Piano Competitions – how important are they?

The debate about whether piano competitions are still important continues. It’s an age old topic and now a pianist who is herself preparing for a competition speaks out. Aura Go has written an excellent article for an online classical music and arts website called Limelight. You can read her article here. She writes her musings to the backdrop of the Sydney International Piano Competition and highlights the limitations which competitions impose upon young pianists including strict and often mundane repertoire critieria and limited exposure afterwards.

Aura Go remarks:

‘The world is teeming with brilliant, impeccably-equipped pianists hungry for concert careers, many of whom make it something of a full-time profession to jet from one international competition to the next in search of that “big win” which will kick-start their international careers. But it is becoming a well-known fact that even the most prestigious win today does not have the same outcome that was ensured even just a couple of decades ago’.

Quite. I couldn’t agree more. It has been many years since a competition win will really do much to help a pianist’s career. It seems an almost outdated way of ‘getting noticed’ now especially with the rise of social media which encourages artists to attend to their own publicity. Bartok famously remarked ‘competitions are for horses, not artists’ and this isn’t far off the mark. However they do ensure technical competance from their participants and exhibit some benefits.

Participation encourages the artist to develop a larger repertoire, as Go points out, and because the preparation for a competition is a mamouth task, they generally make a pianist a better musician. Coping with the added stress of performing under such conditions is an endurance test in itself too. The lucky few will receive some exposure and engagements although these benefits rarely seem to last beyond a year or two.

Aura Go also points to the limitations set by both the time constraints (the first few rounds usually require a maximum of 20 minutes playing time) and repertoire rules. She argues that this really does stiffle artistry and creativity because the competitior is virtually ‘told’ what to play or certainly which style is expected.

So is this relevant anymore? When we go to hear a pianist do we care if they have won an important competition? Or is it just another impressive addition to their already extensive biography. Competitions do seem to attract those who excel in technical fireworks and who champion the romantic, virtuosic works. Introspective and possibily more interesting players will often fall under a competition radar. So perhaps it’s time to look elsewhere when building a career as a pianist and use competitions as merely a way of building repertoire and endurance. What do you think?

Here is Nikolay Khozyainov who won first prize in the International Dublin Piano Competition earlier this year……..

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


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