Competitions are not meant for music

Competitions in music pit one musician against another as if they were athletes in a race. Music is not a race, nor is it something someone can ‘win’ at. These competitions, while providing goals and performance opportunities for young musicians, are creating a breed of guitarists who are more concerned with technical perfection and interpretations that are aimed at the middle of the road.

High level musical interpretation is difficult, if not impossible, to quantify and rank so judges often have to resort so simply counting mistakes. This style of judging means that competitors strive to be mistake-free and offer interpretations that will please the majority rather than being individual and unique. This process is creating a generation of guitarists who display technical prowess but offer little that is unique or different from other players.

The pieces used in competitions are also homogeneous as it is difficult to compare a new composition that is unknown to the judges to a repertoire evergreen. This means that competitions will program similar repertoire over and over again. Even in competitions with free choice, competitors will take the safe road of well worn pieces over an unknown composer.

Competitions are great at providing goals, they offer performance opportunities for the winners and they have undoubtedly been part of the incredible overall advancement of guitar technique in the last decades. They do have these positive attributes, but at what cost?

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7 Responses

  1. I’ve always seen competitions as a way to push myself toward the goal of being a better musician…training if you will. That’s why most competitions are for amateurs, not pros. Giving a concert is not the same as playing in a competition, I like the stress the and extra nerves of competing. Is it good for the music? Maybe not, but western culture has always used competition to raise the level or sports, art, and other ventures.

    • Benito says:

      I wonder why you say that most competitions are for amateurs. The most I entered (in Europe) and those I’m aware of (worldwide) are for (beginning) professionnals and future professionnals, mostly still studying but at a University level or already having one or more University degrees… who will all become or already are at least official teachers, that’s what means “pro” in my understanding. An amateur musician is someone who doesn’t live from musical activities.
      But if you know of many competitions for amateurs (in Europe at least), please tell me.

      It’s true: giving a concert isn’t the same as playing ina competition, but I feel stress and extra nerves in both situations. To me, the biggest difference is that you have to give music in a concert rather than prove your mistake-free abilities and subsequently doesn’t have to play pieces you barely can play without tremendous efforts (which don’t allow you to give that much).

    • jimL says:

      If you use the competitions as trainings, that’s a wonderful idea. Every year there are so many first prize winners around the international guitar competitions, where are they now? Many of them, so far as I know, even quitted performing on the stages. Why? They all had their own reason. But, there is a reason can cover all. When facing the reality, they had no choice but gave up. If you were first prize winner, you still need to work very hard to keep yourself on that position. The prize won’t keep you there for long.

  2. Benito says:

    As a rule, I agree. Most competitions are not meant for music and most competitions-winners are indeed mistake-free robots. This reveals the level of musical understanding of the jury too, which is generally poor.
    BUT: 1) I’m pleased to have in mind a few exceptions, the most obvious to me being Johan Fostier (GFA 2001), but also Irina Kulikova (Alessandria) or Rafael Aguirre (Benicassim). I confess I didn’t hear them during the competition, but knowing Johan well, he can only be himself. The other two also seem to have something different to tell than most but they may have told less during the competition itself…
    2) I’m pleased to see how “intensive” prize-winners like Zoran Dukic or Denis Azabagic have developed their musical expression after thoses “races”. I have heard them both during and after the competitions.
    3) From my own experience of amateur player, I think I developped musically as I’ve had to improve my technical abilities (including tone production and control, not only speed!) in order to do fairly well in competitions. You can musically express yourself freely only if your mechanical tools (all parts of your body) are fully and correctly used for that goal.
    4) Let’s face it. The wide audience will always prefer somebody playing impressively without noticeable mistakes to a very sensitive player doing very complex interpretations and (noticeable) mistakes. Moreless mistake-free playing is the first level a musician has to reach (I don’t mean (s)he has to reach it first, before musically playing) before playing in concert for a general audience.

  3. Sean Howard says:

    I have never looked upon competition as a good thing in music, neither as a guitarist or back in my trumpet-playing high school days. As the article mentioned, music presents itself in a subjective form; yet competitions attempt to evaluate via objective means. I’ve often felt organizations, such as the GFA, use competitions to control the exposure of the guitar; you can’t ‘make it’ without winning several competitions. And there are so many guitar players out there recording, I can’t tell one from another. Now, I can definitely tell Bream, Segovia, and Williams apart.

    • Benito says:


      May I suggest you to listen to Pavel Steidl, Roland Dyens and Johan Fostier?
      They all won competitions and are absolutely unique. I’m pretty sure you’ll be able to tell them from Bream, Segovia, and Williams.

      I wonder if you could tell Williams from, let’s say, 70% of today’s prizewinners. In my opinion, Williams would just reprensent the basic, objective “qualities” juries use to evaluate competitors.

      Enjoy those “new” players (and their “new” repertoire) too.

  1. August 9, 2010

    […] Competitions in music are funny things, and more often than not the jury can make some very surprising decisions! So now, in an attempt for us all to understand the process a little better, you get to be part of the jury. Here are your rules: […]

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