Oh how we look fondly on the days of our youth! Yet our rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia often lead us to forget about the frustrations of being young. 

Many young musicians experience this frustration, with endless hours of practice which seemingly never come to fruition. But that is where competitions come in, as a tangible goal for the young musician. Of course, a competition win at such a young age will not lead straight to fifty concerts a year, but that's a good thing, avoiding burnout and ensuring a long-lasting career. 

The World Federation of International Music Competitions, which includes some of the world's most well-known competitions, lists nearly 70 events out of their total 122 dedicated to the search for young talent, in locations across the world, from Japan to Montreal. For some laureates, competitions were just another part of their daily life as a musician. For others it was such an important time that they decided return to the event that gave them that kick-start, and some even had new competitions set up in their honour to invest in a whole new generation of music-making. 

Let’s take a look at some inspiring artists who were recognised for their talent at a young age. How did competitions take them from the bachground into the limelight? And can you recognise them?

Radu Lupu at the Cliburn International Competition in 1966 (left) and in a more recent photo © The Cliburn // Prague Spring Zdenek Chrapek
Radu Lupu at the Cliburn International Competition in 1966 (left) and in a more recent photo
© The Cliburn // Prague Spring Zdenek Chrapek

The Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition was set up in honour of American pianist Van Cliburn, who won the first International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition during the height of the Cold War. Romanian pianist Radu Lupu won the Cliburn alongside two other of the most prestigious piano competitions: the George Enescu International Piano Competition and Leeds International Pianoforte Competition.

Tasmin Little and Yehudi Menuhin (left) Ray Chen and Zamira Menuhin Benthall © Menuhin Competition // Brian Tarr
Tasmin Little and Yehudi Menuhin (left) Ray Chen and Zamira Menuhin Benthall
© Menuhin Competition // Brian Tarr

The Menuhin competition's artistic director Gordan Back told us: "We are proud to continue Menuhin’s ethos of discovering and fostering young talent, providing them with an environment where they can grow musically from the many events provided, learn from each other and make friends for a lifetime. According to Menuhin, "The meeting of young talent is an occasion of great stimulus, excitement and reward.”

Violinists Tasmin Little and Ray Chen are just two talents for which the Menuhin competition has been instrumental to their successful career.

Recent photos of Tasmin Little (left) and Ray Chen © David Crooke // John Mac
Recent photos of Tasmin Little (left) and Ray Chen
© David Crooke // John Mac

Ray Chen participated in many a competition before his talent was finally recognised by the Menuhin competition in 2008, followed by the Queen Elisabeth Competition in 2009. Bachtrack organised an AMA with Chen on Reddit where his advice for competitors was "to be in the mindset that it's not about winning a prize per se, but gaining the experience of performing in front of an audience, possibly for the first time with orchestra, and being exposed to other talented young musicians around the same age." Ray Chen is now known as an inspiring violinist for the young social media generation, combining humour and music in his YouTube masterclasses.

 

Some artists believe that competitions are the ideal place to make alliances for the future. That's why violinist Benjamin Schmid has decided to return to the Leopold Mozart Competition after winning the second edition in 1991: "to give that chance to the young generation of performers" he writes. Joining him is Lena Neudauer, who in 1999 won the first prize, the Richard Strauss prize for the best interpretation of Richard Strauss' Violin Concerto, as well the audience prize. Schmid and Neudauer keep close ties with the Leopold Mozart Competition because of after the great impact it had on them.

Lena Neudauer at the Leopold Mozart Competition (left) and in a more recent photo © Leopold Mozart Competition // Annemone Taake
Lena Neudauer at the Leopold Mozart Competition (left) and in a more recent photo
© Leopold Mozart Competition // Annemone Taake

From the poised photo above, Neudauer may not look nervous; however, she commented: "I still remember very well that I was so nervous during the whole competition, that I hardly ate. I really wanted to do my best, but to win was still very unexpected for me. I was so overwhelmed when I heard about the final‘s results!"

Benjamin Schmid practising for the Leopold Mozart Competition (left) and in a more recent photo © Leopold Mozart Competition // Wolfgang Lienbacher
Benjamin Schmid practising for the Leopold Mozart Competition (left) and in a more recent photo
© Leopold Mozart Competition // Wolfgang Lienbacher

Benjamin Schmid said of the 1991 competition: "it was a mélange of the right things at the right time. Musically, I was on my own for the first time as I had finished my studies and took responsibility for my musical decisions. I chose the right repertoire, I had a wonderful collaboration with my then accompanist, the great Ayamin Ikeba. Yehudi Menuhin as the conductor of the finals knew me already from his own competition and from the Salzburg Festival, where I played my debut with him, and I had wonderful host parents."  

Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider at the Carl Nielsen competition (left) and in a more recent photo © Benny Ahlmann-Jensen // Lars Gundersen
Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider at the Carl Nielsen competition (left) and in a more recent photo
© Benny Ahlmann-Jensen // Lars Gundersen

Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider is another world-renowned violinist and conductor who has decided to go back and invest in new talent, completing the competition life cycle, this time with the Carl Nielsen competition. He is no stranger to the competition world: he won the Carl Nielsen in 1992, after receiving the audience and senior fifth prizes at the Menuhin competition the year before. His verdict on competitions? He believes they should be held “to find talent and nurture it. To provide a platform. And also because it’s very hard to be a student and work with the zealousness you need unless there’s something to work towards”. 

Jennifer Koh at the Carl Nielsen competition (left) and in a more recent photo © Benny Ahlmann-Jensen // Juergen Frank
Jennifer Koh at the Carl Nielsen competition (left) and in a more recent photo
© Benny Ahlmann-Jensen // Juergen Frank

Jennifer Koh came second in the Carl Nielsen competition in 1992 and then in the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1994. She took up the violin completely by chance as there were no spaces left for neither the piano nor cello in the Suzuki-method program. In between winning a few competitions at a young age and her international career kicking-off, Koh managed to secure a bachelor of arts in English literature, adding another string to her bow.

Sol Gabetta at the ARD competition (left) and in a more recent photo © ARD Competition // Marco Borggreve
Sol Gabetta at the ARD competition (left) and in a more recent photo
© ARD Competition // Marco Borggreve

Cellist Sol Gabetta won her first competition at age ten, before featuring in the ARD competition and Tchaikovsky competition. She believes that no performance should be a copy of the previous one, which it is why competitions should promote individual development and not just plain perfection. She supports campaigns which invest time and money in encouraging children to learn about classical music.

Dame Mitsuko Uchida at the ARD competition (left) and in a more recent photo © ARD Competition // Decca | Justin Pumphrey
Dame Mitsuko Uchida at the ARD competition (left) and in a more recent photo
© ARD Competition // Decca | Justin Pumphrey

Dame Mitsuko Uchida, as hinted at by her title, boasts an award-winning piano career of numerous awards, before even counting competition prizes. She won third prize at the ARD competition in 1966, before going to win first prizes at the Beethoven, International Chopin and Leeds Piano competitions in the years following. 

So what can young musicians take from this selection of accomplished artists? Choose your competition wisely, don't be disheartened and keep practising!