The world of professional piano-playing today is filled with competitions, and more often than not success at these events seems like a crucial step in developing a successful international career. But are they really such a great way to spot the stars among the latest generation of talent? After winning the Queen Elisabeth Music Competition in Belgium last June, Boris Giltburg described himself as “a bit angry” about the lack of an alternative method for finding new talent. The heightened competitive atmosphere, the close-run decisions – can all this really be healthy?

We have spoken to three more young pianists, all experienced competitors, to present their views on competitions, in their own words.

Pavel Kolesnikov © Colin Way
Pavel Kolesnikov
© Colin Way
Pavel Kolesnikov

“I took part in numerous competitions at different levels during my development, and I don’t regret it. The experience I gained has helped me to determine in many ways my musical preferences and to put my feet on solid ground as an artist. And of course, winning the Honens Piano Competition in 2012 has dramatically changed my life. 

I believe that music competitions can be useful, not only for developing a career, but even for professional development. However, one should handle them with caution, because the competition experience can very easily become destructive, both psychologically and professionally.

Elimination, selection and gambling are key components of any art competition. It is always a gamble to take part in a competition because objective criteria for evaluating art hardly exist. The balance between elimination and selection is crucial. The concept of elimination isn’t fruitful, because it is based on measuring individual cases against an “ideal model”, which can lead to a certain sameness or safety in artistic choices. Selection, on the contrary, is a positive process. If I were in charge, I would ask a jury to put aside their notebooks and scores of the music played. Truly listening to the music with full focus is the only way to make a valid selection.

We young musicians have to approach competitions with an eye to choosing the opportunities that are the best fit in our development. It is true that through competitions it is possible to learn many things about yourself and to achieve certain success. But the glittering competition world sometimes provokes us to forget about the most important and simple things: what a great power is in being yourself; and what a great disaster it can be for an artist to orient themselves towards success as the main goal. True art needs time to grow in one’s soul. The only way to evaluate it is to give it time and space to unfold and the opportunity to experiment and take risks.”

Alexander Gavrylyuk © Mika Bovan
Alexander Gavrylyuk
© Mika Bovan
Alexander Gavrylyuk

“I participated in four competitions throughout the early development of my musical path, including twice in the Horowitz International Piano Competition in Kiev (I achieved Second Prize at the age of 12 and First Prize when I was 14), Hamamatsu International Piano Competition in Japan and the International Rubinstein Piano Competition in Tel Aviv (I achieved First Prizes at both , at the ages of 16 and 21 respectively).

Competitions have had quite a substantial effect on my career. On a personal level, it gave me an extra layer of professional experience and stamina. In a competition one has to perform to one’s very best ability in an environment which can be described as unnatural for musical freedom and expression. The big lesson which I learned from that was that I tried to surpass that notion of being “judged”, I tried to be independent of any possible fears or outside pressures and simply dissolve into the music I perform without sparing myself. Being able to do that is very important when having heavy concert schedules later on.

On a professional level, performing and succeeding in competitions exposed my art to some amazing musicians of the older generation. That in turn opened doors to performing on better stages, with better orchestras and conductors.

I think there is a good balance to be found for young pianists today. On one hand, competitions can do wonders for a young pianist’s musical future, both personally and professionally. On the other hand, I think it is important not to approach competitions from the wrong angle. If “being better then others”, “winning first prize”, “proving anything to anyone” or the financial benefits are the motivations, competitions are likely to harm the precious balance needed for a healthy personal and musical development of a young talent. All in all I certainly believe that with a healthy approach competitions are a great thing for young pianists.”

Mateusz Borowiak © Bogdan Kulakowski
Mateusz Borowiak
© Bogdan Kulakowski
Mateusz Borowiak

“Although I do not consider myself to be a competition veteran, I have come to recognise the importance of making oneself heard. Right from the very beginning at the Junior Guildhall Lutine, at the age of 17 (which resulted in my first ever performance with an orchestra), every challenge I took presented an opportunity to play for ever-growing audiences. Winning the ROSL Annual Piano Competition, in my teens, led to a number of concerts with the EUCO, recitals in London and Edinburgh, and festivals in King’s Lynn and Stratford-upon-Avon, and gave thrilling encouragement. The CUMS and CUCO auditions during my Cambridge years, and the Nigel W. Brown Music Prize, resulted in a number of performances in King’s College Chapel and West Road Concert Hall, while the London Girton Association Award earned a performance at the 2009 Cambridge Music Festival, of which I have especially fond memories.

It was a number of well-known, large-scale international competitions during my postgraduate piano studies in Poland that opened the door even wider. First prize at the Rina Sala Gallo in Monza was followed by recitals throughout Italy, Belgium, France, Poland, Spain and Ukraine. Winning the Maria Canals in Barcelona (almost simultaneously with the Harriet Cohen Memorial Award and the Yamaha Music Foundation Piano Competition), offered many concerts throughout Europe, a CD recording for Naxos and led to another recording for the American label, KASP. After the third prize and audience prize at the Queen Elisabeth International Piano Competition in 2013 I had two tours (Belgium and China) and many recital and concerto proposals with some of the leading orchestras and conductors.

Competitions are the perfect opportunity and a motivation for young musicians who, with a bit of luck, can show their very best. However, as spending too much time on stage can cause artistic dilution, I feel that one should compete only when one is ready and does so for the right reason. As we hear so often – everything is good in moderation.”

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