Podcast interview with Paul Medeiros (click here)
Transcript of interview with Paul Medeiros.
Paul Medeiros: bachelor and master classical music, violin.
Blanka Pesja: senior art educator, researcher master art education.
Blanka: Today’s episode is in English. I’ll be questioning Canadian born Dutch resident Paul Medeiros, I should say Paul, on the ins and outs, the pros and cons of competition in music education. Paul completed his bachelor of music and performance at Dalhousie University in Halifax Canada under the tutelage of professor Phillip Jockets. He won on two occasions the Dalhousie Concerto Night competition. He is notably the recipient of the 2006 Ramon Hnatyshyn competition.
Paul: Ramon Hnatyshyn foundation. The Ramon Hnatyshyn foundation is like a Holland Distinction that was started a number of years back in Ottawa. It’s a national competition and every year they choose per category of arts, one young artist entering the bachelor program. Someone that has exemplary talent that shows a lot of promise for the future. They look for such people and they screen for these young artists through the use of recordings. It’s not live performance. Its recorded performance, still live unedited performance but that is sent then into the competition. They choose someone that has, I guess you could say the most unique voice or the one that shows the most promise to have a successful career.
Blanka: You won that?
Paul: Yes, for the orchestral instruments. Everything that you would find in an orchestra, all the different instruments that’s all put into one competition category. They also have one for solo piano, they have ones for ballet, jazz, et cetera.
Blanka: Paul completed his master’s in music in 2012 with an in-depth study of the Franco-Belgian violin tradition of the 19th century. During his degree he studied with professor Cornelius Koelmans, and Lex Korff de Gidts at The Conservatory of Amsterdam. Paul, could I conclude from your successful participation in competition, that you would advocate music competitions?
Paul: No, it depends on who I’m speaking to, because this is the point of my opinion on competitions. There is a time and a place and they are very valuable but they are not the pinnacles of arts for me.
Blanka: Have you noticed with yourself that you have changed your opinion? You were maybe first pro, then against, then pro, again or have you been stable in your opinion.
Paul: To be quite honest I was pro when I was winning and I was con when I was not winning.
Blanka: That came up in the previous guest talks.
Paul: Yes, but I have to say that honestly they are really valuable for certain goal. You should always have a goal in mind when you do a competition. You shouldn’t just do it for the sake of doing a competition or because people, especially if people just expect you to do competitions, you shouldn’t do it for that reason. You should have a vested interest and a specific goal in mind when you do such things.
Blanka: Can you give me an example of such goals?
Paul: The first one that comes to mind for a solo competition or even with a quartet chamber music, is for technical prowess. You want to prepare yourself in the most technically secure and brilliant way possible, because that is what they look for in competitions today. They look for technically pristine playing and music unfortunately in my experience whether, depends on the competition that you do but the majority solo competitions in the world, they are looking for technical prowess above artistic originality.
That’s also reflected in the way conservatories, the best conservatories in any case, the way they train their pupils to really focus on technical precision and style. These two things, the tradition … That’s why a lot of conservatories are seen as maybe factories, for lack of a better word. Their goal is to train you so that you can do anything technically when you come out. Of course, if you are a musician, that will always come out in the end. That will always come out, especially if you are honest with yourself that will always come out. Competitions, they function in a similar way to conservatories I would say.
Blanka: There is an extension there? Like you are trained to be technically the best you can be and then from that, the natural goal would be to enter a competition to show off the technical prowess?
Paul: Sure, or to refine it beyond what, I guess you could say what your environment that you are sitting in allows. If you put yourself in a competition, especially an international one, then you are competing on a much higher level than a local competition. If you want to build up, of course you start with local competitions and then you work your way up depending on how you do in the local competitions.
Blanka: I heard a teacher say, the bigger the character or personality, the less chance that they will win a competition, would you agree with that? If you have a big personality or you have a lot of own opinions, then maybe you are more original or your interpretation is outside the box, so to speak. Winning a contest will then not really be an option?
Paul: I wouldn’t exclude it entirely but I definitely agree with that statement that it is much more difficult as a unique individual, as someone that thinks outside the box to win a competition. The thing is, competitions, they have a very narrow set of qualities that they are looking for on a very high level.
Blanka: Are you aware of what they ask of you, each and different competition?
Paul: Not always.
Blanka: Do you have a general idea of what is expected or can you sort of train yourself to win a specific competition knowing what they will look for?
Paul: That’s a complicated question as well because you could have people in the jury that know you. I have a few stories in my past of it, both from an advantage standpoint and from a disadvantage standpoint where people that were competing against me, they had more connections in the jury than I did. Of course, if you have connections, you have relationship with that professional, they know you are playing, especially if they like your playing, you are in good standing because they are going to naturally gravitate towards the qualities that that person has.
Of course that’s not entirely the case all the time with competitions, good competitions, they tend to be much more the ones that are very proper in the way that they function and that there is not a whole lot of politics going on but of course everybody knows that doesn’t exist exclusively.
Blanka: For my research Paul, I would like to present to you a set of question, the previous guests had to answer and I will compare your answers for my research. Feel free to elaborate. To start with two general questions. What are the positive and negative effects of competition in music education?
Paul: Positives would be that it definitely gives the teacher, such as myself, I would say a view, to push the student forth. The student decides to do a competition. The teacher can get much more intense with teaching the technique, with expecting a higher standard because they have a now said reason beyond their own desires for their student.
Blanka: Very clear, and negative effect?
Paul: It does put a certain amount of unnatural pressure on the student to develop in a sort of systematic way or I suppose a more robotic way, technical way that sometimes goes against the natural development of a student’s technique and musical ability.
Blanka: In your educational experience, which students or actually as being a student yourself for a long time, I imagine, which students can benefit from competition and music education, and which students may suffer from competition and music education?
