Do's and Dont's of Music Competitions

Jens Elvekjaer
Friday, December 7, 2018

Competitions are an art in themselves. When I started out, both as a soloist and then with the Trio con Brio Copenhagen I, like so many young musicians, was a serial contestant - luckily we had a lot of success and after a while we started winning more and more, eventually winning all of the major competitions for piano trio. And these days I'm often back in the scene, only now as a judge. So I feel that I know as much - or as little! - as anybody about how to approach them.

If you've never entered an important competition before, know that there's nothing quite like your first. It will feel different from any other competition you ever do. You will feel like you're going into some unknown land, you don't know what you are 'supposed' to do and so you just go out there and play as well as you can and with 100 per cent conviction in how you're playing because that's all you know to do. And sometimes that's good and sometimes not so much. Because you'll be up against very experienced people who know how to play the game, not just the music! But you can be successful because all you have is your own self-belief and your complete commitment - my first was the Nordic Piano Competition and I didn't know anything about it, it felt like shooting in the darkness, and I won second prize! In a way it was beginner's luck that I happened upon something the judges liked. But you will never have that naivety, or that sense of freedom, in competitions again.

And competitions are perhaps even more difficult now, because there are even more fine musicians as well as more contests for which to prepare. But you can still gain an incredible amount from being successful in them. They're not the only way to ensure a good career, but they can open doors for you and give you chances that would otherwise usually be all but impossible to attain. So, from my own experiences of competitions from both sides of the concert platform and jury table, here are six helpful tips for aspiring competitors:

1) Don't forget about the recording

In many competitions, musicians must first send in a recording. It's almost impossible to overstate how important this stage is and it's astonishing how many of these recordings are of such poor quality that it makes it extremely difficult to judge the playing itself! This is your first opportunity to make an impression and as sometimes the final jury will also listen to these sound files (sometimes it's done by a preliminary jury) that impression can last all the way to later rounds.

Judging in Munich recently, I was on the pre-selection committee as well and some of the recordings sounded like they were made on people's phones or in a garage somewhere! Think super-professional from the start. Find a venue with good acoustics, use a good technician if you can. If you are at a music school ask whether they have facilities to help you. Of course some musicians, especially in certain parts of the world, don't necessarily have access to the same kinds of facilities and we judges know this and we try hard to listen to whatever we are sent. But if you can present yourself in the best possible light, why on earth wouldn't you?

2) Choose your pieces with care (big is usually better!)

Your choice of works can be crucial. Do your research. Some competitions have certain traditions that tend to mean that certain styles of piece or even players repeatedly win. Look at the lists of previous winners and you will often see a consistency of style. Some favour, say, a Russian, virtuosic kind of music-making, others are maybe more classically-inclined, and so on. Some of course give you a very narrow choice of what you are allowed to play. 

But as a rule, if you can play the big pieces really well, they are much stronger in competition. Yes, there are exceptions (people still talk about Radu Lupu played Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto in competition so beautifully that the jury were in tears) but works that are central to the repertoire allow the judges a much easier basis of comparison - they focus on you rather than a piece they may not know so well. So don't play a real rarity because that makes it almost impossible to judge how well you are playing it. Also because the competitions want to produce winners who will have big careers, so they need to know how you play the kinds of works on which big careers are usually built. 

Finally, once you've decided on a range of pieces that could work, pick the one that is the strongest piece for you, for your own musical personality. You will learn more about that the more competitions you do; and listen to what the judges tell you each time about your choice of works. They want to help.

3) It's about the message

It should go without saying that you need to be incredibly well-prepared technically for competitions. But they are also about more than that. For jury members, what one is listening to most is the message that you are conveying through the music. What you are communicating with and through the work you are playing. So this should be part of your thinking. Once you have mastered the technical and stylistic aspects, you also need to think about what you sincerely feel about this music, what you want to convey to the audience. You need to be incredibly convincing. And this is linked of course, again, to your choice of works.

4) Networking

Bear in mind that at competitions you may be in a room with some of the most influential people in the music business, as well as with some important artists (sometimes the same thing, sometimes not). Try to connect with the jury, because they often know what they are talking about and have heard so many young musicians that they could really help you to sharpen your musical profile, suggest what you should emphasise, what you should work on and, yes, they might want to help you with some connections. Don't push it in an annoying way but if there is a chance to mingle with these people then it's a perfect opportunity. Both artistically and in other ways, networking is important. 

5) Don't let it go to your head

When we won the ARD Competition, a very major accolade, we returned to our home in Cologne and the great cello teacher Frans Helmerson said to us, 'So - are you different people now?'. It was a great thing to say, and very funny, because you always have to remember that you're still the same, that you still have the same goals ahead of you and that you have to stay humble. Have people around you, as we had, who will help you maintain the right focus and keep you grounded. Competitions are odd things - and this is the same when you're a judge as when you're a competitor - in that you're plunged into this small, micro-world for the duration, where it's like time doesn't exist outside of the intensity of the competition and its various rounds. It's not real life in that sense, it's a kind of void. So be aware, and even if you win first prize, don't leave your head in that parallel world - stay connected to life, and to what the music is really about.

6) Know when to walk away

At a certain point, we were winning almost every competition we entered. Once you are successful and you've done so many of them, you can get a sense that certain pieces played in a certain way will always do well. And that can be addictive, and dangerous for you as musicians. Then we got an offer from the Tivoli Concert Hall in Copenhagen to play our first-ever Beethoven cycle, but it clashed with our plans to go to a big chamber music competition in Australia. So we asked our teacher Gunter Pichler (former first violin in the Alban Berg Quartet), and he didn't hesitate. 'You have to do the Beethoven cycle,' he told us, 'You've done many competitions, now it is time to develop yourselves as musicians.' And from that moment on, we never competed again.

Once you have gained what you need to from the competition circuit, there will always come that time when you need to find your own mature artistic identity in freedom and without that pressure. Never lose sight of the reason for doing competitions, or of the fact that the future goes far beyond your time as a competitor. 

Trio con Brio are celebrating their 20th anniversary season. The second volume of their complete Beethoven Trios recordings was released recently by Orchid Classics, with the third to follow in May 2019.

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