© 2023 | Jefferson Public Radio
Southern Oregon University
1250 Siskiyou Blvd.
Ashland, OR 97520
541.552.6301 | 800.782.6191
a service of Southern Oregon University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Like The Olympics, The Music World Is Full Of The Competitive Spirit


The world's greatest athletes will converge on Rio de Janeiro next week for the start of the summer Olympic games. Competing, of course, is not just for sports. There's plenty of chances to go for the gold in music.


MONTAGNE: This is the gold medal-winning performance of pianist Dmitry Masleev at last year's International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. The Tchaikovsky Competition is one of the most famous competitive events for musicians. And here to talk about the parallels between competitions for athletes and competitions for musicians is classical music commentator Miles Hoffman. Good morning.

MILES HOFFMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: I take it that if musicians are looking for gold medals, there's no shortage of opportunities out there.

HOFFMANN: (Laughter) That's putting it mildly, Renee. One industry directory I looked at has a database that includes over 500 international competitions. That's just the international ones. If you included local, regional, school competitions, the number would be precisely a zillion.

MONTAGNE: (Laughter) OK.

HOFFMANN: (Laughter).

MONTAGNE: Well, you have been personally involved in a few of them anyway.

HOFFMANN: Yeah, in many actually. I've been involved as a competitor. And also, I've judged many, many competitions.

HOFFMANN: All right, then - what do you see as the greatest similarities between athletic and musical competitions?

HOFFMANN: I think the most striking similarity is that they both require thousands of hours of preparation for competitive performances that may last just a few minutes or even, in the case of some athletic events, just a few seconds. In the preliminary rounds of music competition, for example, the performer usually doesn't get the play for more than 20 or 30 minutes - that's at the most. Often, it's more like 10 or 15 minutes. And in orchestra auditions, which are really just competitions by another name, it may be even less than that.


HOFFMANN: That's a bunch of seconds - I don't know - 20-some odd seconds from a famous excerpt that violinist are asked to play at orchestra auditions, Renee. It's from Richard Strauss' "Don Juan." The audition may let the violinist continue for a minute or two. Or they may stop them after whatever - 20 seconds, 30 seconds - and ask for the next little excerpt on the list. And after a few more minutes, if they don't much care for what they are hearing, they may say thank you, even if a person's right in the middle of playing. And that's it.

MONTAGNE: Which sounds pretty cold.

HOFFMANN: (Laughter) It is. It's very cold. But I don't guess it's any colder than training for four years and coming an inch or two short of a medal in the shot put or fouling out on your last long jump attempt.

Josef Gingold was a great violinist and violin teacher, Renee. And he used to say that the greatest benefits of a competition ended the day before the competition. Win or lose, all the practicing you put in will have made you a better musician.

MONTAGNE: Well, what about the idea of, though, winning a competition - just like winning an Olympic gold medal - what about that making a big difference in a career?

HOFFMANN: Well, it can, especially if it's one of the major international competitions like the Tchaikovsky or other big, big international competitions that have lots of publicity, lots of money. Here's a performance by a person for whom it did make a very big difference.


MARTHA ARGERICH: (Playing piano).

HOFFMANN: That's Martha Argerich, one of the great pianists of our time - or any time really. She was 16 years old, and she won two major international competitions. And after she won the 1965 International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw at the grand old age of 24, her international career took off like a shot. But now let's listen to this clip, Renee. This is a different pianist.


ANDRE LAPLANTE: (Playing piano).

HOFFMANN: That's Canadian pianist Andre Laplante. But Andre entered the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1978 and didn't win. He came in second. But, you know, fabulous playing and he's had a fine career. So a big win can be a big boost. But there are many, many wonderful musicians with very successful careers who've never won a big international competition, not to mention, by the way, musicians who have won gold medals and, for one reason or another, have not had big careers.

MONTAGNE: Well, I'm sure Andre's mother told him second was a win...


MONTAGNE: ...in the the Tchaikovsky Competition

HOFFMANN: Well, it's just amazing playing. It's - that's the thing. You just never know what's going to win and what won't.

MONTAGNE: What about the differences, Miles, between athletic competitions, like the Olympics, obviously, and music competitions?

HOFFMANN: I think the biggest difference is that athletes fundamentally love competitions, and musicians fundamentally hate them. The composer Bela Bartok once said competitions are for horses, not artists (laughter). So at the Olympics, for example, most of the results will be based on objective measurements - speed, distance, points, weight. But in music all sorts of qualities are being judged - qualities like beauty, sweetness, loveliness. How can you call somebody who plays beautifully a loser? It's a very weird business, Renee.

MONTAGNE: But - well, then, in your opinion, are music competitions really, in a sense, doing more harm than good?

HOFFMANN: I don't know if I'd say that. It's a mixed bag, Renee. On the one hand, competitions - they really can hurt people. Bad results can cause good musicians, even great musicians, to become disillusioned, discouraged, sometimes even to give up. And that's even though they knew the risks of losing when they entered the competitions.

MONTAGNE: And even though, as you've just said, there are other paths to a career?

MONTAGNE: Right. There are lots of other paths. But still, musicians' confidence, self-confidence, can be very fragile. On the other hand, just as the Olympics often inspire athletes to their greatest achievements, competitions often lead musicians to strive for - and to reach - the greatest heights of artistic accomplishment. That benefits all of us. Again, it's a mixed bag. There's good and there's bad.


MONTAGNE: Miles Hoffman is the violist of the American Chamber Players and artistic director of the Peace Chamber Program at Greenville, S.C.'s, Peace Center. Pleasure to have you with us as always, Miles.

HOFFMANN: Thanks a lot, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.