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6 minutes reading time (1245 words)

Winds of Change

I've found myself thinking a lot about competitions lately. One of my first pieces for Clavier, even before I started a regular column, dealt with "The Competition Syndrome." Re-reading it, I'm struck by how little things have changed, other than the fact that I'm much less certain of things than I was in my thirties. 

That early essay decried the heartlessness of piano competitions and the impossibility of picking a winner in anything as subjective as art. As sports-obsessed Americans, we want one winner who's better than everyone else. The illogical conclusion: American Idol and its many spin-offs, a veritable industry dedicated to the idea that anyone can be a winner with enough talent and moxie. And people eat it up! 

Thanks to the internet, a sizable, passionate audience can now view the major piano competitions, and these viewers aren't shy about posting comments following webcast performances. In the late spring, dedicated listeners from across the globe eavesdropped on both the Cliburn and the Queen Elisabeth competitions, and, due to the newfound transparency of the proceedings, those listeners have been quite vocal about their wonder at how the juries came to the decisions they did. 

In July, Terry Teachout wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal called "Why Piano Competitions Will Never Yield a Superstar."He answers his titular question succinctly: 

Because the winners are chosen by juries. A jury is at bottom a committee—and a committee, as John le Carré famously said in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, is "an animal with four back legs." They exist to generate and perpetuate consensus views. They can't make great art, and it's all but impossible for them to agree on great artists. Such disagreement inevitably leads to compromise, which more often than not produces B-plus winners who please all of the jurors but thrill none of them.2

While my distaste for competitions resonates with Mr. Teachout's conclusion, I don't think it's that simple. First of all, he assumes there are great artists to be chosen as winners in these competitions, and that simply isn't the case very often. Deserving of attention? Yes. Worth being heard again? Sure. Great artists who change the way we hear music? Highly unlikely.

Juries don't talk much behind closed doors these days.

Secondly, juries don't talk much behind closed doors these days. In fact, it was forbidden in this summer's World Piano Competition in Cincinnati, where I was one of five jurors. When we had to vote eighteen contestants off the island between the preliminaries and the semifinals, it was a straight vote on multiple ballots. On the first ballot, two people received a majority of the votes. On the next ballot, two more made it. It took four ballots to come to "agreement" on the final person. In the meantime, eleven other contestants received at least one vote at some point in the proceedings. 

That suggests a jury with a wide range of values and tastes, not to mention a very interesting set of contestants. Whether we were all pleased with the final result is anyone's guess. The answer is probably not. But is there a fairer way to choose? Would long, drawn-out arguments over the relative merits of the contestants have been better? Again, probably not, since at best such verbal sparring matches depend upon the lawyerly skills of the advocates, and at worst they depend upon who can go on longest and loudest. 

Thus, more and more competitions favor a voting system that prevents arm-twisting and power plays. Does this lead to a consensus (read: mediocre) winner? Perhaps. Mr.Teachout's solution: do away with large juries and give the job to one famous artist. No consensus needed—just the clear vision of someone to whom the world should pay attention. Teachout admits this probably wouldn't work either. There are now more than 750 piano competitions worldwide.3 Thirty years ago the number was maybe 100. It doesn't take a genius to notice that the rounds of the majors open to the public are much better attended than a typical piano recital, even one by a big-name artist. The audience tends to be less experienced with classical music and more excited by the event: They are there for the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

I do wish we could come up with a better way.

Alas, competitions are not going away. They are an industry unto themselves, and perhaps we should thank them for keeping solo piano playing alive in some form. Finding the next superstar may be beside the point when young pianists can make careers of sorts going from one competition to the next, finding bigger audiences than they will in awarded concerts they might receive for winning. The catch-22, though, is lethal: age limits mean that eventually competitions are no longer open to you, just as you are maturing enough to have something worth saying. 

I do wish we could come up with a better way. The Gilmore and the American Pianists Association have good ideas for taking some of the competitive heat out of the mix, and the Gilmore has removed the age limits. As for the head-to-head combat in the typical competition, it belittles the music. After all, when Contestant A plays Mozart and Contestant B plays Liszt, and Contestant B almost invariably wins, isn't there something wrong? 

Adding insult to injury, the Harvard Gazette leads the curious reader to an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences entitled "Sight over sound in the judgment of music performance."4 Its author, Chia-Jung Tsay, who has a Ph.D. in organizational behavior with a secondary Ph.D. field in music, studied the role of the visual in identifying the winners of competitions by having participants—including highly trained musicians—watch silent video clips of contestants. The abstract is worth quoting in full: 

Social judgments are made on the basis of both visual and auditory information, with consequential implications for our decisions. To examine the impact of visual information on expert judgment and its predictive validity for performance outcomes, this set of seven experiments in the domain of music offers a conservative test of the relative influence of vision versus audition. People consistently report that sound is the most important source of information in evaluating performance in music. However, the findings demonstrate that people actually depend primarily on visual information when making judgments about music performance. People reliably select the actual winners of live music competitions based on silent video recordings, but neither musical novices nor professional musicians were able to identify the winners based on sound recordings or recordings with both video and sound. The results highlight our natural, automatic, and nonconscious dependence on visual cues. The dominance of visual information emerges to the degree that it is overweighted relative to auditory information, even when sound is consciously valued as the core domain content.5

Mr. Teachout, meet Ms. Tsay. Why don't the two of you go out for coffee and keep working on that better way? It must be there somewhere. 


1 Teachout, T. (2013, July 4). Why piano competitions will never yield a superstar. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from www.online.wsj.com. 

2 Ibid. 

3 Estimate from the Alink-Argerich Foundation. www.alink-argerich.org. 

Ruell, P. (2013, August 19). The look of music. Harvard Gazette. Retrieved from www.news. harvard.edu/gazette. 

Tsay, C. J. (2013, August 19). Sight over sound in the judgment of music performances. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Retrieved from www. pnas.org. 

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