Not just winning – the aims and challenges of music competitions today

International music competitions met at the IAMA International Conference at Helsinki. The impact of Internet and the meaning of music competitions were reflected in a dicussion initiated by the Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition.

The fact that Finland is a classical music country was once again accentuated when the 25th IAMA International Conference was held in April at the Finlandia Hall, Helsinki. The conference organized by the International Artist Managers' Association IAMA offers a meeting point for classsical music agencies, organizations, orchestras, festivals, record labels, music competitions and others.

Marja-Leena Pétas-Arjava, the Executive Director of the Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition, had proposed a discussion on music competitions, and the initiative was eagerly welcomed. The session leader for the intimate group discussion was Glen Kwok, Executive Director of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis and President for the World Federation of International Music Competitions, for which Marja-Leena Pétas-Arjava is the Vice President. Many top competitions and agencies were sharing their views on the competition business today, its challenges and its aims.

The discussion covered major current themes and trends: the relationship between competitions and agencies, the huge impact of the digital age on competitions, and the holistic approach. Many participants took up the notion that music competitions are not about winning but about supporting young talents in a holistic way.

In his opening remarks, Glen Kwok emphasized that the foremost aim of the music competitions is to give visibility and career opportunities to young artists and help them to develop as musicians and persons. ”How can we become even better?” Kwok asked. The number of international music competitions is constantly growing, and indeed, as the music world is becoming harder and harder, we need music competitions more than ever, he said. As a platform for exposure and learning, competitons can create equality in the tough world of music business.

The growing impact of the Internet creates equality, too. As more and more competitions start producing streams of the performances, the competition audience is no more limited to the people sitting in the hall. The whole world can follow competitions online, including managers and conductors. Everything is public, and every contestant, not only the winners, can have their share of that visibility. This was also true for the 2014 Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition and its cooperation with the Finnish Broadcasting Company, and Pétas-Arjava sees the significance of the Internet as crucial for competitions and contestants alike.

The session participants saw the music competitions as part of a musical learning process. Instead of just making judgements, music competitions help young artists to meet the great challenges of the music business. This includes creating contacts, giving concert opportunities, mentoring and feedback. Music competitions want to encourage musical versatility and help their contestant in various ways, including life skills such as taxes or pr-work. The holistic, responsible approach also emphasizes the atmosphere of the competition. For example, the International Franz Liszt Piano Competition organizes a concert for the contestans who were dropped out, and the caring and warm ambiance has long been a trademark of the Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition.

The competitions share different opinions about the cooperation with agencies. Everyone agrees that there must be some networking. Some competitions want to stay neutral whereas others emphasize post-competiton management. All competitions do some kind of mentoring. Marja-Leena Pétas-Arjava considers that it is vital for the competitions to provide concert opportunities for their laureates. This is a fertile way to help them develop their musicality, repertoires, and contacts.  

Text: Auli Särkiö