How competitions bring out the worst in us

How competitions bring out the worst in us


norman lebrecht

May 06, 2020

This is a message from a piano teacher whose student, albeit gifted, did not make it to the semi-finals of BBC Young Musician of the Year. The round took place in early March and the results have only just been broadcast.

The teacher’s reaction is significant in the sense that it highlights the nebulous nature of all music competitions. Unlike athletics, the judges marks can be subjective at best and the emotions provoked by their conclusions may often be irrational.

Here’s what the teacher has written:

... we are putting former complaint to BBC Ofcom for formal and legal investigations… 

I am devastated and disgust(ed), actually. I thought I will let it go, but now I feel like this must to be said.
I am struggling (for the first time!!!) to find words and explain to (x) judging decision yesterday.
The boy was at the top, in the different league with his performance. Audience and Friends went to buy tickets for next week semifinals to listen him before results were announced! This is how all obvious was!
And somehow judges choose the weakest performer to be a winner!!
And what do I say to the boy when Piano Professors and well established pianists in UK and worldwide coming to him after results has been announced and saying that he was the best and he should have won!!!?!! Do I say that Music is subjective and people are looking for different things and etc?! No, I can’t as this is not the case. I could tell that if performances were shoulder to shoulder….
But what I will say is this….
Shame on you … (for whatever reason you had) by promoting low standards, discouraging young people to believe (and perhaps to stop participating) in fairness in Competitions…..

We have every sympathy for the teacher. It’s the competition system that’s at fault.


  • John Borstlap says:

    The teacher’s reaction is not irrational at all and very reasonable. If a competitor gets such reactions from different directions, there must be a high dosis of objective truth in it.

    Competitions for young instrumentalists should be different: not about winners – mostly only 3 from a large pool of gifted players – but a presentation of a large group of young musicians, and not a race to ‘the top’, which is irrational and irrelevant for the art form anyway.

  • Alexander T says:

    Nothing very surprising about any of this.
    As the saying goes: it’s not what you know, but who you know.

  • Will Duffay says:

    I disagree that the weakest performer won, on the basis of what we saw in the edited programme on Sunday. He was an engaging communicative player, though perhaps less technically certain than the others. But when has accuracy ever been the top priority?

    Obviously one feels for the unsuccessful performers, especially given their age. But if they’re good and commited, and they enjoy playing, then they’ll have successful careers.

  • Richard slack says:

    Is this teacher for real? Shocking attitude. There is to much emphasis on young talent, I am rather more interested if a pianist is still learning at 40 rather than how good they were at 14

    • Bruce says:

      And yet, if they don’t fare well in competitions when young, you are unlikely to have a chance to hear them (or to put it another way, they are unlikely to have a chance to play for you) when they are 40…

  • In saying, “We have every sympathy for the teacher. It’s the competition system that’s at fault.”, you appear to be condoning appallingly unprofessional behaviour by the teacher in releasing this statement, which is also utterly disrespectful and insulting to the musicians on the jury. Her response to the result is as detrimental to Harvey’s interests as it could possibly be, and stands in stark contrast to the dignified statement Harvey released himself.

    Music competitions are not a new phenomenon. Every teacher and participant knows full well that the results are not measured with rulers. Choosing to participate is an acceptance of the nature of an arts competition

  • Nuno Ivo Cruz says:

    Yes, not a good system, this is almost guaranteed to happen at every competition. Students , and their teachers, should be previously aware if the jury is respectable. If you accept to play for a jury you have to accept the judgement, errors and all

  • Jeffrey Biegel says:

    Competitions are good for preparing large amounts of repertoire for potential performances, and to meet people and garner visibility whether one wins or loses the prize. In the end, how we connect with our colleagues and audiences sustains a lifelong career – not a competition. I say this to my students. They compete within themselves, to better their studies, work toward the best possible interpretations for their stage of life and take it from there. If you buy a lottery ticket, you have just as good a chance of winning as the next person. What we bring to the public and leave as a legacy over time is what makes the career – not the competition. Sure, it is nice to win, but we don’t always win. Why? Why ask. If one has to ask, then don’t do it. We all know it is not based on one decision. But go to meet people, play as best as you can, and take the best from what it offers as a stepping stone. If the challenge inspires you, that is ok. Of course, the music should be first, but the competition often forces a young player to best themselves. That is a considerable goal then. But, if one does not win, never feel discouraged. And teachers should never feel discouraged. It is more about inspiring students to soul search, find their individual voices and make a life in music the goal.

