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1st May, 2004
Dear Mr Beauchamp,
I have just come across your article regarding musical competitions and I am really quite relieved to find that I'm not the only one with this way of thinking.
I am a 24 yr old French Horn player who has never done a competition — unusual. I hate them and I don't believe they have any integrity in any way. At the age of 11, I started life at the Purcell School. By the age of 13, I had seen friends self-harm and attempt suicide — I’ve helped to pick up the pieces on numerous occasions thanks to competitions and competition. I soon observed, that doing competitions was a pointless way in which to gauge personal musicianship and technical capability.
The Purcell School itself was a fantastic place which enriched and encouraged, and for me, it was the best 6 years of schooling I would ever have. The beauty of this place was that it never ‘crushed’ it's students — although some students were more than capable of doing that themselves. The main competition held there, was to win playing a concerto in a big concert with the symphony orchestra. The ‘losers’ were never made to feel worthless and after the initial and natural disappointment wore off, people moved on unharmed. The winner knew that he/she had the utmost support from both staff and fellow students during the rehearsals and concert. It was almost wierd how the students there could knit together and create absolute magic on stage. Competition damage was more noticeable when students took on outside competitions.
The Royal Academy was entirely a different animal. Many competitions were held there and yet again, I entered none of them. At times, I felt frowned upon and believed there were some professors who questioned my dedication to music. It was during my studies when I realised that competitions weren't entirely confined to a certain time, place and stage.
I became aware that many events and concerts were fuelled by competition, bitchiness and jealousy on one level or another. OK, that's life — but for something so artistic, I find music becoming increasingly clinical. Aside from the competitions themselves, the fall-out goes much further and much deeper into the physcology of a musician.
For example: players sitting on 4th horn would get what I labelled as “4th horn syndrome.” They wouldn't feel as worthy as the rest of the section because the emphasis and kudos was in sitting on 1st. Generally, a 4th horn would not put in as much effort, read papers and was more likely to be late to a rehearsal.
Horn players would flock to a concert if there was known tricky repertoire and count split notes. Charming! Practice rooms weren't safe havens either.
One thing that worried me more than anything was that musicians seemed to be becoming ‘technicians’. The more accurate, the more wonderful — something to be proud of. People would spend literally hours working on a particular thing, practicing scales and studies. I felt that the musical instrument became a tool to get the job done — not something to stretch the imagination and to be creative with. I found it ludicrous that a degree was finalized on a recital, all based on interpretation. The recital did not give much creative leeway to the player, because any too daring and outlandish performances would result in a raised eyebrow and a poorer mark. After my recital, I felt both relieved and really quite chuffed. A contemporary of mine rang me a week later to ask if I wanted my mark. Well, I was more than pleased with my 2:1 — it meant I'd got my degree and my ticket out of the Academy. The lil sod had just wanted to gloat that he'd got a higher mark. I was amazed at his mentality and thought him really quite sad that he couldn't put his mental energy to better use. Is this the effects of competitions??
I discovered there was a sub-competition where outside gigs were concerned. My first question to a fixer is always about the repertoire. My theory is that if I like the music I'll do the gig. The first question on many others' lips was the fee. There was a certain status in being known to be doing either high-profile of well paid gigs. I used to wonder if many had forgotten the exact reason they took up music in the first place — nothing to do with the love and imagination of it?!!
I am also quite alarmed that competition wins and prizes count for quite a bit on a musicians CV. As I said before, I don't think they are a reliable gauge on musicianship and it worries me that the professional music world seems to think otherwise. I've been wondering whether I should have put myself through them when I was younger for professional gain now — even tho' I strongly disagree with them. This is a prime example of the ripple-effects of competitions — because I have never even done one!! Ironic isn't it. As for teaching methods.........don't get me started!!!
Thanks for bringing up a flammable yet important aspect of the music world!!