With the 2018 Primrose International Viola Competition currently underway in Los Angeles, VC recently caught up with a number of former prize winners to get a better understanding of their time at the competition – and the opportunities the biennial event has since presented.
In a VC-exclusive blog, American violist and former Primrose Competition 1st Prize winner Jennifer Stumm talks us through her 2005 experience:
"Music competitions are like a strange fruit salads where one flavor has to be chosen over the others. Jury members are differing individuals, competitors have various excellent qualities and the result is a jumble of opinions where some like apples more and some prefer bananas. Primrose was my first “big” competition win, having previously entered a number of smaller ones with varied success. For sure getting on stage over and over under pressure was very positive in building trust in my own voice and stamina (I’ve never been so tired as I was during every competition I entered, nor have I had less fun.) There are incremental gains through all these experiences, and perhaps for me Primrose was my tipping point. At any rate, luckily for me, that week the jury consensus landed on my side of the fruit bowl!
There was indeed some controversy over the decision that year, with another prize winner making their displeasure very much known, and various audience members taking “sides.” I recall being both praised and criticized for details ranging from my choice of dress (floral, vintage Saint Laurent which I still love. Later haters!) to how I played a chord in the Bartok concerto. That all seems so silly now in the scope of a life and career. The world has space for many kinds of artists and points of view, and if I look at the other excellent violists who won prizes that year, each has taken a distinct and successful path.
For an instrument where opportunities to distinguish oneself as a solo artist are few, and solo concert opportunities even fewer, any chance to throw your hat out into the world is valuable. That season was a good one for me, with several competition victories and I do believe that momentum was a help to the start of my career, gaining chances to be heard. The reality of musical life though is much more complex, based on relationships, ingenuity, and plain old good luck sometimes, not just who is “best.”
I think it can be a tough transition for young performers (it was for me) when big early opportunities can feel so loaded with pressure, a long tunnel where for several years you’re constantly applying for this and that, worried that without those benchmarks nothing will happen. In reality, many wonderful musicians have never won competitions and now have “big” careers. Many wonderful musicians also won big competitions and have never realized those kind of careers, or realized they had totally different dreams.
The greatest gift of my Primrose experience was learning to worry less about what people think. To wear the dress I want and play the way I want. To trust the people who like my work and let the others find someone else to like. That music is not win or lose. I framed all my best rejection letters and hung them in my bathroom. I often tell my students about the year I won first prize in another big competition, when just the year before I was rejected from the tape round(I don’t think my playing changed that much!) These are all just experiences along the way, not destinations. A competition is just a construct, one moment in time, helpful or not helpful. A long and interesting musical life is by far the biggest prize."