How to practice?
Short notes by Roberto Prosseda

11. Concert pianists or piano competitors?

International competitions for musical performance doubtlessly represent an important testing ground for the young player: they are fundamental occasions for trying out the stage, for letting yourself be heard by a wide and qualified audience, and in the best of cases, for undertaking a gratifying concert career. It is natural, therefore, that the majority of music students consider preparing for competitions to be important and the principal aim of their work. It is therefore worth analyzing the widespread approach of young interpreters to competitions in the light of the real needs of the concert-playing world, since they do not always coincide with the prerogatives necessary for winning a competition.
For a musician today, it is no longer enough to win an important first prize to be certain of undertaking (never mind maintaining) a real and steady concert career. And sometimes even four or five first prizes are not enough: competitions can offer great sums of money, numerous concerts even in prestigious locations, but the glory tends to wear off in the span of a few years (usually up to the proclamation of the next winner), if the winner does not have all the necessary makings to deal with the real life of a concert performer.
So what gifts must a musician possess to have a career? To have some idea, it is enough to look at those who are currently the great performers. In addition to talent and culture (that are obviously the minimum, indispensable prerequisites), for the most part, they possess extraordinary versatility, that is, they are able to perform many recital programs in a few days, often alternating solo performances with ensemble work. The big agencies tend to launch young talent in a way that is often brutal, programming a high number of important concerts very close together. Sometimes just a minimal nervous crisis can compromise a career. Thus, also for intense concert performing, you need nerves of steel. Nerves that need to be trained and well oiled regularly, and it should not be taken for granted that the experience of competitions alone is enough, because this involves a different type of stress. Competitions hardly ever expect you to learn a new piece in a few days, or that you prepare a concert or a recital program in a very short period. Such situations, however, often occur with concert performers, especially young people who may be asked to stand in for someone else at the last minute. But above all, a true performer must absolutely have a personal critical conscience, placing himself in relationship to the history of interpretation and civilization. The approach to music is in constant evolution, parallel to the development of society and contemporary culture.


The Repertoire of a True Performer: Not just "Competition Pieces"

Another very important characteristic for the success of a concert performer is the wide range and originality of the repertoire, as well as creativity in putting together a recital program. It is difficult for someone who plays exclusively the most well-known and often heard music to develop a satisfying career. Moreover, it is very stimulating to perform pieces by marginally known composers, even if they are not genius level like a Beethoven or Chopin, or rather to propose pieces that are less often heard by those same well-known composers (and there are many of these, often victims of unjust oblivion). In this way, the role of interpreter also takes on the especially useful function of popularizing music, contributing to the cultural enrichment of one's own society. It is particularly gratifying for a performer, moreover, to directly collaborate with contemporary composers. It is a way of integrating the role of concert performer within the current moment, discrediting the commonplace belief that 'classical' musicians perform an anachronistic profession.
Competitions, unfortunately, do not always favor such open-mindedness. On the contrary, they usually prescribe a traditional repertoire made up in large part of some of the cornerstones of the instrumental repertoire. On the one hand, this allows for better evaluation of the quality of the competitor's performance, thanks to comparison with the vast array of recordings and the long tradition of interpretation. On the other hand, in this way the competitors will all find themselves with a similar repertoire, often not very extensive and focused on the best known music that is inflated and overworked, to which it is quite difficult (and risky, considering that it is during a competition!) to add some new element.
The need to hone their instrumental preparation to a maximum often induces competitors to concentrate their studies on those few "standards" (sometimes this means the same pieces for more than ten years) to churn out during competitions, without being able to sufficiently increase their repertoire and consequently their cultural baggage.
Certainly, it is right for a young performer to tackle the most representative works for his instrument. But it goes without saying that one hundred musicians (even if they are good and well-prepared) who play the same pieces will not all find an adequate outlet as concert performers. Moreover, 'competitors' often forego learning pieces that are rarely heard, for fear that they will be considered with condescendence, if not with compassionate hilarity by some of the jury. The candidate who proposes something 'original' may in effect give the impression of wanting to avoid direct comparison with his 'rivals' and thus wanting to camouflage his own inadequacy in dealing with the traditional repertoire.
Instead, it is precisely such pieces that might offer greater success and notoriety to a young musician: in fact, the fame of some of the more successful current performers is actually due to the originality of their repertoire. Even Maurizio Pollini debuted with Deutsche Grammophon with a CD dedicated to the music of Weber, Boulez, Prokofiev and Stravinsky (at that time the Trois Mouvements de Petroushka were not fashionable, like today), and he was among the first to regularly present music by Schoenberg, Boulez, Stockhausen and Sciarrino in his recitals. And, taking a step backwards, it should be remembered that Walter Gieseking linked his name to the popularization of Ravel and Debussy, and Arthur Schnabel would not be so famous if he had not been the first to record all of Beethoven's sonatas and to present the complete sonatas of Schubert in concert, when these had been completely ignored by the wider public. More recently, stars of the caliber of Marc André Hamelin and Pierre Laurent Aimard (even if not yet extremely famous in Italy) have earned success thanks to recordings of composers like Godowsky, Alkan (Hamelin) and Ligeti (Aimard). And there are still an infinite number of compositions waiting to be deservedly rediscovered or even performed for the first time!

