One year ago, one of my readers asked me how I feel about competitions and if I could write something about this hot topic. I really had to think about it (one year!) and find the right time to publish this. But, wait, aren’t we in the middle of a series of posts dedicated to Janáček? Yes, absolutely, but you’ll soon understand the connection. As you can notice in my biography, I didn’t “win” any prize in any competition. Not that I never attended one, I did join one but I decided right after that I will never do it again. But don’t worry, I won’t bother you here with the traditional music-competitions-are-evil. Things are not that simple.
“Musicians can’t compete, music is not a race, there is no winner, no looser”. Yes, it’s surely aesthetically ugly, maybe inappropriate, at least not romantic at all to make musicians compete for a trophy. I agree with this. BUT, music is for us a business too, a passion/business certainly, but a damn hard business. And in any business there are competitions and competitors. This doesn’t mean that we hate each other and we want other pianists to burn in hell. No. I meant competitors in a sense that other people are “providing the same kind of service”. Like it or not, competition even in the fabulous and marvelous world of music exists, that’s a fact. And music competitions can be a way to learn that. As well as a way to set a practice goal.
So why did I stop competing if competitions are so great? (sniggering in the audience) In fact, I was expecting to get a constructive criticism about my playing and meeting people doing the same thing as I do. What did I get? None of that. Participants didn’t want to speak to each other (as if I was going to steal them their talent just with a conversation) and I met nobody I could keep in touch with. For the constructive criticism, let me tell you a short story (here comes the connection with Janáček).
A couple of years ago, I performed In the mists for one of the rounds of my soon-to-be last international competition. After the jury’s decision, I decided to test the water and ask the jury members what they liked and what they didn’t like. I got various advices, a third of them could have been helpful if I had not been told the exact opposite right after, and the last third of these precious “advices” didn’t make any sense at all. And here came the cherry on the cake. One of the members didn’t like at all my Janáček. OK, I can take that you know, but what I was really interested in was why? Suspense… Let’s precise here that members of the jury are supposed to have no information about participants: The guy didn’t know anything about me, and that’s why it was so hilarious.
He advised me to listen to Czech people speaking, for me to get the color of the language, maybe even learn a bit of Czech or work with a Czech teacher because I was obviously not aware of Czech culture, how Czech music has to sound and of the bohemian background of Janáček’s music. Wow. Frankly, I’m still surprised I stayed impassive. The guy, (I’m sorry I can’t remember his name but I made my research in those times) obviously never spoke Czech, never had more exposition to Czech culture than his 3 days trip to Prague 10 years earlier. Anyway, I just wanted to throw in his face I was a 5th year Czech speaking student of Prague Conservatory and that Janáček had no bohemian roots or background but Moravian ones. I didn’t do so but I can remember myself standing in the room with a piece of quiche in the hand just looking at this guy and thinking “this competition thing is a huge joke”. I made up my mind: I would never apply for one again.
Was it a mistake to make up my mind having only one experience? Was it a childish reaction? No, in fact I think I just found a good excuse not to be involved in more competitions. Admit it, it was a very good excuse! But the truth is I never needed to have external practice goals, and I don’t care much about what other pianists can say about my playing. As far as I can remember, I’ve always hated competitions, but when I was a child I did not really have a choice. In my childhood, that maybe taught me how to deal with stage fright. I certainly could have used the kickstarter an international competition can be, but I’m happy I didn’t use this shortcut: I’ve learned a lot more about my job and the music business that way.
Competitions aren’t good or bad, they are a tool in the pianist’s life. A tool you choose to use or not, a tool you know how to use or not, a tool you like or not. Life is not easier nor harder with or without a prize. The important is what you can learn from the experience, and believe me, I learned a lot, even if I didn’t find what I was looking for in the first place.
Pierre-Arnaud Dablemont's journal
by Pierre-Arnaud Dablemont
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Link to the Original
- Leoš Janáček: On an overgrown path
- A useful year (2/2)
- What is a musician supposed to look like?