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Competitions: Opportunity or Lion’s Den?

Geschrieben von dschinnerl on Juni 12, 2014


“Competitions are for horses, not for human beings.”i Béla Bartók, to whom this quotation is attributed, knew what he was talking about. When in 1905 he participated in the Rubinstein Competition in Paris, he was not successful. “The ‘most honourable’ jury did not like my interpretations of Bach, Haydn, and Beethoven,” he reported somewhat sourly to his mother, and “that was to my disadvantage.”ii Yehudi Menuhin was not in favour of competitions either, reflecting whether all in all they might have a more harmful effect rather than be beneficial.iii

Endless is the list of participants, their teachers, adjudicators, and common listeners at competitions who complain about the results, claiming that the outcome has been biased, fixed beforehand, was based on misjudgement, personal likings, appearance, or circumstances. It may be added that the same is the case with examinations. To consider but one aspect, Flores and Ginsburghiv examined in their study on the results of the Queen Elisabeth Competition 1996 the order of performance, to find out that “performers near the beginning had a statistically lower chance of being ranked highly
in comparison with those who performed near the final day, who tended to be ranked in the top category by the adjudicators.” And yet: Young musicians and especially pianists seem to be attracted by competitions like moths to a candle. There are more competitions than ever, and more contestants to compete at all these competitions. Paul Keddy explains, “Competition occurs naturally between living organisms which co-­-exist in the same environment.v” Young artists seem to long for evaluation and ranking. As long as their expectations are not too high, one tends to accept this fact. But it may be worthwhile to consider some particular aspects of competitions.


Collins English Dictionary defines “competition” as “the act of competing, rivalry; a contest in which a winner is selected from among two or more entrants”. It derives from Latin “competere”, i. e. to meet, come together, or agree (com = together + petere = to seek).

Nothing wrong with musicians “coming together”, to find out a “winner”, which – according to old English “winnan” – is the one who tried hardest, took most pains! And nothing wrong with “rivalry”, as it literally means only being neighbours on a brook (from Lat. “rivus”) and thus being united by the same flow or interest.

There may be various reasons for participation in a competition.

“I’ve come so far and would like to see where I stand in comparison with others or in

comparison to my previous doings.”

OK, here is a good motive for participating in a competition, as long as one does not
expect the adjudicators to be infallible.

“Let’s see who is best.”

This assumes that a given jury is a hundred percent objective, with all the imponderabilities the term “objective” implies. See discussion below.

“If I get first prize, I will establish a concert career.”

Gone are the days when successful participation in one of the leading competitions such as Busoni/Bolzano, Chopin/Warsaw, Leeds, or Queen Elisabeth/Brussels marked the beginning of a successful international career. A close review of the list of laureates will reveal that not many of them after the initial ballyhoo were able to maintain a role in the theatre of international concert life. As to minor competitions, mentioning a prize may just fill a blank in an otherwise empty curriculum – and will impress nobody.
In his book “With Your Own Two Hands. Self-­-discovery through Music”, chapter “Public Appearance”, Seymour Bernsteinvi devotes a whole paragraph to competitions. Many teachers, Mr. Bernstein writes, would forbid their pupils to participate in a competition, as they generally regard them as unjust. This standpoint seems to be justified by the fact that indeed many highly talented contestants do not even get through the first round. Bernstein adds, for the sakes of fairness, that there could be good reasons for that: not least of them, that the contestant in question simply had a “bad day”. But Bernstein continues that more often the adjudicator’s judgement was at fault, based on dubious personal opinions about choice of pieces, style of interpretation, or behaviour on stage, things which the juror did not favour.
In her study “Sight over sound in the judgment of music performance“, Chia-­-Jung Tsay reveals the somewhat puzzling fact that even experts are more influenced by the appearances of contestants than their actual playing.vii „People consistently report that sound is the most important source of information in evaluating performance in music. However, the findings demonstrate that people actually depend primarily on visual information when making judgments about music performance. People reliably select the actual winners of live music competitions based on silent video recordings, but neither musical novices nor professional musicians were able to identify the winners based on sound recordings or recordings with both video and sound. The results highlight our natural, automatic, and non-­-conscious dependence on visual cues.“

