There’s Nothing Wrong with Music Competitions


I just returned from another music competition. In Nottingham, England. Solo jazz piano.  Didn’t win.  Again.  I guess I’m not built for these things.


I don’t have a problem with competitions.  They’re the same as winning a Juno, landing a jazz festival gig or getting a positive review. It’s a clash of culture bubbles.

As long as everybody’s winking at the same time, these things are win-win-win for everybody involved (except for the losers of course).  It’s just that competitions are blunter and bolder. So there’s a lot more winking, which can be tiring, make your face hurt and challenge your conscience.

But all of these things – winning a Juno, winning a competition etc. – are designed to accomplish the same thing: To formally recognize an individual’s contribution to a domain.  It’s a rite of passage, a tribe’s acceptance, and a tribe’s renewal.

(Side note: I highly recommend Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Creativity, where he discusses, among other things, fields and domains: “Creativity must… be seen not as something that happens within a person but in the relationships within a system.”)

To make things complicated, some domains are more difficult to define than others.  The Nottingham competition defines the domain like this (note that there’s no mention of the piano, solo piano, solo-jazz-piano and acknowledging those traditions):

“4f. Performances. The design of the 20 and 30 minute ‘short programmes’ is largely left to the competitors, and the range and contrast of music performed will, ideally, be quite wide. Obviously, the inclusion of a large improvised component is implicit in the term jazz. However, the committee makes no attempt to define the term ‘jazz’ in a more formal sense, thereby tacitly acknowledging that ‘jazz’ denotes a wide spectrum of diverse musical practices and styles which is continually enlarging and evolving. Indeed, as Darius Brubeck, André Hodeir and others have argued, jazz is perhaps best defined as a process where by musicians conceptualize and re-adapt pre-existing music rather than as a musical genre per se. Thus, original compositions, arrangements, performances of ‘standards’ or even free improvisation in musical styles which draw on any aspects of the musical rhetoric associated with the musical styles normally described as blues, stride, swing, be-bop, hard bop, cool and modal jazz, freejazz, jazz-rock fusion and even ethnic crossover will all be admissible under the umbrella of this competition. However, although jazz is often a forum for improvisation, innovation and experimentation, it is widely considered to be an ‘inter-textual’ genre which builds on ‘traditional’ elements and practices and acknowledges these through performance. Accordingly, the committee requires that each competitor acknowledges this ‘traditional’ aspect of jazz to some extent through the design of the short programmes…”

Nebulous!  Compare this to math and science, where there’s much less wiggle room. The structures that make up this “jazz domain” are so broadly defined and loosely organized, it’s no wonder that individuals within the field are never in agreement.  This is when everyone starts winking.

Despite all the winking, it’s still important to accept judgment. More from Csikszentmihalyi:

“Because of the scarcity of attention, we must be selective: We remember and recognize only a few of the works of art produced, we read only a few of the new books written, we buy only a few of the new appliances busily being invented.  Usually it is the various fields that act as filters to help us select among the flood of new information those memes worth paying attention to.  A field is made up of experts in a given domain whose job involves passing judgment on performance in that domain. Members of the field choose from among the novelties those that deserve to be included in the canon.”

How does a field help us select among the flood of new information?  They create competitions, awards, jazz blogs, newspaper reviews, music schools and they tell friends that Keith Jarrett is a genius.  Keith Jarrett 1, Chris Donnelly 0.

Anytime a judgment is made known to others, you have hosted a competition and announced the winner/finalists.  It may not be in a blunt and bold fashion like the Nottingham, Montreux or Monk competitions, but you’re still contributing to this system of filtering through endless memes.

Critics of music competitions aren’t really criticizing competitions per se.  They’re simply in disagreement with the definitions of their domain – how it structures knowledge, its inclusiveness, how it demands/stimulates novelty etc.  There’s nothing wrong with music competitions, just as there’s nothing wrong with the World Series or with choosing which shirt to purchase.  They’re just as important and necessary as any other form of judgment.

I digress. Read the Csikszentmihalyi.

On a personal note, despite all this, I still have to admit my disappointment. I’ve spent 10 years practicing, crafting, studying, writing, memorizing, transcribing and performing loads of solo piano music only to be beaten by a 14-year old reading a lead sheet, among others.

That’s the price you pay for being part of a broadly defined and loosely organized domain.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I’m sorry and relieved to say that Nottingham 2012 was my last piano competition – I’ve passed the age limit restrictions, and my face hurts 😉

Moving on!

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