Vive le concours?

The British should, like the French, learn to be a little more competitive, argues Oliver Condy

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With BBC Young Musician of the Year 2010 about to hit our screens, so the usual arguments about whether competitions are fair will circulate around the media. Getting children to compete, some will say, is an unnatural way of developing young talent – a trial too far for kids, some of whom are barely in their teens.

The other side will claim that competitions are there to sort the sheep from the goats – and that they’re the only effective way to do that. Putting youngsters under pressure is the only way to test their mettle, to see whether a future career in music won’t send them reaching for the pills/bottle 20 years down the line.

All of which leads me to suspect that the UK isn’t particularly used to the idea of putting kids through music competitions. Exams, yes, but pitting them against each other to the musical death? It’s not what I’d call a national obsession. Far from it – some schools aren’t encouraged even to allow pupils to ‘win’ at sport, preferring everyone simply to have a good time, it seems. Of course, there are isolated competitions in Britain, but our education system is set up in such a way to encourage personal development rather than direct comparison with peers.

Contrast this with France where I studied the organ for two years at the Conservatoire National de Région de Rueil Malmaison, Paris back in the early 1990s. The conservatoire system over there is built on a competitive philosophy.

For starters, all music education takes place within regional or departmental conservatoires for which there is strong competition for places. Once there, children are required to take part in frequent ‘auditions’. ‘Audition’ is, to be fair, one of the French words for ‘recital’, but I’ve always had my suspicions that, deep down, teachers want their pupils to vie against each other. It’s not just a show – it’s a show-down.

My suspicions do have their grounds, though. Even the end-of-year exams are called ‘concours’ (competitions). Audiences are invited along and ‘competing’ pupils are encouraged to sit in on their adversaries’ turn on stage.

There’s a feverish atmosphere each summer, as each ‘competition’ entrant attempts a piece that’s far more technically demanding than their friends’. And all pieces have to be learned by heart. And so on and so forth. Diplomas are called ‘Premier Prix’ and advanced students aspire to ‘Perfectionnement’. Which sounds more like a gymnastics event than a musical qualification.

But does their conservatoire system produce better musicians? Well, yes and no. The French are expected to have a more advanced technical ability at an early age than their cousins here across the channel. The difference in standard is quite marked, in fact. But, curiously, the French standard of sight-reading is poor compared to those who are educated in the UK – a country that prides itself on last-minute, seat-of-pants performances.

I’d also blame the poor French sight-reading on their very odd ‘solfège’ system that requires, among other skills, students to sing each note of a musical phrase using its correct name: do, re, mi, fa etc etc. Why, I have no idea, but it seems to foster an unusually high percentage of children with perfect pitch.

So – competitions: good or bad? I’m personally not a huge fan, having been put through them on numerous occasions in Paris, but they do seem to produce strong-stomached, fearless musicians, a quality that many UK and US musicians would do well to try to adopt. Too many musicians spend their lives in a constant state of terror – as if walking on to the concert stage is akin to walking to the scaffold. Again and again.

Competitions are tough, they’re merciless and they’re not always fair. But as a way of training up performers, there is no better method – and the French have known that for years…

Oliver Condy is the editor of BBC Music Magazine

 

 

 

Main image: Pianist Benjamin Grosvenor plays in BBC Young Musician of the Year 2004

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