Paul: That’s a really good question. I think the students that benefit the most from competitions are the ones that are naturally, their make-up is naturally geared towards competitions. I don’t think competitions are for everyone because I don’t think that everyone thinks in the way that a competition would want their candidates to think.
Blanka: Give me a really concrete example of someone who is made to compete, in your opinion as a violinist.
Paul: Somebody who is very, we say in Dutch Pietje Precies. Someone is very precise technically speaking, very stable, very technically stable and goes for a very clean performance all the time. Someone who is not overly emotional I would say or expressive extrovertly. That’s what I’ve often seen as it, people that tend to be very much inner-reflective people that are very, set an extremely high standard for themselves. Those kinds of people I would say.
Blanka: People who suffer, how would you characterize them?
Paul: I would think people such as myself.
Blanka: The overly emotional, can I say that?
Paul: Overly emotional. I think I’ve become much more imbalanced in that way over the years.
Blanka: Let me reframe that: emotional expressive.
Paul: Yes, that would be. Somebody who wants to take risks I would say. Above all, its people that get on stage, we say in Dutch, podium based. They are a stage best. They get up there and they want to, not only make beautiful music and really play the music but they want to really connect with their audience on an emotional level. That’s another level than somebody who’s, for lack of a better word, a cold playing technical player who can really play.
Blanka: The focus is somewhere else?
Blanka: That you can hear in the performance?
Paul: Yeah, and if you don’t mind, I would like to add that competition, of course we are talking about competitions as they are today. If you look back sixty years, seventy years ago, to the … I would say the golden period of individual artists…
Blanka: Really, you think that?
Paul: I think perhaps it’s a bit conservative of me to think this but I think a lot of people, a lot of my colleagues and superiors would agree that in the time of the early 20th century we had the likes of Jacques Thibaud and Fritz Kreisler, we had Jascha Heifets, Mischa Elman, who his technique was so unique, so against the grain. The guy played, he had super long fingernails and he played with flat fingers on the fingerboard. That is, first of all, if I see any of my students coming to the lessons with long fingernails, I almost send them away. “Go cut your nails,” because it’s impossible to tune.
He found this unique way of playing and it affected the sound in a very unique way. These kinds of individual artists that had this really intimate connection with the violin, as if it’s their own body. Somehow that has changed in the course of sixty, seventy years. I think it largely has to do with recording technology.
Paul: Where we put so much onto the microscope now with the precise recording technology that we have. It’s unbelievable what we can do, that everybody is in a competition with everyone. Whether you are in a competition or just recording an album to create the most technically perfect sounding album. The music comes through but it takes a backseat to the technical brilliance, because when people listen to recordings, if they hear one out of tune note they immediately write it off as less than worthy of their money, but also less than worthy of listening to it more than once. The standard is just incredibly high.
Blanka: You think that it also changed then the way listeners perceive music through this technology precision?
Paul: Absolutely, because we are not used to listening to the old greats anymore that played out of tune quite often, and that were sometimes a bit sloppy with their technique but always brought the message across, so convincingly that you always would think after such a performance, “This is the only way.” That’s just so amazing. Now we listen to people on stage with a magnifying glass. With already zooming in on, “What’s that note?” It’s a real shame. Art is becoming a science and sports. We are losing the individuality because people just don’t want to take the risks anymore to think.
Blanka: Do you think that art is hijacked by science or by a sport mentality or do you think it still has its own quarter somewhere?
Paul: It certainly still has its own quarter but …
Blanka: Not in the eye of major public?
Paul: I think because technology has taken an increasingly dominant role in society, that the humanity is somehow compromised in arts. It’s becoming, if you look at the popular music of today, it’s all electronic, which is … on a side note, I improvise with the DJ, I don’t …
Blanka: You are not against electronic?
Blanka: I guess you also agree that with electronic music, we can connect meaningful with an audience?
Paul: Yes, we can, but it’s in the sincerity of how you present it. Music, it still has to be human. It still has to be something, I believe a perfect balance between cerebral and heartfelt playing.
Blanka: A personal question, what is your personal view on competition in music education? Actually we have covered that unless you really want to elaborate more.
Paul: There is a type of person that succeeds much better in the end, others that will learn a great deal of technique but won’t win.
Blanka: Can I say that for you as a private person, you don’t feel too comfortable with what is expected from you during competition and you are more on the scale of the emotional expressive player?
Paul: Yeah, I would say that’s who I am. I often tend to work well with people that are actually my polar opposites.
Blanka: I like that.
Paul: In my flute quartets, I have a wonderful colleague Katya Woloshyn and she is about as opposite as me as it can get in terms of personality. We’ve been playing chamber music together for about five years. I really can rely on her. She is a really stable, really good player. We often don’t see eye to eye but we find the middle ground, which tends to work the best. We challenge each other.
Blanka: That’s wonderful. I always like that in creative teams. What is your personal positive and negative experiences with competition in music education, what did you experience that really put you off or that excited you?
Paul: The first one was, when I was in Canada, I did the Canadian music competition. Before that we had smaller competitions called Kiwanis and other conservatory competitions that I did rather well with but they were, some of which I’ve won but they were often very local, most of the people competing were from the same teacher or from maybe two teachers. That’s not really competition.
When I did the Canadian music competition, the competition structure at least when I was there was: you start with regionals, as with any sport, you start with the regional round and then you go to a national level after that. At regional level, it was mostly from the same teacher but there were a few players that came to the competition that weren’t even from our region. They rigged the system because it was easier for them to get to nationals in our area than if they were to compete in a big city like Montreal or Toronto.
Blanka: Politics indeed.
Paul: They would come; they would say that they were ‘studying’ with my teacher or with a teacher in that area. They would do this and that’s how they would fill up the forms and that’s because they had maybe one lesson, this is how they played. Then they stayed in a hotel and they played at the competition. Because they come from a much larger city or from another area where the standard is different or so forth, or they just know competitions better, they win. There was a big, it was a bit of a scandal. I was up against this one girl who came from Chicago, she wasn’t even from Canada, but she studied, and she managed to, through some kind of family thing she managed to get herself as a Canadian on the form.
