be more of a consensus pick, who offends the fewest judges, rather than who I find to be the most interesting player (and let's just pretend to forget about judging shenanigans).

It depends on the competition, but a lot of the "also rans" end up having the biggest careers, or at least don't seem to suffer for not winning. The thing I enjoy about competitions, as an audience member, is that it puts a lot of very interesting players on my radar that I wouldn't have probably heard of. Additionally, I think because of the presence of social media, these kids have greater opportunities to somewhat independently build their careers and fanbase.

Edited: October 7, 2022, 8:58 PM · I found this - Julian Lloyd Weber, Andrew Lloyed Weber's brother thinks many classical competitions are rigged - he thought the Tchaikovsky was among the most egregiously blatant, interestingly he thinks the Young Musician competition is an exception. Supposedly there have been changes made to the Tchaikovsky judging, I'm not informed enough to say if they've made any difference.

The article mentions an activist group focused on ridding competitions of corruption - I don't find any current mention of the group, maybe they didn't get anywhere.

"In 2009, a group of musicians formed a group called 10,000 Musicians against Corruption in Music Competitions, which called for transparency, fairness and an end to the nepotism rife in the competitions round the world. They demanded that all rounds must be held behind a screen except for the final, they must be recorded and made public, and relations between jury members and competitors must be made public before the competition starts."

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/jul/25/julian-lloyd-webber-classical-music-competitions-corrupt

October 7, 2022, 10:57 PM · I was asked to participate in a judging of a composition contest once. One contestant wrote an entire symphony and another wrote a 32-bar singer-songwriter-genre tune. I was meant to compare these on an equal footing, and when I said that the symphony had more musical content, I was called "snobbish" and "elitist."

To any violinist who will listen, I will advise not to enter performance contests where there are multiple instruments and the judges are not stringed-instrument players. Pianists, for example, have absolutely no idea how hard it is to play the violin in tune.

Edited: October 9, 2022, 12:30 PM · The last Tchaikovsky violin competition, in my mind, was so obviously incorrectly decided. The 1st prize winner just happened to be studying with Boris Kuschnir, a jury member. The 3rd prize winner, Donghyun Kim, was on a totally different level than everyone else, but what do I know.

The Wieniawski Competition just started, and I don't know a single competitor in it, so it could be interesting. I found the 1st place choice of the last edition to be incomprehensible, with Bomsori Kim being relegated to 2nd place. I'll have to listen and see if I find Veriko Tchumburidze to be a different player 6 years later. I did think that the winner of the 2011 edition, Soyoung Yoon, is a really fantastic violinist that I wish I heard more from.

EDIT: After listening to Tchumburidze play in the intro to this year's competition, I'm still not impressed. I have no idea how she won.

October 8, 2022, 7:42 AM · Competition must be a part of our human DNA. Formal and informal competition is part of the human experience. While some competitions are largely objective, the rest of them are overtly subjective. We humans seem to enjoy them both as participants and observers.

Do the competitions really accomplish anything? From my perspective, they are entertainment for the viewers and some kind of reinforcement to the participants.

My wife and I volunteered to assist with the NJSO's "Young Artist Competition" for a number of years. That had a big draw in that the top prize was $10K and three performances with the NJSO.

We learned how subjective the process was from listening to both the performers as well as the judges during breaks.

Perhaps these competitions are good life lessons. Rarely are we evaluated on objective data. Most often our job performances are subjective at best, how we are compensated follows the subjective opinions.

Should anyone participate in these competitions? Sure. With the knowledge that the judging is subjective, not objective. They are an opportunity to stretch your skills and perform. They aren't and evaluation of you as a person. The trouble starts when your identity gets linked to your ranking from the competition. If you are looking for affirmation, a competition is the last place you want to be.

Edited: October 8, 2022, 7:56 AM · As far as whether they are useful, well, yes, they're useful to the folks who win. Forevermore they can parade that information in their "bio" along with the time they "performed with" (played whole notes in the shadows behind) Steely Dan.
October 8, 2022, 12:20 PM · Why can’t competitions be judged blind? Contestants can be assigned numbers, and the judges don’t know who is who until it’s all done.

