, Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California, piano, piano competitions, Teh 14th International Van Cliburn Piano Competition, Van Cliburn, word press

Piano “Competitions”–Do we need them?

The word “competition” in the realm of music-making doesn’t work for me. Those who serve the poetry of music and view technique, not as athletically driven, but as a means to a higher artistic end can be offended by glitzy, media-hyped productions that show young Asian, American, Russian, etc. flowers of youth posing for thumbnail video sketches like Olympic hopefuls.

Some young entrants at multiple concours here and abroad, might consider a personal trainer, wardrobe adviser, PR person, and face-making coach to help them advance to the winners circle.

A cute smile, tilt of the head, or even tongue twisting maneuver might side-step going through the hoops, recital after recital, in pursuit of the GOLD.

A good media profile, culled months if not years before the BIG EVENT might land an aspirant a budding career. (as long as it’s technology bundled)

In this age of mp3s, quickie uploads, you tube playing flashes, blogs, vlogs, logs—pods, pads, and anything new on the horizon that will outdate the former, young pianistic talents have to adapt to changin’ media channels.

The good news, if one favorably views the NEW WORLD we live in, is that our current generation of gifted pianists are WITH IT, having a generous grounding in computers, originating in Kindergarten.

Hence, their websites are streamlined and hyper-linked to guarantee maximum exposure.

But back to competitions.

In the era of Van Cliburn, dating to his win in 1958, the environment was DIFFERENT. It was a resoundingly POLITICAL era.. Not to say that “Vanya” didn’t deserve to claim the Gold at the prestigious Tschaikovsky Competition in Moscow circa 1958, but the COLD WAR was raging and a thaw was a welcome, DRAMATIC, if not world-changing event. (And Cliburn rode the crest)

Cliburn Moscow

The tall rangy, sandy-haired TEXAN was at the right place during an opportune historical moment that bestowed an unheard of ticker tape parade for a musician in Lower Manhattan!!!!! (Who would believe??)

The Gold RCA generated Vinyl RECORD of Van and Kiril Kondrashin collaborating in Tschaikovsky’s Bb minor concerto earned the young pianist a life-long following and solid, financially secure life.

Would it be the same today for Van or any other first place winner of a high profile International Competition? It doesn’t necessarily follow. Too many current Cliburn entrants to the current 14th International convergence, have racked up victories all over the world, yet they’re still in feverish pursuit of another big PRIZE that might have enduring value. (throw in an appearance on ELLEN to assist!)

In that vein, consider the so-called prodigies, some of whom have won the undeserving, premature attention of ELLEN DEGENERES as they savor 15 minutes of fame at the instigation of pushy parents. In truth, some of these preemies need to stay home and practice for at least 10 to 15 years before banging their way to final cadences on the public stage. Maybe some day they’ll make it in the competitive arena!


Murray Perahia, my personal musical hero, and poet of the piano, avoided the prodigy loop for early recognition, and did the LEEDS Competition in the UK back a few decades. His win sparked a great, enduring career, but times were qualitatively different then. Young talented musicians picked and carefully chose a PRESTIGIOUS competition to enter and didn’t have to run around to scads of them. They hoped ONE victory would CAPTURE enough attention to stop their FRENZIED pursuit.

Consider as well the judges at these competitions: Many have taught a truckload of entrants or are linked by the next generation to teachers who might have taught mentors of these newbies, and by further association to piano-playing pedagogues in the OLD COUNTRY.

Veda Kaplinksy, Chair of the Juilliard Piano Department and a frequent jurist, excuses herself from voting for her own students at the Cliburn Competition and Lord know where else? But how could she realistically manage to keep track of the complex lineage of professorial forebears without doing a current genealogy search on the WEB.

Seymour Bernstein, pianist, teacher, author, has now become so incensed about the competition milieu and its impure environment that he sent out an all points bulletin registering his discontent with the whole atmosphere that pits pianists as rivals, while he expressed outrage that one of his favored entrants, Sara Daneshpour, was not a chosen semi-finalist. (her website:

With Seymour’s permission, I’ve memorialized his riveting statement, “NO COMPETITIONS”

Dear friends,
I have concluded something that I wish to share with everyone on my mailing list: the Cliburn Competition has revealed the greatest young performers among us. Of course there are other qualified performers who were not chosen for non-musical reasons: either they haven’t won a major competition, or they never performed with a major orchestra, to mention only two reasons.

This is my conclusion: The word “competition” must be eliminated. The Cliburn Competition is rich enough to expose these phenomenal young artists to the world for one reason only: they ought to be heard as models of human achievement on the highest level, and they ought not to have to compete with one another.

The worst aspect of competitions is the assumption that jury members are qualified to judge who is the best among the competitors. This is impossible given each person’s varied tastes. I, myself have adjudicated at major competitions where a pupil of mine was among the competitors. While I was not allowed to vote for that pupil, my colleagues knew that I taught that contestant simply by reading the bios of the competitors. Some jury members will want to support me and my pupil, while others, compelled to uphold fairness at all cost, may vote against my pupil.

In addition, I have known jury members to support a competitor who studies with a close colleague. Finally, jury members are not beyond the possibility of falling prey to sexual attraction. Considering the human factor, visual attractiveness may override objective listening.

Considering these factors, let’s vote for abolishing all competitions. Let’s have these performers share their artistry with us for no other purpose than to inspire us with their accomplishments, thereby spreading the essence of the divine art of music to a world sorely in need of it. Let’s all write to the competition board and suggest this for future Webcasts.



My comment: While I agree with Seymour’s assertions, my underlying thesis is that our culture should properly nourish and sustain musicians, and not force them into competitive environments.

Many Juilliard grads, for example, when researched a decade after their graduation could not make a living at what they loved, cherished, and nurtured since childhood. (Competitions, notwithstanding)

In conclusion, until we get off the instant message, mp3 driven train, abandoning LIVE concerts, and drinking the KOOL AID served up by sound byte-ing advertisers, (the not so hidden persuaders) we’ll always have aspiring pianists taking an alternate route, far afield form their first love, just to put bread on the table.

And what a loss to a society that should embrace those who have something SPIRITUAL to offer in a world plagued by violence and all the rest we should abhor.


Seymour Bernstein speaks even louder about Piano Competitions and the need for CHANGE:

Star Telegram, questions jury ties to competitors at Cliburn Competition

Memories of Van Cliburn

The 14th International Van Cliburn Competition

click ON DEMAND LINK to hear performances of all entrants

3 thoughts on “Piano “Competitions”–Do we need them?”

  1. I agree, and the comments I read on the Pianoworld forums during this and any other competition serve to reinforce my dislike of competitions. They seem to bring out the worst in all but the competitors.


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