Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

Sizing Up the Competitions

Sizing Up the Competitions

By Elizabeth Nonemaker
Illustration by Stephanie Dalton-Cowan

What creative and career value do they have in today’s musical landscape? Our musicians weigh in.

Ching-Yi Lin sits at a piano- the lid is open and camera is at the opposite end of the piano as Lin
DMA student Ching-Yi Lin has entered a competition roughly every month this year.

The stage is black, the hall dim; but the piccolo and high pizzicato violins seem to cut a path in the darkness, accompanying pianist Ching-Yi Lin as he flashes his way through the first movement of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3. 

Every young pianist dreams of this moment: when they take the stage to perform a beloved concerto with a snappy orchestra.For Lin, this June 2022 performance with the Central Texas Philharmonic is hard-won—literally. Here, at the Texas International Piano Competition, concerto performances are reserved for the finalists.

Lin will go on to win second place, capping off a breakneck season of competitions. The 30-year-old, fourth-year DMA student at Peabody estimates that as a younger musician he participated in three or four competitions per year. But this year? He’s been doing one roughly every month. 

“I’m reaching the age limit,” he explains in an interview. Most piano competitions set age caps in the late 20s or early 30s. A pianist closing in on the limit, then, might choose to make competitions—applying to them, preparing for them, performing in them—a full-time job, devoting nearly all their energy to competing in the hope of racking up placements before the door closes on their chances for that particular accolade. 

That’s the situation Lin finds himself in now. He thinks it’s worth the effort: Prizes give a musician “status,” in his words, theoretically increasing the odds of landing a future job. Plus, they create “a natural opportunity for networking,” which Lin considers one of competitions’ biggest benefits. 

That hasn’t stopped him from dreaming of a time when young musicians might not feel the pressure to compete so much. Among his artistic goals, he describes a desire to help “a new generation [learn] how to build a career without doing competitions.” 

Could it be possible? Many musicians would argue that the necessity is already upon us, and that competitions are an anachronism in a 21st-century landscape. Decades ago—when there were fewer competitions overall, more resources devoted to supporting winners, and the chance to hear great, previously unknown talent was more of a rarity—competitions really did seem to have the power to create stars overnight. 

But most music teachers would be quick to tell their students that those days, if they ever existed, are over. It’s true that winning certain competitions can still be turning points in musicians’ careers. But defining and maintaining that career is another story. 

What value, then, do competitions have in today’s musical landscape? Do they identify stars? Create them? Or has working the so-called competition circuit become yet another hoop for young musicians to jump through? And if so, are the values cultivated for competition success the same that lead to a meaningful career? 

“There are so many more [competitions] that it’s harder for the kids that even do win to make an impact, to get noticed.”

— Emanuel Ax, Grammy-award winning classical pianist

On an episode of the podcast Sticky Notes, Emanuel Ax reflects on winning the inaugural Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in 1974. “It did start things off,” he says, referring to his career. “They offered a recording for a major label, management.” 

“It’s unusual to have that kind of exposure right away,” he points out. By contrast, nowadays, “there are so many more [competitions] that it’s harder for the kids that even do win to make an impact, to get noticed.” 

Indeed. The Alink-Argerich Foundation tracks international piano competitions and lists on its website more than 400 affiliated with the foundation; according to The Washington Post, it estimates double that amount are in operation. YAP Tracker, a website that compiles opportunities for emerging opera singers, lists more than 800 vocal competitions. 

On an episode of the podcast Sticky Notes, Emanuel Ax reflects on winning the inaugural Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in 1974. “It did start things off,” he says, referring to his career. “They offered a recording for a major label, management.”

“It’s unusual to have that kind of exposure right away,” he points out. By contrast, nowadays, “there are so many more [competitions] that it’s harder for the kids that even do win to make an impact, to get noticed.”

Indeed. The Alink-Argerich Foundation tracks international piano competitions and lists on its website more than 400 affiliated with the foundation; according to The Washington Post, it estimates double that amount are in operation. YAP Tracker, a website that compiles opportunities for emerging opera singers, lists more than 800 vocal competitions.

With that many in operation, “working the circuit” can get expensive—fast. Application fees alone can add up to the hundreds; beyond that, there are travel costs and even tuition if a competition is held as part of a festival. Lin estimates his travel costs for domestic competitions at a minimum of several hundred dollars; international competitions are in the thousands. There are forms of assistance available: For instance, Lin has received multiple career development grants from Peabody. But he still has to plan his budget and calendar carefully and try to land “as many gigs as possible” to compensate for upcoming competitions. 

