This session is well-timed - we recorded a few weeks ago - as it was right when I was in the midst of trying to figure out how to articulate whirling thoughts about competition, and more specifically, judgment. We had great thought-provoking discussion, and decided, after an hour of talking, that judging is hard.
Posts 1 and 2 of this Judgment series center on why that may be true, especially when our amazing brains work against us, shortcutting to biased pathways and rushed, incomplete opinions. But what happens to our domain of classical percussion as a result of competition and the difficulties of judgment?
From a practical point of view, judgment in music allows us to select the best players for orchestras, scholarships, or competitive awards. As in all domains (ie: areas of study or work), hard work should be rewarded, acknowledged, and recognized; the logical fallacy is to wonder if we would work that hard without the promise of public praise, but I'd like to think that for musicians it wouldn't matter. I can't speak for those in occupations that are less fulfilling, though.
"Competitions are for horses, not artists."
- Bela Bartok
Bartok knows where he stands on the matter.
Most of us would probably say that competitions seem like a necessary part of the musical environment, that we need them to identify the "rising stars" and their talents. The sheer number of competitions across all musical disciplines signifies this sentiment rings true. [How much of this is because they've just always been around and how much is because we actually need them, I'm not sure.] The situation that arises from a competition is a dichotomous one. Judges and competitors hope that the "best" player will be rewarded, yet the judges know they prefer certain styles of playing, and the competitors are keenly aware of what biases the judges may hold. These layers of cognitive awareness of the situation end up tainting what aims to be a pure celebration of musical talent. It's as if we are our own worst enemy.
I remember being a graduate student watching my peers prepare for competition. They researched judges, they listened to those judges' recordings, and they talked to as many people as they could about what those judges "liked." Even then, as a young 20-something, this approach and nearly obsessive acknowledgement of bias was troubling. I wondered if there could ever be a "pure" competition. I watched one friend in particular take 3 competitions in one year; luckily, she could use the same repertoire in some cases. I recall that she played Chameleon in the first round of each one - and she played it differently depending on the location and judges of each competition. She played the same piece three different ways to suit the different juries' taste - but not one of the three was how she actually wanted to play it.
You might think that she should not have done something so untrue to herself. Well, here's the problem: she WON.
It gives the appearance that the whole thing has been reduced to a strategic game, that there is a right way to play in order to advance to the next round. Some of this is true, as a judge (whose caring and thoughtful identity should remain anonymous) told me that in competition you have to play the most difficult thing you can pull off, that sometimes, it pays off to take the risk of crashing and burning. We spoke for a few minutes, and he told me that I was the last person to be eliminated before the finalists were selected - all because the piece I played was this much easier than the ones played by the four ahead of me. He taught me a valuable lesson, and I'm grateful that he delivered it in such a kind way. Still, though - the lesson acknowledges a strategy, does it not? Hmm.
When we become players of strategy, I worry that we take the magic out of music. We worry more about proper gear than playing with correct intent; we worry more about pleasing someone else over ourselves. Our self-established specificity over how to play different orchestral excerpts proves this all too well. There are those (more disciplined than I) who can practice excerpts for years and years, looking for the perfect strategy or piece of the puzzle that might be missing from the way they play Kije.
I've recently found myself wondering if preparing so desperately for competition or audition damages the artistic part of a player. I've felt the pull on my insides for the two I did partake in: one part of me wanted to play music, and the other wanted to play perfect. It was hard to reconcile, and I think that's evident by the results. I didn't win, but I also didn't do badly. Perhaps if I chose how to prepare the answer would be more clear.
Like many, I see competition as a stepping stone for an introduction to the field as a player. Winning won't necessarily change your career, but better to win than not, right? I seek validation for my efforts, as so many competitors do, all the while trying to remember that it comes from within, not from an external source.
Ultimately, is the juxtaposition of judgment and artistry good or bad for art music? Is it even relevant - does it even matter? What seems to matter more is the approval of the jury, the gatekeepers, if you will, for the realm of "those that are good" that welcomes you into the fold. The world overwhelmingly celebrates external success, yet we all know that it doesn't matter as much as intrinsic validation. And yet we place value on it. We chide ourselves: if you were good enough you would have won already; if you were good they would have loved you; if you were good enough you'd be sponsored; the list goes on and on.
But then there's the part that is proud of yourself. The part that knows you did good because you were brave enough to try despite knowing of the biased pitfalls you'd face. You can acknowledge the hours of hard practicing you did, the hours of analysis and thoughtful interpretation you folded into the music. You know that you're a better player because doing is doing, no matter what it is for.
What's hard, and what is most important, is never forgetting why we do we what we do. The threatening desire to make music a living and lifestyle can't be taken lightly, as we all know. The competition to be known is fierce.
I had a conversation on this very topic with a Professor of Voice at JMU, and it reminded me of intrinsic value when he said that music making can happen anywhere - in the practice room, in the car, in the shower, in the laundry room... Reflecting on this, I realize that artistry isn't relegated to any one situation, and what we are hoping happens is that it comes to the forefront in the face of adverse judgment and performance anxiety. The concert stage is one of innumerable places where music can happen. The music I make at home in my slippers is just as valid as that made by someone else at The Kennedy Center. Is it externally recognized? Nope. But is it just as intrinsically valued? Absolutely.
The dichotomy of competition is something that the realm of music hasn't quite worked out. I hope we do, though, and that it happens soon.