Criticisms of Competitions May Be Valid but So Are the Pluses, Contest Judges Say

"Sometimes, in certain ways, I wish there weren't competitions," said Joseph Matthews, a professor at Chapman College and one of 12 judges at the three-day regional competition being sponsored there this weekend by the Young Keyboard Artists Assn.

"There is matter of personal preference in interpretations," said Matthews, who has been teaching at Chapman for 15 years, "(and) some students are competition oriented. That in my mind is one of the problems."

Also, he said: "In competitions, students tend to play it safe. The more eccentric you happen to be with your interpretations or more out of the norm, the less chance you have, sometimes, to win. That's one of the big drawbacks because winning that prize might mean some potential performer may play it too safe and stifle development."

Still, he said: "Competitions are very worthwhile for students, as far as motivation is concerned. It gives them something to work for. So they can be very good experiences, even with the tension. I think the good outweighs the faults."

Matthews said he expects the technical level of the competitors this weekend to be quite high, but "we all look for something special: a special talent, an insight into the music, a very special interpretation, sensitivity, command or rapport with the audience. Those special ones have that something intangible."

"I'm cautiously in favor of (competitions)," said Scott Smith, another of the judges, who has taught at Chapman College for six years. "They have opened up the market. It used to be, if you didn't have the right teachers and the right connections, you didn't have any chance to make a career. People come from all over these days.

"(But) the negatives are valid. I think part of the hoopla around competitions makes it seem that once you win one, your career is made. That's never true."

As for careers, he said: "We all have to be brutally realistic. Basically, it's quite a small market. . . . There are a lot of quite good people fighting for a slice of the pie.

"Competitions (are) a way of measuring, which seems an American fixation. That's a negative. There are many of those negative side effects. Human nature being what it is, careerism is rampant. But you have that in any business."

Smith dismissed the notion that you can tell how good an artist is from hearing just the very first few notes: "That's a kind of piano teacher's old wive's tale."

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