Confessions of a piano competition judge

Confessions of a piano competition judge


norman lebrecht

August 07, 2021

The pianist and playwright Israela Margalit spills some of the secrets of the judges’ room in a new essay:

The voting system is carefully structured to prevent bias and undue influence. The highest and the lowest marks are thrown out. No deliberation is allowed until the votes have been cast. And yet, mediocrity often wins. Here is how it can happen: I’m a judge from the fictitious state of Transatlantica. My government has sent me to the competition and paid for my airfare. I give the Transatlantic contestant high marks, but not so high as to stick out and get discarded. Then I identify the pianist who poses the biggest threat to the Transatlantic contestant’s standing, and I give him consistently low marks. Multiply me by five, and his chances of winning are null, while my guy may just sneak up to the podium.

There are also unimpeachable motives that propel judges to vote for average performers. What’s pedestrian to my ear may be enthralling to another’s. One judge may disapprove of an interpretation he deems unfaithful to the composer’s intentions, while I may view it as original and fresh. I once served as an observer at a famous competition. Six of the jury members rejected flair, preferring a strict adherence to tradition, while the other six celebrated virtuosity, imagination, and personality. In the end the scores of each group offset those of the other, and the most lackluster pianist, who hadn’t offended either camp, was declared the winner…. In another competition, a Russian judge told me on day one that he had been on a hundred fifty-nine international juries — only to add on the last day that a hundred fifty-nine of his students had won awards…

Read on here.


  • Heril Steemøen says:

    If that’s so competitions appears at the very best quite pointless as they currently are. Who organises them? Wouldn’t it be in their interest to make sure that the jury isn’t connected to the competitors?

    • GG says:

      Do you think a small city in the middle of nowhere, with little music life can organize a piano competition? And a provincial city with a mediocre orchestra can really organize a conducting competition? Can a city without a contemporary music scene put together a composition competition? The answer is NO, but it happens.

      Why want these cities to organize one? Because it is good to promote the name of the city, and with the promotion of the money comes the promotion of local business, and with that comes MONEY. But does the city have the structure and knowledge to organize something like a competition? Of course not, so they rely on professional musicians, who are advised by other people… who are these advisors? Those who have the contacts to bring a jury of notable musicians, organize a tour of concerts for the winner, offer a career boost to the winner, and provide the know-how. And who is that? Managers in agencies. They offer all the support in finding juries, getting prize concerts…

      That is the truth. And who wins is the best contestant or the best contestant who is interesting for the agency for business? What do you think? Music competitions are extremely corrupt, from its core. The very idea that art can be judged in a competition is simply scandalous, but now if you put on top the this corruption, the age discrimination, and the crazy costs for cities that comes with it we get something that should disappear for everyone’s benefit.

      …. and if cities have extra money why not use it to create seasons of concerts for artists beginning their careers to give them some exposure?

    • Cv says:

      Its fixed within organization.
      The organizers the ones who must pay their judges and winners. The beginning and the end are the money organizers must have to manage themselves and calculate for themselve.
      Mediocrity within an organization, judges and winners which are always there due to business structure of particular competitions. Its awful to see, especially for biggest ones with pre-selection stage by videotape/audio, which nobody even watches, with some exceptions. Also, even those competitions with pre-selection set ups around the world, competition judge travel to Paris, London, Moscow, Sydney, Shanhai and how nice!! All payed for judges – good hotels, airfare and meals.
      The corrupt clubhouse members going after mostly exacting pianists whom they must eliminate from the start. But, not unless they already in business with them all, unless its already organized.

  • Foolish folly for fun says:

    Only fools want to be judges at competitions.
    Only fools compete at competitions.
    Only fools would be protective of competitions.
    Only fools assert that competitions are valuable.

    So basically: hi there, fools!

    • A Fool says:

      You have to be a certain kind of fool to try for a career in classical music…

      • Sue Sonata Form says:

        Especially when you whine and complain about how badly you’re paid, how music schools aren’t subsidized enough, how high fees are, how this or that colour or ethnicity can’t succeed. (Insert the complaint of choice and multiply by a thousand).

    • Jackson says:

      Winning a noted piano competition can do a lot for a career: Ashkenazy, Pollini, Argerich, Michelangeli and so on….

      • Petros Linardos says:

        Or, more recently, Trifonov.

        Others, like Byron Janis and Evgeni Kissin won no competition.

        There is more than one way to stardom. A multifaceted talent, luck and steely nerves are some of the prerequisites.

        • Jeffrey Biegel says:

          True. A competition win – and actually a loss – brings visibility. It is one thing to launch a ship, but much more to make it sail. It is but a brick on the yellow brick road of life.

          • Ludwig's Van says:

            If you’ve got the goods, you’ll sail. Without the goods, no amount of medals & trophies will help you.

  • Alexander T says:

    Competitions are fixed!!!
    Who would have guessed?

  • M McAlpine says:

    Interesting article. Amazing how some tin-eared critic can get to a young performer. As someone has said, music critics are usually musical failures themselves, therefore they tend to harp on about failure.

    • David R. Moran says:

      >> music critics are usually musical failures themselves

      now *that*’s comedy

      bronze, though, if that

    • Malcolm James says:

      Or, as Sibelius said, ‘when did anyone ever put up a statue to a critic?’

