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Pianist Kirill Kozlovski and steeplechaser Topi Raitanen – a conversation about competing

by Loviisa Pihlakoski

Music and sport are, one might imagine, completely separate worlds – but there are surprisingly many similarities between the work of a musician and of an athlete. One of these is the importance of competitions in their careers. Pianist Kirill Kozlovski and steeplechaser Topi Raitanen sat down to talk about the commonalities and differences of music and sports.

About competing and careers


TR: For us [in sport], competing is of course much easier to adjudicate: you start the clock and see who finishes first. But how do you measure who is the best in music? Is it all in the ear of the listener? And whose ear likes what?


KK: There are several ways to look at it. From the competitor’s perspective, there’s a jury of experts who give point scores in a particular way. Juries are usually assembled so that their members – there may be anything from 3 to 20 of them – represent a wide range of styles and nationalities, leading musical countries in Europe and Asia and the USA. Generally, they don’t give technical and artistic scores separately but just an overall score, let’s say from 0 to 25, or sometimes just plus or minus, whether they think a competitor should advance to the next round or not. Sometimes juries make their decisions by discussion.

The rules of a competition are generally published about one year in advance, and musicians around the world look through competition rules to see where they would like to enter. Preparing for a competition takes many months. The pieces that make an impression on the jury are usually pieces that the competitors have been performing for years, at many concerts and to such a high degree of excellence that they’ve got standing ovations for them. It’s usually not a good idea to enter a competition with new repertoire that you’ve only just learned.


TR: That’s quite different from what we do. We have a lot of competitions across the summer, and every one is good practice for the next one. There’s a handful of top-level meets where you want to be at your best, but the preparation runs in cycles of several years. You can’t make miracles happen in a month or even in one year. The Olympic Games are every four years. Then you have one day where you have to be at your best, and the likelihood of that increases the more you manage to improve your performance year on year. 


KK: Maybe the major difference is that for us competing is a necessary evil. Someone may be really good really early and win a competition at the age of 18. They don’t need to compete ever again if they get a record deal and a manager, and so on. Our focus is always on the career that you can get beyond a competition. Competitions are a tool and an essential part of the music business, especially in classical music. Creating a successful career as a musician without competing at all is difficult. But beyond the age of 30 practically no one enters competitions any more. You should be well established as a professional by then. 

Then again, I feel that the professional life of a musician is much the same as that of a top athlete. There’s a lot of travel, and you have to find a balance between work and private life. Sometimes it’s a real slog, you have to learn a lot of new pieces very fast, and often you don’t have enough time to practise. And every audition for a job is a competition in itself, of course.



Preparing for a competition – practice


TR: For us, the major competitions are important. For each summer, we usually select competitions where we try to get good results and improve our performance. When I failed at my first World Championships in Doha in 2019, I learned to trust my own plan. When you get there, you see all these world stars around you on the warm-up track and you see, oh, that guy’s doing that kind of warm-up exercise, maybe I should be doing that too. But when you’re there, you can’t improve your performance just like that, a couple of days before the event, you can only mess up your chances. Experience makes you more confident in trusting your coach and their plan. Successful competitions foster a routine, an understanding of how it’s best to spend the last couple of weeks before a competition.


KK: So do you put everything else on hold one month before a competition to prepare for it, or can you have downtime as well? What’s the relationship between work and private life?


TR: It’s a good question. Everyone has a life outside of sports, but if you’re a professional athlete, your work has a pretty strong presence in your life: you have routines that dictate your timetable, when to sleep and when to eat, and then there’s all the training. Of course, people are realistic, and some things in your private life can overrule an individual training session, for instance, but basically your sports career pretty much determines what you can do on weekends and in your spare time: your downtime is subordinate to your training. Each year, you learn how to manage this package better.

My coach and I have discussed when is the best time to do which things, and there are other professionals on the team. My diet is reviewed every year, for instance. There’s a set of tools for monitoring recovery.


KK: In music, you’re pretty much on your own when preparing for a competition. These days, I like to play for a trusted colleague before performing to see what they think it sounds like. You guys have a clock that is infallible, and it doesn’t matter whether your running is beautiful or ugly. In our case, there may be quite a wide range of opinions, and after practising on my own for long periods of time I like at least to have a second opinion.


TR: So what is your practising like, on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis? Does it include physical exercise, something to prepare you for or help you endure or increase your practising? Do you always have to have your instrument?


KK: It depends on what you’re preparing for. If you’re practising a really difficult piece, you might do certain kinds of finger exercises. Or if there’s something involving complicated movement coordination, you might rehearse those movements separately. It’s very much an individual thing – pianists, of course, need to take care of their backs. You need to have a recovery process to straighten your crouch and to restore mobility to your joints.

Pianists don’t have the limitations that some other instrumentalists do. Violinists, for instance, play their instrument in a position that is basically unergonomic, wind players have to rest their breathing and facial muscles, and singers can only practise for a certain number of hours per day. Pianists, assuming that they are sitting up straight and keeping their arms symmetrically, can easily practise 11 or 12 hours per day if a deadline is approaching.


TR: Do you ever take a break from playing at any time during the year?


KK: It’s good to take a break regularly, of course. But in Finland, it’s difficult, because the music scene revolves around two poles: the professional orchestras, whose seasons run from autumn to spring, and the enormous number of summer music festivals. You may have time to take a breather in late May before the festival season begins, lasting until mid-August. Ideally, I might like to have three or four one-week holidays in a year. But that isn’t always possible.


TR: It’s pretty much the same with us. At the end of the season, you might take a break, whether to just rest or to take a pause from the regular training programme, exercising when you feel like it instead. The aim is to be healthy when the new training season begins in October. 

