Alexey Chernov,, Shirley Smith Kirsten

Going into the Finals at the Alaska International Piano-E-Competition, and thoughts about COMPETING

Neither memory lapses nor occasional note slip-ups impeded any of the five selected Piano Finalists from forging ahead to the Chamber Music and Concerto Rounds of the Alaska-based E-Competition.

My two particular favorites, Marianna Prjevalskaya and Alexey Chernov honored Schubert with gorgeous performances of the composer’s A Major (D.959) and C minor Sonatas (D. 958), respectively. Each savored the singing tone in their renderings, cradling an awareness of Schubert’s huge body of Songs (Lieder) that thread through his works.

Without pounding or over-exaggerating in forte sections, the pair, of Russian origin, projected rich, resonating sonorities, while swelling and tapering through limpidly spun phrases.

As communicators, they were formidable.



A diverse variety of listeners absorbing these same performances might have differing opinions but their responses can provide opportunities for lively exchange.

Nonetheless, shrouding any competition, are doubts about catapulting solo musicians into the sports arena as contenders vying for a prize when the art form may not fit comfortably within this setting.

In this vein, Seymour Bernstein eloquently summarized his reservations as they applied to the Van Cliburn International Competition in 2013, but his words resonate perfectly into the present.


“….This is my conclusion: The word “competition” must be eliminated. Any number of high profile competitions are rich enough to expose 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. As a result, 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 opinion:

Shirley Kirsten 2
I think music competitions exist to propel careers forward.

If there is no other way to advance soloists to the world stage given the lack of priority of music in the schools and in our daily lives, then these very musically talented individuals have to rotate through competition after competition, racking up wins that accord so many sponsored engagements. They cannot otherwise afford to subsidize their own performances.

It’s not 1972, when Murray Perahia, for example, had only to win the Leeds Competition to spawn a successful long-term career. Now pianists are jumping through hoops trying to rack up top tier awards before moving to the next adjudicating venue.

I don’t think this feverish pursuit of contest after contest promotes a healthy environment for musical growth and development, and unfortunately, many of my teaching colleagues are promoting the competition loop with students as young as 4 or 5.

It’s nearly impossible to convince a child that performing before judges is for pleasure when there will always be a “loser” at the end of the day. Children watch TV, sit in front of computers, and know that the World Series, Superbowl, and World Cup Soccer Tournaments have “winners.” And these winners are rewarded handsomely with money, fame, prestige and more. (Add “power” to the mix)

By the same token, we can’t extract children from a universal, commercially hyped environment and isolate a piano competition as if it’s been pureed like soup for healthy consumption.

So this is why I’m opposed to music competitions, sharing the essence of what Seymour Bernstein well-articulated.

Finally, when our culture embraces learning for its own sake, and values music study in the same way it embraces record-breaking Olympic conquests, then we will have reserved a space for richly talented musicians to humanize and enrich our lives without their having to vye for “first place.”


6 thoughts on “Going into the Finals at the Alaska International Piano-E-Competition, and thoughts about COMPETING”

  1. Music should promote communication, not competition.
    Music should encourage connection, not comparison.
    Miusic should be about confirmation, not criticism.
    Music should celebrate creativity, not confusion.
    Music should engender congratulations, not consolation.


      1. Thank you! I make these comments after nearly four decades as a piano teacher, professor of music history, adjudicator, and performer. I no longer judge piano competitions when asked because I now hold to the idea–as does the famous Schola Cantorum in Paris–that “one does not make music against someone else.”


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