Many student musicians participate in numerous competitions growing up — and many do not. CMPI fellows follow this pattern, with a few fellows participating in numerous competitions, a larger number who only do the occasional competition, and many not involved in competitions at all. In this article, we will take a look at the benefits and drawbacks of competitions, as well as how to choose competitions that are likely to be more beneficial to musical growth.
The first question to ask yourself about any competition is simple: what will I get out of participating?
So, What Do You Get Out of a Competition Anyway?
The most important benefit of a competition actually has nothing to do with the competition itself. As violin teacher Josef Gingold was known to say, the greatest benefit of a competition ends the day before the actual competition: the preparation. When you prepare your repertoire for a competition, you polish it to a much higher degree than you might otherwise. This degree of preparation is absolutely invaluable, and will help your development significantly in the long run. In addition, preparing yourself for a competition and meeting other skilled musicians can help push you to practice more and study your music more intently.
However, competitions are not the only way to build these skills. Preparing for a recital, audition, or jury can also build the same skills.
The Competition Itself
You may also receive both tangible and intangible benefits from the competition itself. Some of the most valuable of these are difficult to quantify, such as the experience of playing for a panel of judges, learning how to make recordings, or working through your nerves. Others are more obvious, such as a monetary award, the chance to play a solo recital or on a radio broadcast, participation in a masterclass, or an invitation to solo with an orchestra. Perhaps most important is the ability to get feedback from the judges or competition jury. Competitions are also a good way to get noticed, build your resume, and grow your reputation, which may lead to more performance opportunities down the road.
There is definitely value in competitions, especially if you approach the competition as a learning experience, and make good use of any benefits you receive.
- Monetary Award
- Solo, Recital, or Masterclass Opportunities
- Feedback from Judges
- Quantifiable Measure of Advancement
- Build Your Resume and Reputation
- Can Be Expensive
- Take a lot of Time for Preparation
- Repertoire Path May Be Restricted
- Can Be Stressful or Difficult on Mental Health
- Inherently Unfair
- “Competition Culture”
But Isn’t There a Downside?
One of the biggest — and least discussed — drawbacks of competitions is how expensive they are. For a competition with both a video round and a live round requiring travel, here are just a few of the costs you may encounter: application fee(s), accompanist fees for rehearsal and recording, hall rental for recording, recording engineer cost or cost of microphone and camera, travel costs (airfare, car rental, hotel, meals), and additional costs such as rehearsals, attire, and purchasing music. Note that CMPI can help with some of these costs in certain circumstances.
In addition, competitions can take an enormous amount of preparation time that may be better spent elsewhere. Often, you may end up focusing on your pieces for as long as a year in order to prepare them for competition. You may also be restricted to repertoire categories or specific pieces by competitions, severely limiting your and your teacher’s ability to choose the best pieces and pace for your ultimate advancement.
Competitions are also undeniably stressful and difficult on your mental health. Your emotions will range widely, from fear and nervousness to elation and disappointment. While you may experience a brief bit of euphoria if you place or win, it is also very common to come out of a competition discouraged and downtrodden, doubting your skills and abilities.
As composer Bela Bartok famously said, “Competitions are for horses, not artists.” This leads to another drawback of competitions — the culture of competition that can turn artists into automatons adapting their playing just to win competitions, instead of developing into true artists. Winning competitions takes a specific skillset, and it is not the same skillset that is needed to develop a solo or orchestral career.
Finally, competitions are always unfair. Music is a subjective art; it cannot be measured or quantified in the same way as an athletic event. Judges may have preferences for a certain style of playing or technique — or may just like how someone looks when they play. A juror may be biased toward a competitor with a known reputation, or may give greater rewards to his own past and present students. Judges may reward or penalize a performer for non-musical factors beyond their control, including the student’s age, appearance, gender, race, nationality, or manner.
Note that competitions vary widely in character, reputation, and fairness. In the next section, we will take a look at how to choose competitions that will benefit you, if you choose to do a competition.
If you decide that you would like to enter a competition, choosing the competition is incredibly important. There are many factors you might want to consider:
- What you get out of the competition (tangible and intangible)
- The costs
- The time and preparation necessary
- The quality or reputation of the competition
- The level of the competition
CMPI faculty and staff, as well as other music professionals, are great resources for helping you to find reputable competitions that foster a nurturing atmosphere and provide benefits for your musical development. Some of the following types of competitions are a good place to begin:
- Program competitions, such as those at Merit School of Music, Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras, Midwest Young Artists Conservatory (Walgreens), DePaul Community Division, or other local youth orchestra competitions
- School-based concerto competitions
- Community orchestra concerto competitions
- Summer program and festival competitions
- Cultural society competitions, such as those held by the Sejong Cultural Society
- Arts organization competitions, such as those held by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Sphinx, National YoungArts Foundation, or Society of American Musicians
- Arts education association competitions, such as MTNA or ASTA
- Instrument-specific organizations and competitions
Identifying Pay-for-Play Competitions
For some organizations, competitions are more about making money than helping young artists. “Pay-for-play” is a term that means you pay a large fee to enter the competition, or an additional fee to perform on the winner’s concert, which often includes hundreds of paying “winners.” While these sorts of competitions have been around for years, they have proliferated during the pandemic, with hundreds of online competitions now available for entry.
While there is nothing wrong with participating in these competitions if you have the time and money, they are not great resume builders and do not typically provide many benefits. Every college professor or other music professional looking at your bio or resume can very easily identify what is a real competition and what is a pay-for-play competition.
See the box for some clues that a competition is more about making money than helping musicians to develop their skills.
- High application fee or multiple application fees
- Large numbers of winners
- Jury/judges are unlisted or not experts in the field
- An exorbitant “performance fee” or “concert fee” is required to play on the winner’s concert
- No judge or jury feedback is provided at any level of the competition
- All rounds are by video
- Monthly or quarterly competitions
- Award is performing in a famous hall that you must pay for, often by the minute
- No or small tangible benefits for winners
Let’s Boil It All Down
To sum up, competitions can be potentially beneficial if the competition is chosen well and the student’s expectations are managed. However, competitions are not the only way to a successful career and can have significant drawbacks. Top soloists such as violinist Hilary Hahn have never entered any competitions and have stellar careers, while many winners of top international competitions never saw their careers materialize.
Winning is also the number one reason NOT to do a competition. Besides the fact that placing or being a finalist is often regarded just as highly as winning in the music profession, entering competitions simply to win is a sure strategy for crushing your mental health. Choose wisely, and consult with your teacher, mentors, and other music professionals when considering entering a competition.