Munich competition afterthoughts

18th September 2013 | Concerts, Musings, Travel | 3 comments

Since the end of the ARD Competition in Munich I have been mulling over the concept of competitions. Of course we all understand the point of competitions, and many are prepared to put up with the negative aspects in the hope of benefitting from the positive ones.

Personally, I always found it hard to play my best in competitions because of the unnatural atmosphere, but these days many young musicians seem to approach them as a necessary evil. I know some musicians who go in for half a dozen such competitions each year. They seem to take the view that if a jury doesn’t like them in one place, another may like them in the next, and eventually someone is sure to like them, especially if they go in for a mixture of competitions big and small. This seems to be borne out by the fact that every candidate already has a bunch of prizes on their CV.

As I travelled home from Munich I couldn’t help reflecting that there was an astonishing collection of musicians (jury + competitors) gathered under one roof for ten days. Although we’d all accepted the conditions, it suddenly seemed a great pity that there was so little opportunity for ‘knowledge transfer’. Yes, we did give the competitors feedback if they wanted it, but such feedback is given on the occasion of someone leaving the competition, and in my experience they are rarely in the right frame of mind to hear advice at that moment.

On my particular jury were seven extremely experienced piano trio players, some of whom I had never met before. It was remarkable to be sitting next to them, day after day. Would it have been better for us to spend ten days coaching the young musicians, perhaps playing with them? Could we have had a huge festival? Would it have been fun to ‘mix and match’ among the trios, a kind of chamber music speed-dating? Might there be a way to combine masterclasses with some ‘awards’ at the end? It would have been nice, too, to go out to dinner with the competitors and swap stories of life in the music profession. Sometimes you can avoid problems by hearing how someone else solved them.

Of course, such events would need serious commitment of time and money. But I could not help wondering if, instead of Group A (the jury) sitting in judgement on Group B (the young musicians), we could put our heads together to devise a forum which would bring A and B together to share knowledge in an active and constructive way.


  1. James B

    I suppose the answer the answer to all of those questions is, YES!

  2. Andrew MO

    Brilliant post. If only such a ‘happening’ occurred. It would enable personality and imagination to shine through the playing. Also, it would be fascinating to witness the essential sense of colleagueship from the chamber music ‘speed dating’ (loved that!).
    All of this, after all, is what we respond to, whether on the platform collaborating, or sat in the audience experiencing.

  3. Jon

    I’m a young singer who has recently been participating (without much success!) in a couple of quite big international competitions, and I must admit that this post provided me with some consolation. Quite properly, the juries at many major competitions are actually under strict instructions that they _may not_ communicate with the competitors while the competition is underway, for fear that this may corrupt the supposed impartiality of the judging process. For the competitors, this means that we spend several days being studiously ignored by the jurors – many of whom are probably people whose own artistic work we love and admire, and whom we would feel privileged to meet and talk to – whenever we bump into them in corridors or foyers! It can make for quite an isolating experience. And Susan is absolutely right that feedback given immediately after one’s exit from a competition is rarely very helpful – even the most philosophical and mature of young performers is unlikely to be able to receive criticism, however constructive, in this scenario without feeling that the jury’s real concern is to justify their decision for their own satisfaction and peace of mind; and in any case, there’s a limit to how helpful it’s possible to be in a 5-minute critique of a short performance, without there being the possibility of working these criticisms through and trying out new ideas in a “masterclass”-style forum. I have come to realise that, in the immediate aftermath of a competition, I am far less likely to listen to really critical jury feedback than I am to listen to those jurors who tell me that they actually really enjoyed my performance and would have liked me to progress further in the competition! – which hardly suggests that these occasions really help me to use constructive criticism as a means to self-improvement. But then again, a very experienced juror recently said to me that, regardless of the result, he thought it was good for me to do competitions because, besides providing opportunities for me to build my repertoire and gain experience of performing under pressure, they would help me to develop a thicker skin. These seemed to me to be wise words indeed – and yet perhaps I should feel uncomfortable that what he seemed to be encouraging me to do was almost to _ignore_ the verdict of a very experienced and knowledgeable jury on my performance!


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