The Truth About Piano Competitions

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The subject today is the truth about piano competitions. Piano competitions are a whole industry and the level of players in competitions is astounding. Consider this: some of the big international competitions, like the Tchaikovsky for example or the Cliburn, just the amount of music you have to learn in order to enter these competitions is so formidable that you have to already be an extremely accomplished pianist to even go for it. Typically there are two programs of music.

You might have to have two, two and a half hours of music under your belt, all from memory.

I’m talking about some of the most difficult, challenging music with a wide variety of period styles from the Baroque all the way through to 20th Century and beyond.
Not only that, many competitions also have a component where you might have to have a concerto or two ready to go. And chamber music, maybe a piano quartet, that is a piano with strings. And oftentimes they’ll throw a piece of music at you that you just have a little bit of time to get together and be able to perform. Your abilities at learning music quickly also comes into play in these competitions. How do people even approach international competitions? Well, it’s really tough for most people. If students have nothing but time on their hands and great training where they can just hone their skills and practice endlessly, many hours a day, and be able to play for juries and to be able to play in master classes, honing in everything about their playing.

But that’s not enough. They also must be able to go from competition to competition, again and again, because at any competition there will be literally hundreds of supremely qualified people. That is people who come in knowing all the music and playing it on a really high level. You’d think that only a few people could even achieve this because what it takes to enter one of these international competitions is beyond belief. How does somebody actually get anywhere in these competitions? Aside from everything I’ve told you, the preparation, and having benefactors to fly you around the world whenever there are competitions,

people who tend to win the major competitions have done so by taking enough of them and getting used to the whole process.

And maybe they’ll place in this competition, make the finals in another, finally land in the third or fourth place, and eventually maybe they’ll be lucky enough to land a first prize or second prize. A first prize might actually get you a career in one of these major competitions. Sustaining a career is a story for another video, but let’s just talk about who are they looking for? How do you choose among so many supremely talented, accomplished pianists? Well, one aspect that has become kind of apparent is that one thing is that the jury of pianists, of concert pianists, who are judging these competitions, and many times it’s not necessarily the pianist who has the most individual voice, because they might really turn on one or two of the judges and some of the other judges might think oh, that’s not the way I’m used to hearing it.

A lot of times competition winners can be great players who don’t offend anybody.

They play in such a way that everything is unarguably first class. A good example of this is the great concert pianist, Ivo Pogorelich. Back in 1980, he was a youngster entering the Chopin International Piano Competition. Well, interestingly, Martha Argerich, another great concert pianist, was one of the judges of that competition. And when Pogorelich did not make it to the finals, she was so incensed that she walked out, she stormed out of the competition. Well, this was so news worthy that it actually carved out a career for Ivo Pogorelich, who didn’t win the competition. Now that’s a really interesting story, isn’t it?

But this is actually emblematic of what piano competitions and other music competitions are like. Oftentimes our players who are first class and who don’t take those crazy chances of individualistic interpretations, that were much more popular early in the 20th Century before recording became so prevalent. Today, everybody hears everybody, and you can hear it instantly. Just go into your phone, you can hear half a dozen performances of any piece you want. And so

everybody tries to sound like everybody else to a great extent

or if they’re not, they know they’re going out on a limb playing a different tempo or different expression.

Personally, I really like the old style of taking liberties as long as they’re liberties that are convincing. Some of the old Horowitz performances, I mean the old performances, particularly in the ’30s, ’40s. 50s’ were really spellbinding. Hoffmann. Lhevinne. Today, pianists generally play more similarly to one another because of the advent of recording and competitions alike. There are some insights about piano competitions. I hope this has been interesting to you and any comments you have we welcome here at Living Pianos. Thanks for joining me, Robert Estrin 949-244-3729