October's themed month explores the world of international competitions through the eyes of some finalists of top competitions around the world. We kick off with Alison Balsom, finalist in the BBC Young Musician competition in 1998.

Alison Balsom © Jason Joyce
Alison Balsom
© Jason Joyce

Did taking part in competitions boost your career? How?

It did help my career in that the two competitions I entered (BBCYM and the Maurice André trumpet competition in Paris), were both high profile and extremely well-timed. They were both at the perfect time for me to explore the best repertoire for me personally to present to the public, and how I was going to show what I could do in a way that made people want to listen – under the pressure of open judgement.

When is the right time to enter a competition?

When you want to learn something from it no matter what the competition result.

Are there some important factors to consider when choosing the right competition to enter?

Certainly the BBC competition puts the wellbeing of young artists, (who are possibly putting themselves under more pressure than ever before) above everything else. The excellence that is achieved in the competition is because of this I think. Also consider that music is an art form and not a sport. There is no such thing as a totally fair music competition purely because artistry is so subjective. Alongside this, the stages that we are at as musicians is in constant fluidity. You may deserve to win one day/year, and not the next.

What are the ingredients of a good programme?

A balance between music that you know will be a challenge in some way, and music that will be a salve in another. It's purely subjective though, so part of the deal is that the audience has to trust the curator to be led on the journey.

What is the key to capitalising on competition success?

No idea! But being efficient, enterprising and performing with sincerity are your greatest weapons.

Are competitions a good thing?

They can be – being seen and heard is important, as is learning about yourself whilst under those pressures.

Do you struggle with competition nerves? How do you manage them?

I have struggled sometimes with performance nerves, but the way I interpret that is that I'm just excited, and I really care and want to be the best I can be. If it's a competition, it's out of your hands whether that's better than the next person, so it almost takes the pressure off.

What are your top three competition tips?

Pretend it's a concert not a competition.

Only think of the composers intention.


Have you had any competition nightmares?

Luckily not, but they are the times we learn the most about ourselves so the stories along the way are never bad as long as you dust yourself off and carry on performing and loving the music you play.

Are competitions an essential rung on the performing ladder, or are there other ways for young artists to get noticed?

I think there are a number of different ways to seize opportunities for exposure as artists. Competitions are just one of several ways. People who are very talented and dedicated to their art usually reveal themselves one way or another in the end.