Some insights from research

“Once the performance is complete (and sometimes even before), listeners will cast judgment upon it. The assessment may be in the form of a rapturous ovation or a cool murmur of unconvincing applause, a grade or report that provides an evaluation of how well the musician has satisfied certain criteria, or alternatively a critic’s polemical or glowing reports in the next day’s paper. Regardless of the assessment process, it is an integral part of the performance.”viii What McPherson and Schubert in their revealing study have to say about evaluation in general holds true for competitions (and examinations). They distinguish between musical, extra-­-musical, and non-­-musical factors. The following presents a résumé of the treatise in question.
“The published literature on the criteria used to assess performances suggests that there are at least four types of competencies that are typically used by music institutions, from which appropriate performance assessment criteria are devised.” They can be summarized as follows: technique, interpretation, expression, and communication. These criteria have their subdivisions, like posture and coordination

(technique), authenticity and accuracy (interpretation), understanding of the emotional character of the work (expression), and the degree to which the performer holds the audience’s attention (communication), to name but a few. The so-­-called “Halo Effect” may be particularly important to consider. It “arises from a tendency of a judge to be unduly influenced by a single factor, such as a particular strength or weakness in a person’s performance, their physical appearance, or another aspect of their behaviour. This often occurs in situations where a person’s performance is particularly high on a factor that an assessor personally feels is important, which then unduly influences them to inflate their assessment of other attributes of the person’s performance.”
“Extra-­-musical factors are an unclearly defined, fuzzy set that may belong to true musical value or to non-­-musical aspects of performance assessment.” Some of these factors are related to the performer (like attractiveness and flair), some are context related (such as acoustics), and some are the evaluator’s characteristics. Memory influences, for instance, “occur when individuals [jurors] are primed with information or have expectations about someone [contestant] that subsequently colour their expectations about how that person will react or perform.” The issues of “first impressions”, “mood of the assessor”, or “familiarity and preference” also play a role.
McPherson and Schubert do not go into a very sensitive field: the possible adverse effect of envy and jealously on the part of the adjudicator. As Verena Kast shows in her treatise on the matter,ix envy or jealousy – by some regarded as one of the “deadly sins” – may be present, even if a person tries to suppress these unwelcome feelings. A juror sub-­- consciously may be liable to jealousy of a participant’s appearance, youth, imagination, skills and abilities, etc. He or she may be aware of his/her feelings and struggle to outbalance them by giving higher marks. Either way it could influence the final
judgment. Research on this matter may prove rather difficult or impossible, as most
people would deny or not admit to these feelings.
To continue with McPherson and Schubert, “Non-­-musical factors are defined as those related to validity – that is, whether evaluators are actually assessing what they think they are assessing. Because non-­-musical factors produce unfair biases, it is important that educators, adjudicators, and researchers work toward understanding them. However, from the performer’s perspective, apart from being aware of their existence, there is little they can, or should have to do to manipulate these factors in order to enhance their performance assessment.” Two kinds of non-­-musical factors are discussed: stereotyping based on gender or race, and order of performance (see above, Flores and Ginsburgh).
The authors end up with a “Johari window”x (Figure 1), where the four quadrants show the different perceptions of performers and adjudicators (or listeners).

Figure 1 Johari windowxi
McPherson and Schubert summarize thus: “Extra-­-musical factors of a performance are a largely untapped source for performance enhancement because performers, adjudicators, and in many cases even music researchers are unaware of the major impact these could and do have upon the assessment of a performance. This does not
suggest that performers do not need to work on the traditional elements associated with musical value [!] […] However, it does need to be acknowledged that an ‘evaluation of a performer does not mean anything until we know how reliable the judge was who evaluated that performance’xii.
“It is acknowledged that there will be some adjudicators who have a very deep understanding of the process of adjudication. The wider adjudication community could be well served by discovering and applying the knowledge such individuals possess.”

