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Music competitions – why?

by Matti Raekallio

Pianist and piano teacher Matti Raekallio reflects in the FMQ issue 2/2012 on the International Maj Lind Piano Competition 2012, held in Helsinki, where he will be a jury member.

“Competitions are for horses, not artists.” Thus said Bela Bartók, and how right he was. It seems inherently absurd to attempt to rank artistic performances accurately enough to sort them into neat lists: winner, runner-up, and so on – down to but not ending with the differentiation between, say, finalists nos. 6 and 7. Not that the latter makes much difference, since any direct benefits from a music competition in the form of money, concert engagements and sometimes recording contracts mainly go to the winners of the highest prizes.  

The very concept of a precise judging of performances in music competitions is delusional at best, especially when the results of the judging are processed using an exact but inappropriate system such as numeric point scores. To have a diverse group of jurors, each of them with very different backgrounds, tastes and personalities, listen for a couple of weeks to perhaps sixty or more young musicians in the first round, translate their individual opinions into point scores (by whichever personal-value-conversion protocol each of them happens to apply) and have those numbers summed up by the administrators of the competition, thereby eliminating a group of participants and selecting a small bunch of people to move on to the second round; to have the jurors and the administrators repeat the procedure as many times as stipulated in the rules; and then, after perhaps two weeks, on the basis of these numeric computations, to come up with extremely precise-looking ranking– how likely is it that the outcome actually reflects the true qualities of all the young musicians? Artistic performance simply is not quantifiable in this way.  

The pitfalls of the adjudicating system are obvious, but the adjudicating system itself – unlike the performances – can be accurately evaluated. I was recently told by a well-informed inside source that many years ago a group of Polish psychologists asked some of the jurors of the International Chopin Competition to listen to several dozens of recorded performances of Chopin’s Mazurkas and to rank them using the standard 0 to 25 scale.  

Naturally there was a catch: the psychologists had included a particular recording twice in the sequence, occurring for the first time close to the beginning of the exhausting session and the second time near the end. Not only did none of the highly qualified judges notice the duplication, but – and this is really interesting – every one of them gave a different point score to the selfsame recording when it came around a second time. So much for accuracy in judging music competitions.  

Is there an alternative to competitions?  

If we decide to accept that judging music competitions is fundamentally and unavoidably an inexact science, we find ourselves in a very human dilemma: there is a built-in flaw in something we do, but this is hardly reason enough to stop doing it, given that there seems to be no better alternative. Competitions are not good, but what else is there? How else can a young musician today get heard and recognised?  

One is reminded of Churchill’s words: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Applying this to succeeding in music, “those other forms” for young musicians include having been born rich; having been born into influential families; having gotten to know the right people; and in general having been in the right place at the right time.  

For those fortunate enough to recognise themselves in the above, fair enough; but these are hardly universally applicable paths to success and cold comfort for somebody very young, very gifted and very frustrated in a practice studio somewhere in Kamchatka or Kentucky or Kuhmo. (Not to speak of Kunming.) Apparently some universally accessible channels are needed for the discovery of real musical talent, and it seems that for the time being competitions are the nearest thing we have.  

Fine. So maybe competitions are a necessary evil after all, and they do seem to have established themselves as a ubiquitous part of our musical culture. There are now about 700 international piano competitions in the world every year, and if we add to that the competitions for other instruments, the grand total is far more than 1,000 competitions per year.  

This automatically begets a healthy inflation of their individual value, and more and more young people have learned a very appropriately unintimidated and cold-blooded approach to them, taking them as tools for acquiring repertoire, for polishing it with motivated practice, for performing it in good halls (and, for pianists, on decent instruments), making friends, establishing contacts, and seeing the world.  

The results are much less important; after all, since Krystian Zimerman’s triumph in the 1975 Chopin competition, no artist has managed to launch a major career on the strength of winning just one competition. The best-case scenario these days is that over a period of a few years after a competition the winner of the first prize does get a few concert engagements, sometimes even making enough money to live on. After that – there is the next edition of the same competition, and the next winner. The previous winner, unless she or he is truly an outstanding musician, is forgotten.  

Multiply this story by, say, a thousand – a conservative estimate of the number of competitions held worldwide each year – and then that number by perhaps 50 (a rough estimate of the average number of participants in an average competition), and you get an idea of the global volume of a yearly recurring grim cycle of disappointing events in the lives of very many good musicians, all of whom, including the comparatively small subgroup of winners, will and do get frustrated in the process. It takes some getting used to when you are actually doing it yourself. But a certain toughness is always good for a performing musician, and the competition industry certainly helps develop that.  

Do I want to hear this guy again?  

So, if the negative aspects of competitions are so well known, and if almost everybody acknowledges their limitations, one could at least assume a universal attempt at decency in administering them, an effort to produce results which, while admittedly inaccurate and perhaps useless, are at least decided in good faith; rankings which, while dubious in their utilitarian value, are nevertheless arrived at in a way that is honest and fair. Right?  

Wrong. The history of music competitions features countless horror stories of jurors brazenly giving insultingly low or insanely high marks to a competitor, regardless of the actual performance. This was especially glaring in the years when music competitions still had real value and made a big impact, hence also a cultural- political impact, but it never really went away, sad to say. The reasons for such transgressions vary from personal spite to political obedience.  

