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Laura Vlasak Nolen, Metropolitan Opera ~ image via Ralph and Jenny via Flickr

News flash #1:  The mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne never won a competition.

Are you surprised to hear that?  I was.

She’s done OK, don’t you think?

How do you look at competitions?  Do you think winning is everything and no other outcome matters?

News flash #2:  Winning isn’t everything.

I know.  I always thought it was, too.  And then I moved to New York,  played for countless auditions and competitions, met some excellent competition judges (and found out how they make decisions), and took note of the results.

Long-term results mean more than you might think.  All too often, a young musician wins a competition and is suddenly on the concert circuit.  S/he has been in the practice room for at least 15 years!

Winning a competition is one thing ~ concertizing day in and day out is totally different.  It takes physical stamina, emotional resilience, the ability to deal with missed flights and botched hotel arrangements, unpredictable meal times and quality of food, too little sleep, performing with jet lag, and not always having a chance to warm up.

So what’s the advantage of being a runner-up?

Being noticed is often enough to result in booking several concerts.  Having the opportunity to further your career while not being swamped gives you a chance to become oriented.

You can enter the same competition the following year.  You will be noticed even more, add to your list of influential contacts, and gain traction.


Eugene Fodor (this link includes a video) was a virtuoso violinist who died recently.  After winning one of three second-place awards in the 1974 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow (no first-place prize was awarded that year), he found himself dealing with too much too soon.  He began to receive reviews that spoke of “a triumph of flash over substance.”  The pressure of making constant appearances drove him to use drugs and alcohol.  He was arrested, went to rehab, stayed clean for years, then started using again, repeating the cycle over and over, finally canceling concerts.  He stopped playing completely.

According to his New York Times obituary:

If Mr. Fodor was unable to sustain his early golden promise, his story is a cautionary tale of what can happen when a gifted young artist, still personally and musically immature, is turned into a global commodity for a spate of wrong reasons.

Now let’s look at Hilary Hahn, called “the best violinist of her generation.”  (This is not about a competition, but I still think it’s an excellent example.)  She finished her college classes at age 16.  But rather than taking on a heavy touring schedule immediately, she stayed in school to study languages on the advice of members of the Baltimore Symphony.  She now tours constantly, always plays brilliantly, makes frequent recordings, and loves her lifestyle.

So there you go.  Enter that competition, and be happy if you come in third!

Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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