: Competitions Transform Their Purpose

09.12.2010, 23:12
An Essay Presented

Sean L.A.M. Bennett


The Department of Music
in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements
for the Degree of Master of Philosophy
in the Subject of

Wolfson College
Cambridge University
Cambridge, England
April 26, 2002

We just took all your musical scores and books and threw them down the stairs. The ones that flew the furthest we matched to the contestants who played them and thats how we knew who to award the prizes to. (Lowenthal, 1996)


The above quote restates an old joke Juilliard piano faculty member Jerome Lowenthal likes to tell as he announces competition results. Usually, everyone except the nervously awaiting contestants laugh and then he announces the results (which often, unfortunately, have a high correlation with the books that actually would fly the furthest).
Lowenthals joke illustrates the predicament competition juries are presently in: how do they award prizes, and to whom (and why)? What, if any, are the repercussions which stem from their decisions? In the modern-day era of over 450 international piano competitions (Alink, 2002) and 40,000 piano diplomas awarded yearly (Fleisher, 1995), whatever a 3-to-13 person competition jury decides, it is highly unlikely to have a major effect on anyone -- including the winners.
In my personal interviews with international piano competition jurors, it has become clear that they are often secretly divided between utilizing an objective text and a hidden text in making their award decisions. Dependent upon the composition of the jury, usually a compromise between jurors favoring these two types of text ensues and a technically clean, but rather dull pianist is chosen to win. This compromise never seems to select pianists who then maintain strong performing careers. However, for reasons to be explained, jury behavior does help to sustain the competition medium.
Pianists who excite their audiences enough to get them to return to future concerts tend to win the concert tours and management contracts. These pianists utilize what I call an audience-engaging text. Some early competitions had juries that selected winners best matching the audience-engaging text. These winners, including Ashkenazy and Argerich, have enjoyed long performing careers after their competition wins. However, again for reasons to be explained, it is almost impossible for a contemporary juror utilizing an audience-engaging text to continue judging, and even more difficult for a contemporary audience-engaging pianist to win a competition.
After providing an overview of the shifts piano competitions have made in the last thirty-five years, I will define what I mean by these three different types of text. Then, the essay will examine why juries have used objective and hidden texts but not audience-engaging texts in their decision making process.

Competitions Transform Their Purpose

From the first Warsaw Chopin Competition in the late 1920s to Argerichs Chopin Competition win in 1965, there were only a handful of major competitions and a few dozen competitors in each. Juries were largely composed of superstar performers and composers (the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition being the most remarkable case, with Shostakovich, Kabalevsky, Neuhaus, Goldenweiser, Richter, and Gilels present). The jury members did not have an economic incentive to judge (they usually were not paid), nor did they have a responsibility to defend their prize selections. There was a shortage of concert pianists, especially after World War II. Most pianists who entered international competitions already had substantial performing careers and were just looking for the extra career push that a superstar jury could provide.
Starting in the late 1960s, the number of competitors increased dramatically as the number of conservatories rose. The number of competitions increased, responding to all the pianists trying to secure careers. Many benefactors, like Grace Welsh of Chicago, set up competitions to provide pianists for the many new arts series and community orchestras that needed soloists to economically stay afloat. Dozens of competitions were set up to honor certain composers and historical eras (Alink, 2002). Many students began to fund their way through music school with competition earnings (Goodyear, 1997). There were too many competitions for good jurors to judge them all, so the quality of juries took a nosedive in even the most prestigious contests (Sitsky, 2001). To attract quality contestants to the competitions, good jurors began to be paid quite well and were often persuaded to judge by being given nice hotels and fancy dinners (Fleisher, 1995).
(segue nel prossimo messaggio)The number of pianists in competitions, recognized academically as a problem by Cline as early as 1985, made it realistically impossible to publicize winners in the New York Times, to open management doors, and to secure concert tours (Gelfand, 2001). As it appears that the market can only bear a few dozen famous pianists at one time, there simply were not enough audiences to support the number of pianists who wanted to be heard.
This sweeping change in the competition landscape occurred during an era when purism and historical treatment of performance became faddish among some performers and many musicologists (Scruton, 1997: 438-444). Judges who valued objective and pure readings of pieces began to challenge those imminent jurors who preferred creative pianists who excited an audience. The behind-closed-doors debate between these jurors began to result in lower quality, but defendable prizewinners (Horowitz, 1990). Because of the psychology of group behavior, this became increasingly true as the juries grew in size (Janis, 1965). The winners of competitions did not excite audiences very much anymore. The era of the competition as a medium that launched careers was over.
The real winners were those few with skills who realized that by opting out of the competition circuit entirely, they had time to focus on the aspects of performing that would really sustain their career maximizing the experience of the audience. Garrick Olhssohn, sums this up well, The last major international career launched by a competition was Krystian Zimerman's in 1975 Pogorelich got launched by not winning the Chopin Competition. Of the really famous pianists today, Evgeny Kissin, (Arcadi) Volodos and Lang Lang have not entered them.

