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The musician’s competitive life

by Patrik Stenström

Competition is part of the fundamental nature of life, whether we like it or not. Just as animals compete for habitat, food, partners and status in a herd, people vie for study places and jobs, socioeconomic status and in many skill-related sports. Even if it’s not always an actual competition, the mind organises the surrounding world by comparing itself to others. At the same time, however, a significant proportion of the competitions in human life are waged against oneself.

The music world is certainly competitive. Landing a recording contract, an opera role or a permanent position with a symphony orchestra is increasingly difficult, and the globalised job market has increased the competition exponentially. Higher levels of education have raised the standard, and there is never enough work for everyone. More and more people have to put up with the uncertainty of part-time jobs and being the subject of constant evaluation – in other words, competition. 

There is no longer time or space for mistakes and developing slowly, and keeping your own ‘showcase’ in order takes up a lot of mental resources. For freelancer musicians, this means that they can almost always be replaced. Such a situation is unbearable in the long run, and seriously threatens our ability to cope. How can one prepare for something like this and learn to live with it? Is continuous efficiency and rivalry ultimately beneficial to humanity?

Competition begins in childhood

Child psychiatrist and flautist Jari Sinkkonen sees the ranking of children under the age of ten as unnecessary and even unhealthy. However, he does not consider competition in itself to be categorically wrong. What is essential is the nature of the contests and how children are guided toward them. They should involve a safe adult who does not judge the child based on their performance.

“Safe, accepting early attachment relationships play a major role in whether a child can handle competition. They enable young people to withstand pressure and disappointments,” Sinkkonen emphasises. “There shouldn’t be excessive attention toward successes or failures. It’s important to show that playing playing skillfully or winning is not a measure of human dignity.”

A young person undergoes rapid development and psychological growth at the threshold of puberty, and gains more strength to deal with competition. What’s most important is that young people primarily compete as themselves.

“Children must not become an extension of their parents’ or teacher’s ego. Then they aren’t acting on their own but are instead psychologically tethered to adults. Failure would disappoint the adult, so they try to avoid this by performing. The child’s focus shifts from playing to fulfilling other needs. Such a position is extremely unfortunate for a child.”

“It’s important to show that playing playing skillfully or winning is not a measure of human dignity,” says Jari Sinkkonen. Photo: Kimmo Janas.

Competition does not suit everyone, but some may enjoy it, especially the success that they attain. Success can build self-esteem and personality in a very nourishing way, and it is also good for those who work hard to be recognised for their work.

“It is a reality of life that some people are more capable than others in some things, and if they are skillful as the result of hard work, that must be recognised somehow. On the other hand, disappointment and not winning a prize can also be important for development if it can be handled with a safe adult,” Sinkkonen points out.

Jussi Aalto, a violist with the Orchestra of the Finnish National Opera, agrees.

“If someone is talented and has worked really hard, and someone else hasn’t concentrated at all, and everyone gets a participation medal, then what reward is there for the one who worked hard?” he muses.

This past autumn, Aalto served as jury secretary and competition committee member for the National Viola Competition in Oulu. From the early planning stages, the committee decided to de-emphasise competitiveness. The goal was a relaxed atmosphere in which the participants could encourage each other and both the performers and audience could enjoy the music. Ethical guidelines were drawn up for the contest, aimed at creating a safe environment for the musicians.

In Aalto’s opinion, being able to succeed in a competition requires resilience in the face of pressure. However, for a very sensitive, introverted person, this may be a tough, even insurmountable challenge. Competition does not suit everyone and therefore it should not be considered as an absolute measure of competence or later success in one’s career.

“However, there is a strong pedagogical justification for competitions. Preparing for a contest teaches you how to manage large entities, and how to approach your own limits better than in any other way, really.”

In Aalto’s opinion, many children enjoy competitions, and naturally many games have a competitive element.

“I remember playing with toy race cars as a kid – after all, it was immediately a competition that someone won. Through playing, I learned to lose and tolerate disappointments – at least I hope so,” he says.


“If someone is talented and has worked really hard, and someone else hasn’t concentrated at all, and everyone gets a participation medal, then what reward is there for the one who worked hard?” muses violist Jussi Aalto. Photo: Silja Aalto

“With child stars, I wonder about how they later cope with life and with themselves,” Sinkkonen says with a sigh. If life is just playing the violin and on the other hand you get praise and special attention wherever you go, it’s inevitably a challenging situation for a young developing personality.” 

“In sports, there has already been a realisation that young top talents need psychological coaches, but in the music field, we’re just starting to think about this,” Sinkkonen continues. “There should be other things in life. Young people in particular should also do other things that are typical for their stage of development. If you just spend your time reading scores, it may lead to a rather lonely life.”


Competition for work

Musicians and singers audition for permanent orchestra positions and opera roles. For opera singers, competitions are an ideal opportunity to demonstrate their skills and gain the interest of casting directors from around the world.

