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A musical kick-start – reflections on YPA and music competitions

2013 Young Performers Awards finalists Jonathon Ramsay, Robbin Reza, Hoang Pham, Grace Clifford, Anna DaSilva Chen, Harry Ward.

The ABC Symphony Australia Young Performers Awards can justly claim to be the highest profile competition for Australian musicians. Having started out in 1944 as an annual, state-based concerto competition for young performers, it boasts a long and rich history and has helped launch the careers of some of Australia’s most outstanding musical talents. Overseas readers may know of ‘YPA’ from its appearance in the film, Shine, which dramatises the rivalry between David Helfgott and Roger Woodward in one of the competition’s earlier incarnations.

In the light of substantial changes to the format of the Young Performers Awards in 2013, I asked several past YPA winners and finalists, who are now all firmly established in their own musical careers, to reflect back upon the nature of the competition from their current perspective. Although an article of this size and scope cannot give a comprehensive overview, it does highlight some common feelings about YPA, and musical competitions in general, amongst successful performers who have been through the competition circuit.

When I was a teenager studying at the Yehudi Menuhin School in England, my classmates and I all shared mixed feelings about competing against each other in international music competitions. After all, how could we be pitted against each other one day, and be rehearsing a Haydn string quartet together the next? Perhaps competitions are useful in ordering the degrees of instrumental proficiency between entrants at any one point of time. And it should probably be noted that one of the new features of YPA this year has been the addition of a chamber music component in which semi-finalists play in ensemble with established professional musicians.

One of the issues that recurs in conversing with past participants is the importance of entering competitions at the right time in one’s personal musical development. I spoke to cellist Li-Wei Qin (Young Performer of the Year, 1993) whose past season included appearances with the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and Shanghai Symphony Orchestra.  Li-Wei, who is now based in Singapore, counsels his students carefully on this: ‘Players should enter only if it is at the right point in their own progress, as the long lead-up period choosing, preparing and focusing intensively on the most suitable repertoire is one of the major benefits of taking part in any competition.’ Kristian Chong (finalist 2001 and recent YPA judge) is a Melbourne-based pianist and teacher at the University of Melbourne. He echoed Li-Wei’s advice. The issue of timing is crucial as ‘the main danger is that young performers who aren’t quite fully ready enter the competition and are disillusioned by the process….Some really promising and talented players that enter competitions are knocked out in earlier rounds – these musicians can experience negative connotations in relation to this.’

Not surprisingly, the past winners and finalists I spoke to all thought that they entered YPA at opportune times for them as individuals. Kristian stated that YPA ‘was an important step in my musical development… it gave me much confidence and reassurance in my own musical abilities, at a time when many insecurities plagued my own musical development.’ For Sydney-based percussionist Claire Edwardes (Young Performer of the Year, 1999) the competition provided an even broader sense of worth and purpose at a critical time for her. She has since gone on to perform as a soloist with many of Australia’s leading orchestras as well as being co-Artistic Director of contemporary music group Ensemble Offspring, but ‘before I won YPA having a successful career as a percussionist, let alone a percussion soloist, was little more than a dream. After winning it, it really did become a reality which helped my confidence as a performer but also my self-belief. This was so important at that point in my career path. For me this was well and truly enough to get my career as a soloist kick-started.’

The topic of ‘playing safe’ in competitions also recurred in my discussions. All the past YPA winners and finalists I spoke to agreed that it was paramount that competitors reach beyond this narrow and limiting approach. Claire Edwardes, however, recounted that though being extremely systematic in her preparation, she actually ‘felt quite free in the final YPA performance with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra – on stage that night I was so liberated somehow! It was amazing!’

Kick-starting a career, testing one’s abilities under pressure – these are clearly reasons why people enter any competition. But the opportunity to perform with an Australian orchestra in YPA was seen by all the former participants I interviewed to be perhaps the most important aspect and benefit of the competition. ‘Performing as soloist with professional conductors and orchestras and benefiting from their words of advice and encouragement was priceless,’ recalled Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s principal bassoon Mark Gaydon (finalist, YPA 2005). According to Hong Kong Philharmonic’s principal flautist Meg Sterling (finalist, YPA 2000) ‘playing with a professional symphony orchestra under the pressurised atmosphere of a YPA final undoubtedly was the highlight, and it extended my musical capabilities in an amazingly positive way.’ For many, YPA signalled the beginning of an ongoing relationship with the orchestras as either a soloist or as a player within.

Although the subsequent journey of every musician is naturally highly personal, and music competitions in general can have their drawbacks, YPA is clearly a pivotal focal point in the early careers of the young Australian musicians who performed in the final rounds. Many believe they have gone on to significant national or international careers as a consequence of it.

James Cuddeford, © 2013

Concertmaster of the Hong Kong Sinfonietta, Brisbane-born James Cuddeford won 1st prize in the 1996 Charles Hennen International Chamber Music Competition in Holland. Having moved overseas to live in the UK in his teens, he did not himself participate in YPA.