Why do Asian artists swamp some competitions?

Why do Asian artists swamp some competitions?


norman lebrecht

November 07, 2018

We reported last week that 27 of 41 finalists admitted to the Geneva international Piano competition came from China, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Japan.

Only one of them, San Jittakarn from Thailand, has made it into the last three.

Which leads to a suspicion that some governments may be subsiding too many candidates with a strategy that sheer numbers might prevail.


  • V.Lind says:

    Not keen on that word “swamp.” It’s a bit attitudinous. It has been discussed here in the past why a lot of candidates emerge from Asia. Last three is a tight list: how many made, say, the last 10?

  • Bill says:

    As has already been pointed out to you, the 41 were not finalists.

    Do you have any evidence whatsoever to support your government backing theory?

  • M2N2K says:

    The same result may lead to a different suspicion: that the jury was biased against Asians. Which shows once again that numbers alone do not prove anything.

  • Sally says:

    A particular form of a inhumane competitive culture that exits in many Asian countries,

    Most of those competitors and their teachers and/or parents have no genuine interest in music, they simply want to beat everyone else at “something”. Whether it’s being the top olympic medalist , or being the best pianist, it’s the same motive.

    The national governments seek to subsidize and produce 1000 “world class music students” like they do toothpaste in a factory. It’s the governments of those countries and their citizens trying to prove that “we can do it too” and that “maybe we’re even better than you!”

    Come on folks,… while the above is a generalization, it’s obvious. Not the “nicest picture”, but that doesn’t automatically make it untrue.

    • The View from America says:

      Hmm …

      In Central Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s, many were saying that Jewish people were trying too hard to “become something” and to “be better than us.”

      Broad brush-stroke generalizations like that rarely end up in a good place.

    • Nelson says:

      How the f would YOU know the “Teachers and/or parents have no genuine interest in music”??! Have you ANY idea how idiotic you sound suggesting that people at the highest level competitions could feign interest as you suggest? You do not know any of the people involved (I do), but are falling victim to a stereotype because these people don’t look and act and learn “like you”. It’s “obvious”? Come on now, please tell us what you’re smoking….I’d like to know how to create a fantasy world too. Show me/us an example, please!

  • koreanpianist says:

    Completely wrong Norman. I can say at least the Korean government doesn’t give a damn about young Korean artists doing competitions. In fact, very recently, the ministry of culture declared it is thinking of abandoning the “army exemption” policy for 1st and 2nd prizewinners of some international competitions, because so many Koreans are disgruntled against it. I must say this article is completely nonsensical with a bigoted, unprofessional, and baffling suspicion.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    Racism. (I think we’re all entitled to play the games the Left does with their identarian fascism!).

  • Anon says:

    I’m not sure it has anything to do with governments, I believe it is more to do with the misguided tiger parents who believe that a competition winner enhances a family’s social status. Thus, these poor kids are robbed of their childhoods due to their parents unrealistic expectations, and how many of these young people are going to have a career in music? Very few, I suspect. I think it is just a rather upmarket version of “Toddlers and Tiaras.”

    Burnout awaits.

    One of the saddest examples is the former dancer, Miko Fogarty, a child prodigy, a competition winner, featured in a ballet documentary, a YouTube star, beloved by millions of her young followers; a social media heroine, yada yada… Spent a short time with the Birmingham Royal Ballet where she did not advance as she hoped and is now studying biology at the University of California – Berkeley. A fabulous future in dance now well behind her. And she’s 21 years old.

    Of course, tiger parenting is not wholly an Asian phenomenon. It exists anywhere an ambitious parent resides. The Wikipedia entry on tiger parenting is most illuminating.


  • Nancy says:

    If 27 out of the 41 finalists were European, would you have headlined a post stating “Why Don europeans swamp some competitions?”

  • Acastos says:

    Would you care to provide evidence for your blank speculation (“some governments…etc.”), or are you happy with your throwaway racism?

  • John says:

    Do you realize that the fact that you wouldn’t make such a statement about European competitors make your comment racist?

  • Peter says:

    That’s an interesting suggestion. Do some far eastern governments subsidise their music students to enter music competitions ? And in what form do these subsidies come ?

  • Kyle Wiedmeyer says:

    It’s a cultural thing, no? Many Asian children these days learn classical instruments and I believe they’re expected to perform to a very high standard at a young age.

  • Gerry Feinsteen says:

    This is a complex can of worms, Norman. Simply by sheer number there are more Asian-nation young musicians than in the West. Gramophone magazine had a cover story in 2007 50-60 million piano students in China alone. The typical education program in these Asian nations is dominated by rigorous and highly competitive public exams; even from the early primary years the exams begin, and they are far more intense than anything the West has ever seen. Thus, it is fair to say, the focus and endurance needed to prepare for a major competition, as well as the funding(!), is already in place. The concept of, “just try” is not acceptable. This may also explain why many of competition winners fail to accomplish major careers—-since the professional world is hardly a standardized test. On another hand, preparation on hard work alone may be good enough to get the the top rounds, but the old saying, “someone younger and more talented” will likely appear. It’s saddening to see the rise of so many second-tier competitions claiming international status.
    Look at the recent major cello competitions and you will see that the close proximity and timing of these competitions only reduces their overall significance. The highly prestigious Paulo Cello competition has launched numerous major cellists who have active performing careers. I would be curious how the results would have turned out had this Isang Yun cello competition been in 2019. Of course. There was also the Enescu cello competition in September. It’s overwhelming and underwhelming at the same time.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Actually, the school system in England has more exams than anywhere else in the world. Finnish school students are among the least examined.

  • Terence says:

    It is more complex than that. Many governments and foundations help students, not just in Asia but in the UK and US too.