    • Delphine1962 says:

      Thank you, Jeffrey, for your wisdom and experience on this subject. If all these young, gifted musicians can apply their view of competitions to the longer trajectory, they will get something out of the competition experience, even if, in the short term, they may be disppointed and disillusioned by what they may be feel is failure, should they not actually win a prize.

      The only serious (and damaging) failure is to see a competition success as the ultimate reward in a musical career. Unfortunately, so many have fallen by the wayside taking that view, partly because many of the major competitions encourage a gladiatorial, combative competitivity that is completely alien to real, artistic music-making.

      There are, I feel, so many various ways in which music competitions could take place more fairly, less gladiatorily (if that’s a word!) and more humanely.

      I have yet to read a professional soloist’s concert publicity/biography that didn’t cite an exhaustive list of competition successes, as if by some reflected glory, the more prizes, the better the musician, particlulary when they bring age into the mix. It’s faintly ludicrous, and yet they all do it!

      I watched and listened very carefully to all five of these young, fresh and talented competitors, and I was very impressed by the level of maturity they exhibited in their profile conversations; of course, these might only be words, but I got the impression of sincerity.

      I can so understand the disppointment and frustration of some teachers who have devoted so much time, energy and expertise into developing their students thus far, but the bigger picture should be their aim. I also don’t think it is fair to impugn the judgement of the panel; their judgement is of course subjective, but it is based on a great deal of experience and it should be respected – if not agreed with.

      • Jeffrey Biegel says:

        Thank you for your kind words indeed. It may also prove interesting to see how young musicians cultivate the next few years of study, in which directions they channel their energies etc. Until orchestras re-convene, it may be very interesting to see a rebirth of the solo recital industry, which has otherwise been swallowed up by concerto performances.

      • Bruce says:

        I do remember a video of a speech by Jon Nakamatsu, where he detailed all the competitions he lost, starting at age 8, before he finally won the Van Cliburn. It was a very long list, and I would guess many others have similar ones.

    • Murray McLachlan says:

      Wonderful words from the wonderful pianist Jeffrey . Bravo and thank you!

  • Bill Gross says:

    Ice Skating Events in the Olympics or Gymnastics anybody? At least that kid didn’t have to worry about the East German Judge.

  • robert freeman says:

    Please read Joseph Horowitz’s terrific book of 1989, “The Ivory Trade.”

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Absolutely right, robert! I’s a must-read.
      Bela Bartok: “Competitions are for horses.”

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      Now it should be re-badged as “The Plastic Trade” – and that can have multiple meanings!

  • Buddah says:

    “And what do I say to the boy”

    How about: “Sorry that I overhyped that competition; and that our only focus was that competition.
    I now realize: we were shallow in our quest for absolute recognition (the 1st prize).
    In particular, I must highlight my own guilt, of having been blinded to obtain via you, that recognizable sign of success for myself. As a grown-up I should really have known better. I guess I am like a child in this as well.
    On slippedisc I sometimes read (what comes across as hateful) remarks, that there are people who hate to listen to competition-players and think that they are all just shallow superficial finger-movers. I don’t have the strength and artistic background to actually understand their argumentation.
    For me it was all just about the first prize. I’m so sorry. so sorry. I’ve ruined it.

  • Robert Levin says:

    Nathan Milstein, the great Russian violinist, disliked competitions and only served on one competition jury during his lifetime. He once told me the following, “the problem with competitions is that the winner thinks he or she is the best and the loser thinks he or she is the worst, neither of which is necessarily true.”

  • John Borstlap says:

    As Bartok once said: ‘Competitions are for horses.’ But no single horse has ever won a music competition (apart from one time in 1958 at the Jacques Thibaud Competition but that was due to the exhaustion of the jury).