When your performance is mercilessly scrutinised by hundreds of thousands of TV spectators, it brings psychological stress and a fixation on doing well at an important competition in order to demonstrate that you are in shape. An athlete is only as good as their latest competition performance. So you do need a holiday, a time when you’re not even thinking about the competition, getting away from everyday routines and things like laundry so that you can recharge your batteries.

Kirill Kozlovski by Markus Kaarto


Success in competitions


KK: Are you nervous when you are preparing for competing? 


TR: Yes. I’m a realist in that you usually get what you deserve. In training, the clock tells you how you’re doing. We do a lot of the same exercises throughout the season, so you can see how you’ve improved over time. There are no instant fixes, so if your last training session before a competition didn’t go well, you feel insecure going into the event. 

There aren’t too many opportunities for showing your best in any one season, so of course you’re nervous. There is a hierarchy of competitions as well. Your season begins on the basis of your merits in the previous season. Success means career progress, access to better competitions. My personal best is 8:16, and there’s no point for me in attending an event where the next best competitor has run 8:45; I couldn’t expect to be challenged to run a new personal best under those circumstances. 


KK: That sounds wonderfully clear. So there’s a between-season when you’re evaluated on your previous season’s performances, and the first important meet is in early summer, and you already know that it will probably go in a certain way, since you’ve done this and that in training. How about it, do you know in the morning what your time will be in the event?


TR: That’s a good question. We’ve talked about this a lot during warm-ups. My feeling is that the worse you feel when warming up, the better the race itself usually is. If you feel too good when warming up, you may be overprepared. How about you; how do you feel that competing, performing for colleagues, is different from preparing for a major concert?


KK: Often there’s nothing you can do about the timetable on the day. You might be on at 10 AM or at 10 PM. You can’t know whether you’ll have time to rehearse in the auditorium on the same day and whether you’ll have time to record it and play it back for reviewing, or whether you literally just have a sound check. Sometimes you can’t be sure that the instrument will be in the same condition during your performance as it was in rehearsal. If four competitors have spent 90 minutes playing just before you, the piano may feel like it was run over by a bus. When you rehearse, the auditorium is empty, and the presence of an audience may have a considerable impact on the acoustics. The venues are very different from one another. The main auditorium of the Music Centre in Helsinki is wonderful: you can play quietly and you’ll be heard at the very back. Finlandia Hall, by contrast, is an acoustic disaster. I remember the first time I played there. After 45 minutes, I couldn’t feel my muscles. It was such heavy physical work.

On the day of a performance, you shouldn’t spend too much time in the hall or with the instrument – you should trust that what you’ve been rehearsing for months will come out as it should in concert. It’s extremely rare to be inspired or to present a brilliant performance without a lot of rehearsing beforehand. But on a good day, you can go with the flow and feel a cautious optimism about being in a good place. And you can always sense by the reaction of the audience when you’re having a great day.


TR: How do you tell whether your performance was good or bad? Is the audience response the most important measure of that? 


KK: You do feel it yourself. But if you’re too hyped up, too far in the zone, you may feel too good about yourself and not convey that feeling to the audience. A good performance is one where you feel you’ve done the work but not forced it. It’s a bit of an out-of-body experience, like seeing your hands further away from yourself than they actually are. And when you finish with a positive sort of fatigue in your muscles, mostly that means that you’ve done well.


TR: That’s great to hear, it’s very similar to my experience. I’m never as tired after an event that went well as after an event that didn’t go so well. This summer, in the final round in the European Championships, I was really tired before the last lap, before the real battle began. At that point, the pain and the fatigue just go away, and you feel separated – like you said – from your body with the internal struggle to push yourself that extra notch. If you win, you’re not nearly as tired as if you fell behind. Perhaps all the euphoria and the adrenaline mask the aches and pains of the race. There’s much of the same emotion, apparently, in piano playing and long distance running.


KK: When you described that psychological reaction, what goes on in your head before the last lap – I didn’t imagine I would relate to it so much! When I play a recital, a full-length solo concert with two halves of about 45 minutes each, it’s often the last quarter where what’s known as ‘second breathing’ kicks in. That’s where the good stuff happens. 


TR: You begin to prepare for the final push. And somehow you find the additional strength to bring it home.


KK: Something like that. It’s like your body knows better than your brain, because you can’t just consciously tell your body to find an extra gear. It doesn’t work that way. But when the body does it on its own, it’s... it’s...


TR: It’s pretty addictive. That sort of thing – if you were to change to a different profession – you probably would find it difficult to find that sort of emotional response doing something else.


KK: Well, I did try a different job at one point, but then I was like, no. I missed this. I like teaching and other music-related activities, but it’s performing that keeps my act together, literally.


Topi Raitanen, 26:

* Professional track and field athlete since 2017, in Finland and internationally

* Took part in his first Olympic Games in summer 2021, finishing in 8th place

* In summer 2022, won gold in the 3000 m steeplechase in the European Championships

* Competed in orienteering and won medals at major events before turning to athletics


Kirill Kozlovski, 41: 

* Pianist who gives recitals, appears with orchestras and performs chamber music

* Won the Jyväskylä International Piano Competition in Finland in 2004

* Last participated in a competition in 2014

* Teaches at the Sibelius Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki 

* Wished fervently at one point that he would never have to compete again until he realised that job auditions were much like competitions


Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

Featured photo: Topi Raitanen and Kirill Kozlovski (Kozlovski's photo: Markus Kaarto; photo editing: Lasse Lehtonen)