    The success of ‘Asian’ students (some born in or migrated to Western countries) is about the intensity of their study, the large number starting and the lower dropout rate.

    I base this partly on my reading of the Piano World forums (especially the Piano teachers forum – including many scathing comments on the poor (non)practice habits of non-Asian students ) and other anecdotal evidence. For example, the owner of the largest string instrument shop in our city of five million told me 60% of his customers were East Asian; they are less than 5% of the population.

    You find the same ‘disproportionate’ percentage at, for example, Harvard. (Interesting court case currently on this issue.) But I digress, slightly…

  • V says:

    Tiger moms…

  • Peter says:

    Hot on the heels of the ridiculous “Only Koreans win in Korea” post (whose innuendo was thoroughly debunked in the comments), we now get an attempt to construct a racial narrative and draw specious inferences from a sample size of *three*.

    I mean, really: what is it with the author’s recent predilection for making snide remarks about Asian musicians?

  • JoBe says:

    The noticeable fact is also that these Asian countries are all non-Muslim. Where are the Asian competitors from Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh, any of the Arab Gulf States, et al. ?

  • James Kent says:

    If a government wants to help its’ young musicians with competition costs, why would this be a bad thing? Perhaps EVERY country should do this rather than trying to prohibit it at all? The costs for young students to devote themselves to practicing the repertoire for 6 months to a year, and then fly to Switzerland and stay there in a hotel for many days is not what a typical student can afford. If it is true that Asian countries are helping it’s citizens with competition costs, than I say BRAVO to them!

  • Will Duffay says:

    Because the West has retreated from Classical music, which has been sacrificed for the twin horrors of cultural relativism and obsession with the market. Pop sells, and people like pop, so pop is good and all that matters now. Oh, and Classical music is elitist (ignoring the fact that withdrawing the State from support for Classical music in schools just reinforces the perception of elitism, as only the wealthy can now afford to involve their children in it).

    • Anon says:

      The West has not “retreated from Classical Music”. They have possibly retreated from classical music competitions, but competitions are not the essence of classical music in any way shape or form.

      Competitions are a highly specialized, expensive and non-cost effective focus within the classical music world. They take a lot of time and money and do not in any way guarantee a career. In a word, they are not practical. They are a very unreliable indicator of talent, or of who will or will not succeed professionally in music. They show who is good at taking competitions.

      I believe western musicians see this, hence the diminishing participation of young western musicians in international competitions. Asian musicians apparently do not. Somehow Asians believe that by spending boatloads of money and time and excelling at proving themselves in competitions they will somehow be assured a place of importance at the table in the classical music profession.

      I think, quite honestly, that there is a strong element of Asians wanting to prove their competency at a Western art. Classical music, despite all efforts to dissuade this image, is unfortunately still a European art form, both in history, tradition and practice. I think there’s an element of Asians wanting to prove their merit at a Western-based art form.

      I just wonder when all of these Asian competition takers are going to realize that winning competitions does not guarantee them success or financial security in the world of music. No agent wants a roster of all Korean soloists. The West is already saturated with Asian soloists with names Western audiences can’t pronounce. The job market is slim to non-existitent for these competition winners.

      This is why music students from the west don’t bother with competitions anymore, IMHO. They are a waste of time. It’s time better spent taking orchestra auditions, or pursuing advanced degrees, or marketing your career yourself. They rarely lead to much more than the competition victory itself.

      The sooner Asian music students catch on to this, get up to speed with their western compatriots, the better off they’ll be. Until then, we can expect to be swamped with leagues of unemployed, high level Asian competition laureates. It’s a good thing they generally come from wealthy families who can support them because a competition win is no assurance of financial success.

  • Mike Schachter says:

    Unlike the West, East Asia does not have diminishing interest in classical music. May be a factor?

  • Jonathan Dunsby says:

    ==Withdrawing the State from support for Classical music in schools just reinforces the perception of elitism, as only the wealthy can now afford to involve their children in it

    Good point !

  • The View from America says:

    Substitute the word “Jewish” for the word “Asian” and read the clickbait headline back to yourself.

    … I thought you’d do a double-take.

    The time to start lumping people together based on their ethnicity or bloodline is now.

  • Bernardo says:

    All these posts ranting about Asian kids winning competitions are really borderline racist. Sorry for you, but does it occur to you that they are actually BETTER than the others? More dedicated, more focused, more artistic? Add to that the natural demographic imbalance between APAC and Western countries and you have your explanation.

  • luigi nonono says:

    The Asian approach to child-rearing and education favors overly specialized, obsessive practicers who lack culture and well-roundedness, play, other qualities Americans certainly prize. Rewarding them damages our culture. They are only keeping classical music alive by paying tuition and supporting teachers and schools. But they are keeping out other students. The Curtis Institute has a vast majority of Asian students, but that has a very different effect than having a majority of European or Jewish students. Culture is racist by nature.

  • Lydia Wahlberg says:

    Why are they all trying to get into Harvard?

  • Nathaniel Rosen says:

    People often win competitions because they play better than others.

  • Anon says:

    Look, if it was all about Asians having a higher emphasis on culture as a priority, they would be excelling at traditional Asian music, which has a far longer and possibly more distinguished tradition than the western classical music which competitions promote.

    Why are these Asian children not being taught traditional Asian instruments? Why are they not pursuing the extraordinary music which is within their own culture?

    It’s for this reason that I believe that there is an element of Asians wanting to prove their success at a western art form.

  • Fan says:

    Norman Lebrecht, you need to give clear response to “Luigi Nonono”. Your continuous silence will be seen as endorsement.

  • CommonSense says:

    Careful, your racism is showing. Numerically it just makes bloody sense that there are a lot of Asians 😉