IMO, just knowing something about the contestants can be unintentionally prejudicial. Hell, I’m voting for bears on Fat Bear Week, and knowing their history (for instance, that some bear is a previous winner) for sure has a tendency to influence my decision.

October 9, 2022, 1:33 AM · Paul, the musicians who win competitions that matter are not the same people playing whole notes behind Steely Dan, and even among those musicians who play the latter sort of gig, nobody serious puts gigs like that on a resume.
October 9, 2022, 7:52 AM · Sue, my son did one competition this year like you describe. All the competitors were assigned numbers; their names were never published until after the competition when they announced the winner. However, I don't think it really worked because the music world is so small that the judges likely recognized a number of the kids. And if you recognize one kid and not another, you get a bit of bias there.

One local competition is now doing a behind-the-screen audition after a number of years of the same kids winning multiple times. I have mixed feelings on this, because the visual aspect of the performance is IMO a critical aspect of choosing the winner.

Then again, there is at least one study that showed that people who were shown video without sound of a competition were more likely to pick the people who actually won than people who listened to the sound with no video.

October 9, 2022, 6:20 PM · Hello everyone,

I think competitions are helpful for performance experience. The thing that I really hate about competitions is the fact that people are being 'judged' even when they are particularly there for the audience to enjoy their music. Nowadays I find that competitions are way too competitive and many people are not trying to enjoy the music anymore, it's more like comparing people and choosing who to win.

For example, if somebody got 1st prize, and another person received 2nd prize, there usually isn't a very big difference between the two. In a big international competition, I find that all the competitors are so amazing to a point that it's much harder to compare them. I'm sure that the judges are also having a hard time to decide but like just because someone received let's say a 5th prize, it doesn't mean that they played bad.

In conclusion, I guess competitions can be a bit of both, helpful and also useless. I wouldn't say it's completely useless as it is good for stage experience and you become more confident as a soloist but the useless part of competitions is the judging component, and that can never be certain or accurate. Just in case if you didn't know, Oistrakh was the second prize winner of Tchaikovsky competition.

Edited: October 10, 2022, 1:21 AM · Susan - exactly what might constitute "fairness" in Young Musician is impossible to say when there are so many factors to juggle but I think one can at least be confident of the independence of the judges when for the second successive contest a percussionist is chosen as winner!
October 10, 2022, 9:30 AM · Geez, that isn't fair it all. That's all about spectacle. The level of actual musical training and actual musicianship is not even remotely comparable between any of the string players or pianists and any of the percussionists.
Edited: October 10, 2022, 10:58 AM · Percussion is just bish bash! Even the tone deaf can play piano! Brass players only use the fingers of one hand, or no fingers at all! Only with string instruments do you have to do completely different, equally skilful things with both hands! So one of our gang should win every time.
October 11, 2022, 12:35 PM · Competitions are unfair if jurors have their students competing. It's a blatant conflict of interest. These jurors ought to recuse themselves.
Also, the best player doesn't always win. I won't name names, but there are some masterful artist-violinists out there who didn't win the top prize. Finally, competitions are necessary in today's age if young artists want to distinguish themselves, perform with orchestras, and get the exposure they need to launch their careers.
Edited: October 31, 2022, 8:30 AM ·
Currently late in life, I've always listened to violinists who made their way without the "benefit" of competitions. To name a few, Stern, Oistrahk, Heifetz, Menuhin, Perlman, Szeryng, Szigeti, among others. I've thoroughly enjoyed listening to these artists, and they all have their own particular style of playing. (It's not insignificant that they were all able to select their own instruments.)

What with the amazing YouTube resource, it's easy to listen to (and see) these artists, as well as younger artists who've been making their way through competitions.

Without naming names, so many of the younger artists sound so cookie-cutter to me. I look for, but I don't hear that much in the way of individuality among these artists. (More homogeneity than heterogeneity.) Hearing them play, they all seem to make the right sounds, accents, etc. But, perhaps that's all they do?