The latter was a fact of life, cultural and otherwise, back when the Soviet Union was alive and well, and it is painful to read and hear about the monstrous rulings that some truly great Russian musicians gave, probably more out of fear than out of conviction, as members of competition juries. A good example is Heinrich Neuhaus, the legendary teacher of Richter, Gilels, Lupu and hundreds of other fine pianists, who did his very best to sabotage Maurizio Pollini’s victory in the 1960 Chopin competition. Fortunately, he failed, in spite of his amazingly manipulative point distribution. He was apparently under orders from people in very high places back home to support a Russian participant who had made her way to the finals. The jury documents from that competition, with all the scores given by each juror clearly visible, are stored at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, where an enraged French jury member donated them after the competition.  

Generally speaking, the point score system seems to be just about the least appropriate and the most easily abused way of recording jurors’ opinions. The only method that is certainly worse is discussion. Sadly enough, some competition juries all over the world still engage in this. Discussing rankings makes no sense whatsoever, because it gives the extroverts and verbal bullies a massive advantage, drowning out the contribution of more reticent but no less expert jurors. A far better method than either of the above is a simple plus/minus system, where each juror, without conferring, individually asks himself/herself a simple question: Do I want to hear this guy again? (or, Do I really want to hear this guy again?!) If yes, write down a plus; if no, write down a minus. The pluses are added up, and the result gives a ranking that at least roughly correlates with how the jurors collectively feel about the candidates, without any pretensions of exactitude.  

Beware of mainstream playing  

Aside from these general considerations of the essence and the technicalities of the system, an even more serious issue is what the competition institution does to those who take the plunge and enter, and what it does, through the participants, to the world of music. Conventional wisdom has it that some players of the most popular instruments with the richest repertoire, piano and violin, sometimes select their competition programmes and calibrate their performances so as to please an imagined mainstream juror – apparently some kind of post-Musilian monster, truly a Man Without Qualities.  

Such a calculated approach is of course a loss. It is, firstly, a personal tragedy for the competitor, who sacrifices the most valuable asset that she or he could possibly have as a musician – an original, different, possibly irritating and therefore truly interesting artistic personality – for the sake of the assumed excellence of mediocrity.  

Secondly, it is a loss for the musical community; we cannot have too many genuine and distinct musical personalities shaping our worldviews with their playing, be it on the piano or violin or whatever (or with their singing, for that matter). But we certainly can, and do, have too many pianists and violinists who are highly trained and sufficiently talented but impersonal, meek, submissive and ultimately boring professionals and who may end up having real trouble finding work that would in any real way reward, financially or spiritually, the incredible sacrifices they have made in order to reach the level of skill that they eventually attained.  

I am frequently invited to serve on the jury at competitions, and I often try to train myself mentally beforehand, picturing a situation where, while a jury member, I suddenly hear somebody playing in the manner of, say, Alfred Cortot or Edwin Fischer (both of them among my all-time favourite artists whose recordings I tremendously enjoy), with fantastically interesting ideas, a personal tone, a rich imagination, deep musical erudition, an unorthodox style – and clear technical defects, lots of wrong notes, sometimes erratic tempi, smudgy pedal, unclear textures, in a live situation surely also memory slips, you name it. What would I do? Clearly, since there are countless competition winners of recent years whose perfect and predictable CDs I would never listen to at home unless I had to, and since on the other hand the recordings of Fischer and Cortot never fail to make me smile with joy at their sheer radical inventiveness, the answer should be self-evident. And I am in the process of some serious introspection to make it so.  

But, fallible humans as we are, and subject to the devious whims of the Zeitgeist as we are, we find such introspection hard work. The institutions of musical education where we professionals are schooled and where some of us work as adults tend to implement musical ideologies which are perhaps not thoroughly analysed and which no one really wants, emphasising (albeit unwittingly and in good faith) qualities which, at the end of the day, may not be the essential ones for musical understanding or enjoyment.  

Luckily, it seems that the trend is reversing, slowly but surely. There are more and more exhilarating signs around: young people expressing themselves musically in bold personal ways; forming chamber music groups that specialise in weird repertoire; finding increasingly informal new concert venues; rediscovering improvisation; reading scores in a provocative but justifiable manner. I can myself observe this happening with increasing frequency among the students at Juilliard, and especially though not exclusively among the Asian students. This cross-breeding is, I think, just about the best thing that could happen to music, because of the ensuing continuous re-evaluation and innovation of habits of thought. Western Art Music seems to be going to where the Light comes from: the East. 

Matti Raekallio is a professor of the Juilliard School in New York since 2007. His students include several first prizewinners in major international piano competitions, and he regularly serves as a juror in them. He has made about 20 CDs, including an acclaimed set of the complete Prokofiev Sonatas. Mr. Raekallio’s Doctorate (Dr.Mus.) at the Sibelius Academy focused on the History of Piano Fingering.

The Fourth International Maj Lind Piano Competition took place on August 17–31, 2017 in Helsinki.

Note: The jury of the International Maj Lind Piano Competition uses the plus/minus voting system developed by Professor Tuomas Haapanen, the long-standing chairman of the jury of the International Jean Sibelius Violin Competition.