Auditions and competitions are tough, both mentally and physically. Soprano Iris Candelaria says that in the competitions she has participated in, there has been a good, encouraging spirit between the contestants. Despite this, Candelaria admits that she does not enjoy competitions – but says she still plans to participate in them in the future.

“At least in the world of singing, competitions are the best, most direct way toward a working life, a kind of golden path. For instance the Cardiff Singer of the World competition has served as a good springboard for many onto the stages of the biggest opera houses.”

It takes a long time to prepare for a competition, and one must be able to keep up one’s confidence during a fairly short performance. Candelaria says that when she won the 2019 Timo Mustakallio Singing Competition, she considered it a victory just to get on stage, not throw up and be able to produce a sound.

“I don’t really remember anything about my performance,” Candelaria says with a laugh. “I now realise that contests and auditions, especially, are such high-pressure situations that there’s no way you can give your best in them. I’m satisfied if I can achieve, say, 70-80 percent performance. I just have to hope that the others are only able to do the same.”

This past autumn, Candelaria sang the role of the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute at the Finnish National Opera. The role is a combination of very demanding qualities: coloratura, virtuosity and drama. The role only has two arias, and everyone knows the second one. So it’s a very competitive setting with high expectations, especially one’s own, it’s only a brief moment with hardly any time to warm up.

“I was terribly nervous about it; I spent several sleepless nights. I had been sick for some time before the opening night, and I wasn’t quite sure how my voice would hold up. In the end, I think I got through the shows on adrenaline, frenzy and some kind of holy spirit. I was attached quite high up on a wall, and when I was turned and lowered down [after the performance], I always sighed heavily, accompanied by a string of swear words,” she recalls.

Candelaria notes that competition repertoires are demanding and often require much technical expertise. Only in a tight spot do you really learn to know how the technique works and how your mind and body will react.

“Ultimately, you can’t create a real-life pressure situation in your rehearsal room,” she says, “although you can practice it in your mind.”

Candelaria admits that winning the Mustakallio competition in 2019 brought both jobs and perhaps made it easier to obtain grants. The win was also very encouraging and gave her plenty of motivation to practice.

“After the competition, I took really big strides forward in terms of technique,” she says.

Next up is the Lappeenranta Singing Competition in early January 2023, which Candelaria is preparing for with enthusiasm. She admits that the idea of major competitions still feels really oppressive, but at the same time exciting and inspiring.

Iris Candelaria: “At least in the world of singing, competitions are the best, most direct way toward a working life, a kind of golden path.” Photo: Michael Bleu


Competition in the workplace

Once you get a permanent job, you no longer have to compete for your daily bread. Still, for example, in an orchestra, there are many unconscious, unspoken competitive attitudes. Solo players may unconsciously vie against each other and there may be rivalries within the sections – but above all, they compete against their own goals and demands.

Many musicians say that ultimately the worst pressures arise in their own heads. They have usually become really good at their art precisely because they are able to be self-critical and to practice with determination. These characteristics rarely go away as one gathers skills – the bar of your demands on yourself seems to move away by the same distance from the skills you have attained. You could always play better.

Occupational psychologist and work supervisor Marjukka Laurola has worked extensively with workers in the arts field, especially musicians. As a result, she is very familiar with self-critical people. They are often quite demanding of others as well, which can cause friction.

For example, short-term substitutes, who are often freelancers, do not necessarily know or sense various tensions and settings. Therefore they must often be very socially aware and considerate of others. At worst, they may have to be constantly on their toes.

“Many people with permanent positions don’t think about the many kinds of pressures that temporary replacements have to struggle with,” Laurola notes. “For them, each gig may be, on some level, like an audition for the possible next gig, and of course that kind a setup can really be a heavy burden if it goes on for a long time. A freelancer can’t be difficult or act up. They have to be able to read situations so that they can behave pleasantly. Even well-intentioned quips from colleagues can linger in their minds for a long time.”

A substitute is always in a subordinate position to the regular players. Even if they are treated well and respectfully in the work situation itself, the feeling of being an outsider can never really be completely avoided. Freelancers do not have occupational health care or paid holidays, and they are often excluded from meetings where job-related issues are discussed. The fact that one has not been successful in landing a permanent job cannot be forgotten.


“Playing music is a very heavy, demanding job that also requires great sensitivity,” notes Marjukka Laurola. Photo: Ida Stenros.

On the other hand, it can also be challenging for a musician with a permanent job to work alongside a young, lesser-known and really skilled colleague. They both may be trying hard to prove to each other that they are worthy of their job, without either of them clearly realising that.

“Playing music is a very heavy, demanding job that also requires great sensitivity. You’re constantly dealing with your own personal performing skills, and the situation may activate many memories of early interaction situations,” she says.

Laurola points out that if one’s basic sense of security did not develop well enough at a young age, work situations can be very difficult.

"After all, life shouldn't be a competition,” she says. ”If we keep this in mind, both for ourselves and for others, we could all learn to be kind to ourselves and others."

Translation: Wif Stenger