The Trouble with Competitions

“There is no win and no fail. There is only make.”

– John Cage’s rules for students and teachers.

As I embark on expressing my thoughts about the perils of musical competitions, I imagine feathers might be ruffled. I at least hope this will not be due to misunderstanding, so first to my disclaimers: I think competitions are a wonderful way to draw attention to an art form – as a means of building excitement and even revenue they are effective, and were I an artistic director of any sort I would consider incorporating them into my business plan or season. They absolutely can be a thrilling way to separate the wheat from the chaff – to see incredible talents in one place; to see excellence rewarded and discovered. Now, to my personal disclaimers: I have not entered into any of the recent competitions in my field, not necessarily in protest, just because the recordings I’m making and will release soon (it’s about time!) don’t meet the criteria of the contest. And of course like everyone else, I’d be thrilled to win and a little dismayed to lose – I’m not putting myself above any of it. I wish my fellow singing artists only success and development from what they pursue in this vein.

Whew, I think that covered it!

So anyhow, to the issue at hand: competitions in music, or any art. We are surrounded by competition – on television there’s a contest for honors in almost any performing art. In my field, we’ve got a vocal jazz competition whose entry date is today – I figured I’d write before anyone won, because I wanted to examine competitions themselves, not the contestants. I think the proliferation of competition is doing something perilous to our audiences and our appreciation of art in general, and we’d do well to mind it if we want a culture that can hear with open ears and hearts – and by that turn have an atmosphere where artists are able to explore and create in ways that are surprising and innovative.

When we listen to an artist in the scheme of a competition, it’s not with receptivity – it’s with the analytic part of our brain that judges, assesses and evaluates. That role has historically been reserved for the appointed judges in a field – an artistic director, a label executive. Now, we have a democracy of judges. It’s empowering – in theory the ‘people’ chose a singer like Kelly Clarkson, for instance, as opposed to being spoon fed the next celebrity construct from the boardroom. But still something doesn’t sit well – to listen and evaluate, to immediately compare cuts off an essential function that ONLY an audience can provide; open hearts and a desire to listen. I think this creates a dangerous climate for artists when they are treated more like gladiators than messengers; it stifles creativity and individuality when there’s a palpable desire on the part of the listener to judge, rank and deem one performer better than another rather than just hear what someone has to say. Performers aren’t athletes – after finishing a performance I don’t think we should be waiting for the scores from the judges as if we were at a gymnastics meet.

I studied opera in college. I learned a great deal about singing, language and the vocabularies of Western music. I also learned a mentality which crippled me in a way – there were competitions frequently, numbered scoring, judged evaluations and an understanding that to be a successful singer was to be a ‘winner.’ In opera and classical music, competition is essential to your career, and you’ve got to win. Some singers can thrive in this environment; I was not one. Dangerously however, I internalized a way of looking at my singing and others’ which I think is the hazard of teaching our audiences to be judges themselves. Perhaps it was just the rigidity of youth, but I had very strong ideas of what was good and bad in singing – and I dismissed artists with these criteria who turned out to be some of my greatest inspirations once I saw them perform (much to my chagrin!) An artist comes onstage in a competition and we’re immediately comparing and evaluating. We’ve got some concept of what the ‘right’ way is to do something and there’s no room for a real innovator. I’m so glad I loosened up on myself and others, so I could appreciate some of the best singers who never would have made the ‘cut’ for me at 22.

I’d also hazard to say that competitions are something of the death knell for an art form – there’s always spirited rivalry in the history of all musics. But that’s very different from a formalized competition, be it a television show or a structured affair with finalists and winners. It seems like formal competitions are a great way to advertise that an art form is no longer dynamic – the rules are set, the standard has been made and now it’s our job to live up to it, not necessarily to innovate.

The goal of creating in performance is to transport, to enthrall, to express…why can’t we just ask people to listen? We’re human animals – we’ll always assess and judge others instinctively – we will always want to rank and rate. However, I believe it’s in the arts that we rise above our survival tactics and find something beyond ourselves, beyond judgment. The values of comprehension and appreciation are goods in and of themselves – the ability to listen and to be transported a much more vulnerable and transcendent act than evaluation and reward.

Some artist move us, others don’t. If I hear another person rank the greats of jazz singing with something like “Ella is first, THEN Sarah, then Carmen” I will wretch. Artists great or otherwise defy any such numerological designations. Talent is unique and precious…we should regard it as such. I think you can be great without being “#1.” Art is not about standing at the top of the podium with a trophy – it’s about doing the best work you can, which hopefully feeds and inspires others around you to create work just as true and moving. Being the best version of yourself isn’t something you can beat someone else out for. It wasn’t always my goal – but I’ve traded in the need to win for the need to be as authentic and excellent in my own talent as possible. This orientation makes for a boring TV contest, but I think better for the state of the arts in general.

I don’t wish for us to do away with competitions. However, I do think there’s a worthy conversation to be had about what these contests do to our performers and our listeners, and whether or not is takes our art in a direction we’re proud of.

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