Some thoughts on music competitions

Society is becoming gradually more civilised and humane. Some of the more unpleasant aspects we have managed, wholly or partially, to drop are bear baiting, parading cripples or deformed people for our entertainment, caning in schools, the death sentence, flogging, cockfighting, slavery, children as cheap labour in factories or for cleaning chimneys, discrimination against women (partly), discrimination against homosexuals (still a long way to go), racism (a very long way to go) and using animals in circuses. Eventually, as we become still more socially advanced, we will no longer set young musicians against each other for public entertainment — even if media ratings, business profits and teacher/parent egos do suffer. It is worth visiting the history books to remember that the above reforms all met with violent opposition and many “good” reasons were put forward by worthy people as to why they should not take place. Few people would now deny that they represent a huge step forward for society as a whole.

I see music competitions as the teacher’s and parent’s equivalent of cock fighting, where “Let’s see if my pupil/child can leave yours in shreds” is often the underlying, if heavily disguised, motive. The blood may be metaphorical but our lust for it is just as intense. The psychological damage to all but the “lucky” few can be immense — resulting in doubts about their talent and even their worth as people — and even for the winners, “success” can be a force which seriously disrupts their training and peace of mind. It will be a sign of our coming of age when we stop turning music into a sport and give up pretending we are doing it for the good of the pupils and to raise standards.

It may be argued that competition is part of human nature. Certainly children can be very competitive — especially when encouraged by adults. There are unfortunately other qualities, which are also a part of human nature: war, hostility to those different from us whether other races or social groups, the exploitation of others we see as weaker than us whether they be women, children, employees (servants, slaves?), greed etc. etc. Surely this argument from human nature is a poor way to excuse the retention of our more unpleasant characteristics.

I would like to see more attention focussed on the beauty and excitement of music — what it does to and for us. This is the kind of intrinsic motivation that really makes pupils work harder and raise their ideals.

The argument that “competitions are the only way into the profession” would clearly not be true if such events did not exist. We would then have to find other and better ways to help musicians into a career. We need to educate concert goers to support new artists and not wait for a “Which Report” on who is the best before going out and spending their money on CD’s and concerts. This is “safe music.” The competition works like a filter to help us avoid contamination from performances which display anything but the most fashionably acceptable taste. Furthermore international competition juries often include venerable performers who would like to preserve the performing ethos of at least 50 years ago and have little sympathy with modern research into period performance — and this conservative influence tends to hold performance practice back. There are a large a number of musicians out there, who have made excellent careers without entering competitions.

I reject the myths of “success” and “stardom.” Too many talented students are made to believe that they have a duty to achieve these — regardless of their subsequent happiness.

Self esteem and belief in individual artistic vision are precious and can be fragile things. Do we really want our young artists to believe that there is a “way” of playing that is approved of by the “experts,” that artistic value can be measured and that music is a sport?

An EPTA (European Piano Teacher’s Association) conference expressed great concern over the drop in demand for piano lessons. May it be possible that competitions may have something to do with this? It is no longer easy to study an instrument at your own level without becoming a victim of our obsession with comparisons. The “clever” and talented kids are soon put on show, dressed in their best and made to perform to admiring adults. The normal musical children (and “all children are musical” to quote Prof. Sloboda) may be made to feel that they can not compete with this degree of attainment and decide that they are therefore not musical.

©Copyright Richard Beauchamp — 2000
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Originally published at www.musicandhealth.co.uk.