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Piano Competitions are a Necessary Evil
March 8, 2023
Brian Li, Grade 10

“Competitions should be for horses, not for humans,” Bela Bartok, the 20th century Hungarian composer, famously said. Anyone who has stepped foot in the world of modern classical music will have encountered competitions. Whether one is just a novice, or an experienced professional with decades of music instruction, one will inevitably have to contend with music competitions; this is especially true for the piano. However, it was not always so. In the “Golden Age” of piano, from 1890 to 1930, world-renowned pianists, such as Vladimir Horowitz, Alfred Cortot, and Arthur Rubinstein, never needed to compete to achieve prominence. Indeed, it is possible that if “the greats” competed in a modern piano competition today, they would not even receive the lowest award. However, in today’s world, where pianistic talent is commonplace, piano competitions are a necessary evil.


The function of piano competitions is simple: they are a way to filter out the “talented” from the untalented, and the skilled from the unskilled. Today, they are also the only way to enter the professional piano world. While local competitions provide opportunities only at a local level, competitions at an international level can decide the fate of a musician’s life. The outcomes can decide the fate of musicians’ careers—whether they become a concert pianist, or whether they receive a scholarship to Harvard, or whether they stay a local, unknown artist, whose work is unheard. I have watched the concerts of many pianists, whose careers stemmed from an award at a competition. I have had dinner with the 5th place winner of the 2015 Chopin International, who won the competition at the age of sixteen and was accepted into the Harvard and New England Conservatory dual-degree program. And yet, at the same time, I have talked to musicians who possess a vast wealth of musical knowledge, but teach locally and have few students. I have met people who have gone to prestigious music conservatories, yet have never found a music-related job. Success in competitions can open doors to vast realms of possibility and can utterly change a musician’s life. While doing poorly in one brings no harm, at the same time, winning a competition is often the difference between having a career and not having one.


Yet, today, the old professors and former concert artists—remnants of a past world of music—all have the same complaint; they feel that, although technological advances have allowed for hundreds of times more concert artists today than in the past, the genre of modern classical music is a sea of clones. As someone who has taken piano masterclasses from a wide variety of professors, the comment I have received the most is “play it differently.” Yet, the moment competitions are mentioned, they take back their words. “Don’t make them raise eyebrows,” a UBC piano professor once told me. The reason for these sentiments is not a very complicated issue; there are millions of very “talented” pianists in today’s world, and choosing one to be the sole winner of a competition would only be fair with a large panel of judges and several rounds. With so many varied opinions and diverse backgrounds, the only way to succeed in a competition would be to tread lightly and offend nobody; this is why piano competitions come at the cost of personal and artistic interpretation. Ivo Pogorelich, now a successful musician, was lucky enough to have the notable pianist Martha Argerich in the jury on his side when he competed in 1980 Chopin International competition, as he had a radical approach to playing Chopin. However, even then, he did not make the finals, and Argerich quit the jury in protest as a result. One jury member commented: “he doesn't respect the music. He uses extremes to the point of distortion. And he puts on too much of an act.” One year after the competition, however, with the support of other artists, he gave his debut recital in Carnegie Hall, New York, as well as several other recitals in London. Yet, Pogorelich was an outlier in every sense of the word—in both how he plays, and the success he had experienced despite his failure to walk the common path. 


Piano competitions may not appreciate individual interpretation as much as they should; yet, as of now, they are the only way to deal with the sheer number of pianists hoping to be the next Lang Lang or Daniil Trifonov. Additionally, the opportunities that competitions offer are unmatched by anything else the world has to offer to musicians. With enough talent and work, and by treading the right path, a pianist can have their own career before they even graduate high school. One such example would be the latest winner of the Van Cliburn International competition, Yuncham Lim, who has already begun touring the world at the age of eighteen. As an aspiring pianist, I would never refuse the chance to perform with the Berlin Philharmonic, or an offer to Stanford, yet these ambitious visions are not the only reason I pursue music. Piano competitions help foster a community, bringing together people from various continents for a common purpose. I have consistently met the same people at many competitions over the years, and found myself part of a community of people with whom I can hold endless niche conversations about the ins and outs of Rachmaninov’s preludes, or the specifics to techniques used in certain Chopin etudes. The hours we have spent alone at the piano, picking at phrases to polish and perfect, unites us. 


Some will say that piano competitions serve only to put flawless pianists with perfect yet musically muted performances on a pedestal. Others argue that in the modern world of classical music, competition is the only way for an aspiring musician, out of the millions of aspiring musicians, to start a career. Neither view is wrong, yet competitions have offered me some of my greatest memories and lasting friendships. Like medicine, nobody likes competitions, yet they are one of the reasons why classical music is still alive today. The musical landscape today is completely different from the one in the past, and no matter what past artists have felt, the world has changed, and our artistic societies must evolve.