Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California, piano competitions, Seymour Bernstein, shirley smith, Shirley Smith Kirsten, Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, Van Cliburn piano competition

Seymour Bernstein’s riveting statement about the piano competition environment and what changes are needed


“Are all of you listening to one spectacular young pianist after another? (Cliburn Competition in progress)

“Why should they have to be placed in the position of competing against one another, and facing the possibility of being rejected by a jury? It would be just absurd if a jury was chosen to decide who is the greatest impressionist painter-Monet, Cézanne, or Degas, to mention only three painters? These performers have profound messages to share with the world.

“What sort of a system has created a scenario akin to gladiators in ancient Rome who had to fight-to-the-death for survival and, in the process, give
the public a thrill? Are we to accept the fact that only one or two among these phenomenally gifted performers are going to receive major engagements, plus a pile of money? How will the others be rewarded for the inspiration they have afforded us? The well-adjusted among them will recover quickly from rejection and continue to relate to music as life itself. Others will return to the familiar rat race of trying to find engagements.

“I say down with the contest format! Let’s replace it with a showcase of the world’s greatest talents who symbolize the highest form of human achievement. Take the large sum of money allotted to winners and divide it among the performers as a token of their participation. Are you prepared to carry this message wherever you can by writing to the directors of contests and to music publications? I am. This will be a major project this summer.”



Seymour Bernstein, pianist/teacher/author/composer

Do we Need Piano Competitions?

Star Telegram, questions jury ties to competitors at Cliburn Competition

6 thoughts on “Seymour Bernstein’s riveting statement about the piano competition environment and what changes are needed”

  1. I don’t really have a problem with competitions(other then the politics behind the scenes which never seems to end), and I was prepared to disagree with what was being said by Seymour Bernstein. Problem is…it is a good idea, then the only “competition” itself would be becoming part of the showcase. I wonder what this would lead to. Either some amazing performances where the pianists are allowed to be much more individual, or will the lack of competition lead to less of a drive?


    1. I don’t think the lack of a competition will lead to less of a drive among the music-makers. Something to replace the current the milieu with its tier of first, second, third and the rest is desirable. This is not an Olympiad though for many, especially the sponsors, it may well be worth $$$s to pump it in this way. The idea of “judges” making aesthetic decisions when we already have heard such immaculately gorgeous playing is anathema (to me at least)


      1. I agree with you, especially thinking back to reactions to choices of medalists of the last Cliburn. When they had to create and “audience choice” prize.


  2. I was about to agree with Seymour Bernstein until I got to this part “Let’s replace it with a showcase of the world’s greatest talents who symbolize the highest form of human achievement.” But then who decides who the world’s greatest talents are? Isn’t that selection itself a judgement, a contest? In that selection process there will be those who are rejected. Isn’t that the same as a competition? I think the competition environment provides an opportunity for young pianists to show their stuff before a worldwide audience (in this day of live webcasts), an audience that extends way beyond their hometown fans.


    1. Thanks for sharing. If for a moment we look at the selection of semi-finalists, and make an aesthetic value judgment by cutting 6, and then finally adjudging the remaining on Tiers, with one raising up a Gold, it’s just plain offensive. Seymour’s point about great art applies here. What we have in the competition venue, becomes a sports event. And that aspect of the “contest” is ill-fitting to the expressive art of music-making. Just my opinion. The question, remains, as you point out, how to overcome this shoddy process and replace it with something more meaningful.


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