Blanka: To what length do people go?
Paul: It’s unbelievable, and her playing, I don’t want to damage someone, that’s why I’m not using any names but her playing, I’m a violinist and she’s a violinist, she sounded a bit like a mosquito when she played.
Blanka: The sound wasn’t what you really liked?
Paul: No, the sound was just really irritating to listen to but technically she was brilliant. Sound-wise and musically you wouldn’t want to listen to it again but technically she was up there. She got through. I didn’t go on to the next round and I had really …
Blanka: I count this on the negative experience.
Paul: Yes, it was a negative. It really turned me off. It also turned me off because of the reactions of my colleagues and superiors. They were all very upset with how it went because it was political and it was a nasty move, it’s not fair.
Blanka: I think the Hollywood movies are made from these stories.
Paul: I don’t live in North America for a reason but I do love my Canada and I come back there whenever I can to visit family and friends.
Blanka: You wouldn’t say this is a Canadian thing or it really happens all over the place?
Paul: No, it’s a competitive thing.
Blanka: What sort of adjustments would you like to implement if you had a say in it? evidently there are a few things that you have thought of, “If I had a say, this would change.”
Paul: I’d like to see a jury that’s much more balanced. A jury that focuses 50% on the technique and 50% on the music. Of course the technique and the music, they are bound to each other, because without good technique you can’t be musical. However, I think that a few out of tune notes or a note that didn’t speak perfectly at one point, that that is of less importance than the overall musical statement that you are making. I want to see a jury that can think with their heads and their hearts at the same time.
Blanka: As a practicing musician, here are some personal questions again. Are you a perfectionist?
Paul: Yes, I’m a perfectionist.
Blanka: If so, how does that express itself?
Paul: I’m a perfectionist but I’m someone that is still working on consistency I guess you could say.
Blanka: Let’s first define your perfectionism, what would you say is your perfectionism?
Paul: My biggest nightmare is a mediocre performance immediately. I’m a perfectionist in the way of really going through every phrase of the music and really deciding how one should execute it in the most convincing way.
Blanka: You are striving all the time to a perfectionist and which you probably never achieve, right?
Paul: No one achieves perfection.
Blanka: It’s a perfectionism that is a sort of goal that’s unachievable?
Paul: It’s the fuel that drives me forth. Technically it manifests itself also in my playing, intonation and all the stuff that’s important to proper, good playing. Musically, it’s still for me the pinnacle.
Blanka: Do you think that your perfectionism is positive or negative?
Paul: I think it’s positive because I don’t allow it to destroy myself. I don’t allow it to prevent me from enjoying my life at the same time.
Blanka: Because a study shows there are sort of two perfectionism; one that nothing is ever good. That’s the sort of negative, you are never satisfied and you turn into a grumpy depressed person. The positive one that’s always looking for the next moment to become better. I guess seeing your positive phase.
Paul: You are describing actually two moments of my life because I think everyone who is a perfectionist has gone through these phases, negative and positive relationship with his or her perfectionism. In my master’s degree I was very negative. Almost perpetually because I saw, I came from a smaller city and I went to a big centre for music in Europe. Not the biggest but definitely much bigger than where I came from. I realized just how much I had to attain, I had to achieve. It drove me forth but I think there was something missing in my playing in terms of musical sincerity and for lack of a better word love in my music because I was so negative all the time that affected me in a negative way.
Blanka: I can imagine.
Paul: Once I realized that that was actually hindering me and I let that go and I started enjoying my life again and enjoying what I did and enjoying the process of attaining a higher level of perfection, then all of a sudden I got much better. It’s all in your mind too.
Blanka: This, was there a teacher for you there or was that your own psychological insight or what made that turnaround, was it the moment or was it half a year that it took to change that attitude?
Paul: It wasn’t any teacher, sorry to say.
Blanka: Poor you.
Paul: No, my teachers, they are absolutely world-class teachers, both of them Lex Korff de Gidts and Kees Koelmans. I have great respect and admiration for them. They realized that I only had two years. They allowed me to take care of myself and they just drove me forth and always set the bar just at a reach. It was difficult but you are responsible for your own faculties. If you are negative all the time, that’s not the fault of another, that’s your own fault. Once I got out of school and I had time to find myself again outside of this technical machine, or factory that I was in, then I realized just what was going wrong, I guess you could say from a positive or negative mind-set.
Blanka: Here, you already touched the subject but just to be clear, did you benefit from it during your study, from your perfectionism?
Paul: Yes, greatly.
Blanka: In the technical part I guess.
Blanka: Did you benefit from it during competitions?
Paul: Yes, but not on stage. Once one is on stage, one has to let go. If you’ve been practicing for months, and months and just pushing yourself constantly and you get on stage. To suddenly change that mind-set is not easy.
Paul: Performance is not work, performance is release. It’s letting go off everything you’ve worked
Blanka: Then, actually we can conclude I guess that your perfectionism works against you during competition, during the moment of competing.
Paul: During the moment, absolutely.
Blanka: Very clear, thanks. As a teacher, are you using competitive elements in your own educational practice? If so, why?
Paul: Yes, but in a very subtle and nice way.
Blanka: Defensive already.
Paul: Yeah, I never, I have some principles as a teacher. I have a studio of thirteen pupils now in Haarlem at the De Vioolschool in Haarlem. It’s becoming a school of good level and I have my colleagues to thank for that. We work very well together. The level is going up, we have some new students in the last couple of years that have come in with a lot of talent and they are really making great strides. That’s setting the bar for the others. I uphold their level. I always challenge them on their level. I always speak in a positive way to them from, if you work on this piece or this etude or this concerto, then you’ll be able to work towards this piece, which is something they’ve always, “I’d like to do it,” they saw somebody that was better than playing. That is kind of like a positive way of competing without being competitive.
