Competitions are an increasingly big part of the classical music landscape, at least from the perspective of a younger person, and in some ways this is a wonderful development—increasing interest in the highest standards of performance, increasing amounts of money mobilized in our field, and increasing financial support to young musicians (never the wealthiest group of folks). On the other hand, we have all needed to get used to the idea of losing competitions, and that can be rough on the old self-confidence.
With that in mind, I can tell you about how I failed to advance to the finals in the NYACOP competition. As many times as people say these competitions “don’t matter all that much”—a phrase I’ve heard several times in the last few days—the sensation of rejection retains its sharpness. Musicians tend to internalize their work, and giving a performance can be a matter of putting your heart out on the line. The rejection here and elsewhere is very real, and is surprisingly similar to romantic rejection in fact, since both come from wagering the heart. Ouch!
Of course, I am used to criticism because I like to take risks, like fast tempos and non-traditional interpretations. My intent is not to be disrespectful—to the contrary, these masterpieces deserve to live and breathe. So, at some point before arriving in Kansas, I had to ask myself, “are you going to be yourself, or are you going to march to the beat of another person’s drum?” And that is a difficult question to answer: on the one hand, risks can pay off; on the other hand, they can be misunderstood, or worse, contextualized as mistakes, when the real intent is to deliver an exciting, fresh performance. But there was a bigger question lurking in the shadows: do I play from the heart, or play pretend. If rejection in music is like romantic rejection, pretending to be someone you’re not is about as silly as lying a lot in a relationship—disingenuous, and ultimately pointless.
And with this in mind, if I could go back in time, I would play the same way, except for one thing: I would have fixed a little balance problem, which I was unaware of until afterwards.
Every rejection reaches a point of closure eventually (hopefully!). Sometimes it takes a couple days, sometimes it tugs at the heart for years. In this case, when I look back at it all, it will be with two thoughts: the bittersweet thought that I spoke from the heart, and the happy thought that I spoke from the heart. Congratulations to all the finalists!