Sunday, December 1, 2013


          A longing for perfection has always been a recognizable feature of human nature.  The motivation to achieve the highest results can be viewed as the basic pre-condition of any progress.  “Don't be afraid of perfection. You will never attain it!” advised Salvador Dali. Those words ring true to any dedicated artist. The question is: “What can serve as criteria for the evaluation of perfection in art and music?”

            I believe that the major fallacy in the professional music world is the idea that the level of musical talent has to be measured in competitions. Once competitions were established as the main authority, they grew to become a powerful business. There seemed to be only one proven path to establishing a musical career -- win a competition. The main goal of business is profit; however profit from classical concerts depends on the number of tickets sold. It is a serious challenge to attract the public to concerts of classical music - a highly complex art.   

            The real understanding and appreciation of classical music and performance has always been a privilege of musically educated people. Unfortunately, the public educational system is not equipped to contribute to serious musical education, so it is not logical to expect that concert halls will be filled with listeners with sufficient musical understanding for the complex art of classical music.  Therefore, the ‘star of the show’ must be the one who can demonstrate skills that are more easily comprehended and appreciated by anyone who comes to the concert. Consequently, the ‘brilliance of technique; has become the most recognizable hallmark of the winners of musical contests.

In addition, the nature of many competitive events invites favoritism and unfair judgement. Many good musicians proclaim the loss of real values in the musical world, and feel that competitions for children are beginning to take over a dominant role in music education. In order to expand their profit, competitions ensnare musically gifted children into their web.

            There is a serious debate between followers of competitive structure in professional musical education and those who would like to dismantle the competitive element once and for all.   Here are a few of the arguments in favour of competitions:

1. Competitions motivate to work hard and become better professionals.

Any appearance on the stage is a powerful motivation for the performer to invest time and effort in practicing. However, there is an obvious benefit while working toward non-competitive performance. A non-judgmental event stimulates a child to concentrate more on the process of music-making rather than on an adjudicator’s decision.  Another benefit of a performance without a judgment is the flexible choice of repertoire based on educational goals. In order to achieve technical perfection and the stability expected in competitions, one has to practice the same program for a long period of time. However, one of the most significant features of a child’s musical development is acquiring a broad repertoire. The famous Russian piano teacher, Anna Artobolevskaya has mentioned in her book that in order to attain  musical intelligence,  children should play as much music as possible, avoiding spending time on the final process of polishing,  since the extent of the resulting music exploration eventually transforms into the quality of performance.


2. Competitions in childhood prepare for competitions in adulthood

Many famous musicians have never had the experience of participating in competitions in their childhood. “In the two decades during and immediately after World War II, the personal and professional expectation and goals of most young musicians appeared to be considerably different.

Between the years of 1946 and 1956, it seemed entirely likely that a student at almost any one of the country's top conservatories had never been exposed to a competition.” (Cline, 1985, p.1)

Professional artists often confess that the pressure of the competitions can be psychologically unbearable, and emotionally destructive. One can imagine the harm to a fragile child’s psychological health that competitions can cause. Prominent Hungarian composer and educator, Béla Bartók, once declared: "Competitions are for horses, not artists”.

3. Competitions are opportunities to perform in the various concert halls and receive financial awards

One of the major reasons for many teachers to become involved in competitions is an opportunity for their students to perform in a variety of stage and acoustics environments. Unfortunately, there are a limited number of events organized expressly for children where young performers can play for the public without undergoing the process of being selected. Competitions are the perfect chance to get on the stage of professional concert halls and play in front of the public, and competitions attract the attention of potential ticket buyers using the acclaimed name of the concert halls. The organizations running the competitions for children realize  that devoted parents will pay for the venue,  and thus many contests announce the performance of the final round in such places as prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York City.  If one looks at all the expenses of a competition for children (fees for registration, fees for performance in the final concert, travel and accommodation) and sees that extremely modest awards being offered, it becomes obvious that these competitions are not similar to adult competitions, where sizeable awards are a way of assisting in a future career.  

Very often winners of such competitions became a target of the media. Five and six year olds appear on television playing the role of superstars, believing in their own uniqueness. Mature musicians know how harmful it can be for a child to be labelled as a “genius” by the show-makers.   Very often these children don’t develop their artistic potential because the early fame is so misleading -- for the child, the parents and in some cases, for the teacher as well.


            Finally, competitive structures are changing professional goals and values of music educators. The following passage explores the harm caused by competition-oriented teachers, constantly following their professional ambitions:

            “We frequently hear about the role teachers can play in orientating a student toward      ''healthy'' competition. Unfortunately, research indicates that competition may corrupt       teachers to a greater degree than their students. Competition-oriented teachers tend to             view students in a dichotomous fashion (low ability or high ability) and often gear their    efforts toward validating their own egos rather than toward accomplishing educational     goals. “(Austin, 1990, p. 21)

            We do not need competitions, but it is hard to believe that the current competitive structure will be dismantled. However, there is a way to avoid harm from competitive events by using contests as an opportunity to share art with other people. Children have to be instilled with an idea that the goal is ''not to win a prize but to pace one another on the road to excellence'' (Austin, 1990, p. 21). This approach helps to direct education in the most effective path which enhances satisfaction from constant self-development and dedication to the art.


J. A Austin
DATE: (1990)

Competition: Is music education the loser? Music Educators Journal 76(6), 21.

E. Cline
DATE: (1985)

Piano competitions: An analysis of their structure, value, and educational implications. Unpublished doctoral