Competition & Conflict

Supporting Your Piano Playing Journey

With auditions for the finals of this year’s Van Cliburn International Piano Competition underway, we are yet again presented with the spectacle of competing pianists pitted against one another by an industry that would have us all believe that there is no other way to launch a career (despite so many high-profile examples to the contrary).

A lot of people seem to love this stuff, and certainly we can look forward to some fabulous performances. But personally, while perhaps not as outspoken on the subject as the marvellous Maria João Pires, I have long felt uneasy with the whole idea of piano competitions.

In an interview in International Piano, January 2014, Pires pithily noted,

“To compete always damages your soul.”

The climax of any competition is the victory of the “winner”. Everyone knows what the opposite of a winner is, and competitions usually produce lots of them, too. Mitigating this, multiple medals and accolades might be awarded, but when players are divided into good, better and best, they have still fundamentally been divided.

I sometimes hear it suggested that competition is natural, an evolutionary imperative. Whether the sibling rivalry between Cain and Abel set the tone for our species, or the ‘survival of the fittest’ determined who, as a species, we have corporately become, the point is made that we are hard-wired to compete.

Is competition simply the Natural Way?

Competition in Nature

I have read several scientific definitions of competition as it exists in nature, all of which go something like this:

“Competition is most typically considered the interaction of individuals that vie for a common resource that is in limited supply.”

In the case of the Van Cliburn, that “common resource” is a coveted prize and a significant promotional boost. But these can hardly be considered life-or-death resources; clearly, there has been a shift towards an artificial construct of competition not found in nature.

To put it bluntly, the human ego has taken over where evolution left off.

While examples of individuated competition exist in nature, they can usually be understood in the context of the wider needs of the herd. Not only so, but we see plenty of species whose survival depends on cooperation, teamwork and socialisation.

Human beings would seem to be among their number: conflict ultimately presents an existential threat. Most of us deplore the endless battles that develop between individuals and social groupings as opportunities dwindle or egos inflate. We shake our heads sadly, and wonder how such conflict was ever allowed to develop.

Beyond Competition

Overcoming the competitive spirit can seem to be an uphill struggle.

If we find it difficult to stop comparing ourselves and others, or to resist drafting a mental tally of winners and losers, we might conclude that trying to avoid competition is unrealistic, an idealistic delusion, or even a smokescreen for weakness. We join our peers in agreement that competition is the normal state, and we redouble our efforts to prevail.

But if we make space in our lives for meditative silence and stillness, our own deeper insecurities and swirling thoughts will start to settle and clear. We begin by making peace with ourselves. Finally it dawns on us:

We don’t need to beat others to have value.

Not only so, but the anxiety caused by the competitiveness of others, their ceaseless self-promotion and petty conflicts, start to exercise less of a pull on us. The empathy which we are all born with can reawaken, along with our ability to more sincerely support others; even those that we perhaps formerly considered ‘rivals’.

As pianists, a commitment to regularly playing our active repertoire for our own personal enjoyment, without the need to impress or compare, can in some cases unlock years of imprisonment to negative self-talk.

As caring parents, humane teachers and musicians, we have an important role to play in helping the next generation of piano players to have a more healthy, less competitive attitude.

If we truly want to promote a happier, more peaceful world, we need to stop promoting unnecessary, unnatural, unhealthy competition.

I believe that we can all be winners together by being the best that we can collectively be, through cooperation, teamwork, collaboration and mutual respect.

Between us, we surely have the creative imagination to develop far more positive opportunities and pathways into a lifetime of music-making.

Let’s keep our eyes on the real prize: a world less driven by conflict, and more in love with the transformative power of shared music.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.

6 thoughts on “Competition & Conflict”

  1. Thank you, Andrew. As returning pianist (after 60 years away), I’m a beginner again. To me, it is all about the music, and only about the music. My sole goal is to do justice, during this lifetime, to the music I have loved for so many years. The whole idea of piano competitions is new to me. I never really knew about, or thought about, piano competitions at any time during my life (although they did exist, witness the Cliburn). I understand their importance to pianists who wish to build a career in music, but like you, I have mixed feelings. I appreciate your posting today.

    1. Thank you Barbara, and how fascinating – I think your comment very much highlights just how far removed these competitions are from wider musical life 🙂

  2. Great thoughts on such a controversial topic. I also admired Maria João Pires’ philosophy in that regard.

    “Contests give a perspective that is totally fake, artificial, wrong, which leads us to only have illusions of things that don’t exist. How can you be an artist and the goal is to win? But win what?”

    I remember once my former piano teacher stated that there was no camaraderie in the classical world. I told her “BE THE CHANGE.”

    1. Thanks Sinden, and that’s another superb quote!

      Having operated in both classical and commercial music, I have certainly found the world of classical musicians (pianists especially) far less collaborative/supportive. Could this be in part because classical pianists are taught to compete in an individualistic way from a young age, I wonder?

  3. So much truth, so well said. “…the human ego has taken over where evolution left off…” …and we see the results of this sad state in all aspects of society. Thank you for another thoughtful article.

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