Tuesday, April 21, 2009

More on competitions etc.

Jessica Duchen is on the trail of the (corrupt) music competition system.   The career stakes for performers in these affairs are generally higher than those for composers, for whom the main problem is that entrants are too often being asked to fund the competition prize through entry fees without clear-cut aesthetic criteria for the judging offered up-front, but the nepotism and abuses of the jury system indicated here are alarming.  

Music is not a sport and simply doesn't operate by the kinds of rules that lend themselves to fair judging, so maybe the best solution is to simply recognize that competitions — unless very carefully, ethically, and openly organized, like the "Iron Composer" competition, for one — are by nature  prone to abuse.  Given that recognition, we can then either ignore them altogether or take them in a much lighter spirit, as a none-too-serious form of entertainment. 

The best way for a young musician to establish a reputation for playing is through playing, especially with other musicians, not competing against them.  Play lots of different music in informal settings, as a soloist or chamber musician, and cultivate your "works well with other skills" as well as the purely musical chops.  Playing for free in such events is far more useful than trying to finance your way into the competition circuit.  Organize your own soirees and concerts.  The finest musicians I know have established careers in just this way and their independence from the conservatory/competition/agent system has meant that they can play a greater number of concerts with a greater variety of music and have more interpretive freedom than their colleagues who are locked into narrower repertoires with lower levels of interpretive tolerance.  The per-concert fee of a good new music pianist, for example, may be lower than that of a good Chopin player, but the new music pianist is going to play more music more often and can more readily establish a niche that looks like a real career than the mainstream player who is always subject to the whims of the current market.  


Anonymous said...

Could you explain how Iron Composer does things better?

Paul H. Muller said...

I agree that avoiding competitions would seem to be the best path for young talent. No instant fame, perhaps, but steady progress based on actual performing.

I once saw a documentary on the Van Cliburn competition in Ft. Worth. Two things struck me: First Van Cliburn wanted them all to win - he was so empathetic and seemed so very sincere; it was very touching. I guess because he went through the same thing.

Second, the judges were shown deliberating and they seemed to openly skew the results towards candidates who could fulfill the tour dates that were part of the prize. An academic from Russia, for example, was not gonna be the guy to play one-night gigs in five different cities over, say, two months. In some ways it seemed unfair and in another way it made sense, given that the differences in talent between the contestants were pretty small anyway.

But for judges to skew the results for personal reasons seems way, way over the top.

Daniel Wolf said...

Iron Composer does not fund the prize money or the competition itself with entry fees. Moreover, in expanding the competition beyond Iowa, they made an honest effort to cover the costs of competitors. The rules and composition of the jury are made absolutely explicit upfront.

Most importantly, the organizers are doing the whole thing in a light-hearted spirit that is entirely appropriate to such a competition.

Anonymous said...

Quick note - Iron Composer started in Omaha, Nebraska, not Iowa.

Daniel Wolf said...

Sorry!! Nebraska, not Iowa! Once I get past the Rockies, my geography goes to shreds... Take away the dinnette set!

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