Do’s and don’ts of music competitions

Do's and don'ts of music competitions

Competitions are an art in themselves. When I started, both as a soloist and with the Trio con Brio Copenhagen, I was, like so many young musicians, a candidate for a series – luckily we had a lot of success and after a while we won more and more and eventually won all the major competitions for piano trio . And nowadays I’m often back on the scene, only now as a judge. I feel like I know so much – or so little! – like everyone, how to approach them.

If you’ve never competed in a major competition, you know there is nothing like your first. It will feel different from any other competition you ever do. You will feel like you are going to some unknown country, you don’t know what to do and you just go out and play as best you can and with 100 percent confidence how to do it. I play because that’s all you have to do. And sometimes that’s good, and sometimes not so much. Because you’re going to play against very experienced people who know how to play the game, not just the music! But you can be successful because all you have is your confidence and your full commitment – my first was the Nordic Piano Competition and I didn’t know anything about it, it felt like I was shooting in the dark and I won that second prize! In a way, it was rookie luck that I came across something the judges liked. But you will never have that naivety or feeling of freedom in competitions again.

And competitions may be even more difficult now because there are more good musicians and more competitions to prepare for. But you can still win an incredible amount if you succeed in them. They’re not the only way to ensure a great career, but they can open doors for you and give you opportunities that would otherwise normally be next to impossible to achieve. From my own experience with competitions on both sides of the concert platform and the jury table, here are six helpful tips for prospective participants:

1) Don’t forget to record

Many competitions require musicians to send in a recording first. It’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of this stage, and it’s amazing how much of these recordings are of such poor quality that it is extremely difficult to judge the game for yourself! This is your first opportunity to make an impression, and since the final jury sometimes hears these audio files as well (sometimes from a preliminary jury), this impression may last until later rounds.

Judging from Munich recently, I was also on the preselection committee and some of the recordings sounded like they were made on the cellphones or in a garage somewhere! Think super professional from the start. Find a venue with good acoustics and use a good technician if you can. If you are at a music school, ask if they have any facilities that can help you. Of course, some musicians, especially in certain parts of the world, do not necessarily have access to the same facilities and we judges know this and try to hear everything that is broadcast to us. But if you can present yourself in the best possible light, why on earth, right?

2) Choose your pieces carefully (big is usually better!)

Your selection of works can be decisive. Research. Some competitions have certain traditions that result in certain piece styles or even players repeatedly winning. Often times, if you look at the lists of previous winners, you’ll notice a consistent quality of style. For example, some prefer a Russian, virtuoso way of making music, others may be more classical and so on. Some, of course, give you a very narrow range of what to play.

But as a rule, if you can play the big pieces really well, they’ll be much stronger in competition. Yes, there are exceptions (people are still talking about Radu Lupu playing Beethoven’s third piano concerto in the competition so beautifully that the jury burst into tears), but works that are central to the repertoire allow the judges a much simpler comparison base – they focus on you rather than a piece they may not know that well. So don’t play a real rarity because that makes it almost impossible to judge how well you’re playing it. Also, because the competitions want to produce winners who will have great careers, they need to know how to play the types of works great careers are usually built on.

When you have decided on a number of pieces that might work, ultimately choose the one that is strongest for you for your own musical personality. You will learn more about it the more competitions you run. and each time listen to what the judges tell you about your selection of works. You want to help.

3) It’s about the message

It should go without saying that you need to be incredibly technically prepared for competitions. But there is more to it than that. For judges, what you hear most is the message you convey through the music. What you communicate with and through the work you play. So that should be part of your thinking. Once you have mastered the technical and stylistic aspects, you also need to think about what you sincerely think about this music and what you want to convey to the audience. You have to be incredibly persuasive. And of course this depends on your choice of works.

4) networking

Keep in mind that during competitions, you may find yourself in a room with some of the most influential people in the music business, as well as some major artists (sometimes the same, sometimes not). Try to get in touch with the jury as they often know what they are talking about and have heard so many young musicians that they could really help you raise your musical profile, make suggestions on what to highlight what to work on and yes there are some connections you may want to help you with. Don’t push it in an annoying way, but if there’s a chance to mingle with these people then it’s a perfect opportunity. Networking is important both artistically and in other ways.

5) Don’t let it go into your head

When we won the ARD competition, a very big award, we returned to our house in Cologne and the great cello teacher Frans Helmerson said to us: “So – are you different people now?” It was a great thing to say and very funny because you always have to remember that you are still the same, that you still have the same goals in front of you, and that you have to stay humble. Like us, have people close by to help you maintain focus and keep you on the ground. Competitions are weird things – and it’s the same when you’re a judge as when you’re a competitor – because you’re immersed in that little micro-world for long periods of time where it’s like there’s no time of intensity outside of the competition and its various rounds. In that sense, it’s not real life, it’s kind of a void. So be aware, and even if you win first prize, don’t leave your head in this parallel world – stay connected to life and what music is really about.

6) Know when to go away

At some point, we’ve won almost every competition we’ve entered. When you are successful and have done so many of them, you can get a feeling that certain pieces played in a certain way always work well. And that can be addicting and dangerous for you as a musician. Then we received an offer from the Tivoli Concert Hall in Copenhagen to play our very first Beethoven cycle, but it went against our plans to enter a major chamber music competition in Australia. So we asked our teacher Gunter Pichler (former first violin in the Alban Berg Quartet) and he didn’t hesitate. “You have to do the Beethoven cycle,” he said, “you have done a lot of competitions, now it is time to develop as a musician.” And from that moment on we never competed again.

As soon as you have won what you need from the competition circle, it will always come when you have to find your own mature artistic identity in freedom and without this pressure. Never lose sight of the reason for competitions or the fact that the future is way beyond your time as a competitor.

Trio con Brio celebrates its 20th anniversary. The second volume of their complete Beethoven Trios recordings was recently released by Orchid Classics, the third in May 2019.