Are Competitions Good or Bad?

There are hundreds, if not thousands of music competitions around the world, ranging from small local competitions to the high-stakes “career-launching” variety like the Van Cliburn or Tchaikovsky competitions.

The question of whether these competitions are ultimately good or bad for both musicians, the industry, and the art itself have been debated for years. Like any complex issue, both sides have some valid points (here’s one person’s take, complete with fun anecdotes and corresponding links to some cool historical recordings).

So which is it?

Good, because competitions build mental toughness and prepare musicians for the competitive reality they are heading towards?

Or bad, because competitions squelch creativity, and are detrimental not just to the development of young artists but to the evolution of the art itself?

The answer is…

It depends.

Meaning, whether competitions are helpful or harmful depends on how you approach them.

Let me explain.

A tale of two models

Youth sports are very popular in the United States. Approximately 7 out of every 10 kids participate in organized and team sports (source).

Professional sports are popular as well, generating revenues in the hundreds of billions (a figure that is about twice what the automobile industry produces).

On the surface, both youth and professional sports appear to be structured in quite similar ways, with the youth leagues serving as a feeder system into high schools, where the cream of the crop are then recruited by collegiate programs, which prepare a lucky few for careers in semi-pro or professional leagues.

Competition can be intense, as many see sports as a ticket to scholarships, college educations, and if talented and lucky, money and fame.

But in reality, youth sports and professional sports operate on two completely different models.

A education model

Organized youth sports began with the intent to provide a setting in which kids can develop not only their physical coordination and skills, but psychosocial characteristics like leadership, self-discipline, confidence, and teamwork that will prepare them for success in life.

In other words, the primary goal of youth sports has always been education.

Does winning play a role?

Of course winning plays a role. It’s just that kids are more likely to be successful in the long run, if they are reinforced for effort (which they have 100% control over), than winning (which they have only partial and indirect control over).

An entertainment model

Professional sports, on the other hand, is a business. The goal is not education, but entertainment. As you can imagine, winning is an integral part of this product.

In this context, it makes absolute sense to make winning the number one priority. That helps further the goals of entertainment and increasing revenue. Nobody goes to an NBA game to see basketball players learn valuable skills for future off-court success. We go to see our team win.

So an emphasis on winning is not a problem per se. Focusing exclusively on winning becomes problematic only when we lose sight of the big picture and impose the aims and values of the professional model upon what is supposed to be a place for children to learn what it takes to be successful in life.

The right approach

Have we made the same mistake in music that we make in sports – i.e. imposed a professional model onto an educational medium?

As suggested by Juilliard’s assistant dean and director of chamber music Bärli Nugent, we ought to approach competitions not as a simple win or lose affair, but as a “framework for learning” (Read Competitions, Revisited).

Indeed, competitions provide us a terrific context in which to push ourselves to learn a great amount of repertoire, to polish it to a high level, to be able to manage our time, practice productively, demonstrate poise under pressure, cultivate a unique voice and image, perform under adverse conditions, and much, much more.

Winning is just a side effect of having successfully achieved all of these other objectives. Objectives that are actually far more valuable for our long-term success than the cash prize, the two years of management, slate of concerts, and recording contract which will be awfully nice in the short term, but quickly be over if we’ve not prepared ourselves for the long haul.

Take action

Take a look at your list of goals. If “win competition” is on there, break it down into more specific subgoals – things that, if you successfully achieved them, you would absolutely be deserving of winning the prize. Things that prepare you for long-term success, rather than the proverbial 15 minutes.

Check out Musical America’s very cool special report on competitions. It includes profiles of six competition winners and how the win impacted their careers, interviews where judges reveal what they look for, and how much a big win on your resume matters to managers and presenters.

The one-sentence summary

“I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures… I divide the world into the learners and non-learners.”  ~Benjamin Barber (author and renowned political theorist)

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5 Responses

  1. A competition is a good measurement of how musicians play in competitive situations. That is all they measure. There are great musicians who are able to play their best in these situations, and there are great musicians who are unable to play their best in competitive situations. It is too bad that the competition IS the current measurement of musicians’ accomplishments. We no longer have the kind of high profile music journalism that serves as a credible measure of accomplishment that we once had. Accolades are cheap, and it is difficult to sort out those that are genunine and informed by considerable experience, and those that are enthusiastic, but uninformed.

    Managers take on competition winners because the consider them to be more marketable than people who do not have competition-winning credentials. A solo career is impossible now without either a considerable amount of money to hire an effective public relations company, or a management that might have its own means of “private relations.”

    It is not impossible, though, if you do have enough money to create a recording company, hire PR people, and find people who are willing to network on your behalf, to have a career. If you are a good enough musician, you might even have a small following as a “dark horse” of sorts, particularly if you get your PR people to get you on concert series at colleges far away from the main musical venues, and you are willing to play for low fees, and pay your own travel expenses.

    Oh yes. That’s what the big managements used to do for their “freshman class” of competition winners during the last century.

  2. Late to this post, my apologies. 🙂 I know it’s always suspect when someone sneaks up on a sleeping post.

    For me, the main problem with competitions is that they turn the whole thing into Evel Knievel jumping over buses, and the only way you can WIN unambiguously is to jump over more buses. With music, it’s become that the only way you can be “better” is just to play it faster. Not better, not with great sensitivity, not even with the composer’s intentions in mind. Just faster.

    This destroys a lot of music. NO ONE plays Vivaldi, Haendel, or Bach at the proper tempos anymore. I’ve heard ONE decent version of “Juditha Triumphans” in my life. The rest sing it as if they are being chased by pit bulls at 110mph. It’s horrific. And that frame of mind is competition-driven, where the only unambiguous way you can be “better” than the other competitors is to just play it accurately faster.

    Others forms of music are routinely destroyed this way as well — ragtime is routinely ruined like this. Even at the time this tended to take place; Scott Joplin’s tempo marking are hilarious because of that. They progress from “Not fast,” to “Not too fast,” and then get pissy: “Do not play this piece fast.” “DO NOT PLAY THIS PIECE FAST. It is NEVER RIGHT to play ragtime fast.” I’ve never heard a single version of Albeniz’s “Leyenda” on piano done at a reasonable tempo, either. And there have been articles written demonstrating that the tempos of recorded pieces of music are getting faster and faster with time.

    Competitions encourage this mindset terribly, if they aren’t the origin of it. Music is not a competitive sport. Sports have unambiguous means of measuring success — goals scored. Who crosses the tape at the finish line first. Music has no such thing, and shouldn’t have it imposed, any more than 100yd dash runners should be measured on artistic form.

    1. Nicely put – I like that sprinter example. There are, for instance, basketball players with a beautiful looking shot, who can’t score when it matters. And then there are those with funky looking shots who nevertheless have a more effective game.

  3. Unfortunately, music competitions I know to be in the hands of some powerful teachers/music competition founders/presidents who only care about their own careers and publicity. They can have significant influence on the jury which they are usually part of, and the other jurors may have to tow the line in deciding on the winner. Educate yourself from the inside. It’s not all about talent.

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