This quote, shared on Twitter this morning by @ScaleBoxApp, reminded me that I've had a blog post brewing in my brain about competitions. It was mainly sparked by the BBC - the announcement of the Young Musician of the Year finalists, and their new 'Great British Amateur Orchestra' series/ competition.
I have such mixed feelings about competitions in music. Professional music IS competitive - winning performance competitions, winning a place at a prestigious institution, winning auditions, winning audiences to come to your concert rather than someone else's - although this is simplifying the music world a lot, there's a huge element of having to be 'better' than someone else. Many of the Young Musician participants will go on to professional careers, and no doubt being part of this competition plays some part in that. Equally for aspiring musicians, 'winning' local/ regional/ national competitions, getting into ensembles where you have to be one of the best at audition - these things do help with making your way to a university/ conservatoire place.
As a teenager I took part in a few competitions. My favourite was the Edinburgh Competition Festival - although it was competitive, the emphasis seemed more on the 'festival' side of things. It was a great opportunity to perform in front of an audience and get some outside feedback on your playing, and it always felt to me like a celebration of the music-making going on in the city (I'm pleased to see it's still running!). Obviously it was nice when you did well, but I think well-pitched events like this have much more to them than the idea of 'beating' other people.
On the other hand, sometimes competition doesn't seem so healthy. Perhaps it's natural in an activity where there is 'progression' (in particular where a series of grade exams are available), that people will compare their own and others' level of progress. I remember going on music courses where the first few conversations always seemed to revolve around who had done which grade and what mark they got and which youth orchestras they'd got into - it was as if musical teenagers had to work out a hierarchy amongst themselves, again, maybe something teenagers always do to some extent, but there could be a lot of looking down on others and ego-boosting based on being 'better'.
High profile competitions on national TV do, I suspect, add to this competitive nature of the music world. Young Musician showcases some wonderful players, but I do feel that some of the 'hype' around it focuses too much on 'talent' rather than the immense amount of work that these musicians must have put in to get to this stage. I've posted about the idea of talent a few times before, so I'll refrain from my usual rant, but suffice to say that I think it's important that young people watching this programme are told that the participants didn't get there by some 'magical gift' alone (and I think in fact that claiming it's all natural talent is insulting to their hard work and commitment. Of course, there's a whole other discussion around that level of work/ commitment/ public exposure/ pressure at a young age...).
This new amateur orchestras series though... well, my first thought was - can we not celebrate amateur music-making without making a competition out of it?! Maybe nobody would watch that though - people like to see who wins and loses, who gets through to the next round, who they want to 'support'. My second thought was to wonder how they're defining 'amateur'. Thinking of the orchestras I've played in, which have mainly been considered amateur since the players don't get paid, all of them contain some members who make their living from music in some way. So whilst that particular activity is 'amateur', they are paid players (and/or music teachers) in other capacities. Unless the orchestra has a strict rule about its members not making a living from music to any extent (as some competition festivals do for their 'open' classes), then the proportion of actual amateur musicians could vary rather a lot - bearing in mind that it's a blurry line anyway - what exactly does constitute a professional musician? Does 'amateur', i.e. not being a paid musician, necessarily indicate a lower level of skill? (I'd say not always). And surely those orchestras which have higher entry standards in the first place stand a better chance in the competition than those who are open more widely?
I haven't seen the full rules for the competition, but having seen comments from those who have it appears to require a big time commitment from the orchestras, which seems incompatible with the lives of amateur musicians (or those with other musical jobs who play in these groups) who have jobs to go to, families to look after, and indeed other musical groups to play in who might not be too happy if you took a long absence from rehearsals! It strikes me as adding a whole new level of stress and expectation, when it can be hard enough fitting musical commitments round busy adult lives as it is. It will be interesting to see whether there are enough groups willing and able to enter under these terms for the series to go ahead. If it does, I'll probably watch, but I can't promise that I won't (OK, I practically guarantee that I will) be shouting at the telly.
Flute player and teacher blogging about playing, learning, teaching and researching music.
The Reliable Musician - a series of blog posts on the skills that make the sort of musician people want to work with!