Competition & Conflict

Taking the time to pause and reflect

“To compete always damages your soul.”

Maria João Pires (International Piano, January 2014)

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.

The climax of any competition is the victory of the “winner”. And of course, everyone knows what the opposite of a winner is. 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.

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

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 we have corporately become, the point is made that we are hard-wired to compete.

If we want to follow the Natural Way, should we compete?

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