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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Why do I play the viola?

I originally played the violin. I remember being in a violin lesson one day and my teacher suggested I switch to viola. For a long time, I always thought that it was a polite way of saying that I sucked at violin. When I would play in youth orchestra I always felt I was getting the short end of the stick, so to speak. The violins would get all the nice melodies and challenging parts and I was stuck with offbeats and other boring accompaniment figures. I felt like I was a failure at music and no one had the courage to say it to my face. 

But then I had a major epiphany. I can’t really pinpoint how or when it happened, but I remember just falling in love with the viola and being incredibly thankful I made the switch. I embraced the somewhat boring and unchallenging orchestral parts. I embraced viola repertoire.  I embraced being unique. It was such a relief not to be a violinist anymore, I could be myself. 

It’s only times where I get thrown in competitions wiith violinists, cellists, and pretty much any other instrument where I sometimes still resent playing the viola. Violin, piano, flute, and even cello repertoire to an extent is written so the soloist can really show off his or her technical ability. It has a way of “sounding amazing” to both musicians and non-musicians. Inherently, these instruments have a natural advantage due to the repertoire that is available to them. 

Viola, on the other hand, is not traditionally a solo instrument and still isn’t frankly. I think there’s still a stigma about violists that exists even to this present day. We are the failed violinists. The viola exists solely to make bad violinists feel better about themselves. This is not true, but I get the impression that a lot of people, even close friends of mine, feel that way and don’t always give me the respect I deserve. It is an awful stigma and I feel that every time I go up to perform I am saying to the audience “Hey, look at me. I’m not an idiot.” But of course I end up reinforcing the negative stigma about violists when I play with poor intonation and technique. With this in mind, there really isn’t a lot of great viola repertoire that exists that really compares to anything a violinist would play. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love a lot of viola pieces, but they just don’t compare and no non-violist wants to hear it. 

I’ve never really won a competition against non-violists before. The ones I have I either won by default or because I was clearly the oldest/most advanced player in the competition (though that does not always work to my advantage). A lot of this does have to do with the lack of good viola repertoire appropriate for competition. There is a huge gap in viola repertoire for the romantic period, which is what wins competitions. Yes there are a lot of modern composers nowadays striving to fill in the gap of viola repertoire, but this does not constitute “standard repertoire”. Modern music can also be hard to sell in a competition setting. For example, Hindemith Der Schwanendreher is in theory a perfect competition piece, but it’s super difficult to pull off as a lot of people don’t have an understanding or appreciation of Hindemith the way I do. 

Now I know you’re thinking, “It’s not all about competitions” or “don’t get wrapped up in compeitions” or something along those lines. That’s true but I still can’t help that I have a desire to win a competition of some description, even if it’s just at my school or other local one. The fact that violists are so disadvantaged and stigmatized in competitions motivates me to try harder. It’s almost like my way of telling the world, “Hey! Violists are musicians too!” Just because I play an instrument that not a lot of people appreciate doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate it and share my love and passion for the viola. It would mean so much more to me to win a competition than any violinist or pianist who seemingly effortlessly wins everything they enter. I don’t want to sound cocky, but I believe I have what it takes to win a competition. The only thing holding me back of course is my poor intonation and technique. If I brought my technique up to a higher level while maintaining the level of musicality, I could beat any technique robot any day. That is, of course, easier said than done. 

At the end of the day, music shouldn’t really be about proving yourself or competitions. It is increasingly difficult to remember that as I am pursuing music as a career and I am nearing the end of an undergraduate degree. Pretty soon I will be competing in the ultimate competition — orchestral auditions. The stakes are much higher. If I don’t get some scholarship or cash prize, Though it might be disappointing in the moment, I can live with that. But if I don’t succeed in an orchestral audition, that’s another year without a job. There’s only so many auditions you can take before you have to admit to yourself that you’re not cut out for music and you go fill out an application at Starbucks. It’s not a joke, but a sad reality that there are more high level musicians than there are positions in symphony orchestras. Because I am approaching a point in my career where it’s literally all about competition and being the best, it’s hard to remember to appreciate music as an art form and means to express emotions.

When I look back and ask myself “Why do I play the viola?”, I play the viola because I love it. I love the rich tone and the unique colour of the instrument. It’s ultimately not about how many other people also like the viola and its repertoire, it’s about me liking it. I also used to play violin, piano, and flute. Maybe if I had pursued one of those instruments I’d have more success in competitions or more people would “like” me. But ultimately, the passion and desire to succeed that I have for viola merely didn’t exist for me on violin, piano or flute. I’m not going to choose an instrument for shallow reasons such as other people might like it more. At the end of the day, it’s my instrument and my career. I’m the one who has to put in the many hours of practice and I couldn’t be happier putting those hours in on the viola. Whenever I get wrapped up in the nonsense of competitions I remind myself of why I love playing the viola in the first place and I would never go back and choose a different instrument.