Interpretive Research

It is surely not the intention of the writer to discourage learning the traditional repertoire. On the contrary, it is exactly by getting to know music that is less well known, exploring virgin territories from the point of view of what is traditionally played, that it becomes possible to draw out new, fresh ideas with beneficial effects on the approach to pieces from the repertoire.
And here we come to another salient point: are we sure that competitions encourage interpretive depth and prompt a search for new ways of performing? To judge from the verdicts of many recent international competitions, it would seem to be the exact opposite. Often, as has been observed, contestants endowed with bigger personalities are penalized because they destabilize the listening experience. They require greater concentration and superior effort to adapt to on the part of the judges, who are not always so inclined to call into question their own ideas, especially when they are listening to music for ten hours a day. So competitors who propose more neutral executions, lacking any original or innovative elements, often have an easier life and find greater consensus during a competition, only to then rapidly disappear from the concert-giving world.
The awareness of this mechanism unfortunately also influences the preparation of 'competitors'. How many times do teachers warn: "Be careful not to exaggerate, otherwise they will eliminate you!" After all, the fear of being in some way "attackable" prompts candidates to constantly search for a utopian interpretive balance that in the best of cases means a neutral execution devoid of individuality, and at worst is synonymous of mediocrity and lack of creativity (which, however, may paradoxically prove to be a 'winning' technique).


The Juries

It is clear that the next cause of such a mentality should be sought in the composition of the juries. Looking through the names of jury members of the recent big international piano competitions, a few interesting peculiarities emerge: almost all of them are pianists or ex-pianists or piano teachers. Save for a few exceptions, there are no conductors, composers or other musicians who are not pianists. Why? The justification is soon found: if the jury members do not know the literature of the instrument that they are listening to, they will not be able to adequately judge it. But is that really the case? I believe not: on the contrary, precisely due to their abstract and non-mechanical vision of the performance, they might have a perception that is freer of prejudices and preconceived notions. Besides, a jury of only pianists in a piano competition is like a jury of only beauty queens or ex-beauty queens at the selection of Miss Italy. It goes without saying that the pianist will judge his colleagues by inevitably, even if often subconsciously, comparing them to himself, with his own choices, with his own performance experiences (worse still if the unlucky contestant is seen as a rival to be feared). Just as it is probable that an ex-Miss Italy will prefer the contestant that reminds her most of herself when she was young!
The presence of teachers also causes multiple conflicts of interest, especially when their own pupils are in the competition. And the usual rule of having teachers abstain from voting for their own 'protégé' does not serve much purpose: they can still assist their pupil with exchanges of votes or by assigning very low points to the most dangerous rivals.
There are, moreover, a dozen names (and certainly this does not concern prominent artistic personalities!) that regularly appear in many of the juries of the most prestigious piano competitions. As chance would have it, it is often a question of teachers who are also presidents or artistic directors of some competition. These people, reciprocally inviting one another, determine a rather unhealthy uniformity not only in the composition of the juries but also in the selection of the prizewinners: someone who has already won a competition organized by one of them will certainly be assisted in winning another one, thanks to a protectionist policy based on reciprocal favors that may even be long-distance.


Art and Competition: An Acceptable Combination?

By saying all this, I am not suggesting that young people should be discouraged from participating in competitions, on the contrary. But it is important to live such experiences peacefully, taking advantage of the reciprocal comparison to enrich one's own knowledge and understanding, without letting oneself be negatively conditioned: certainly, because there are dangerous long term effects that the system of preparation for competitions may generate on contestants.
The greatest risk regards the genuineness and completeness of the musical formation. The trend that today is widespread among young students (and their respective teachers) to gear their studies to winning a competition is worrisome, almost as if this were the primary objective and the ultimate goal of their educational training. Without a doubt, it is positive that a competition can stimulate greater determination in preparation, but often the outcome of the competition becomes more important than the artistic result, with dangerous consequences both for the winners and the 'losers'.
Winning a prestigious prize can in fact nurture the conviction that one is a complete artist, causing a drop in the yield of the performance and in interpretive research (a very frequent situation among first prize winners of international competitions). The habit, then, of studying in function of a competition may generate a real, true dependence: almost as if one could not live without continual external inspections to have the appropriateness of one's musical performance confirmed (or not!). Many winners do not manage to keep the same quality level in their concerts because they lack the stimulus of comparing themselves with other competitors or with the 'terrible' jury.
Elimination from a competition can often mean depression, loss of confidence in one's own abilities, or at least a natural but certainly not beneficial sense of frustration. A contestant who is eliminated thus risks dimming the more genuine and original elements of his own artistic personality, considered to be the cause of his lack of success.


Facing the Competition as if it were a Concert

So what should an aspiring performer do to survive all this, to find real professional and artistic satisfaction? First of all, open his eyes. Competitions, it is worth repeating, are very useful as an undertaking: winning them is better, but losing them does not entail any preclusions. What is important is having a full understanding of one's own mission, of one's own role, and finding greater gratification in the pleasure itself of making music, in the energy and poetry that can be found in that. Especially today, the world of music needs creative interpreters, rich in imagination and spirit of initiative, bold, curious and above all with the urgency of having to say something authentic, of having listeners participate in a new discovery, in a new 'truth' to be spread with enthusiasm and sincerity. Moreover, it is important not to shut oneself up, but to look around and seek opportunities for letting oneself be known and appreciated. And it is not just a question of competitions: on the contrary, it is often a successful recording or a good audition for an important artistic director that ends up being more profitable than winning a first prize.

There are also many "enlightened" competitions that are gradually modifying the rules and regulations (and the juries) to get closer to the real needs of the life of a performer. But what counts most is that the contestant faces the competition with the mentality of a "concert performer": and that will be easier when he learns how to say something special and unique, that distinguishes him from all the others.

Roberto Prosseda 

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