A Jurors Objective, Hidden, and Audience-engaging Texts

Judging piano competitions can never be entirely objective. If it could, we would not need a jury, but could instead program a computer to choose the winners. As in competitive figure skating, effective musical performance is a complex interaction between objective elements and subjective elements (Shepherd & Giles-Davis, 1991: 177). Fleisher (1995), Lipkin (1996), and Ax (1996) point out that while musical performances may contain notes that are right or wrong, judges cannot seem to agree whether the notes were played in a right or wrong way. With top pianists programming transcriptions and arrangements on their CDs and concert tours, whether the notes are right or wrong may itself be a matter for serious debate. How do juries handle this problem?
When a juror judges a contestant in a piano competition, he must rely on a of criteria, whether explicit or implicit, on which to base his decisions. These criteria form an idealized mental text that the juror uses when comparing performances. In the last thirty-five years, there have been three major categories of mental texts jurors have used while making decisions in piano competitions: objective, hidden, and (very rarely) audience-engaging. I use text in a mental, not a physical sense, and therefore its use should not be confused with any written entity, such as score.
When referring to the objective text, I refer to criteria that jurors call highly objective but which are actually quite subjective. These objective criteria attempt to follow how a composers intentions, as somehow indicated in a score, create the instructions for the right performance of a piece of music (Bowan, 1999: 424-451). Examples of items included in an objective text reading might include how many notes were incorrect, how well dynamic indications were performed, and how rooted in latest Urtext the performance was. To better understand what I mean when referring to a jurors use of objective text, consider T. S. Eliots claim that, there is an ever-growing party that claims privileged intimacy with the private qualities of the old masters, worshipping a purism unsullied by the realities of life (Lang, 1997: 173). This purism, popularized by some musicologists interested in historical performance practice, is at the heart of my conception of objective text.
When referring to a hidden text, I refer to both a set of criteria and an action on the part of jurors. Hidden text is much like Korsyns (1991: 3-72) idea that weak compositions make small changes to previous composers compositional strategies, but do not venture into new structures or personalized interpretations. The criteria used by hidden text jurors are measurements of how well a performer provides a close fit with the Urtext while adding very few interesting new interpretive elements to the performing tradition of a piece. For example, a performer may find a new interesting inner voice to emphasize without altering the traditional performance style a work has gathered over its reception history. Because jurors are unlikely to know the performing traditions of many pieces they hear, it is most likely that they will (secretly) rely on their own interpretations of a work when determining how well a contestant matches the hidden text. In short, jurors will likely ask Does the contestant play like I would ideally? Hidden also accurately describes the way in which many jurors publicly proclaim themselves to be objective text jurors but actually utilize the criteria for hidden text jurors in determining who wins prizes. (segue nel prossimo messaggio)
Finally, conformity plays a strong role in influencing jury text preferences. Jurors utilizing objective text and hidden text often look down upon those using audience-engaging text as vulgar and proletarian, and unless they are big name jurors, audience-engaging judges are often not recommended by jury chairs to participate in judging future competitions. Those who judge based on audience-engaging texts must often shun strong beliefs among elite musicians about performing tradition in order to align their votes with those of the audience. However, Judges who speak out against competitions openly are often not hired to judge again, one interviewee stated on the condition of anonymity. Senior jurors add additional conformity pressure by using juries as unofficial selection grounds for academic tenure positions at their music schools. Thus, jurors who want to advance themselves hierarchically or financially choose to judge with the objective or hidden texts in mind.


Pianists enter competitions largely out of the false hope that they will have the instantaneous rise to fame Van Cliburn and Martha Argerich enjoyed, transformations that probably could only happen in the context of the 1950s superstar audience-engaging juries that selected them. Today, instead of Carnegie Hall recitals and rises to fame, thousands of homogenized competition winners receive 50 poorly attended performances for a year, and then are forgotten. They are victims of juries who have ignored the audience-engaging text, instead promoting the objective versus hidden text debate in a fight to sustain their economically stability through employment at competitions. The artists who enjoy major performing careers are those who, through attention to the audience-engaging text, excite their audiences into coming back to their concerts repeatedly. These artists cannot win competitions in their current state. Therefore, the top artists get their careers what used to be considered the hard way, but which now is the only way by earning audience respect through performances that set them apart from the myriad of competition winners.

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