Crooked Piano Competitions

“Of course you were first prize, my dear. But the jury were instructed not to award the prizes because we don’t have the money.” This is what one harpsichordist was told by the business manager of a European competition after they didn’t award 1st, 2nd or 3rd to anyone and she won the highest remaining prize: Honorable Mention.

In a South American competition, a pianist won first prize: $5,000 and an appearance with orchestra. She played the concerto but never collected the $5,000.

In an international competition I entered, three rounds were scheduled: the usual two rounds followed by the usual finals with orchestra. But after the second round, the organizers announced that another round would be interposed before the finals! They took five contestants into this new third round; the jury passed only two into the finals; and then it split 2nd prize between them, not awarding 1st or 3rd.

A number of us who had been knocked out of the competition agreed that the best contestant was a young woman from Japan. She made it into the third round—that new 3rd round—but not the finals. I’ll never forget her ebullient performance of Beethoven’s Opus 2, No. 3, all joyful eagerness and precision; nor her heart-broken sobbing when she was eliminated. Her teacher was the great Ingrid Haebler, whom jury members were rumored to see as a competitor to themselves. Whether they did or not, her playing was marvelous, and it got her nowhere. Were the rest of us wrong in our judgment? Was her elimination honest? Or was it a case of musical politics? And was it an accident that of the two eventual finalists (who split that 2nd prize), one was a fine performer, and the other—technically accomplished but quite unexpressive—was the student of a jury member?

(I’m not mentioning many incidents I’ve encountered whose interpretation might be less clear, as when members of a competition audience (the big competitions have full-house audiences from first note to last) called out the name of one contestant they favored, whom the jury had knocked out. Or the contestant who omitted the toughest of David del Tredici’s “Fantasy Pieces” from a second-round performance in a major competition, saying cynically of the jury, “They’ll never check the score.” He was right: despite his violation of the rules, he made it to the next round. (Of course, he did have to play well enough to move on!)

And I’m not mentioning the many delightful moments, like the audience member’s coming up to me after I’d played the Opus 111 in Munich and saying in German, “Original Beethoven!” Or, after I played the second round at the same competition, the short twinkly nun bustling up to me and saying, “I love you!” In one of the few times in my life that I’ve found the right response on the spot, I replied, “Well, then, I’m in good company!” Or, most fun of all, the camaraderie among contestants, especially when we practiced and ate together.

I have a few ideas about how to run competitions: You don’t have to award first prize, or any prize; but you must give away all of the prize money. The contest announcement should be accompanied by a notarized statement from a bank that 100% of the money is in an escrow account, and will be distributed, but only to contestants. If the jury says that no one deserve first prize, that’s fine; that’s what you have a jury for. But then the money for 1st, 2nd and 3rd goes to those who place 2nd, 3rd and 4th. If no one places, it goes to the honorable mentions. All the money goes to contestants no matter what. This keeps things financially honest.

To keep things artistically honest, jury members may not be current or former teachers of contestants. This can be tough to arrange; so for extra protection, contestants should play behind an (acoustically-transparent) screen, at least until the finals. (Teachers may still recognize their students’ playing. I don’t know what to do about this.)

There’s much more to it, such as assuring that pianists have good instruments for practice (a big competition once supplied me with an upright), but these rules are a start.

Contests are great fun, but will always be problematical. Some performers are oriented toward sharing a musical-emotional experience with an audience, not testing themselves against other performers. These people may not show to advantage in a competition.

Then, too, juries will always tend to pick the contestant with the lowest musical profile. If contestant A plays with a very distinct musical personality—a “high profile”—some members of the jury may like her playing, but it’s a certainty that some will dislike it. These latter people may like the equally high-profile but quite different playing of B, whose work is intensely disliked by the group that favors A. Each group blocks the selection of the other’s favorite; and they compromise on C, who does not offend either group because his playing is low-profile, and indeed boring. This is why so many competition winners have so little to say. The exceptions—contestants so good that they can’t be denied, despite high profiles—are very rare.

Rarer still are jury members of the modesty of Artur Rubinstein. Judging contestants in his namesake competition in Israel, he scored every one either 20 (the highest score) or 0. When asked about this, he replied, “Either they can play the piano or they can’t.”

Copyright © James Boyk 2015. All rights reserved.
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