Blanka: Are you sometimes comparing your students against each other?
Paul: In my head sometimes. You are a human being.
Blanka: No, of course we all do that, but do you ever say, look at…?
Blanka: It’s a taboo?
Paul: For me it is because I wouldn’t like that as a student either. I think in the end, the person you have to compete with is yourself, be the best version of yourself and not try to reach the level of another. When I was a student growing up I was in another type of environment. I was in very much a competitive environment and they were all my friends. When you are home, you are thinking, “I really want to reach that level.” That really drove me by comparing myself to others but it did give me a complex in the end because I started idolizing qualities that were in other students that I didn’t have.
Blanka: That’s very important. Can you repeat that again in a way that: if you are comparing yourself inside you are actually measuring yourself against qualities that are alien to you or not yours as an autonomous artist or how would you frame them?
Paul: Best I could give a little metaphor. It’s like a fox that looks at a Great Dane, a big dog, and idolizes how big and strong he is and wants to be that, but the fox will never be that. The fox has qualities the Great Dane doesn’t like being able to crawl into wholes and pick up bunny rabbits. The Great Dane is too big for that. What I’m trying to say is that you start idolizing things that you’ll never become or that are not in your personality. You may be able to imitate such things to a certain degree but they will not flow out of you naturally. Better to focus on what your strong points are and to work on the weaknesses that are around that to support your strengths.
Blanka: I understand. When came this realization? Again, I’m really interested in processes of transformation or process of change. I see you as a teenager or as that kid, that’s being a fox and compares himself to these dogs. Then at some point, you had to let go off that, you had to find your foxiness.
Paul: I have to say …(laugh)
Blanka: I see your face, you did that.
Paul: I found my foxiness!
Blanka: You did, but that transformation from comparing and trying to compete inside your head to getting into that own field, what happened there, can you remember, recall?
Paul: Yes. Not always the nicest experiences, failure on a performance level, now I’m speaking about competitions or maybe consolidation goals as you would have hoped. My also, just life experience, going through disappointments, maybe even a trauma, something that really brings you down to zero.
Blanka: Wakes you up …
Paul: Something that corners you in your life to the point that you have to look at yourself, you have to look at your weaknesses and your problems and you have to, it’s do or die moment so to speak. Those are often the most difficult moments of your life but they are the most valuable in hindsight because they really force you to accept who you are as a person. To really be real with yourself and then to know yourself better. Then from that point then you can start really start growing.
Blanka: Knowing this, would you say that you now deliberately look for these moments or you are just going in a direction and they happen or you hope that they will happen?
Paul: I think it’s a combination of both. I go my merry way every day. When I see a conflict now, I don’t, I try not to, of course we are all human but I try not to react in a defensive way immediately. I take a step back. I look, “What are they actually saying objectively, what is actually happening at this moment?” Not what I perceive through my emotion, because I am an emotional person, and then try to learn from it so that you can prevent it from happening the next time or you can deal with it in a different way the next time I guess you could say.
Blanka: Are your students competing between each other and how do you react to that?
Paul: Yes, but I have to say, I live in Haarlem and Haarlem and is really a wonderful city. It has its own unique culture apart from Amsterdam, apart from London. It’s in a way a bit of a paradise, especially for children. They have, it’s a beautiful friendly city, very low crime, almost no crime I would say from what I see. Also a city that has a wealth that is not struggling financially. The kids have a good life. They have a good upbringing and they learn, the majority of them learn to be very social and to socially interact with their colleagues. Of course there is an inner competition but it’s not in a mean way or in a …
Blanka: It’s friendly.
Paul: It’s friendly yeah. It’s encouraging I guess you could say.
Blanka: Are there winners and losers in your class, and how do you deal with those stigmas? A lot of kids that everyone thinks of winners or sort of losers.
Paul: There are some but I’ve never seen people express that in words.
Blanka: It’s very subtle?
Paul: It’s very subtle. I think perhaps a bit in body language. I think also one thing I really like about the Dutch culture is that people are much more down to earth and they call a spade a spade. They really, they don’t beat around the bush. I think even the ones that are struggling like for this new orchestra Het Clavis Ensemble that we started in October. It’s doing quite well. It’s like a step up between beginning playing and going to youth orchestra. It’s like, that’s what why we call it, it’s like the key to going for Clavis in Latin means the key. Anyway, there is a tension. Basically we have a few players in that orchestra that is actually under level of what we are looking for. We are giving them a chance to better themselves.
Blanka: They are the sorts of underdogs you would say.
Paul: Yeah, and they know it, and you see it in their body language often.
Blanka: How do you deal with those stigmas?
Paul: Positive feedback. In fact, I try to encourage them as much as I can. I demand a lot of them during rehearsal but then I bounce it with positive energy, when I see them doing something good I grab it immediately and I say, “Good job, you did this, look what kind of sound you are making now, look at that.” Really positive reinforcement but that is a very active activity. Positive reinforcement doesn’t work if you are a lazy bone.
Blanka: In your own class when you were studying, there were winners and losers I guess, how did you deal with the stigmas around you, from your colleagues?
Paul: When I was standing?
Blanka: Mmh-hmm (affirmative),
Paul: I was in another social environment, a very capitalist environment, very competitive. In a way there is that social control so people can really run their mouth a lot more in this environment. There have been moments where I’ve been very, doing the positive reinforcement or encouraging my colleagues that are maybe struggling a bit more than I. There have been other times where I’ve been really frustrated with their lackadaisical attitudes and I’ve kind of reeled into them during a repertoire class. I’ve had a few experiences where there was a student that she thought she was really great and record her once and you hear it’s a bit of a shock.
Blanka: You brought her down to earth?