I think that Vengerov and Midori stand out as having their own individual styles. Perhaps a couple of others?

Edited: October 31, 2022, 10:05 AM · Ah yes -- nostalgia for the "Golden Age" of violin playing. Heifetz had a much easier task differentiating his Sibelius from previous recordings because he caught his stride right in parallel with recording technology. So he only had to differentiate himself from a few prior recordings, many of which were already handicapped by inferior technology. For example this concerto was previously recorded (and played beautifully IMO) by Julian Sitkovetsky but the quality of the two recordings is noticeably different.

By contrast the task of today's violinist is much harder. Well, in one sense it's easier -- nowadays it's not that hard to find a good studio with top-of-the-line hardware and engineering know-how. But to avoid sounding "cookie cutter" a violinist today would have to prepare a Sibelius that is noticeably different from, what, a hundred prior recordings? It's a totally unfair comparison. Even so, I think today's top soloists sound different from one another. Notably they sound different from Oistrakh or Heifetz.

October 31, 2022, 9:41 AM · Like Paul I'm inclined to venture a contrary opinion, that many of today's generation are actually more imaginative in their interpretations and I'd even say more "musical" than those of the Golden Age who to my ears did little more than stand and deliver. The best of them often eschew the well-trampled concerto circuit to direct their own pickup orchestras and chamber ensembles, e.g. https://youtu.be/jdf7Zxsa3b8
October 31, 2022, 10:34 AM · Neil, I don't know about your thesis; Oistrakh got second place in the inaugural Wieniawski Competition, where he lost to Ginette Neveu, who surely would be more of a household name in that same pantheon had she not died early. He then went on to win the first Queen Elisabeth Competition (called the Ysaye Competition at the time), over Elizabeth Gilels and apparently a very young Arthur Grumiaux (although the official website doesn't list him, so he may not have even made it to the finals). Kogan won in 1951.

The others you name were largely child prodigies, and I'm not sure that they were particularly happy as a result of starting their careers in childhood. From the time of the rise of competitions, there have been a lot of great musicians that have participated.

November 1, 2022, 11:21 AM · As a judge in our local low-budget competitions I find it difficult to compare different instruments. As a non-pianist, it is even more difficult for me to compare pianists. My usual first reaction is that they all have good intonation and tone quality! Throwing singers into the mix is inherently unfair in age restricted competitions because they start and develop much later than instrumentalists.
Those intending to be soloists, professional musicians, or enter an elite music school should do some of these competitions and graded audition systems. They need to get used to that pressure. For everyone else it should be optional. It is not fun.
Edited: November 1, 2022, 12:46 PM · Many years ago, I attended the finals of an international cello competition at Bristol's Colston Hall, adjudicated by Paul Tortelier. I was seated in the audience not very far from him and could see his reaction to the competitors' playing. He seemed to be a little irritated by one or two. The competition finished with no gold medal being awarded, but two silvers instead - Tortelier explained to the audience that the standard wasn't high enough to merit a gold. Anyway, he cheered up everyone afterwards by getting his cello out and giving a scintillating performance of the last movement of Kodaly's Op 8 for solo cello.
Edited: November 1, 2022, 4:30 PM · I seem to remember talk of an international cello competition in Greece, again many years ago, in which Xenakis had been commissioned to compose a solo piece for the contestants to perform in the finals. Unfortunately, the finals collapsed, presumably in disarray, when it transpired that Xenakis's piece was found to be too difficult for anyone to play!
Edited: November 2, 2022, 9:23 AM · I was contemplating this over the weekend. Competitions can be politically biased - Nobel prizes can be suspect - I'm pretty sure Solzhenitsyn never did much for his but be a Russian dissident, and Churchill's lit prize has been interpreted as a refusal to consider him for the peace prize.
My father, although having no interest in music, has always been very bitter about Ogdon having to share the Tchaik with Ashkenazy, and so I was wondering if Oistrakh shared the Wieniawski with Neveu because it was a Polish prize, and they didn't want to be unambiguous towards Russia.

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