So You Want To Organize A Piano Competition?

Chicago Comp Logo

Piano competitions are becoming increasingly popular around the world, whether amateur or professional.  Amateur pianist and competition planner, Sally Olson (pictured below) lives in Chicago (US) and is on the committee of the Chicago Amateur Piano Competition 2016. This competition, which began in 2010, is steadily growing in popularity, with entrants hailing from many countries (the 2014 winner came from Glasgow). Few realize the tremendous amount of planning, fund-raising and marketing behind such an enterprise. Here, Sally lifts the lid on her experiences so far.

A pinnacle of achievement for an amateur pianist is to compete in an amateur piano competition. For this reason alone, amateur piano competitions are thriving and they’re popping up all over the globe. The United States is no exception. This year, with some hesitation, I asked to participate in the 2016 Chicago Amateur Piano Competition’s (CAPC) planning committee. I envisioned attending meetings, sitting back and watching “how it was put together”. 

It’s so easy to say – “Let’s start an amateur piano competition”. But, beyond that decision lurks all kinds of Catch 22’s. In my case it has become an adventure in planning and a desire to put together an “upscale” competition. Most piano competitions are what I like to think of as “cookie cutter” events. You show up, meet other pianists, play on the stage 12-15 minutes, attend a couple of social events or a masterclass, and complain vociferously about poor judging (especially if you didn’t get to the second round). The real challenge, as I see it, is how to raise a competition a level above that.

With that in mind, I am listing the “basic” criteria you need to know if you wish to design an amateur piano competition. Moving it up one level – well, I can only give you hints and theories.

Location, location, location

In the United States most of our competitions are based in largely populated areas such as Boston, Washington D.C., New York and, of course, Chicago. There are numerous reasons for this. Large cities have many colleges and universities to draw on for judges. You will definitely get a better attendance than, let’s say, in a small country setting.

Money, money, money

What surprised me the most was when I heard the actual cost of running even a small competition. In no time at all you can have expenses of $20,000 dollars and up. Competition fees (Application fees, acceptance fees and masterclass fees) will only get you half way there. So, donors and sponsors become a necessity to covering the expenses. To move our CAPC competition event up a notch we could clearly see we needed an additional $10,000 dollars. Why? Judges.

Judges, judges, judges

The most important aspect of an amateur competition to the participants is “Who will be the judges?”, and that is the “secret” to raising a competition to a higher level. It’s the difference between three local judges (who are very competent) to importing two or three international judges such as a judge from Europe, a Van Cliburn winner and so on. This will elevate the competition significantly and that alone will attract more applicants which in turn results in more application fees and a better quality of competitor.

Volunteers, volunteers, volunteers

Volunteers can make or break a competition too. They greet competitors, make sure snacks are readily available, do page turning, make announcements, build websites. The list goes on and on. Without them – the competition can fail miserably.

Sally has a lot more to say on this subject, so will  highlight the importance of marketing, ‘live streaming’, and website design in a future post.


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.



3 Comments Add yours

  1. Cheng says:

    Do I need to have a license to host a piano competition?

    1. I’m afraid I don’t know! It depends on where you live, I should imagine…

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