It is an exciting time for music competitions. Far from the reputation they may have had years ago, with stern jury members deciding upon the fate of young performers behind closed doors, competitions are trying out new ways to support the local community, to reach new audiences and to help young laureates making their first steps in the classical music scene after winning the prize. Benjamin Woodroffe, former director of the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition and now the secretary general of the World Federation of International Music Competitions (WFIMC), a network of 125 competitions operating worldwide, tells us more. 

Benjamin Woodroffe © Raphaelle Mueller
Benjamin Woodroffe
© Raphaelle Mueller
How did the WFIMC come about? Why is it important to have a network for a competition?

In 1957, exactly 60 years ago, the WFIMC was founded in Geneva by thirteen competitions who wanted to share what they were doing, their voting rules, their prizes, their repertoire, their calendar, in other words, to share best ideas and best practice.

Today we count 125 member competitions who belong to the federation across the entire globe and across all disciplines. On top of those 125, we have 10 organisations which are associate partners. They’re not competitions but they are like-minded organisations, like Conservatoires, that exist to help young musicians.

The federation is a governing, networking, promoting and advocating body to push the value of competitions. We set rules and standards that members must meet. It provides a sort of stable guarantee for the jurors, for the public, for the music industry, for the young artists. The aim is to really ensure that our members are offering competitions at the highest possible level.

It’s needed because competitions play a crucial role in the classical music career development path. Excellent competitions really help young artists find their feet. It also helps them answer the question: is musical performance the career that I really want to make? All the media angles and engagements that are offered really shine a light on what it would be like to be a professional performing artist in future.

Competitions are no longer just about the prize. What can a competition do for musicians at this early stage of their career?

Competitions have been helping young artists since they’ve been in existence. But in today’s world, there are many ways in which musicians need to navigate a career. More and more, competitions are really investing in tailor-made programmes to assist their laureates after winning a competition. They are mentoring mainly on artistic and professional levels: fine-tuning repertoire for future engagements through the competition networks, providing  assistance with long-term items like finding an agent, developing a public profile, dealing and engaging with media, learning to communicate authentically... It is about learning to be a professional in addition to the music skills that they already have.

In many ways, it’s more important than the prize money. Securing excellent introduction into the music industry and securing engagements that you couldn’t get as a young musician on your own can really put you leaps and bounds into a performing future.

Coming from the other side, what are competitions unable to offer them? In your experience, what does a prizewinner need to break through on the international stage?

Competitions build the best possible platform they can with the most supportive and positive environment so that these young candidates can show themselves openly and honestly to the public and the industry. From there, of course, the public and the industry will ultimately make its choice. It may not be the first or second prize winner, but maybe a candidate who did not make it to the finals. But allowing each candidate equal time and equal conditions to show themselves in the best light is our major role. A competition does not guarantee a career, but it can fast-track a career that is going in the right direction.

Ultimately what a performer needs is to have something genuine to say, a natural ability to connect with the audience, regardless of whether it is a jury or a professional audience. Competitions are about finding artists with a self-belief that they have something to contribute to this repertoire that we all know and live with. What's required is more than technical perfection, it’s more than reliability, we’re looking for magic, we’re looking for ideas, we’re looking for authenticity.

As Pavel Kolesnikov told us a few years ago, “competition experience can very easily become destructive, both psychologically and professionally”. What can competitions do to make it less of a daunting experience?

We’re fully aware of the pressure the musicians put themselves under before they enter a competition, but the days of short performances for empty halls in front of a jury on its own are over. That is not the way our competitions are performed or staged.

What we’re finding is that more and more competitions are taking the pre-selection process very seriously, investing a lot of time and effort. To give you a concrete example, our members are trying to give candidates as much scope as possible and to hear them ideally more than once before the selection are made. By the time the final is held, the candidates have been invited to play full programmes before a large public, and we’re really trying to highlight the candidates as future performers. Often our member competitions allow them to have their own order of works or repertoire. Candidates are preparing concerts rather than rounds. By doing so, each candidate is really saying “this is how I like to engage with my audience.”

Candidates may have an opportunity to sit on masterclasses, they are staying close by one another, they’re sharing meals together, they’re learning from one another. This social dimension is important to make it a fulfilling experience.

What would you recommend to a young performer considering taking part in a competition?

To do a lot of research before applying! You do not need to enter every competition that exists in your discipline. Although the overall mission is the same, every competition has a different artistic point, it will have a different repertoire requirement or a different focus.

We strongly recommend that candidates find the competition that is right for them at the time that is right for them. I know that young musicians feel a lot of pressure that they must win a competition early on, but it’s really important that the mentor and the teacher take time with the candidate to really plan ahead – 18 months to 2 years ahead – and have a strategy about which competition they should enter. To prepare in advance is most important. I cannot stress that enough.

This is also why the federation is important: our website is a great research point to begin with, where one can get an overview of where the main competitions are, what their future timelines are like, etc.

Changing the focus from candidates to the audience itself, what role should competitions play in the local community?

It’s very important because competitions are about the future of our industry. The audience, which perhaps normally sees a programme of established artists, has with competitions the opportunity to see the future of classical music performance.

More and more competitions are organising different kinds of events such as films or seminars about the repertoire. And musicians are really not being held in the hall by the jury, they are being shared as much as possible by the community. There is a festival atmosphere building around competitions through this public engagement process. And our member competitions are all international so we also have this wonderful intercultural experience.

The volunteer network is crucial for competitions. In Melbourne, we worked very closely with host families and host schools. Ensembles from all over the world were assigned to different Australian schools, each had masterclasses and performances with their ensembles. In turn, the schools would support their ensembles through the competition and become involved.

On a larger scale, the internet provides exceptional opportunities to let music lovers know about emerging talents, and live streams can bring together thousands across the world. Is it something the WFIMC is focusing on as a new way to reach out?

The federation actively encourages broadcast, whether it is audio, video, streaming, not least because it is a very interesting genre! One thing we must remember is that competitions are held for artists who are still in their development state, they’re not the fully-fledged artist that they will become in 25 years time. They’re still discovering themselves, which is especially revealed behind the scene: are they prepared? Are they coping with the stamina? What are they finding about themselves as they’re travelling around the world? That’s where the attraction for competitions can come from. Competitions are more than just about assessing music, the human aspect which shows itself behind the scene is fascinating.