Paul: It sounds horrible to say it this way but I basically, she was playing a Mozart excerpt for an audition and it was very rough. It sounded, it could have been Brahms or something like this. I really, I said it like it was. I said, “You sound like you are playing beats or Brahms and not Mozart’s, it doesn’t have the sparkling champagne quality. She took it really to heart and made a huge trauma about it.
Blanka: I can imagine.
Paul: I put my foot in my mouth because it was a very sensitive individual and I was not sensitive to the fact that she would not take that criticism the way I worded it properly.
Blanka: I understand. Very clear, thank you. Questions as a leader of an ensemble or a coach, how do you guide a potential winner if you consider yourself potential winners towards a competition?
Paul: That’s actually something we are dealing with right now in the school.
Blanka: If you have students would you think they could win?
Paul: I think a student that has exceptional talent, we, especially on the level that I’m teaching at, where most of my students are between ages eights and twenty one. I tend to drive them forth in a very steady pace. Really focusing on all the details, making sure that they have the most stable foundation possible and that is growing really well. Then eventually as teacher you should also know when it’s time to say goodbye.
Blanka: What is the importance of the stability?
Paul: The thing is, there are certain techniques, especially from a violin technique but from instruments you need to have all the holes in your techniques filled. All the different styles of bowing for example on the violin or different concepts of tempo, rhythm et cetera. These things have to be all there so that when you put a piece in front of them, they can read it, those things but also developing their voice on a basic level so that they have something to give other than technique. I think that’s also quite important. The best students, they have that already. They have that voice in them. The technique is then the most important part. We have one student that she’s nine years old and we think by the time she’s eleven, twelve, she’ll be doing the full playing or the young talent class in Amsterdam. It’s tricky to know how to draw …
Paul: Yes, it requires a lot, she hast two teachers, me and the owner of the school as well. The two of us are always having little meetings about her to make sure that we making the right decisions, repertoire, amount of repertoire, pace it where she goes because she can also get bored very easily being so brilliant.
Blanka: Yes, and young, so I can also imagine you want your adventures. You see how sensitive and precise observation actually the teacher needs to have. How do you lead your ensemble, the members of it towards competition if you are entering or doesn’t this apply to a situation you’ve been in?
Paul: It does apply. I have, hart half, we are on a break right now, a string trio, I had bearing trio and we were also for a time, for a competition we became a quartet. We had another violinist. We prepared ourselves as best as we could technically but also conceptually. All the phrases that everybody is thinking the same way. Then ensemble is very difficult because you have different people, people think in different ways. The whole process it build all those bridges so that we can all think the same way.
Blanka: Do you have a rehearsal without instruments for that, for instance, do you just really sit around the table?
Blanka: Very important to know.
Paul: Of course study is important, you are just talking about the music or you may be singing rhythms or phrases together but you don’t have to translate it into your instrument. It simplifies the process in some ways.
Blanka: How do you support someone who lost a music competition?
Paul: By reinforcing their positive qualities verbally.
Blanka: Again, shedding the light on …
Paul: Telling them also that the people that are sitting on the jury, they are five, six people that also have a limited experience in life and they are not, it’s not like the panel of the gods, the Pantheon.
Blanka: It might feel though…
Paul: They all put their pants on the same way. in the end it’s the collective judgment based on a certain perspective, but if you were to play the exactly same way in another competition there is a chance that it would be received completely differently.
Blanka: How do you support your ensemble and or its members when you suffer a loss, how do you recover from that with a group of people?
Paul: In the same way. Reinforcing what we have, what’s really good about us but also talking in a critical but positive way about what we can do to better ourselves. Always looking forward, not dwelling on the past, not getting stuck together.
Blanka: How do you implement a contest with the rest of an educational program?
Paul: How would I once again?
Blanka: Implement a contest: you have some goal for the contest and you have some goals for your growth or for your artistic imagination or I don’t know what you are working at. How do you combine these two worlds, the goals for a contest and the goals that you have as an educator for your student?
Paul: The commonality between them is technical prowess. Competitions, they support my pedagogy technically, stylistically also. The musical individuality that is something that is, I guess you could say the whip cream on the coffee cake, for many competitions in any case. I think it’s a more integral part of the whole process but in any case, from that standpoint technically and stylistically, it’s definitely, and they go hand in hand.
Blanka: Maybe you answered my next question already. How do you implement a contest in the rest of your ensemble’s creative process or rehearsals, do you really skip all the other stuff and just go for the contest or do you just make it a part of your overall artistic view that you are working on?
Paul: The competition level is often really high. If you are doing a competition really, 100% of your time as an ensemble is spent on that.
Blanka: Everything becomes focused on that?
Paul: Yeah, and I think especially with auditions to orchestras. I have periods of time where I have more concerts especially around passion season with the St Mathews passion, St John’s passion so forth. Then I have periods of time as many freelancers do where there are fewer concerts. Those are times to really prepare for auditions and competitions. Then I would spend daily my energies on that.
Blanka: How do you differentiate for your students’ collection of educational goals outside the competition? Even if you say, “Now we are going to prepare for a competition.” I think your students will still need to know that there is more that they need to learn,” that’s not included in the competition?
Paul: Yeah, students need to understand what a competition is. I think that’s the most important part. For me it was always difficult growing up because it was never spoken about what a competition actually is. Just that you have to do it and you have to be good.
Blanka: You have to win it.
Paul: You have to win it. That’s what it’s about, win a competition. There are many people that play competitions, five, six, seven and don’t win any and then all of a sudden they just start winning a lot. It’s a process. Especially when we are talking about orchestra auditions, freelancers that have finished their master’s. They are auditioning maybe ten, twenty times before they get a position. It’s a process. The student needs to understand that it’s a process and that it’s meant to benefit their technique, benefit their command of the instrument, of the repertoire and so forth. Winning, that is potluck, big parts playing, also mentality.