Aspiring orchestral musicians know the routine: It’s the same one they go through when auditioning for job openings. A difference, however, is that orchestral musicians are angling for secure employment. To compare just the monetary awards, top cash prizes for the most prestigious competitions come out to roughly one year’s salary—optimistically. (The Tchaikovsky and Cliburn, for example, last offered $100,000 as a top prize; Chopin, €40,000; Queen Elisabeth, €25,000.) Smaller competitions offer much less. 

Certainly, prizes from these competitions also create career momentum and often come with high-profile performances. In other words, placing is arguably most beneficial to the aspiring soloist, or to the kinds of musicians for whom orchestral tenure is not an option—broadly, pianists, vocalists, and composers. 

But the odds of winning one of the big-ticket competitions are so low as to be almost nonexistent; and the smaller competitions still require huge investments of time and money.

Again and again, the musicians interviewed for this story repeated the same idea: There is something about competition that compels people to develop their A game—and in a way that other performing opportunities do not. 

“People realize that they’re going to be rated and compared and evaluated,” pianist and Peabody professor Steven Spooner explains. “They will be placed in numerical order. Right away, that’s different from just preparing for a concert.” 

That kind of pressure can create diamonds—and Spooner himself is an example. As an emerging pianist in the 1990s, Spooner entered seven international competitions and placed in all of them. “Entering competitions focused my work,” he says. “It gave me a goal. It also helped me learn quite a lot of repertoire, which is important.” 

Tenor and Peabody Vocal Studies professor Stanley Cornett has a similar perspective. Over the years, his students have amassed an impressive number of awards in dozens of competitions. For him, it’s important that his students treat competitions as “a growth process.” 

“Part of this journey of developing their talent is learning to be cool and calm in a high-pressure situation,” he says. “When you have them prepare for that, and help them to do these competitions, there is a big maturation process that happens. 

“Part of this journey of developing their talent is learning to be cool and calm in a high-pressure situation.”

— Stanley Cornett, Vocal Studies professor

Tenor and Peabody Vocal Studies professor Stanley Cornett has a similar perspective. Over the years, his students have amassed an impressive number of awards in dozens of competitions. For him, it’s important that his students treat competitions as “a growth process.” 

“Part of this journey of developing their talent is learning to be cool and calm in a high-pressure situation,” he says. “When you have them prepare for that, and help them to do these competitions, there is a big maturation process that happens. 

Headshot of Victoria Young
Victoria Young, winner of Peabody’s 2021 Harrison-Winter Competition for Piano, appreciates the intensive study that preparing to compete entails: “I now feel like I have a great understanding of Bach.”

Victoria Young (BM ’22, Piano), winner of Peabody’s 2021 Harrison-Winter Competition for Piano, can speak to that experience. She’s participated in a number of Bach-specific competitions; without them, she says, “I might not have studied that music so deeply. I now feel like I have a great understanding of Bach. Mostly, it’s because of the preparation … for those competitions.” 

She found the best competition to be the one that downplayed the competitive aspect: This is the International Piano Competition “J.S. Bach,” held every three years in Germany. “Everyone was there to learn from each other,” Young recalls. Organizers created a collaborative atmosphere, gave competitors ample time between events to meet each other, and stressed that the objective of the competition was, above all, the deep study of Bach’s music. 

Young wishes that “other competitions could function more like that one,” she says. “Some competitions breed animosity between the competitors. That’s not the purpose of music.” 

Young’s experience challenges the notion that ranking is necessary for significant musical development to take place. And while ranking may motivate some musicians, how much meaning does it actually have? The two criticisms frequently levied at competitions question their capacity both to cultivate and assess musicality: are the skills emphasized in competition—often technical prowess and flashy showmanship—really what constitute great music-making? And second, can juries be trusted as impartial arbiters of talent?

With respect to the latter point, the level of subjectivity (or outright bias) at play in judges’ decisions is both an established element of competitions—and an unavoidable one. Stories of scandals, ulterior motives, rigged juries, and explosive disagreements between judges riddle competition lore, all the way up to arguably the most famous competition winner of all time: Van Cliburn. His 1958 victory in the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition reportedly had to be approved by Nikita Khrushchev himself; the competition was founded in an attempt at cultural propaganda, and the winner was supposed to be Russian. One of the more extraordinary parts of Van Cliburn’s story is not just that he won—and that his victory generated international headlines—but that there was any consensus around a “clear winner” at all. It’s much more common for competitors at that level to be so evenly matched as to render judgements on their comparative musical ability effectively meaningless.

