Kyung Wha Chung speaks out against competitions

There’s a great quote from the iconic violinist Kyung Wha Chung in the BBC Music Magazine (June 2017) which I think is worth sharing here in passing, as it ties in with a topic that has recurred on Pianodao.

Talking about the young players who seek her advice she says:

“They say they’re going to enter this competition or that.
But this is the wrong route.
How many competitions are there on this planet?
How many winners are there?
Do they all have a career – meaning a career when you become a star, so to speak? No.”

Kyung Wha Chung’s simple words sum up the futility of a competition circuit which crushes the aspirations of too many genuinely talented players. The violin world – just like the piano world – offers dozens of “international” competitions each year (on the piano it ranges between 50-100 depending on the year) – each claiming it can transform a young artist’s career prospects.

The internationally acclaimed cellist Julian Lloyd-Webber recently suggested, in any case, that the majority of music competitions are quite simply corrupt, with judges colluding and using competitions merely to promote their own pupils and careers:

“Everyone knows it, but no one says it, because when you’re in the profession, you don’t…
There are obvious exceptions, such as BBC Young Musician of the Year, which is not corrupt at all, but you have these competitions for violins, cello, piano and it’s all about who you studied with.”

The subject of competitions is one which I have written about here many times, most recently (and fully) in my post The Competitions Controversy.

We can but hope that moving forward the music business and education world will continue to embrace change and look to creative positive alternatives for developing artists.

Andrei Gavrilov’s concerns

Andrei Gavrilov is one of the world’s finest concert pianists, who has in recent years dedicated himself to giving master-classes to upcoming players around the world. So when he comments on the current state of music education and piano playing, it is certainly worth listening.

Some of his latest comments could prove controversial however. Mr. Gavrilov has provided a lengthy list of the “major mistakes” that he feels are “obstacles to artistic development”.

You can read his comments in full on the Cross-Eyed Pianist page here, but the overall impression he gives is that teachers and young pianists are neglecting artistic development, musical analysis and cultural understanding. He concludes that in four years of giving master-classes, he met:

“…nobody who could even be able to touch a single serious composition without destroying it in all senses.”

It is beyond doubt that Mr. Gavrilov’s robust observations offer genuine insight, but I feel sure that he is overstating his case. I personally know of many leading players and teachers who go out of their way to place music in its proper historical and cultural context. There is surely no shortage of upcoming players able to communicate great art with profound depth, with young artists like Benjamin Grosvenor, Daniil Trifonov, Igor Levitt, Jonathan Biss, Alice Sara Ott, Khatia Buniatishvili, Sunwook Kim, HJ Lim, Beatrice Rana, Conrad Tao, Louis Schwizgebel, Federico Colli and others firmly proving that point.

That said, Mr. Gavrilov is not the first, and nor is he alone, in expressing concerns about current trends in music education and performing.

Speaking to International Piano magazine (Jan/Feb 2014) the internationally revered pianist Maria João Pires suggested that it is the “competitive world” that has destroyed a lot of the transmission of our culture, and she sees a clear connection between piano competitions and marketing. She says:

“To compete always damages your soul. If you compete you are not a musician any more.
We old musicians should perhaps give the new generation alternatives. I think our mission is to transmit what has been transmitted to us. This competitive world, this marketing world, has destroyed a lot of that transmission.
Competitions are not the way, that’s for sure!”

Piano competitions have certainly come to dominate the commerce, marketing and performing culture of our time, especially for aspiring professional players. Given this context, is it really any wonder if teachers encourage competition participation and focus on the aspects of their students development most likely to turn them into “winners”?

According to Maria João Pires, competing “damages the soul”. This is one of the many issues that Pianodao will need to look at in more detail over the coming months. For now it is sufficient to note that for too many players, their experience even at an early age irrevocably equates performing with competition.

Some refuse to play at all in later life, even exhibiting significant anxiety reactions to any request to play in front of others. The field is thus left clear for the “winners” to scale ever greater heights of technical virtuosity, continuing their tour of the competition circuit in the hopes of making a reputation for themselves.

Whether or not Andrei Gavrilov’s concerns and those of Maria João Pires are connected, there is no doubt that Mr. Gavrilov has touched on important issues that pianists and teachers will want to ponder. It will certainly be very interesting to see how his colleagues around the world respond to his critique.