    • Marcellus says:

      Can anybody cite the source of this oft-cited Bartók quote, which frequently appears in a more extended form as “Competitions are for horses, not artists”? In an interview published in the Boston Globe on 9 November 1990, the Bartók student György Sándor recalled his teacher having said in relation to piano and composition competitions that “races are for horses,” which is a little different and makes more sense. Of course, the conversation would probably have been in Hungarian, but even so, it was Sándor who provided the translation.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Apart from correct translations or the reliability of sources, the point is that competitions in the arts have a mammal element to it which devalues the art they are supposed to support.

  • Bonsoon says:

    Finalists Keyboard:
    Sejin Yoon
    Jacky Zhang
    Bridget Yee
    Thomas Luke
    Harvey Lin (Eton College and stuff)

    I think Britain is making them too comfy.
    Why not book your kiddos into the Central Conservatory of Music (in Beijing), to really get those little fingers into better shape?

    • FluctuationJitter says:

      The list speaks volumes…

      Bad image in my head: While some of the new multicultural inhabitants are grooming the native British kids, the Asians are taking over.

      On a more serious note: I cannot understand why these Asian finalists do not embrace their own rich culture, with instruments such as pipa, Duxianqin,, Qinqin, Datong and others. (loss of identity).

      • John Borstlap says:

        Yes, but you can do much less things with a pipa or qinqin when you compare it with the western violin, piano or symphony orchestra. Chinese instruments did not develop as Western instruments did. But contemporary Chinese composers do use western instruments to explore Chinese identity and often with great success:

      • nothing says:

        I agree with that loss of identity of those poor Asians.

        They don’t even know their own traditional music *** (even less regarding the performance thereof).
        Many don’t even speak their native language anymore and they cannot read it.

        Zero interest in their own heritage and culture.
        They know think they are British. Ridiculous.

        (** the same criticism of not knowing their own traditional music, can be leveraged towards the native British kids: they listen to those abstracted tones/jingles that do contain the notes, but not the essence of their musical traditions. Music is abstracted away from its essence; it’s new native form, being the symmetry and bore of the musical score. Fingermotions then attempt at accurately mimicking the bore of the sheetmusic… an abstraction that non-natives [Asians] can achieve with better fluidity and mechanical accuracy than anybody else.
        Well done. Well done. Brilliant competition players. Ready to stun the British audiences. Like a party trick.)

        • C Porumbescu says:

          Over 100 “likes” and a single “dislike” for a post that deals in open racism. This does not reflect well upon the readership of this blog.

          • norman lebrecht says:

            The readership of this site, which amounts to 2-3 million a month, broadly embraces the audience for classical music in the northern hemipsphere (and a few percent down under). If there’s racism in it, I’m astonished it’s taken you so long to notice.

          • AnxietyEve says:

            This is a music and culture blog.
            Not a bubble-forum for some “refugees welcome” party, where you delude yourself that all races are the same and everyone is the same and identical.

  • Michael Hall says:

    Mr Lebrecht,

    It was remiss of you to give houseroom to the shocking remarks about the piano section of the BBC Young Musician competition.

    While perhaps understanding their author’s fierce loyalty to and pride in her brilliant but unsuccessful student, I hope that she will in time consider her comments extremely ill-judged.

    Incidentally, I whole heartedly agreed with the panel’s choice of winner.

    Michael Hall

  • PD says:

    I have remained silent thus far in order to allow the teacher (someone called Edita Stankeviciute) – and those who support her unwise response to her pupil not winning and thus the blow to her ego – the chance to re-think and retract. Alas, it was not to be, so here is my reply:

    She merely diminishes herself, and endangers the future of her pupil with such an undignified response. Anyone can call me and my fellow jury members incompetent, immoral and corrupt as much as they like – it is an almost inevitable result of being on a jury, and happens with tedious predictability whenever the jury gives a a non-populist result. The main point that I would like to put to Ms Stankeviciute is that her public rant is atrociously insensitive towards the winner – something that not a soul seems to have mentioned to my knowledge [‘judges choose the weakest performer to be a winner!!’]

    I have written about competitions until I am blue on the face – both on this site and elsewhere – and I am not about to repeat the exercise, except to say that we, the jury, had our reasons for choosing the one we did. Those reasons were hinted at in the short speech I made before announcing the result. None of us as far as I know knew any of the competitors, Mr. Alexander T., and I would like to invite you to meet with us to discuss your accusation – made, as usual, anonymously. We hold to the result, and are very happy that we chose the right one. We were not paid, we did not know any of the competitors, and we discussed at great length, with acute awareness of the obvious fact that four out of the five would be equally disappointed, along with their teacher, parents and friends.

