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Students, Faculty + Alumni

The draw to and drawbacks of piano competitions

Alexa Stier

Alexa Stier. Photo by Blog Zsolt

The School’s distinguished piano faculty often serve as jurors for competitions around the world at which younger musicians seek to establish themselves and boost ascendant careers. For the competitors, the events offer opportunities to showcase their artistry and meet peers and those who might have the influence to engage them for future performances.

Anthony Ratinov ’20BS ’22MM ’23MMA, who won First Prize at the Ricard Viñes International Piano Competition earlier this year and has earned Second Prize at the 2022 Olga Kern International Piano Competition, the Jury Prize at the 2022 Hilton Head international Piano Competition, and First Prize at the 2021 Canada International Artists Piano Competition, has a “positive” relationship with competitions. “I think of a competition as exposure and a performance opportunity,” Ratinov said. “I never think about it as an actual competition. A musical career is grounded on the network that you’re able to create. I enjoy having competitions as markers in terms of progress,” including any new repertoire that’s learned for a particular contest. Still, Ratinov said, “I think all pianists have complicated relationships with competitions.”

Alexa Stier ’21MM ’27DMA, winner of the 2022 Virtuoso and Belcanto Concerto Competition, agreed with Ratinov about the value of exposure while pointing out that musicians must avoid giving competitions the power to “validate you as a musician.” Upon arrival at YSM, Stier wasn’t focused on competitions. It’s been important to faculty pianists Boris Berman and Wei-Yi Yang ’95MM ’96AD ’99MMA ’04DMA that Stier expand her repertoire beyond the familiar.

Henry Kramer ’13AD ’19DMA, who earned Second Prize at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in 2016 and won the National Chopin Competition of the United States, Montreal International Music Competition, and China Shanghai International Piano Competition in 2020, 2011, and 2012, respectively, teaches at the University of Montreal, where he advises students to think carefully before applying to participate in competitions. Kramer does agree that performance contests offer opportunities “to make connections.”

“Don’t go through all that effort if it’s not going to be worth it,” Kramer said, though, explaining that “it takes a long time to build up that kind of technical security and focus.”

“My competition success has definitely helped me,” Kramer said. “I do encourage certain students of mine to do them.” There are other students, Kramer said, whom he urges to pursue other avenues if their musical interests don’t align with the competition repertoire or design. “There are people who are not suited to them,” Kramer said, explaining that rejection “could be very detrimental” to those musicians, and there are “other things one can do to establish themselves.”

“There are plenty of competition winners that nobody knows about,” Kramer pointed out, and plenty of well-known pianists who didn’t go the competition route.

Yang worries about the limitations that preparing for competitions can place on developing one’s artistry through a thorough exploration of the ever-growing repertoire. That is, spending so much time on repertoire with which a student is already familiar, Yang pointed out, is “different than what we aim to do at this stage of their life—to broaden and expand” on students’ knowledge of the repertoire and experience with music of varying styles and of different periods. If a competition can be used as a motivator, Yang said, “I’m for it. Why not?” One can grow and develop, Yang pointed out, through the experience of “participating in and enduring these challenges.” Still, Yang said, “my concern remains.”

“There is a value” to competitions, Berman said, “and there is a danger.” Sure, exposure is invaluable, especially in a scene that’s now brimming with competitions, not to mention the competitive nature of the field itself. The drawbacks, though, can be “huge.” One of those is that the time spent honing familiar repertoire leaves little space for studying and learning new pieces. More important, perhaps, is that “the competitor should be able to handle a setback in the competition, which statistically is more likely than a win. But not every artist is thick-skinned,” said Berman, who remembered one of his students who was eliminated after the first stage of a competition and took it very hard. “It took me a semester to put him back on track,” Berman said, explaining that “some competitors tend to take the personal opinion of judges as an objective valuation of their artistry. For them this may become a traumatic experience.” 

Stier commented on the burden of facing rejection. “It sucks. It’s not a good feeling. But you have to cope with it. It makes you stronger.”

A version of this article was published in the Fall 2022/Spring 2023 issue of Music at Yale.