Star violinist: ‘I am very much against competitions’

Star violinist: ‘I am very much against competitions’


norman lebrecht

September 09, 2014

In an open-access interview with our partners, Hello Stage, the violinist Julian Rachlin recommends up-and-coming players to avoid entering competitions. ‘I don’t like the idea of one person competing against another in music. It’s not a sport… Many musicians don’t like this system. Certain students are being pushed by the jury system, in a very unfair way.’

So how to get started? ‘Try to play to important conductors, when you are ready…. A real talent will always find a way. Don’t get stressed about it.’

Click at 19:00 on the video. Apologies for the boxy sound.

julian rachlin


  • Doug says:


    I see…in other words: “don’t bother with the Mafia system, instead go directly to the Mafia Dons.”

  • Andrew says:

    Yes, eliminate the middlemen. Actually, competitions are a great opportunity to be heard and even discovered for some, but fortunately many fine soloists find their way while circumventing such unpleasantries. Competition is everywhere at every level of classical music and that’s not a bad thing. That’s life. Perhaps a great deal more of coaching in the realm of philosophy from teachers would help ameliorate the destructive potential of this reality of standing up and being counted.

  • CounterNinja says:

    Several years ago, I was selected as a finalist in a large competition in the US. During the soundcheck in the hall, some of the “Friends” of the organization began placing large flower arangements on the stage. I told them about my flower allergy/sensitivity and they told me that the flowers were very expensive, so they would remain there.

    I sang well, but didn’t win any of the top three prizes. I was willing to accept this outcome due to my inability to overcome my allergic reaction to expensive things. That was until a board member approaced me at the reception to congratulate me and tell me tell me I was his favorite. He also chose to share with me that I was also an audience favorite, however, a baritone hadn’t placed highly or won the competition in more than a few years, and that needed to happen. He hoped I would understand, and would come back next year where in which my results would be more in line of, in his words, “what I expected.”

    I’ll never sing a competition again. Honestly, my career is better for it.

  • Sergei says:

    “Competitions are for horses, not for musicians” (Bartók)

  • Vince says:

    That’s the equivalent of saying don’t bother with the job interview, go directly to the hiring manager or company executive who can get you the job.

  • CounterNinja says:

    If you can find me a music competition that provides healthcare, a good and stable salary, and 401k, I’ll 1) agree with you, and 2) do it! 🙂

  • Elisabeth says:

    I wonder if there is any point to go to a competition in order just to have an extra opportunity to perform, to learn more repertoire and meet other musicians?

    • Martin Malmgren says:

      That’s precisely the point with competitions, for me. What us youngsters often lack is stage experience, and competitions offer us an opportunity to grow on stage. Also, just as you say, it gives us the opportunity to meet other musicians, share experiences, and learn from one another. I’ve made great friends in competitions, and have also enjoyed preparing for the same competitions with fellow pianists – always supporting one another, and understanding that ultimately we are not ‘competing against each others’ (which is what Rachlin brings up) but we are growing, each and every one of us, in different ways and directions. I grew with each competition I prepared for, if I prepared well. The result was always less important. But I also had the opportunity of doing things I could never dream of without competitions – earlier this year I got the chance to play Prokofiev’s 5th concerto in the finals of a competition (there were several odd-ball concerti in the finals), a piece that I’ll be playing three more times in the nearest future.

      The usual pitfall with competitions is that since they are all so similarly structured, they tend to lead to performers narrowing rather than widening their repertoire (playing ‘safe pieces’ that ‘work well’ in competitions, etc etc). However, I believe that mustn’t necessarily happen, and if it does, perhaps in the end it says more about a particular performer than what it says about a particular competition. We like to blame competitions for creating boring perfectionist performers, and somehow we seem to forget that those ‘boring performers’ are all willing participants in this game – if they are uninteresting to listen to, do they have anyone but themselves to blame?

      I remember a pianist who for some unknown reason fared well in a bunch of regional (non-international) competitions, always repeating exactly the same pieces with basically zero wrong notes and zero passion for the music. He would practice those pieces ten, twelve hours per day, endlessly, same passages over and over, like a type-writer. He had zero interest for exploring repertoire beyond standard works. The guy had never even played a Chopin mazurka in his life! He played some large-scale Chopin works, because that’s good competition material – mazurkas aren’t. Yet he managed winning a couple of competitions. Never would I say that ‘competitions are to blame’ for ‘creating boring musicians’ – boring musicians have themselves to blame. And if competitions would suddenly vanish, they would still be the same uninteresting musicians, I believe.

  • muslit says:

    the criteria for competitions is killing the individuality of musicians. that’s why so many violinists, pianists, and string quartets sound the same.

    • Martin Malmgren says:

      Well, Muslit, that’s precisely the issue I tried to adress above. The criteria for competitions actually differ quite a bit from one competition to the other – there are competitions with free-choice repertoire, with focus on particular composers, on 20th-century music, on contemporary music only, on historical instruments, etc etc etc.

      Whatever you say regarding criterias in competitions – all those violinists, pianists and string quartets that to you ears sound exactly the same are all willing participants of these criteria. If they happen to be boring musicians – why do you shift the blame from the musicians themselves to the competition circuit as such?

    • Sergei says:

      Interesting, Elisabeth. But all of you should admit that never before nor after such a fantastic group of genius were together on a violin contest: Neveu, Oistrakh, Hassid, Goldstein, Hendel, Temianka. Incredible!