    I repeat: the victims of this absurdity are Stankeviciute’s pupil, her reputation, and the winner’s feelings. I look forward very much to the tribunal that she threatens, so that I can say this again.

    As to her question: what she should say to the masses of piano professors who apparently are expected to say we were wrong is that the jury obviously disagreed, and that she should try to find out and perhaps discuss the reasons. But of course she will not say that. By the way, the same would apply to every competitor.

    In reply to the usual predictable chorus of anti-competition sentiment: Vladimir Ashkenazy, Maurizio Pollini, Martha Argerich, Igor Sokolov, Radu Lupu, Murray Perahia, Kristian Zimmermann, John Lill, John Ogdon, Mikhail Pletnev – had enough? And most relevantly to this competition, Lauren Zhang.

    And do we have to trot out Bartók’s remark every single time? Did anyone ask Bartók what he suggested as an alternative? Do any of you snipers have an alternative that is viable – other than big business support, connections or family money?

    Life is too short to continue with this, particularly as it has all already been said and written several times. But just to conclude, all five competitors were brilliant pianists, with much potential. We were looking for something more than technical brilliance, and we found it. There is plenty of opportunity elsewhere for the four who didn’t win this time. I look forward to hearing them again.

    • anon says:

      love this.

    • Welcome to the real world says:

      You ask “Do any of you snipers have an alternative that is viable – other than big business support, connections or family money?”

      For what? For sponsoring competitions?

      Come on. The fallacy is not difficulty in obtaining competition sponsorship, but the competitions themselves.

      For hundreds and hundreds of years humans did not need music competitions (either not at all, or at least: not in the way they are run today).

      Why do we need them today?

      Clue: We don’t.
      In particular: we don’t need to give musicians with jaded finger-motion (non-)aesthetic any platform at all. If they bore the audiences to death, then that is so.
      No need to artificially create competitions and other platforms, to artificially support things that nobody (in the real world) likes to listen to anyway.

      • PD says:

        I don’t think you understood the point I was making. Mind you, I certainly don’t understand yours.

        • john says:

          Bang on the nail Peter. This woman’s intemperate outburst demeans her and embarrasses her student. You and I have been on competition juries and we are enormously sensitive to the many seeming conflicts in trying to decide (as we are required to do) who is ‘the best’. We do our best…

  • Captain Obvious says:

    the judges’ decision is final

  • Karl says:

    With music competitions being what they are, it is difficult to have any sympathy for those who choose to participate and expect some sort of ‘fairness’ – which does not and cannot exist. I’m not referring to ‘corruption’ among juries, but rather the inherent, fatal flaw of trying to judge and rank subjective art. While we constantly try to fiddle with the rules of competitions to make them more transparent (no teachers on juries! make the scoring available to the public!) we forget the larger truth, that the concept of competition itself is irreparable!

  • Ong says:

    OMG! What a waste of online space and life with all on both sides crying over spilt milk.Life is short … move on … get a life!

    Make your mark on the world stage than fighting like frogs in a well.

    • PD says:

      I don’t think the winner and his family, or indeed Mr. Lin, would be able to see it in such a superficial unthinking way.

  • Steven Osborne says:

    I’ve been on a few competition juries and each one has thrown up some great surprises. It’s typically the same for the other jury members, except their surprises are different, and they are surprised by my surprises, as I am by theirs. I have never caught even a whiff of shenanigans, and yet still there were public accusations of bias. Perhaps it’s just difficult to truly accept that other people aren’t necessarily like us, and that something we love, they can hate, and vice versa.

  • Just wondering says:

    “She merely diminishes herself, and endangers the future of her pupil with such an undignified response…”

    Does this thinly-veiled threat mean to imply that future juries will be predisposed against this young player now? If so, it rather supports the teacher’s complaint about partiality.

    Just a thought… such bullying is rather inappropriate.

  • John Humphreys says:

    These teachers who need to live their lives vicariously through their students…can think of a few. It was ever thus.

  • Tim Walton says:

    What a cowardly comment. To post without a name Shame on them.