7 Teaching

7.8 Competitions


Competitions show all the (over-)sensitivities of micro schools but now in a public forum, with prizes. They are showcases for teachers almost as much as for their students; while any performance that another teacher on the jury finds dissident in relation to their own is in danger of being marked down and then, literally, dismissed. At the same time, jury members may well wish to attract the most able among the excluded to join their class, adopt their memes, and win elsewhere. Wagner (2015, 182) reports an unsuccessful competitor being invited separately by four jury members to study with them in order to correct their perceived shortcomings, on which, incidentally, they all disagreed. And so competitors are playing (and teachers teaching) on a tightrope between a normativity so safe as to be bland and a distinctiveness so evident as to be lethal. As ever, the performer is caught in an impossible bind, leading to the cliché that only the most inoffensive survives to win in the final round (McCormick 2015, 96). Thus the tiny differences, which are all that differentiate the micro schools, are siphoned out through the competition filter, before the winners (or often, because they may be less bland, the runners-up) make it onto the concert-scene.

Juries consist substantially of soloists who also teach; and until recently in some competitions, and still now in others, it is not unusual for a juror’s students to be competing and even to win. (‘In the competition I observed—and this is not exceptional—all the competitors who ended up as finalists were students of members of the jury’ (Wagner 2015, 67).)  It is considered normal for entrants to arrange classes with jurors before a competition so that there is some interest in and familiarity with them when it comes to the event. (‘Among the ten laureates of competitions included in my study, nine were the disciples of at least one jury member’ (Wagner 2015, 180).) The same jurors tend to show up on different competition panels, offering several opportunities each season for their own students to be favoured. As one of Wagner’s participants reported, ‘the competition starts long before the opening ceremony’ (181).

At this level it’s a small world for each instrument; and so it’s easy to see how the competition circuit provides a convenient space in which aspiring soloists can be scrutinised for acceptability by those already in place. Do they fit in, or are they too challenging for the existing elite? As ever, the overriding concern is for the most persuasive performance of musical norms which are thereby affirmed. That said, research suggests (and this confirms Wagner’s story above about the four contradictory views of a competitor’s shortcomings) that judgements of performances are highly unreliable. Glen Kwok and Chris Dromey bring together a number of these studies in their recent survey ‘On Classical Music Competitions’:[1]

Harold Fiske, for example, asked experienced adjudicators to rate a set of performances on their overall musical quality, but only he knew that each performance was presented twice, producing inconsistent scores for each performance. Similarly, Renato Flores and Victor Ginsburgh analysed the Queen Elisabeth Competition over a ten-year period and found that competitors appearing on the final day stood a much greater chance of being ranked higher. … George Duerksen, for example, presented listeners with two recordings of an identical performance but labelled one as professional, the other amateur—the latter received much lower marks. [2]

Lisa McCormick’s 2015 book on WCM competitions, Performing Civility,[3] presents a somewhat more positive view of competitions, citing changes to rules that postdate Wagner’s research and that are aimed at greater fairness, although how faithfully they are adhered to seems sometimes open to question (Norman Lebrecht keeps a beady eye on cases in his blog ‘Slipped Disc’).[4] McCormick herself reports instances of juries breaking their rules (186–8) as well as the problems that arise from ‘professional jurors’ (192–4). When it comes to judging unorthodox performance, ‘A common refrain among jurors was that there was no greater delight than to hear competitors find something new in a piece that the juror had performed throughout his entire career’. Yet ‘The performer’s responsibility to the composer was a common theme in interviews with judges, and it was invariably discussed in moralistic language’ (173). … And so, inevitably, ‘there is a limit to judges’ open-mindedness, and … this limit is defined by the score, which serves as a proxy for the composer’. … ‘Unorthodox interpretations … not only are inaccurate; they also cause offence’ (174). What an interesting observation that is; for again we find the anger that any challenge to identity invariably generates in those who fear the Other or who, beneath their shocked certainty, are insecure about the justification for their own beliefs.

Gender (which we’ll consider in more detail in Chapters 910) is another important issue raised by McCormick, for it surfaces all over the WCM business and, thanks to their already dubious ethics, no less in competitions than elsewhere. The masculine values of pianism in particular, and musical athleticism in general—strength, power, dominance, mastery—which we saw analysed in Katharine Liley’s work reported in Chapter 6.5, ‘poses a unique problem for female performers, who must juggle contradictory cultural expectations regarding musical virtuosity and conventional femininity’ (McCormick 2015, 120–1). ‘Kern’, she reports of the 2001 Cliburn competition, ‘was still remembered as much for her concert attire as for her aggressive athleticism’; a problem which remains common today and is discussed (sympathetically for once) in Janet Malcolm’s 2016 profile of Yuja Wang, which we’ll return to in Chapter 16.[5] A recent survey by Richard Parncutt reports several studies showing attractiveness, gender and racial biases in the evaluation of performances.[6] To be white and male still seems the safest option.

Ultimately, ‘In entering an international competition, musicians volunteer to undergo a public labelling ritual in which there are only two outcomes’ (McCormick 2015, 122).

An intriguing recent study of competitions comes from a jury member.[7] It’s a favourable picture, but then the Chopin Competition, which it describes, is among the most carefully regulated and open to scrutiny. John Rink’s approach to judging—hardly coincidentally, given that he led the AHRC Research Centre for Musical Performance as Creative Practice (www.cmpcp.ac.uk)—was a great deal more nuanced than those jurors reported in Wagner’s and McCormick’s studies.

