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)