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  • Jonathan Harnum

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  • March 2014
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2nd Place is the First Loser?

Here’s what a loser sounds like:

Of course I’m being sarcastic. This is a wonderful performance by 11-year-old Soo-Been Lee-Wieniawaski. The performance earned her 2nd place in the junior Yehudi Menuhin violin competition, which, I should be crystal clear, is an amazing accomplishment. Very impressive. As a general rule, solo violin isn’t my bag, but I very much enjoyed this performance. I hope “losing” didn’t affect Ms. Lee-Wieniawaski too badly.

That’s really the biggest risk with competition: the blow to the ego that often happens to everybody but the “winner.” With the right attitude, “losing” doesn’t matter, but that attitude–“failure” is a learning opportunity–is hard to come by, and not easily adopted. Losing or failing is especially damaging if you think musical talent is something you’re either born with or not. If you have that attitude, “losing,” and the pressure of trying to “win” can both be a fatal blow to life-long music-making.

My own philosophy, if it’s not clear yet, is that music shouldn’t be a competition, it’s a collaboration. That should carry extra weight because I’m a trumpeter. You’ve probably heard the joke that goes:

Question: How does one trumpet player greet another?”
Answer: They shake hands and each says, “Hi, I’m better than you.”

We’re human beings, so we’re gonna compete. It’s inevitable, especially when one of the routes to financial gain and artistic prestige can be a competition.

Kris Allen in New York City, before his appear...

Kris Allen

The video above is from the finals of the junior division of the Yehudi Menuhin competition, a premier competition worldwide for violinists under 22. The winner of the junior division this year gets $7,000 and a 1-year loan of a fine Italian instrument courtesy of Florian Leonhard Fine Violins. The Senior 1st prize winner will receive US $10,000 and a 1-year loan of a fine Italian instrument courtesy of Christophe Landon Rare Violins. Who wouldn’t want that? Or consider that Kris Allen, the 2009 American Idol winner, received around $650,000, and the other 9 finalists get around $100,000 it’s easy to see why folks want to compete. Are they competing for art’s sake? Maybe, but not entirely.

Lots of people feel competition provides a giant horse-sized shot of motivation to practice long and hard. Some musicians thrive on that kind of competition, and seek it out. They’re motivated to train diligently for such competitions. Because it can be such a powerful motivator, and because these prizes are available, musical competition isn’t going away. Ever. And I don’t think it should.I love competition and am pretty competitive myself, whether it’s playing Scrabble, or my 14 years as a competitive swimmer. But music–at its rhythmically pulsing heart–is a collaboration, not a competition. What do you think?

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3 Responses

  1. As a parent, and the founder of a nonprofit encouraging young people to make THEIR music – no matter the genre, I agree that competition in music doesn’t make sense. However, I like your thought that, just as in sports, competitive people will seek out opportunities to compete. I just feel there should be as much energy put into collaborative opportunities for young people – maybe you have some ideas about how to do that? A National Collaborative Symposium for Music?

    • Amen! How cool would it be to have a gathering that somehow honored the collaborations.

      I’m sure one of the big draws with the competitions is the prestige, but the $$, too.

      It would be challenging to have some sort of “reward,” or other draw. But for those of us who would rather collaborate than compete, I’m sure there would be a lot of interest.

      Thanks for the question. I wish I had better answers and suggestions, but you’ve definitely given me food for thought.

      cheers,
      Jon

      • No worries – happy to have found your blog! Will keep reading!

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