Competition and Music

I have decided to discuss something which has been on the minds of my students and colleagues a lot recently: the role of competition in music-making. In many instances it is a necessary evil, but too often it seems to outgrow its use. In some cases it paralyzes the entire music-making process.
Competition is a contest between individuals for supremacy over scare resources; the opposite of cooperation. In the music world, it is how musicians fight for solos, prominent positions with esteemed ensembles, highly sought-after jobs in academia, etc. Quite simply, music is a very appealing career choice for many but not enough opportunities exist for everyone who wants to participate in it professionally. As a result, a process develops for determining who will participate in the field and who will have to find some other line of work.
Economists are particularly interested in the study of competitive phenomena. When it works, there are many benefits. Competition motivates us to work our hardest and brings out the best of human potential. We all enjoy modern conveniences today that were not even imaginable to the wealthiest monarchs even a century ago. This was largely the result of productivity increases brought about ultimately by competition. We owe a great deal to these contests for supremacy, but it also comes at a cost. Competition is incredibly wasteful. Many people will dedicate innumerable hours and countless resources to achieving something and ultimately lose out to others, essentially resulting in wasted effort and resources they may have been better put to some other goal.
The music industry is particularly vulnerable to the wasteful side of competition and in a lot of instances does not get nearly the productivity boost from it that other industries get. This is ultimately due to the subjectivity of musical taste. It’s not always clear what the “best” means when it comes to aesthetics. In many instances, hiring decisions in the arts are made on a somewhat arbitrary basis.
Academic job interviews and professional orchestral auditions are two great examples of this process at work. There are often a very large number of qualified applicants for a given job opening. A panel is assembled to review each of those candidates and pick the best one to fill the position. In many instances, the competitive process produces a less than desirable outcome. The main difficulty relates to time. The panel first must reduce the size of the applicant pool. Resumes are compared and applicants who lack the necessary qualifications are immediately tossed from the pool.
Under ordinary circumstances this process works reasonably well. However, in extremely competitive situations panels will often end up tossing out qualified applicants for completely arbitrary reasons. They will look for any excuse in the world to toss someone. Maybe the applicant came from a school the reviewer didn’t get accepted into or are a little younger/older than the panel would ideally prefer. Even more ridiculous, maybe the reviewer found the font of the cover letter a bit unorthodox or wanted to see one section of the resume listed ahead of another. Panels need not explain themselves to applicants. A resume can be rejected for almost any reason at all.
A few applicants get past the resume round and are afforded the chance to audition and/or interview. In this round the candidates get to showcase themselves in a very limited amount of time often doing things which have only limited relevance to the actual job they are applying for. In the world of orchestral auditions, everyone plays short excerpts of orchestral literature for their instrument. Most of these excerpts are very short and not terribly demanding technically. As a result, auditions are judged primarily on mistakes. Many players become successful at taking auditions by avoiding musical risks. Don’t play too fast, too slow, too loud, too soft or too articulated and you will likely avoid missing notes. The art of being able to play twenty measures flawlessly by yourself on stage is very much divorced from all the skills necessary to play in a large symphony orchestra with many other musicians for many years. Sure, in some cases section playing is part of the final round. However, the only candidates who get to the final round have already been through the rest of the process.
In many instances orchestras pick less than ideal winners but are reluctant to let them go due to how costly and time consuming it is for an orchestra to hold auditions. I’m certainly not saying that everyone who wins an audition is a bad choice, as many outstanding musicians find a way through this process to the other side. However, I am saying that our whole perception of the type of skills it takes to “make it” in the orchestral world are tainted by the audition process itself. This has dramatically impacted how orchestras from around the world have homogenized stylistically over the years. Auditions seek players who are very consistent and don’t take too many risks. Audiences tend to prefer players who take musical risks and are far more willing to overlook minor mistakes.
Another example are highly competitive academic jobs, where very similar issues occur. Applicants who succeed in getting an interview are typically asked a series of questions and asked for a brief sample of their teaching. Some teaching styles yield results very quickly while others tend to yield results over time. Many candidates become successful at teaching interviews by perfecting a teaching performance that appears highly successful and impressive in a short period of time. However, in real teaching situations concepts are learned over the course of weeks and months rather than minutes. As with orchestral auditions, once applicants are hired they tend to keep their jobs unless they are extremely unsuitable for the position due to the extreme cost of having another search.
Again, the perception of the necessary skills required to hold a big teaching job is tainted by the job interview process itself. Obviously many outstanding teachers find a way through this process. However, over time we end up producing whole generations of teachers who are phenomenal self-promoters and sometimes less good at the actual act of teaching. Their students would usually benefit from the precise opposite balance.
To summarize, competition in the arts tends to be highly arbitrary in practice and extremely wasteful. It tosses aside many highly qualified applicants and promotes homogenization and self-promotion. I’m not saying this to complain, but rather to illuminate the process to those who have become frustrated by it. It’s important to keep the following in mind for the sake of sanity. First of all, competition is not about finding the best musicians. That’s something we must always demand of ourselves no matter what happens. It’s important to develop our abilities far above and beyond what is necessary to find work. Otherwise, we are just destined for a life of cynicism and disappointment. Second, it’s important to respect and understand the competitive process for what it is. It’s a game. Some of us are better at it than others. If you want to do this, you have to learn how to play it. However, in no way is it ever even a reasonable measure of your musical abilities.
And lastly, being successful at competing in music doesn’t necessarily mean that you are successful in music. Competition will drive us toward note-perfect performances and quick-fix teaching demonstrations, but our audiences and students will always demand far more than that in the long term. Many people win jobs and beyond that are of little benefit to the world. Those who are truly successful in music find a way to demand more of themselves than any competitive process could possibly demand of them. And in the end, everyone realizes that fact.

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