Fresh impetus through “Piano Forum”

Salzburg Music Schools (“Musikum”) have invented a new competition format, which is not called a competition and where all participants are winners! The idea is very simple: Participants give a short performance, at which all participants and a group of experts are present. At the end all the performers and the experts form a separate body as an evaluation committee to discuss their impressions in separate circles, afterwards
sharing the results with the audience through a spokesperson. The discussions
concentrate on two issues: “What did you like about the performance” and, “If you were the teacher of this particular performer, which tip would you give for further studies”. There is no ranking, no “I did not like this performance” or, “One should not interpret a piece like that”. The tip may be, “Try out different ways of a certain (bodily) movement, or interpretation. – Here are some tips, how to improve your memory. – Reconsider your choice of pieces, etc.” At the end all performers get a certificate and a round of applause. And participants leave with the positive feeling that they learned something – and with happy faces! (https://www.facebook.com/pianoforum.salzburg?fref=ts)
The idea of a “competition without winner or loser”xiii comes from “ensembletreffen berlin” and was applied to Piano Forum by Gianfranco Sannicandroxiv, Head of Piano, Salzburg “Musikum”, in cooperation with Dagmar Schinnerlxv and the Faculty of Education at Salzburg University. True, participants afterwards take part in other competitions, some of them very successfully. But Piano Forum has great learning potential for both participants and experts. It counterbalances failure-­-centred approaches, where performers (and often their teachers and parents) primarily talk about mistakes, and overlook the good things already evident in a performance. Experts who afterward serve at other competitions as jurors note that, though not overlooking failures or violations of text, style, and the like, they tend to be more open to appreciating the original value of a performance.

Personal remarks

In the course of my professional life I served quite often as a juror at competitions on both national and international level. In addition, for some ten years during my active years at Anton Bruckner University Linz as Dean of Performance Studies I chaired countless examinations. During these years I found as my primary guideline a simple Bible verse, “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.”xvi To me this means amongst others, not to be influenced by either animosity or attraction,
not to be unduly impressed by one aspect of performance and similarly disappointed at
the absence of others, and not to expect performers to fulfil my expectations, to “please” me. Rather to be open-­-minded to learn of the vast possibilities which rest yet undiscovered in each musical text.
You, dear Readers of EPTA Piano Journal, may have had experiences in connection with competitions. Perhaps you would be willing to share them – and how you dealt with the challenges involved. Your remarks would be most welcome!

i The Piano Quarterly, 28th Year, Fall 1980, Number 111, p. 31.

ii Béla Bartók: Letter to his mother, August 15, 1905.

iii Yehudi Menuhin: Unfinished Journey. An Autobiography.

iv R. G. Flores and V. A. Ginsburgh: The Queen Elisabeth musical competition: How fair is

the final ranking? In: The Statistician, 45, p. 97-­-104.
v Paul A. Keddy: Competition, 2nd edition. Kluwer, Dordrecht, 2001, p. 552. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Competition.

vi Schirmer Books, 1981.

vii www.pnas.org.

viii Gary E. McPherson and Emery Schubert: Measuring Performance Enhancement in Music. In: Musical Excellence. Strategies and techniques to enhance performance. Edited by Aaron Williamon. Oxford University Press, 2004, pp. 61-­-82.

ix Verena Kast: Neid und Eifersucht. Die Herausforderung durch unangenehme Gefühle.

dtv, 1998.

x „The Johari window is a technique created by Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham in

1955 in the United States, used to help people better understand their relationship with
self and others.“ See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johari_window. Here it is applied to the relation between participants and adjudicators.

xi Musical Excellence, p. 76.

xii Here Harold E. Fiske is quoted: Judging musical performances: Method or madness? Update: Applications of Research in Music Education, 1983.

xiii German original „Ein Wettbewerb ohne Sieger und Verlierer“. A description of “ensembletreffen berlin” can be found (in German) in: Üben&Musizieren. Zeitschrift für Musikschule, Studium und Berufspraxis, Oktober/November 2003, pp. 40-­-43.

xiv Dott. Gianfranco Sannicandro is also treasurer of EPTA Austria.

xv Dagmar Schinnerl, M.A. teaches at the Upper Austrian Music Schools as well as at

Anton Bruckner University and is Vice-­-president of EPTA Austria. She implemented the concept of “ensembletreffen” in Upper Austrian Music Schools. For more information (in German) see www.ensembletreffen.at.

xvi John 7:24.

© Anton Voigt, 2014. In: Piano Journal, Issue 103, 2014.


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