It is a dirty job, but someone has to do it. I have been doing it, sporadically, for nearly a quarter-century. I think I may be beginning to get the knack of it.
I'm talking about piano contests. I'm talking about serving as a judge. It is important work, or so I am told: choosing winners and assigning losers, awarding cash and withholding recognition. Careers can be launched, encouraged, supported, frustrated and thwarted--though, I hasten to add, never halted--by contests.
Like them or not, contests can be difficult, unfair, frustrating, painful. Still, the system has assisted numerous needy artists at crucial points in their performing lives.
Winning a major competition does give unheard musicians opportunities to move upward in the career-spiral.
It gives them cash--prizes can range from $1,000 to $10,000 and up. Sometimes, as at the Western states competition referred to below, it gives them a new piano. Then, it gives them notoriety, no matter how short-lived, through media coverage of the event.
Finally, and most important, it gives them exposure, because often, along with cash awards, they also win orchestral and recital performances, and most helpfully, a debut appearance in a large musical center. Such an appearance is the real bottom line in winning a competition: It can launch a career.
At worst, a contest may reward less worthy contenders for qualities which should not be prized: conventionality, literalness, a lack of imagination. Sometimes, moreover, contests penalize talented youngsters for their uniqueness and failure to conform.
It all began for me one March morning in 1962, when a friend called, asking me to replace him on a judging panel. As fate would have it, the student contest in question was one I happened to have won myself only a few years before. In that town, at that particular time, my youth made me a suspect judge. But the sponsors had no choice.
Selecting an appropriate winner, I soon discovered, is a matter of unraveling, of piecing together a puzzle, of creative analysis. Sometimes the solutions are knotty, and the results unfocused or inconclusive. Quandaries come with the territory.
What exactly happens at competitions? It is simple. Most of the competitors defeat themselves. The one who doesn't, wins.
It happens time and again. In a two-round situation, a competitor will make an unblemished impression in the first round, playing his or her strongest vehicle. In the second round, the obligatory contrasting piece will immediately reveal a weakness--of technique, stylistic versatility, temperament or merely authority. Or--having survived in, let us say, a concerto competition, the preliminary round--the pianist will try to exceed expectations by choosing an even more difficult or virtuosic work in the subsequent audition. Follow Liszt with Rachmaninoff, for example.
In the first case, the attempt to be all things to all judges has backfired. Few musicians are really as versatile as they would like to be. Using up one's biggest gun early in the game sometimes means having no ammunition later on.
In the second, unless one can really top oneself by playing Rachmaninoff's Third more impressively than Liszt's First--and few can--the sequence might actually be more effective if reversed.
The goal both times ought to be: To impress in the first hearing, then to deepen the impression in the second. The immediate aspiration has to be to survive each plateau; the larger aim is to widen one's horizons, to reveal new facets (assuming that one has new facets) with each move upward.
Some competitors defeat themselves by exceeding their grasp. By a lack of caution. By miscalculating their limitations. By failing to assess and utilize their best qualities.
Many times, they will waste everyone's time by choosing repertory of no special interest either to themselves or the judges. In a recent competition, my notes for two of the self-defeating ones bore the same essential questions:
"Why does he choose it and then not sell it?"
"Why is she playing this piece, since she obviously does not love it?"
Forget that in these cases the composers happened to be Elliott Carter and Charles Griffes--and that the rules of this contest required one work by an American composer. The principle remains: Don't be a martyr about repertory. Meet all requirements, whenever possible, with music you feel strongly about. Your rapport with, or love of, that music may cause you to produce your best playing.
What does a judge look for? Actually, one doesn't look--one finds. Or one doesn't find--in which case one is free, sometimes, to declare no winner. What, then, is essential in a winner?
Easy. What is essential is that the chosen one make music; that he or she communicate through the instrument; that he or she command the techniques and resources of the instrument; that the sounds produced have color, variety, meaning and intelligibility; that the basic sound be at least pleasant, hopefully pretty or, best, beautiful.