Blanka: I understand. Last question for this first part of our talk, how do you differentiate for your ensemble, a collection of goals outside of contest? Yo
Paul: Outside of competition?
Paul: That’s a fun part. All this creativity floating around. Artistic goals, what is our voice? How do we express ourselves together? That’s a combination of personalities. That makes you unique, every ensemble is unique because every ensemble is made up of unique individuals. I think for me the most important part now at this stage of my career is being as real as possible with yourself, accepting the good and the bad, and seeing how your colleagues fill you in on the bad bits. Moments where you have to take the lead, moments where the other takes the lead.
That’s where we talked about this also in our inter-think group in the performance that it’s not that there is one leader all the time, but that music demands that everyone is a leader at different times. That we are equals. Our goals outside of competitions. I would say that’s very much based on who we are and what we have to give because that is then the most sincere performance you could give. If you are trying to do something just for money sake, as a chamber musician, good luck, because it won’t last very long.
Blanka: For now, I would like to have a little musical intermezzo. Can you tell us what we will be hearing when we hear you play?
Paul: Sure, this is a recording actually of about three years back already. It’s a series of excerpts, I believe it’s three excerpts if I remember correctly from Cesar Franck’s Sonata piano and violin in A major. This is a recording I did with a good friend of mine and fantastic pianist David Herman who also studied in Amsterdam, finished just a bit earlier. Then the two of us had a duo for several years and played several concerts, piano violin together. This is one is in the Thomas kerk in Amsterdam. This is from Cesar Franck in A major sonata.
Musical Intermezzo: 46:23 – 49:58 excerpts Cesar Franck Sonata piano&violin in A major.
Blanka: Thank you for letting this be part of this talk.
I have more questions for you. Is there a difference between the evaluation system within your educational practice and that of competition and if so, what is that difference exactly?
Paul: Short answer would be, yes there is a difference. My evaluation and that of my colleagues at the school is much broader than just technique and style. It’s musical, also to see the wellbeing of the student, how that’s going because that has a large effect on how they play.
Blanka: Indeed! Was there a difference between the received educational assessments during your musical studies and that of musical contest? If so, what were those differences?
Paul: Yes, competitions tend to be a lot … How do I put this? It’s a good question. I think when you are, especially where I was coming from, I was in a fairly smaller environment, music here wasn’t huge and I was a big fish in a small pond. Then when you start doing competitions all of sudden you are taken out of your little pond and put in a big pond. Then you are held to a higher standard technically speaking. My technique was good. I was able to uphold that standard for the majority but it was often times compared to others perhaps a little bit underneath or less developed. It had to do with my environment I would say.
Blanka: Does the grading system within education, or those marks, function as a social selection tool in much the same way as does the classification of competition?
Paul: Yes, but I wouldn’t say that that is directly reflective of what the reality is. I would say that the process in general of giving marks is very important because it gives a very clear cut, black-white view of how a student is doing, but depending on how much a teacher likes you, you may get marks that are a little bit higher, a little big lower than what another would say. I wouldn’t say what reality is because reality, music especially is very subjective.
Another person would find your technique much lower. I’ve played competitions where I’ve done extremely well and they’ve really loved my playing and technique and then other one would say no. it’s absolutely not the level I want to see or they want to see a completely different type of technique, it’s also the case, different schools. It depends on who you are talking to I think.
Blanka: What do you as a teacher for your student when you disagree with a jury?
Paul: I haven’t really had a whole lot of experience with that to be honest with you.
Blanka: That’s coming I guess from your …
Paul: I think between colleagues we’ve had disagreements on how things should be done. So far we work, it’s really funny, we work so well that we have very rarely any sort of discussions, mostly that has to do with organization things in the school instead of how to send a student in a certain direction.
Blanka: What do you do as an ensemble leader when you don’t agree with the jury? There you are with your ensemble and you don’t agree with the jury, what’s next?
Paul: You take their comments for what it is and if you see, you look at it very critically and you try to draw as much positivity from it as possible in terms of what you can really do to improve yourself, then you let it go and you forget about it.
Blanka: What happens when you do agree with a jury, you as the ensemble leader but your ensemble members don’t?
Paul: Like with any difference of opinion.
Blanka: Yes, how do you go about it?
Paul: I express respectively how I feel, and I if I agree with the jury or not and then the others may have difference of opinion or slight differences of opinion and through discussion, conversation and number one, always showing respect for your colleagues, always showing respect and never talking over them or cutting them off or just really speak to them as you would somebody you give the respect. It works in fact, in conversations, it really does.
Blanka: I believe so.
Paul: People are convinced if you have an argument that is rational and that is directly correlative to the problem. People will eventually either see the light or you have a difference of opinion, you put it to rest.
Blanka: You work from there I guess. Last but not least, I will present statements which you can answer with agree, slightly agree, slightly disagree or disagree. Of course if you feel the need you may elaborate somewhat.
Blanka: Society values competition as a vestige from our past, a true measure of value of earth.
Paul: Somewhat agree because society is changing so much. People are started, we are so networked globally now. People are starting to see how subjective a lot of things are.
Blanka: The strength of music competition lies in the stimulation, giving students to do their best.
Blanka: Receiving a high score raises the spirit of the band and therefore acts as a stimulant.
Blanka: Competitions are responsible for raising the level.
Paul: Level of what?
Paul: Somewhat agree, because it stimulates technique and style I would say more than musical originality.
Blanka: I will correct my question here in the iteration cycle.
Paul: Only if you’d like.
Blanka: Competition foster a large interest in music.
Paul: Somewhat agree.
Blanka: The idea of music competition is so successful because it brings out the natural instincts of rivalry and conquest.
Paul: What a lofty question?
Blanka: Glad you enjoy my hard work here. You heard my dynamics in the word natural instinct of rivalry and conquest.
