I have to be honest right up front. I have mixed feelings about the value of competitions. They were few and far between when I was growing up. One competed for a specific chair in the band or orchestra, and there was a certain level of competition when applying for scholarships to college, but competitions as we know them today had not developed to the extent that they have now. The Geneva Competition, created in 1939, did not include flutes until years later, and there were no other international competitions.
My distrust of competition stems from several factors. First, the very act of trying to perform better than everyone else negates the purpose of art in the first place. Musical artistry is not a game or team sport. Flute playing is not downhill skiing, the parallel bars, or the 100-meter dash. Whether musical artistry should be exposed to a carnival atmosphere is a serious question for me. We can, however, learn an important lesson from the field of athletics. It is most easily observed during the Summer Olympics in most of the individual events. The level of concentration necessary is clearly demonstrated on the faces of the athletes, and that kind of focus should be in evidence on our concert stages as well, although I don’t think it is there very often.
Second, my pedagogical foundation says that students should learn and sharpen their techniques from a thorough exploration of all scales, arpeggios, and etudes. Repertoire, while ultimately the main destination, is the icing on the cake. When flutists learn their basic technique from scales and arpeggios, they develop an even, balanced technique in all keys. When they learn their basic technique from repertoire, they develop a strong technique in some keys (those keys represented by the repertoire they have learned) and a weak technique in others. Preparing for competitions takes time away from the basic practice time, and scales and arpeggios fall by the wayside, neglected for more time on the competition requirements.
This total immersion in specific compositions to the exclusivity of others is detrimental to the musical exposure to all style periods that students should be experiencing. Entire years can be devoted to a handful of works required for specific competitions, while students neglect the scales and arpeggios, supporting etudes, and repertoire that they should learn to attain an even technique in all keys.
On the plus side, I have to admit that competitions are motivational. Students practice more because they perceive the goal that hangs out in front of them like the proverbial carrot on a stick. Participating in competitions puts players in a position to learn numerous life lessons. When I was teaching at DePaul, after a competition I would ask students at their next lesson what they had learned. Then we discussed how their performance went, what was good and what wasn’t, was their preparation thorough, etc. My philosophy was if they learned something from the process, it was not a waste of time. Growth is learning. If they learned something, either about themselves or about the music, the entire experience was valuable.
Participation in competitions can include networking, meeting other flutists and perhaps even interaction with the judges. If the judges are impressed, there is no telling what the future might hold. Winning a national competition can jumpstart a career. There is no argument with that. The problem is that there can only be one winner. What is the message to all of those players who do not win? If they leave thinking, “I’m not good enough,” an injustice has been done. It is our responsibility to prepare students to accept the odds and understand that they probably won’t win. The mindset that students enter a competition with is crucial to a healthy outcome. If they expect to win, they may be in for trouble. If they expect to learn, they are in a good place and will probably live to play another day.
I know of many fine teachers who teach “to the competition” and their students routinely win. Whether this is good or bad is up to you to decide. I contend that those players who compete learn that particular repertoire extremely well. They also learn how to handle stress and perform under pressure. They may also learn how to perform from memory.
At the end of it all, how complete are their backgrounds as flutists? Have they learned all of the major solo pieces? Can they play with equal facility in F-sharp major and G minor? Do they understand the difference between phrasing in the Baroque and musical expression in the Romantic era? In other words, are they complete musicians or have they learned specific pieces by parroting their teachers and working toward a specific competition? If you feel you may be a product of the competition craze, I would love to hear your story. Was your background affected by working toward competition requirements rather than developing a thorough musical technique? Alternatively, do you feel competitions improved your playing in significant ways? You can write to me at email@example.com.