‘…I want to discover an individual Chopin brought to life by the performer in question.’ This would be true of ‘a performance with new insights to offer, presented in a way that is convincing not only pianistically but musically – that is to say, artistically.’ … What I definitely did not have in mind was the sense of ‘responsibility to the composer’ evoked by some of McCormick’s jurors, even if I do feel a certain responsibility in my own music-making. Instead, the accent was on ‘an individual Chopin’, that is, the performer’s personal take on the composer’s music in a uniquely creative instantiation which nevertheless paradoxically realises one or more aspects of the music’s potential. (Rink 2019, ts p.5)

The reference here to ‘the music’ may ring some alarm bells among readers of Chapter 5; at the very least it puts the performer of a non-standard reading at a substantial disadvantage, even for such a relatively broad-minded listener, for she has to be more than usually persuasive in order to overcome that sense of what belongs with a score. (No one said being a creative performer was easy.) But at the same time, Rink is unusually willing to judge a performer on what seem to be the performer’s terms:

I myself try to make sense of whatever performance I hear in the terms defined by the musician or musicians in question. And so, there can be extreme liberties taken, great flights of imagination, but somehow it has to work within the context of the performance. And I think that’s the ultimate responsibility of the performer: to make it work in the context of their performance, whatever one is doing. … [T]hat becomes a source of liberation rather than potential constraint: the score as a starting point. It’s then up to us to do with it what we want. What people think of it is up to them to decide: some will love, some will hate the same performance. (Rink 2019, ts p. 6, quoting his interview available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=juXod260J3E)

Which is why a competition is no place for these kinds of risks if you want to win. But Rink also reminds us how a performance can be heard so differently as to leave one wondering how any kind of performance evaluation can ever be sensibly made at a professional level:

As I was leaving the building, I spoke rapturously about Liu’s playing to someone I encountered whose musical opinion I greatly respect. To my astonishment, the person replied, ‘I did not like it. It left me cold.’ Instead of remonstrating, I said, ‘How fascinating: tell me why you feel that way.’ The response: ‘It is too studied. She does not feel it.’ I saw no point in arguing: it was better to agree to disagree. But the moral is that even a performance like Liu’s – one that left half the jury speechless – could be perceived as ‘cold’ and ‘unfeeling’. This confirms what I had said just days before: ‘some will love, some will hate the same performance’. (Rink 2019, ts p. 8. The Liu performance is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e6cv_rOpeO8)

Rink usefully reminds us, too, of the availability in editions (especially of Chopin, though scandalously not the Liszt edition, as Kenneth Hamilton repeatedly laments in the video lecture already cited) of alternative readings sanctioned by the composer.[8] The sanctioning is neither here nor there for this book, of course, but it is telling how rarely Rink found competitors taking advantage of alternative readings, no doubt (if they knew of them at all) fearful that jurors would assume they were mistakes. As one of Wagner’s participants observes, ‘One small error and it’s finished’ (Wagner 2015, 176).[9]


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[1] Kwok, Glen, and Chris Dromey. 2018. On Classical Music Competitions. In ed. Chris Dromey and Julia Haferkorn (2018), The Classical Music Industry (New York: Routledge), 67–76, esp. 72–3.
[2] Kwok & Dromey, 72. Their references are: Harold E. Fiske, The Effect of a Training Procedure in Music Performance Evaluation on Judge Reliability (Ontario Educational Research Council Report, 1978); Renato Flôres and Victor Ginsburgh, ‘The Queen Elisabeth Musical Competition: How Fair is the Final Ranking?’, The Statistician, 45:1 (1996), 102; George L. Duerksen, ‘Some Effects of Expectation on Evaluation of Recorded Musical Performance’, Journal of Research in Music Education, 20:2 (1972), 268–72. Their note 25 reads: ‘Several recent flashpoints are detailed in Stuart Isacoff, ‘Competition Judging: Keeping Evil Out of the Jury Room’, Musical America (3 February 2015),  www.musicalamerica.com/news/newsstory.cfm?storyID=33290&categoryID=7
[3] McCormick, Lisa. 2015. Performing Civility: International Competitions in Classical Music. Cambridge University Press.
[4] https://slippedisc.com
[5] New Yorker, Sept 5 2016. www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/09/05/yuja-wang-and-the-art-of-performance. Leah Broad has written powerfully about the sexism pervading critiques of women’s concert dress: ‘Fashion, fabrics and fishtails – why we need to talk about what female classical performers wear‘, The Guardian, 19 April 2022.
[6] Parncutt, Richard. 2018. The Reliability/Validity of Cognitive/Emotional Approaches to the Evaluation of Musical Performance: Implications for Competition Juries. The Chopin Review 1. http://chopinreview.com/pages/issue/6/1#3
[7] Rink, John. 2019. Judging Chopin: An Evaluation of Musical Experience. In ed. Gianmario Borio, Alessandro Cecchi, Giovanni Giuriati and Marco Lutzu, Investigating Musical Performance: Theoretical Models and Intersections (New York and Abingdon: Routledge), forthcoming; quoted here from the typescript. My thanks to the author.
[8] Hamilton’s lecture is at www.youtube.com/watch?v=vaU-T8ZAHkc.
[9] Or on a lighter note, and as a reward for reading the footnotes, see the trailer for ‘Grand Piano’ (2013) at www.youtube.com/watch?v=nEoM7bM7KVw