Paul: I would say somewhat disagree.
Blanka: Competition can obstruct the educational process and as such hinder development.
Paul: Somewhat agree.
Blanka: The weakness of competition lies in the fact that winning may become an end in itself.
Blanka: Winning the competition became the primary goal rather than improvement and learning?
Paul: Somewhat agree because it’s not always the case.
Blanka: Competition diffuses the difference between an athletic field and classroom.
Paul: Somewhat agree.
Blanka: Through competition, strife and jealousy are born and bred.
Paul: Agree. I do agree with this one.
Blanka: In competition the intention gets more focused on external forces like the rivals or the jury, rather than the performance at hand.
Paul: That depends on who you are of course. I think the people are successful with competitions, they are the ones that are not focused on that stuff.
Blanka: You disagree slightly or totally disagree?
Paul: I think I, because, if you look at whole picture, I would disagree.
Blanka: In adult life there is enough competition, rivalry and heated struggle during youthful development. There is no need to already participate.
Paul: Somewhat disagree, because I think if we try to harbor youth for as long as possible, they have a bigger shock when they hit the twenties. Reality is, life is competitive. If you want to be successful, you have to engage.
Blanka: In everyday life there is enough competition, rivalry and heated struggle, the art class should present a sanctuary.
Paul: It depends on what level you are playing or busy with your arts. I think if you are young that’s one thing that’s really strong about our school is that we tend to have, it’s a safe harbor, it’s a safe sanctuary, it’s a conservatory in a way for students to feel calm and comfortable. I think that that transition should be gradual.
Blanka: There is no need of a sanctuary outside society where competition is?
Paul: No, because I think music exists in society, with all the struggles and good points?
Blanka: An art class should be a place where everyone is judged by their own merits.
Paul: Could you clarify that?
Blanka: Yes, instead of in society were we are all compared, you have more or less comparing each other. The statement is that an art class should be a place where everyone is judged by their own merits without comparing those merits.
Paul: I agree with that because if …
Blanka: That fits more with the fox and the dog metaphor.
Paul: Absolutely, I agree with that because I think in the end, especially if you are a precise person that wants to do your best, the only person you can compete with is yourself.
Blanka: Comparing does not help the development of autonomy.
Paul: I agree.
Blanka: One of the main goals of art education is to develop mental for autonomy, comparing you inside.
Paul: Yes, in my philosophy I agree with that, yes.
Blanka: Students who do not achieve success in competition are unprepared to deal with the consequences of losing.
Paul: Of losing in general?
Blanka: No, of losing the competition.
Paul: I would slightly agree with that, although I think that tons of people even when they win they are not always very happy with how they do.
Blanka: All attention goes to the winners at the expense of taking care of the losers.
Paul: I agree with that.
Blanka: Thinking in the polarity of winners and losers should not have a place in art education.
Paul: I agree with that because music is becoming, competitions are becoming much more like the Olympics. Of course it takes away from the autonomy, the individuality. Although I would say that should not go to the expense of holding a golden standard, a high standard of technique. There should be role models, there should be mentors. Comparing one student to the next I think is only destructive.
Blanka: Art should be the antidote of the winners and losers’ mentality.
Paul: Art should be the antidote of winners and losers in society, absolutely not. I disagree. It goes against what art actually is.
Blanka: Joining a music contest is important as one learns good citizenship while improving motivation and public relations.
Paul: I would somewhat agree with that yes. I think it’s important to do some competitions to know really know what outs there, to know where you stand.
Blanka: A person taught to be highly competitive in an intergroup setting, one group against another group, may transfer the competitive feelings to members of his or her own group, the intergroup competition.
Paul: I think if the group works well together and they respect each other no, I don’t think so. I think they can push that. They can allow that not to poison the dynamic of the group.
Blanka: You disagree?
Paul: I disagree yeah.
Blanka: Competition has educational benefits for students including one, incentive for hard work, standard for performance and a good social education.
Paul: For competition, social education.
Blanka: Do you think those three are benefits, do you agree with that or slightly agree?
Paul: I slightly agree because I think in terms of social benefits, learning how to get along with everyone, I think the competition is actually putting a needed stress on the relationships between competitors, candidates, and actually even people that aren’t competing that are in the same circle that can cause also tension between the ones that decide to do competitions and the ones who don’t. There is an expectation perhaps on those that are not doing competitions to then also do what their colleagues are doing.
Blanka: Competition has educational drawbacks such as one, the stress competition creates may cause talented students to withdraw. Second, negative experiences might lead to unattainable perfectionism. Three, perfectionism can lead to burnouts and dropouts. Do you agree with that collection?
Paul: I’ll say somewhat agree because of course it’s all in how far you go, the more competitive. There is a balance that needs to happen. Of course if you are too much focused, if you are too fanatical about it, then other things can fall apart absolutely.
Blanka; When a competitive element is lacking, the level will drop.
Paul: That’s such a … I wish you didn’t ask this question.
Blanka: Everybody has been hurt here.
Paul: This is that nut sides where I think the competitions are important because they do uphold the standard yes, but it’s all in how you motivate the student. I didn’t do very many competitions in my life and I was always very motivated to achieve a high level. I achieved that through my own merits, not my parents … My family are not musicians. No one, I had only my colleagues surrounding me but I had no one in my family really pushing me. It depends on the person. I think someone that needs that kick in the butt, so to speak to do it, then yes, competitions are important for those people.
Blanka: Competitions are responsible for virtuoso result.
Paul: Often times, somewhat agree.
Blanka: Competitions compare students on incomparable qualities.
Paul: I agree and I’ll say this because at that level it’s subjective.
Blanka: Judgment in art and music competitions is comparing apples with pears.
Paul: These definitely get more difficult, the questions.
Blanka: Your silence is getting longer, that’s for sure.
Paul: Can I say yes and no?
Blanka: Yes, sure.
