I have judged, competed in, and administered those nasty little manmade abominations known as competitions. Two of them have re-entered my thinking this week:
One is the Hayes Young Artist Competition, a full-ride competition among first-year entering students to the Hayes School of Music at Appalachian State University. Each year, we hear splendid playing by upwards of 12-15 students, and we always wish the judges the best of luck in determining a winner. This year, the rightful winner was named, as usual.
Then he turned the prize down to attend college elsewhere.
Which brings me to this advice to any competitor in any competition: it is the ultimate in poor planning to enter a competition “just to see how far you get.” After all, you could win. Just like marriage in the Episcopal Church, a competition “is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.” And furthermore, it is the ultimate in arrogance to win a major competition such as this and then decline to accept the prize. I mean, how much do you think a university should beg to give you $30,000? There were plenty other competitors who would have gladly accepted that prize or less. Don’t get me started. Oops, too late.
Okay, on to the second competition fresh on my mind. Results are in from a membership survey for the American Guild of Organists on its playing and composition competitions. The tide is turning again, as is its pattern. The opinions coming out of the woodwork are the usual ones: too many judges, too few, too much prescribed repertoire, too little, age range too young, too old, our American competitions are not European enough, there’s not enough prize money, there are too many rounds, too few, instruments used are lousy, not enough trackers, not enough digital, competitors should be able to play a WurliTzer as well as a Fisk, judges should not be current or even past teachers of competitors, blind judging, double-blind judging, fully open judging, audiences should see the competitors, audiences should not, competitors should bow and show stage presence as part of the judging package, competitors should address the audience intelligently as part of the judging package, we need ways to ensure we choose the right winner who will continue on to a major career, we need more prize money, we need to can the competitions completely and teach these kids how to play hymns better, we need to give all that prize money to struggling churches, et cetera, et cetera.
I administered an AGO competition for six years, during which I learned a great deal about organ pedagogy in this country. I treasure having learned as much as I did, because it made me a rather excellent teacher in cultivating the complete performer and not just the hotshot organist. But that learning came at a price. It made me no friends among the competitors (except the winners, of course). And it kind of made me look to my successors like a steadfast defender of the status quo. For the record: I could live with the competition in its previous state, and I’ll have no problem living with it in its upcoming altered state. I think it’s admirable and necessary for the AGO to re-define why its competitions exist and what we hope to accomplish with them. But I fear the sponsors of the first prize will likely not enjoy hearing over and over that cash is more important to a winner than two years’ free artist management and a free recording project.
Well, no matter how a competition is set up, a competitor’s performance is merely a snapshot of her world in that moment. It can go in any direction from there. It is not a guaranteed home run, and it’s not a prediction of future success. A judge’s verdict could be as easily influenced by what he had for breakfast as by how well the competitor played. And Lord knows there have been winners who were never heard from again. And there have been plenty second-prize winners who have made decent careers for themselves. And there are plenty hotshots out there who have never won any competition.
I’d say winning an audience’s heart is the real prize these days. And let's not forget that mediocrity is ultimately our only "competition." We must battle it every day. Eyes on the ball, please.