A competition goes behind a screen

There are two massive innovations at the Carl Nielsen competition, which opened this weekend in Odense, Denmark.

The first is that its president Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider has banned professors and teachers from the violin competition jury.

Just like that. No more you vote for my student, I’ll vote for yours.

No more I’ll double my private fees when my student wins.

The bracing air of Odense feels extraordinarily clean.

Second, the jury in the violin contest are placed behind a black screen. They can hear the contestants in the first round but not see them.

That eliminates any aspect of favouring the fanciable ones. Players are judged on the music alone.

From what I was able to observe, the effect has been entirely positive. The jury has no idea who is playing and in which order. In the second round, the contestant appear in a different sequence.

Judges were playing a game guessing which was male and which female. Amazingly, they guessed right in every case they ran past me. Three judges who are concertmasters- Albena Danailova (Vienna Phil), Nurit Bar-Josef (National Symphony Orch) and Eugen Tichindeleanu (Odense Symphony) – were used to blind auditions. For the others, it was a testing first time.

As for the range of talent, it was very broad. I heard three absolute stand-out violinists. Watch this space.

In future, all competitions need to be like this: teacher-free, blind and fair.

photo: Vienna Philharmonic audition, 2014

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  • Caravaggio says:

    In agreement. This is how it ought to be done. Should it be done also for singing competitions? Or are presentation and communicative body language, if the singer has any, in that space too important to hide?

    • Bruce says:

      I would say in the preliminary round(s) musical communication and sound are most important; after all, that’s what is most important in real life. Then once you’ve decided which contestants are the good singers, you can start looking at which ones also have “presentation and communicative body language,” because that is also important.

      (My opinion anyway. Certainly Pavarotti, Sutherland, Price, Caballé didn’t build their careers on their acting or personal appearance; it was their singing that made them famous, which is how it should be.)

    • Zenaida says:

      The vocal competition “By voice alone” does just that https://byvoicealone.com/

  • Tweettweet says:

    Note that the International Dutch Harp Competition in Utrecht had this exact policy from the start in 2010.

  • Anon says:

    Standard procedure for orchestral auditions. Very fair, except for the Vienna Philharmonic! (No Asians.)

  • Anon says:

    If competitions are to be judged by ‘experts’, then removing a whole group of experts – teachers – in one fell swoop is not helpful. The vast majority are fair and honourable, so to dismiss them all because of a few rotten apples is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. And what counts as a teacher in this brave new world? Someone who earns the majority of their income from a formal position as a pedagogue, sure; but what about leading soloists, chamber musicians and others who give a handful of private lessons on an ad hoc basis, or who take regular masterclasses? They certainly teach. Are they to be excluded too?

    • Harrumph says:

      There are plenty of other competitions for teachers to exploit. Let this one be corruption-free, at least for now.

      • Don Christman says:

        So you assume that all music teachers are corrupt exploiters. Have you had such a bad experience with your music teachers that you feel compelled to insult an entire community of dedicated professionals?

      • Bill says:

        Don’t be so quick to assume this is corruption-free. Nothing prevents the judges from voting based on factors other than the quality of playing. It just may be a bit less obvious who they might be inclined to help. Give lukewarm marks to everyone in the first round, when you can’t see who it is (if you think you can’t reliably identify the candidate you want to help), and give strong marks when you can.

    • Nick says:

      The “vast majority” is NOT fair and honorable!! And that is where the problem is. If the majority were fair and honorable there would be no need for such drastic and, frankly, ridiculous measures like screens!!

    • SVM says:

      Anon raises a valid question: how do you define, for the purposes of excluding from a competition jury, a “teacher”? There is no escaping the fact that almost all musicians do some teaching (whether privately or through an institution), both occasional and regular.

  • Tiredofitall says:

    Finally! Is that the first competition to ensure more fairness?

  • Bruce says:

    Fully agree.

    Granted, famous performers often give lots of master classes, which students then put on their resumes; but working with some stranger for half an hour is a lot different than teaching them in your studio and being invested in their success.

  • The Original Anon says:

    This is excellent news! The Nielsen Competition is serving as an outstanding example for other competitions.

    About the screen: was this just used for the violins, or for flute and clarinet as well? How do they enforce the memorization requirement? Does that become the job of a backstage monitor? I ask because one of the 24 flute candidates was eliminated for not playing a required portion from memory.

    Lastly, it’s interesting to see that these new rules are already being followed carefully. Yehuda Gilad of the clarinet panel, according to a notice on the website, excused himself from voting in the prelims because 4 of his students were competing. Bravo for his integrity.

    The Nielsen is once again proving itself to be one of the best, most ethical and well run competitions out there. We are especially enjoying the live screenings and the wonderful diversity of the candidates. The whole world is getting interested and involved because so many countries have candidates participating. For once this isn’t a simply a showdown between predominantly Asian candidates.

    Congratulations to the Nielsen organizers who are doing a spectacular job with this competition.

  • Naomi Pearson says:

    I shall be looking out for the first Conducting Competition that adopts this idea – after all it’s all about how the music sounds, isn’t it?

  • Peter Mack says:

    Seattle International Piano Competition has had the judges behind a screen for years. A good idea!

  • guest says:

    This is absolutely great and I hope every competition adopts this, however at a big competition it would be easy to get around to know who is playing.
    Imagine at the Tchaikovsky competition, Round II, where you essentially have 60mins of free program (with one Russian piece).
    Very easy for word to get around which piece you are playing, or which pieces in which order so the judges know. Obviously it is harder, as it won’t be your teacher directly voting for you, but favours need to be made with other teachers.

    Definitely steps in the right direction!

    ps. I wonder if they tell the Women not to wear heels, as it might give their gender away while they walk on stage? But as I type this I guess even male concert shoes make the same sound so it is a non-issue

  • Nick says:

    A fine idea!!! Not the first time. Tried and failed. The public for the “future artist” not only hears the artist but also sees the artist. And the appearance either adds to the musical artistry or takes very much away. The effect is different.
    So, as usual, there is NO WAY to have a fair competition in music. Body language is an INTEGRAL PART of musical performance and to place the jury behind the screen is to deprive the jury from a fair evaluation.

    The only way to have a “fair” competition is a HUMAN FACTOR. One must have honest people, people with integrity judging. And even then the result is only a mathematical average. An artist cannot be defined by averages. Another good intention will end up in failure!

  • Larry W says:

    I bet one of the absolute standouts was a young man from Sweden.

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