Oh those international piano competitions….!

Competitions are for horses, not artists

Bela Bartok

Whether or not you agree with Bartok’s statement, or indeed approve of music competitions, they are an integral part of the culture and landscape for today’s up and coming musicians. Major competitions such as the International Tchaikovsky Competition (held every 4 years), the Leeds International Piano Competition (every three years) or the Chopin Competition (every five years) reveal new talent and have launched the international careers of some of the finest pianists active today. The competition format is by no means perfect – for some it is a highly subjective and artificial way of judging musical talent – and it comes as no surprise that some feel moved to comment on the system, including these recent observations on a blog by Pavel Kolesnikov, the young Russian pianist who himself was Prize Laureate of the Honens Competition in 2012.

British pianist Peter Donohoe, recipient of the Silver Medal in the 1982 International Tchaikovsky Competition, serves on the juries and adjudicating panels of many piano competitions worldwide and has years of experience in this particular sphere of the international piano world. Here he responds to Pavel Kolesnikov’s comments:

I think the anti-competition lobby needs to be very careful not to tar us all with the same brush. Competition prizes have sometimes been won by people who have gone on to make great contributions to the world of music, and in most cases they would not have been in a position to do so without those prizes. On the other hand, some juries have obviously been better than others, and results speak for themselves.

The degree to which the organisers of competitions have been clueless, thoughtless, arrogant, self-important, financially motivated, and interested in neither young musicians nor indeed music is variable, and needs to be balanced against the number of genuinely concerned people who want their competition to contribute to the music world, to make a good future for those who enter, to help those who do not win, and to work tirelessly to improve year after year the way their events are organised.

I have to say that the majority of those who have invited me on their juries have been members of the latter group, and I may have many faults, but naïveté is not one of them.

I have had issues with certain of the results to which have contributed a single vote, but that is either because I was wrong – or at least in a minority – or it is a flaw in the democratic voting system, which is, I promise, virtually impossible to make work totally fairly. After all, my own country has just had a referendum, so many people have had a taste of what happens when you consult a group of people with varying degrees of knowledge about a specific result.

We are trying, I promise, to make the system better and better. There is after all now no effective alternative for young musicians – other than comprising yourself of a good business opportunity for large companies, connections, financial backing, networking and good luck. There are too many, for sure, there are some very strange results sometimes, and jury members vary in their ability to spot potential long term talent – the choice of jury members is of course a testament to the quality of those running the competition.

But by and large they are good things, they are occasionally great things, they create goals for young people, stimulate media and public interest, and are a representation of life in the real world once you leave the protection of family and teachers.

That some people let the system down is almost inevitable, but please don’t give the impression that all prize winners have won because of their teacher being a jury member, or that we are all as stupid and manipulative as that unfortunate minority who apparently spoil it for everyone else. I could point out that I had never met any of the 1982 Moscow jury – in fact I had never even heard of most of them, and there was no jury member from the UK at all – so I have a personal reason for railing against the widely-held view that competition prize winners are by definition well connected.

Two more points:

It is obvious that no jury member should try to excuse some poor decision on the basis that someone either included the posthumous variations of the Etude Symphoniques or didn’t, or any similar ludicrously irrelevant observation. That is a truly pathetic and self-important issue when you are there to try to discover and support a young talent. That sort of person should never ever be on a jury.

The second is to mention that if someone is a genuinely great teacher, they are quite likely to be invited onto several juries, their students are likely to enter multiple competitions, and those students are likely to be very good ones. That a student of one of the jury members is in the competition must not place that competitor at a disadvantage; that would like a boss refusing to give a job to a woman because she is attractive. If you exclude teachers from competition juries where their pupils are entering, there will be virtually no one left worth asking; that I have no one-on-one students myself – because I am not really confident to be a good private teacher – makes me an exception; the vast majority of good jury members are experienced teachers. How could it be any different?

(source: Peter Donohoe, via Facebook. Reproduced with Peter’s kind permission.)

Here is a very considered response to both Pavel Kolesnikov’s article and Peter Donohoe’s comments by my friend and colleague Andrew Eales via his Piano Dao blogPiano Dao blogPiano Dao blog

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