Paul: Yes, because as we spoke about earlier today, some students, their qualities are much different than others. You have the technical player that’s strong technically, that’s musically not so interesting. You have the very musically interesting person. That’s the apples and pears comparing.
Blanka: Somewhat agree?
Paul: Some agree I would say.
Blanka: Joining a music competition has the following advantage; one, the use of better music, two, the improvement of instrumentation, three, increased interest in school music by parents and students, four adjudicators’ comments, increased social context, student listen better to adult groups. Would you agree with this collection?
Paul: No, I would disagree with that. I think that the competition is a much narrower use today, focused on style and technique and not on all those things I would say.
Blanka: Joining a music competition has the following disadvantage and overemphasis on the competitive aspects, too much time spent on contest pieces, poor adjudication, hostility towards other fine ensembles performing at an event. Would you agree with this collection or disagree?
Paul: Performing at an event in what context?
Blanka: At first we had the increased social context and now we have the hostility towards others. Basically the negative drawback of competition, the disadvantage would be that people consider themselves enemies instead of colleagues or soulmates.
Paul: I would somewhat agree because I think in the context, and one thing I wanted to mention earlier was, I also see auditions for orchestras as competitions, which they are.
Blanka: Yes, they are.
Paul: Especially because they are very focused on technical playing and that you are flexible to do anything musically that the conductor or leaders require. I feel, every time I go to an audition I see all my colleagues that I play with in orchestras. Vast majority, I’ve played in musical orchestras. I don’t have any animosity towards them. I actually in the end, it’s the gods of this orchestra that will decide who is worthy. On our level, we are on the same boat. Why would you start shooting people on the same boat?
Blanka: Very clear, so you disagree or?
Paul: I disagree but I think in other social contexts, especially international competitions, yes.
Blanka: So somewhat disagree?
Paul: That’s why I said I somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, it depends on the context.
Blanka: Entering a competition means you must have a certain amount of competitive drive.
Paul: Absolutely agree with that. You can’t go in there with the lackadaisical approach.
Blanka: A diversity of goals during competition is expressed by the following thoughts; during competition I want to perform better than others.
Paul: For me I would disagree because that is not my motivation.
Blanka: During competition, I just want to avoid performing worse than others.
Paul: That is if you are not very secure in yourself, that is definitely something that you think of.
Blanka: This is about you, right?
Paul: About me.
Blanka: If you enter a competition, means you must have a certain amount of competitive drive. As you said, yes, then I go to the following. What are the four sort of motivational goal setting? One is the thought, “During competition I want to perform better than others.” You said no, you disagree with that one.
Paul: I think … I say no because I think you should not compare yourself to others. That is not a healthy way of doing things. especially if …
Blanka: That’s just what goes through your head is the question.
Paul: It does go through my head. It goes through my heat but it’s not something I allow to drive me. Because if I were to do that, then I would be sitting in the audience waiting for my turn to play, hearing the other person playing and just getting worried about, “They play this brilliantly.”
Blanka: I get it, very clear, thanks. The thought, during competition I just want to avoid performing worse than others.
Paul: That doesn’t go through my head as much because that is a bit a defeatist attitude.
Blanka: That’s where I got it from.
Paul: There you go.
Blanka: During competition I want to perform as well as I possibly can.
Paul: Yes, absolutely that’s right.
Blanka: That’s your thing.
Paul: I agree 100% yes.
Blanka: During competition I worry that I may not perform as well as I possibly can.
Blanka: Thank you for this. Finally, the 2 last questions: what is your advice to students who are questioning whether or not to enter a music competition?
Paul: This is the most practical question you’ve asked for the day. Thank you for that. I would say, if you want to really put a push on your technique and really get technically and stylistically much better than what you were a couple of months, three months, four months ago, then absolutely do the competition.
Do not place your self-worth on how you do in the competition. Do not place your worth as an instrumentalist or as a musician on how you do in the competition because it’s an … You have to see it this way, it’s an opportunity to … It’s a door that if you fit in the right way you can go through. It’s an opportunity to really springboard your career, but it’s not the only way. I see it as more of an opportunity to better yourself as a person. If you’ve gotten to the point where you are really on top of your game and you know that you can compete at a level that you will win, then absolutely do that. If you keep plugging away at competitions just for the sake of, I have to win, I have to win, then it can defeat you.
Blanka: What is your advice to teachers and band leaders who coach students or their band members during competition, what you give us educators advice on what we should do when we are coaching?
Paul: Communicate in a very positive way all the time, whether it’s critique or positive reinforcement of good things that are already happening. Negativity will swell around in their heads. You are not good at this, you can’t do this, you have to work harder at this. This was actually a bit of my problem in my masters too because I did a lot of good things. majority of what I was doing was very good but I only heard negativity and not necessarily negativity presented in a nice way. that really, if you are a sensitive person …
Blanka: Which you are.
Paul: Which I am, that can defeat you if you are not careful.
Blanka: It did get to you or not?
Paul: Absolutely, yes.
Blanka: You had a struggle getting rid of it, or is it still playing a part in?
Paul: I think that ever experience you have in life is banked away in your mind. It’s just how you deal with it. I think that it’s, in some context it’s good for you, if you are getting a bit too confident that you can bring yourself back in balance again, one should never think too highly or too lowly of oneself, that’s basically what I’m getting at. A student that needs that positive reinforcement, especially when they are doing their first competition, the best thing that they could have is that energy that they can, on the states that they can just send that out to the jury, like look at what we can do. Even if it’s not perfect, at least you put your best foot forward, and that comes from positive reinforcement and very precise critique in a positive way.
Blanka: This makes a lot clear. Thank you very much Paul. I really liked this conversation. I hope the listeners have enjoyed it as well. Until the next time.
Paul: You are welcome. The pleasure was mutual.
Blanka: Till the next time, thank you.