Competitions and boringness

19th May 2015 | Concerts, Musings | 2 comments

Letter from a reader who mentions that he rarely goes to concerts these days because many performers are there as a result of winning competitions, and he finds that competition winners are usually, like Monty Python’s celebrated accountant, ‘too boring to be of interest’. He asks whether I feel comfortable with being on the jury of competitions which produce such players.

This is a big question, to which the answer is a) yes and b) no. Most people would probably agree that because of marking schemes and jury politics, competitions tend to produce ‘safe’, uncontroversial winners, but anyone who’s been on a jury will know that jury members are desperate to identify interesting players, and to use their power to promote people ‘with something to say’. At least this is true of the juries I’ve been on. We are all familiar with the polished disengaged playing which does the rounds of the competition circuit, but we’re always hoping that the next person or group will step out and make us forget that we’re in an artificial competitive setting at all.

I suppose it is true that juries are often divided by such players. I was on a chamber music jury which fell out quite fiercely about a particular group.  Some of us felt they had a deep grasp of the music and a memorable artistic personality despite technical shortcomings. Other jury members felt that the technical shortcomings were a line that no amount of artistic vision could cross. The group didn’t win a prize, but as time went on I found they had stuck in my memory more than some of the polished performers did, and I’d now say they’re one of the few groups I’d make an effort to go and hear again in concert.

Sometimes, in celebrated cases, unsuccessful competitors actually make a career out of not having won a prize, especially if a famous musician makes a fuss on their behalf. But there’s no reliable strategy for making such a thing happen, and no guarantee that unusual playing will find champions on the jury. So the question remains: if you are not a ‘typical competition winner’ type, should you go in for competitions? This is where I feel torn. Perhaps it’s worth it just to put yourself in front of those listeners who love your style and will follow your progress, and sometimes you strike lucky with a jury who loves you too.

On the other hand, sensitive musicians can be crushed by the brutal process of a competition. What should they do? If they steer clear of competitions entirely, it may (and it probably will) take them much longer to come to the attention of the music-loving public. I tell them, ‘Just build up your own audience.’ But I know that they need to earn money while they slowly build up an audience, and I wonder if they’ll be able to hang on long enough to do so. If it wasn’t a contradiction in terms, I’d favour the idea of a competition for non-competitive players…


  1. Rikky Rooksby

    Hello Susan, I wonder whether you have a view on composer competitions which specify an age limit. Do you not think this is discriminatory?
    Best wishes, Rikky Rooksby

    • Susan Tomes

      Hi Rikky – I know almost nothing about composer competitions, but the age limit question has certainly bothered me in instrumental competitions. It often feels as if either there should be no age limit, or there should be another competition for older players. After all, people can hit their stride at all kinds of different ages – it’s not only the young player who has ambitions to be recognised and given opportunities.


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