It can be daunting to put yourself out there, to test your abilities against those of others. Any musician who has ever considered participating in a competition knows that with so many options, the task of picking the right one for you might seem Herculean from the start.

Florian Riem © Sihoon Kim
Florian Riem
© Sihoon Kim

To try and make more sense of where to begin – and where to go once you get there – I spoke to Florian Riem, the newly appointed interim Secretary General of the the World Federation of International Music Competitions (WFIMC), the association representing many of the leading international music competitions in the world. And the starting point is, maybe unsurprisingly, research.

“It’s not easy,” agrees Riem. “It’s a long process, and a different choice for every competitor. You should look at the details of what every competition has to offer and find out as much as you can and prepare.”

Finding familiar, comfortable points is helpful as a grounding strategy that will allow you to withstand the pressure of the competition. “You are looking for people or music that you know, or for places that you have been to, to give you a certain security. That moment on stage you will need to be at the 150% of your abilities and every little detail can contribute to that, so the more familiar you feel with your surroundings and those around you, the more natural your performance will be.”

First, the place: it might not be ideal to travel half way across the world. Expenses aside (many competitions offer subsidies for participants) you also have to consider factors such as jet lag or culture shock. Then, the repertoire: choosing a competition requiring scores you have been working on for the past few years and you feel comfortable with can be a great advantage. And then there is the jury. “You will definitely feel different if you know a juror, not necessarily personally and not because they know you and they would vote for you, but because you respect them as an artist,” explains Riem. “If you heard them in a concert, you know where they are in the world, you can relate to them, you can trust them to give a fair judgement. Or, conversely, not knowing anyone in the jury might also be interesting if you are not certain of how good you are and you just want to jump into the pool and see what happens.”

“The exposure after the competition is also important: what can the competition do for you in terms of performances, recordings, public relations, communication with presenters? Who is going to be there at the concert? But most of all,” continues Riem, “You have to decide which kind of competition do you want: do you want one of the big ones, where you know that many others are applying and where you will feel the pressure on so many sides, or do you want a smaller one, where you might feel more comfortable, more natural on stage, without being overexposed? It’s about judging yourself and seeing where you'd fit best. It's not that one is better than the other, but the pressure in the most famed competitions of course changes the way people look at your performance and makes you feel different when you are on stage.”

Cliburn Junior Piano Competition's contestant Caleb Borick during a masterclass with Ruth Reinhardt © Ralph Lauer
Cliburn Junior Piano Competition's contestant Caleb Borick during a masterclass with Ruth Reinhardt
© Ralph Lauer

Once you made your pick and you are there, you might not reach the final stage. But as disappointing as that is, it's also important to remember how nowadays most competitions are connected to festivals or concert series, and many offer mentoring and performing opportunities as well as networking events and jury feedback sessions open to all participants, not just the finalists. Competitors need to take advantage of this, but it can be hard to get into the right frame of mind.

“A competition is a very special experience,” says Riem. ”It’s not like any other performance opportunity. It's a moment of immense pressure and focus that can bring out a wonderful energy in you. The experience, the motivation, the enthusiasm that come along with that moment is what makes it so important. Some people say it’s unnatural, that making music is not a sport… But I disagree. A competition can be an unique moment in one’s career because you might never be at that point again where you are mentally so well prepared to withstand such a high amount of pressure from various sides: it’s the pressure that brings out the best in yourself, your highest level ever. And if you reach that and yet you don’t win a prize, of course it is disappointing, but it doesn't matter, because it has already been worth participating.”

It’s also down to competitions’ organisers, however, to try and make sure that those who are eliminated do not leave immediately but remain for the remainder of the competition to take part in all the collateral activities offered.

“Usually competitions try and take care of the competitors all the way to the finals, even if they drop out before,” explains Riem. “If you are far away from home and everything is anonymous, you depend on those around you. If you play, come off stage and you feel like you are not taken care of, then of course you'll want to go home, it’s natural. But if you are made to feel welcome, you see that you are taken very seriously, that the people around you are on your side, I think that's a wonderful feeling. It might take a little while to get over the disappointment if you are eliminated, but if you can experience a few more days, see what others are doing, it might also make you feel better. It can be a great experience: you can see what you could have done better or you can be sure that you actually did really well, so I would always encourage contestants to stay.”

Queen Sonja International Music Competition's semifinalist Siyabonga Maqungo during his performance © Nyheim Kristoffersen
Queen Sonja International Music Competition's semifinalist Siyabonga Maqungo during his performance
© Nyheim Kristoffersen

Competitions in different parts of the world have different approaches to how things are organised – and judged. One of the reason the WFIMC exists is to unify competitions and work on common standards of excellence. A discussion that has been brought up in recent years is about juries' composition. “It is a ground rule of WFIMC that jury members can not vote for their own students,” Riem tells me. “Some even say that an applicant can not be admitted if one of the jurors was their teacher, but that goes too far from my point of view. You have to be crystal clear that there cannot be no exceptions, the jury cannot talk to participants during the competition and teachers cannot vote for their students, but if that is respected, then in my opinion there is no problem.”

Having teachers on juries, Riem explains, is something natural, as long as things stay fair. Not every competition finds it easy to gets hundreds of applicants: while the most famous competitions don't have a problem attracting hopefuls, some lesser known instruments or smaller institutions can find themselves struggling. Everyone wants to have a wide spectrum of international competitors and the sponsors of the competition – be it a government or a city, for example – might even withdraw funding if the number of candidates decreases year on year. “If I choose, let's say, a professor from the Julliard School,” explains Riem, “it doesn’t mean that they will bring on their own students, but it could help making the competition better known among students of other classes, causing more people from that school to apply. Teachers, especially university professors, are often helpful in getting more and better qualified applicants to a competition.”

But looking at the composition of competitions' juries, sometimes it seems that the same names are always recurring. “If a competition is lesser known, they will want to have a prominent juror to become more visible, but I would like to encourage organisers to look at new people who are not usually associated with competitions. It can be very interesting to have a great artist who has never been on a competition jury. It can be a very young person too, but somebody well respected could contribute immensely to the overall image of the competition. And then of course there are agents or promoters that can add a very interesting colour to a jury because they are very important for the competitors. A jury should be as diverse as possible, with many different nationalities and a diverse cultural background, to make it fair, new and exciting.”

“At WFIMC we build relationships and we learn from each other. New members benefit from the experienced ones, while the big competitions learn from new ones doing some extraordinary things. We are not a commercial organisation: we are a group of people who believe in the highest possible artistic standard. In many countries – especially in Asia – the WFIMC is a standard that people relate to. It goes as far as in Korea, where if you win a major prize in a WFIMC competition, you are exempt from military service. This is why I want to make sure that in a time when everything is over-commercialised, we look at what do competitions bring out in an artist. We need to look at how they are organised, how they are being judged, and we need to see where we can improve things to make them perfect for the competitors, to reach the level of excellence that we stand for.”

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