In other words, winning a competition “means just a couple of things,” Spooner says. “Number one, it does not mean that you’re the best candidate among that group of people. It does mean you’re probably well-prepared. Number two, the jury liked you. Beyond that, I’m not sure.”

And what does it mean if the jury likes you? Many competitions do not put measures in place to prevent jury bias from influencing results; jurors are often allowed to evaluate their own students. Spooner points out that even in competitions where judges must recuse themselves from these evaluations, they can still “passively influence the [result] by voting down their student’s competitors.” 

(To be sure, there are competitions that take a more aggressive stance. The Chicago International Music Competition and Festival, which Spooner co-founded and launched in 2018, prohibits jurors’ students from entering.) 

Despite all that—or maybe even because of it— Cornett concedes that it can feel “just terrible when you lose, particularly if you know you’ve come very close to winning.” For many musicians, simply participating in competitions—regardless of the outcome— doesn’t feel very good. 

Jacqueline Audas performs violin on stage in front of an orchestra and beside a cello soloist
Jacqueline Audas (left), winner of the 2021 Yale Gordon Competition for Strings, admits she’s not a big fan of competitions but enjoys the preparation and meeting her peers.

Peabody graduate student and violinist Jacqueline Audas, winner of the 2021 Yale Gordon Competition for Strings, confesses that, overall, she’s “not a big fan of competitions” for that reason. She enjoys the benefits of competitions: how they “force you to be at the top of your game,” the opportunities they provide to hear peers perform, to meet other people, to travel—all of which help develop overall artistry. 

But there have been times when Audas had to admit to herself, “I don’t like how I feel performing in competitions,” she says. “It’s easy to get pulled more toward the ‘What am I being judged for?’ side of things … that’s opposed to the side that’s more concerned with creating a unique message with the performance.” 

In other words, does a focus on assessing the measurable attributes of a performance break the whole artist down to the necessarily lesser sum of their parts? And do competitions implicitly teach musicians to value these elements more than the undefinable quality that all great artists have? Are these qualities that will help them maintain careers after the competition has ended? 

“Technique, intonation, bow control, style—these things are all really important,” Audas says. “But for me the number one thing as a musician is what you’re communicating to the audience.” 

For Audas, that’s what performance is all about: connection. To that end, she founded the nonprofit Classical C.A.R.M.A. (Concerts Aiming to Raise Money and Awareness) in 2020 with the goal of partnering with other organizations for benefit concerts. Most recently, Classical C.A.R.M.A. produced concerts with a Houston-based nonprofit to raise money to combat homelessness. 

“Certainly, among students, competitions are significant career events. My argument with them is the inflated sense of importance.”

— Fred Bronstein, Dean

Audas’ work is an example of other things musicians could be doing to develop artistry and build a career instead of competing. And according to Peabody Dean Fred Bronstein, it’s likely more effective. Reflecting on the roughly 18 years he spent running orchestras, Bronstein reported that not once “did I ever engage an artist, either in the orchestra or as a soloist, because of a competition they had won. Not once.” 

Of course, Bronstein was “interested in how they played.” But other than that, what stood out to him was their capacity for working in the community doing other things, such as educational events. “Certainly, among students, competitions are significant career events,” Bronstein says. “My argument with them is the inflated sense of importance.” For him, it’s crucial that students take a holistic approach to career, which he describes as “a big puzzle. You want to make sure you make that puzzle as complete as you can.” 

Audas’ work is an example of other things musicians could be doing to develop artistry and build a career instead of competing. And according to Peabody Dean Fred Bronstein, it’s likely more effective. Reflecting on the roughly 18 years he spent running orchestras, Bronstein reported that not once “did I ever engage an artist, either in the orchestra or as a soloist, because of a competition they had won. Not once.”

Of course, Bronstein was “interested in how they played.” But other than that, what stood out to him was their capacity for working in the community doing other things, such as educational events. “Certainly, among students, competitions are significant career events,” Bronstein says. “My argument with them is the inflated sense of importance.” For him, it’s crucial that students take a holistic approach to career, which he describes as “a big puzzle. You want to make sure you make that puzzle as complete as you can.”

It’s something that Ching-Yi Lin has been thinking about a lot as he nears the end of his competing days. He’s in the midst of preparing a recital program, with each piece selected by himself rather than ordained by a jury, and none of the repertoire is “based on how virtuosic you can be.” And he’s noticed something interesting: that creative concertizing feels both “easier and more interesting” when it comes to building an audience. “Which is the ultimate goal,” he says. “Right?”