Competitions are for horses*, but what to do without the horses?

31 Jan 2017


We keep on hearing complaints about musical competitions quite often these days. The demands to get rid of this “unfair practice” at once come from the most disappointed. While the others are waiting for the time when musical competitions are replaced by something better.


Let’s see how rational these hopes are. Can musical competitions be either abolished or perfected? What is the forecast for them for the near future?


Can musical competitions be abolished?


Some consider that musical competitions can be eliminated, or at least improved by a good will of a musical society. Several initiatives of such a kind have been undertaken already. They ended up with nothing.


Why? Besause musical competition is, among other things, a part of musical industry, a kind of an economic phonomenon.


Today, there are 50 million of young pianists in China only. Then add violinists, cellists, wind players and other instrument players to that, and address this issue in the global context. It adds up to some hundred million of young musicians all over the world.


Does musical industry need them all? No. At best, it needs one thousandth part of them, and the need for the international soloists not more than one part in a million.


The question is, how to identify the ones who make musical industry work? Obviously, by some selective procedure. Musical competition is that very selective procedure which is needed by the industry. It’s a vital part of industrial mechanism.


Peter Donohue, a renowned pianist, professor and jury member, recently said in his interview:


"The competition route is probably just about the only way you can really make a splash now, unless you have big business behind you or a massively successful conductor believing in you, who can basically make it happen for you. If you don’t have those things, this is the only way."

("Pianist Peter Donohoe's advice for young musicians: 'go and be a doctor or a lawyer instead'")


Actually 99% or more of young musicians don’t have big money behind them. Also they don’t have possibilities to reach a successfull conductor to prove themselves (it finally comes down to money too). It means that for that 99%, the musical competition is the only way to get into profession.


Is it terrible? Not at all. The situation, in this economic sense, doesn’t differ significantly from that of any other professions.


“Horse races” is the nature of economy, not somebody’s evil will. Same goes for music to take it as a profession.


Those who demand abolishment of musical competitions actually call to abolish musical industry, as competition can’t be removed from it without destroying the very industry, i.e. the huge economic structure of millions of workers and billion-dollar budgets.


Not just the artists, but also entrepreneurs and agents, professors and their assistants, school teachers, directors of concert organizations, engineers, designers, PR managers, financial officials, media professionals, recording manufacturers, service specialists, etc., all those who enable the artist to shine on the stage, have a vested interest in keeping the status quo in the industry. Nobody wants to lose their job or to have the salary cut.


To have a fight here in the name of fairness and art means to fight against material interests of great group of people (which, more to that, are not resposible for certain unfair decision of certain jury). Not the best idea.


Even if musical competitions were ten times more “unfair, corruptive and killing artistic individuality” than they actually are, nothing would threaten their existence in principle. Industry needs its “horses” no matter what. “Show must go on”.


Can musical competitions become more perfect than they are at the moment?


Generally speaking, why not? Some measures might probably be proposed. Yet, if to take it in the context of modern reality, the answer is not so obvious.


First, it makes sense to look at some paradoxical situation of today. All of us tend to escape the things that are increasingly criticised. As musical competitions are just that kind of things, musicans were to seek to avoid them. Still, the tendency is precisely the opposite – the participation is growing each passing year. 


On top of that, the number of musical competitions is also insreasing, the programmes are becoming more complex, and participation costs are getting higher. Musical competitions are definitely thriving - in spite of any criticism. Isn’t it a paradox?


Sure, it looks like a paradox if to take them as self-contained artistical events. Still, from the economic perspective, everything falls into place - the shrinking market always causes the increase of the competition.


We live in a time when the market of classical music is shrinking, it requires no special proof anymore. In these cicumstances, the behavoir of musicians appears to be completely natural – they tend to compete more intensively than before.


So can we expect musical competitions to become better in this situation? The answer is negative.


Tightening of any economic competition increases the temptation of applying bad methods – bias, deception, corruption, erosion of criteria and other pleasures of the kind -  from the part of all sides involved.


That means we should hardly wait for the improvement of moral and professional atmosphere at musical competitions overall (it doesn’t indicate, at every).




This is also the forecast for the upcoming future.

- The tension, the difficulty and the number of musical competitions will increase.


- As a consequence, the value of each given one will decrease. 


- The latter, in turn, will motivate musicians not to escape them (what should logically happen) but to participate even more actively, as the great majority of them  has no viable alternatives.


It’s a genuinely golden age for competitions. 

Not to be said for competitors.





* Bela Bartok: "Competitions are for horses, not artists."

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Violinist deeply rooted in classical tradition and concerned about the future of the genre >> more about the author 

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© Yevgeny Chepovetsky 2015-2017