My beef with concerto competitions Part 1

This is a big topic on which I have a lot to say and lot of personal stories, which is why I’ve decided to make at least two parts for it. Violists, in my experience, are either apathetic to concerto competitions or frustrated with them. I wish I could be in the apathetic group, but I find myself frustrated with concerto competitions. This blog entry will focus on my high school experiences with concerto competitions.

My first concerto competition experience was in youth orchestra. The first or second year I joined youth orchestra, they began an annual concerto competition to choose the soloist for the concerto in the following year. Of course, I was one of the younger members at the time and I knew I wouldn’t get chosen, but I figured it would be valuable to play and get the experience as playing a concerto with an orchestra definitely was something I was interested in. 

As the years went on, I saw several people win. Secretly in my mind, I was thinking that with each person that won, it increased the chances for me. Basically, it  was like a line up and you could predict who would win the next year based on who was chosen as runner up. It’s such a small city that one could argue the competition was somewhat staged. 

Things changed in grade 11. It was just like any other year entering in the concerto competition. It was my way of keeping disciplined making sure I polished at least one movement of a concerto every year. In grade 11, I was working on the Weber Andante e Rondo Ungarese as my “concerto” for the year. I know it’s not a concerto, it more of a showpiece, but it is written with orchestral accompaniment so it is acceptable to play for a concerto competition. Also, if there are any bassoonists out there by chance, it’s originally written for viola and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I really liked that piece and I felt extra motivated to practice that year as that was when I made the decision to go to university for music. When I performed that day of the competition, it felt super amazing. As of that day, it was one of the best performances I’d ever had. I can’t really describe how it felt, but if you’re a musician, you know what I mean when you have a really good performance and it just feels extra special. I knew that regardless of the results, I would remember this performance forever. As it turned out, I ended up being awarded second place. I’d never come so close to winning a competition like that before and I was on cloud 9. I know that seems ridiculous but after so many years of watching the same people win over and over again, I was finally being recognized. Even though I didn’t win, my performance still stood out over 10 others (or however many performances there were). 

When grade 12 began, I started to think about the concerto competition in a different way. It was my last year playing in youth orchestra. I figured my last year would be a nice send off to university. People would even ask me how I would travel back and forth from school to rehearse with the orchestra if I won the concerto competition. This was enough to get it in my head that it was my turn to win because I got second place the year before. I spent the whole year thinking about how I would work out the logistics of travelling and what concerto I might like to play. Bad I know, but my naive 17-year-old self didn’t think it was bad. 

May comes around and with that is the concerto competition. This was it, my chance to finally play with an orchestra. I played and it was a good performance , but it didn’t have the same feeling as my performance the previous year. It just didn’t have that amazing feeling afterward. I wasn’t worried, I figured if they wanted me to win anyway, then it would happen. As you can see, this is going to end badly. 

The judges come out to announce the results. They announce the honourable mention and runners up. Of course, I’m sitting there waiting to hear my name. When they did finally announce the winner, it didn’t even register with me at first. I thought they were still listing runners up. It was the first time (and only thus far) in my life that I’d experienced legitimate denial. I was literally in denial that I didn’t win until it was over and everyone walked out of the auditorium. I was also upset over who they had chosen. I heard her play and she definitely was not the best person who played, and I don’t just say that out of bitterness, a lot of other people were quite upset with the decision. Regardless of who they had chosen, it wasn’t in my control at all.

This was the experience that really put me in my place and shaped me to who I am today. I learned a very important lesson. As important as it is to be confident going into a competition, you really have to be careful not to be too overconfident and make assumptions. You also don’t want to go into a competition sloughing it off like its not a big deal. It’s a hard balance that I still strive to achieve. 

This is my background with concerto competitions and explains why I have issues with them in the first place. Stay tuned for part two where I talk about my experiences with the concerto competition in university and more about what bothers me. 

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