      • Peter San Diego says:

        There is an Eduard Hanslick Gasse in Vienna. It’s not a statue, but having a street named after you isn’t bad…

        George Bernard Shaw has a statue in Dublin; of course, it’s possible that wasn’t in honor of his work as Corno di Bassetto!

  • Paganono says:

    They shoot horses, don’t they?

  • Ana says:

    Immorality fair.

  • Fliszt says:

    Having sat on competition juries, I can say that we all sit there, suffering through an assembly line of conservatory-bred clones, hoping (often in vain, unfortunately) that one of them might eventually make music. Failing that, we go for the least bad, or the best of the worst. Certainly they are all well practiced and sincere, and the fact that they were taught to play note-perfect rather than to express music isn’t their fault. But competitions serve to underscore that music making is a dying art.

    • David R. Moran says:

      >> music making is a dying art

      Complete nonsense in my experience of much piano recital-going. Maybe get out more?

      The real and intractable issue is there is way too much near-goodness. Mostly second-tier, but real goodness nonetheless.

      What is to be done? This wrenching writeup in the end avoids the serious practical questions. The classical world is overflowing with gifted musicians, technically and interpretatively excellent in any sense. Some of the (also) lucky best do become regional lights. A very few go on to wider, even global careers (some of those unworthy in other respects, but showy or novel or whatnot). Yet most not. Caprice and luck are a big a part of it, arguably too big.

      So what instead of competitions? I (not in NY) hear and sometimes review a large number of high-caliber young pianists every year. Third prize at this or that. What sort of future awaits them? Teaching and local recitaling, with some touring. Then academe — if they are lucky. Teaching the next. Many play more satisfyingly than the big names of their cohort. (Sez me, meaning to my ear.)

      Not clear to me that competitions make the situation better or worse. (IM’s corruption report is beyond disturbing; all this has to be a good-faith marketing effort.)

      Regardless, there have to be filtration and trial processes.

      IM does not at all help her case, such as she has one in this venerable essay, by failing the specificity of Reviewing 101:

      “enthralling … [or] unfaithful to the composer’s intentions, while I may view it as original and fresh. … rejected flair, preferring a strict adherence to tradition. … [or] boundless sensitivity, who could turn a musical phrase into magic and lose himself in the indefinable.”

      What savvy reader here would write such vague gush or critique without a lot of specific substantiation ? What editor or site admin would run it? Not anyone at a major or important publication, that’s for sure. Indefinable magic indeed.

  • X.Y. says:

    The other day this post was discussed at a post-recital dinner with two now very successful and top soloists. Both confirmed having been inexplicably eliminated in the first round of big competions. And the pianist added that the elimination of the best mostly happens in the first round, because the dangerous talent is immediately spotted and eliminating him in the first round is best to avoid scandal, because later rounds would get much more publicity.

  • Maybe it’s time to get out an applause meter instead.

    There couldn’t be any less complaining about the results.

  • Vicky says:

    This sort of unfairness aside, there’s also the issue of bias stemming from most of the competitors studying with the same notable pianists and pedagogues, many of who are always judging these competitions. Make the rounds playing for these pianists, even in masterclasses (which is what these professional competitors do) and you will end up playing their ideas and sounding like they want. It’s the melting pot phenomenon. The same teachers/jurors travel the world now and teach at multiple schools.
    That’s why everyone sounds the same.
    Even if the judges are fair, of course they will vote for those who think/sound like their vision. They get annoyed by those who don’t. It’s as simple as that.

    Speaks to the privilege of the competitors. Who has the family background, savvy and finances to sustain living in big cities or traveling the world to go study with these famous people? Or has the backing and support of sponsors? Those are the ones who will “succeed” as a performer. Everything has to be set up from young and then the odds are already in their favour. Not just the craft of piano-playing but the know-how of creating a career, knowing the right people.

    You’ve got to wonder about those so-called stellar performers and winners who are still taking regular lessons, or doing masterclasses frequently in their mid to late 20s, even in their 30s.
    If they indeed were so special and artistic, do they really still need teachers to that extent? Of course feedback always helps, but shouldn’t they be independent and have their own ideas and discipline by now? Remove all that influence from them, no master coaching, no great recordings, and see if they will still play so “musically”. That would be the real test.

    Again, speaks to privilege. Other people need to earn a living and cannot afford to devote their lives solely to practice to get the technical accuracy.

    That’s why the whole idea of competitions and trying to identify and crown so-called top talent is pretty much impossible, and why competitions have become like they are now–more about who makes the fewest noticeable mistakes, doesn’t offend, who looks the best on stage, e.t.c. In some way, that’s the way of being objective.

    No one accuses the competitors of playing the game, but that’s what they do. Gone are the days of just showing up and playing one’s best, hoping to be noticed.
    There’s preparing adequately by studying with or playing for jurors/people of influence years before, or listen to their recordings, their students’, so even if they are technically not juror’s students at time of competition, they play and sound like what is expected. There’s an art to winning and “making it”. Very little to do with actual musicianship, but more with who delivers the expected package consistently. Audiences are at fault too, enormously elevating some performers, and putting down others, so don’t just blame the jurors, especially when their favourites don’t win.

  • A concerned party says:

    Not exactly a “new essay”: it was published here in November 2017, and I remember reading it several years before that on a different site:

    But the validity of her remarks hasn’t changed.