Many organizations have vocal competitions. They offer prizes, fame, concert dates and other perks. There are small competitions (just a few dollars or a small performance) and there are things like “The Voice” and “American Idol” that offer the moon and then some. There are competitions of all kinds in between.
There are classical competitions for opera singers who also do art songs. The Met Opera has a competition. There are international competitions. They have been around for a long time.
What happens in a competition and why are they needed?
Someone has to decide that it would be good idea to have a vocal competition. It could be a large group or small but it is rarely, if ever, just one person, although if the person were very rich, I imagine it wouldn’t be impossible. The group has to have someone to run the competition. It could be one person or a committee. The committee has to decide who is going to be allowed to sing, what kinds of things they can sing, and who will judge. They will have to decide how many winners there are and what the prizes will be. They will have to decide what the criteria are for judges and judging.
Then, they have to pick the judges.
NATS, the national association that many singing teachers belong to, has local, regional and national competitions for both classical and music theater singers. There are rules and regulations and requirements and the competitions are not free to the students. There is almost always a registration fee for these things and that is true for these contests as well. Teachers of singing who belong to NATS are allowed to submit their students in various musical and age categories but they cannot judge their own students. The students sing without telling the judges who their teachers are.
Since we are still in a time when almost all teachers of singing have classical training as their primary background, particularly if they teach in a university or school (other than at a jazz or commercial music academy) there are many times when there is no one to judge the music theater contestants other than a classical teacher, who often has no knowledge of music theater style or vocal production. In fact, this is not uncommon. As one can imagine, this scenario is hardly a good one. If you have several classically oriented judges listening to a student who is a very good belter, the judges wouldn’t know that, and might “mark the student down” (lower her score) because the sound isn’t “classical enough”. Why have a competition to “help” young singers be recognized and supported if you have to rely on judges who have NO CLUE what the singing is about? Doesn’t that seem ridiculous? It certainly does to me.
And, how would it be if we make the contestant carry all the books of music that contain the songs they have chosen to sing for the contest. How would it be if they arrive with literally a suitcase of books of music? Why not make photocopies and take those in a notebook instead? Doesn’t that make the most sense for all concerned?
It does, but making sense is not something that teaching organizations are known for. They are known for making rules and regulations, regardless of what is involved in upholding them.
NATS requires that students NOT photocopy music due to copyright laws. Trouble is, the students are using the material for the contest, not to make money. It is an educational opportunity most of the time and certainly isn’t about them selling the music to make a profit. NATS could go to the publishers and negotiate some kind of “rights agreement” with the publishers and charge a small fee to the students, acting as a collection agency, or make arrangements for paid downloads of music, to be sure that those who own the copyright are properly compensated. The publishers are very likely to agree as they would make some small amount of money on every song. The way it is now, kids are forced to borrow scores from friends, from the library or hope that the accompanist can play from memory, without music. If they have to purchase a $20, $30 or $40 dollar book of songs in order to sing just one, the attitude of the organization is: too bad for you. How do you suppose that works for poor students? Forcing students to lug an entire suitcase of music books to a competition is surely ridiculous but it is required. Sometimes students are disqualified for bringing a photocopy to the piano (for convenience of the accompanist) even though the original music is in the room with them and belongs to them because they bought it. How’s that for stupid? What do you think the student contestant learns about singing from that rule? How does this help him or her understand the art of making song? And, since the publishers are the ones who are making the money, does this help them get rich? Hardly. It is a remarkably stupid procedure that puts the burden on the student instead of the association, where it belongs. Here is the word again: STUPID.
And, if you manage to win a competition to which you have lugged a suitcase of music books, judged by people who may or may not have a clue about what you are singing and how it is supposed to sound, what do you win? Does this contest help you get a better shot at having a career? Answer is, who knows? The only sure bet is if you are a finalist on one of the big TV shows or at the Met. Otherwise, it does hardly anything.
Competitions to find the next biggest singing star will never go away. Hearing someone with a really thrilling voice is so special that we will always seek those individuals who can put all the ingredients together to make something truly thrilling happen. Competitions, however, can easily be a dreadful experience for the singers. Ask someone who has been in one sometime and see for yourself what kind of horror stories you will hear about what can and does happen at them.
Here are a few from someone who was not singing, just organizing:
Years ago I ran a small competition for classical singers for one of the teaching associations. We had two rounds, a preliminary and a final. The singers were all young. There were requirements for what kinds of material they had to sing. The decision was made by totaling the scores of the judges and all the comments were available afterwards (without the judges’ names) to assist the student by providing feedback. At the end of about 22 singers and an entire day of judging, I collected the sheets to begin tabulating the results. One of the judges had drawn little diagrams and squiggles on the sheets. It seems that she had Alzheimer’s, back in the day when people didn’t admit they had it, and she had not remembered why she was there. Nice little surprise. We ended up throwing out the entire day and using the finals as if we had not had a preliminary.
I also ran another competition in which there were criteria for the singers that were totally ignored by the judges. There was a tie for first place and the judges decided the best way to break it was to choose the person who had the nicest outfit (I kid you not). They threw the person whose clothes they did not like completely out of the competition because she was “so good” they knew she would be OK even if she didn’t win. It was horrifying to watch, not just because it was insane behavior but also because this singer was my own student and I couldn’t say so.
Here’s another one to raise the hair on your head.
The competition (a different one) was long over. The competition committee, of which I was chair, gathered to talk about how things went and what could be done to improve things next time. One of the committee members stated that the student he had submitted was just completely distraught, miserable and would never sing again. She was going to quit singing because she didn’t come in as one of the winners (1st, 2nd or 3rd place). He said he personally was insulted. I said that these things happen and that, in life, people don’t always get the job or the gig or the role and that we all knew it was painful to lose but there was nothing to be done. He then said he wanted his student to get an honorable mention, to cheer her up. I told him that was impossible, since the judges were long gone, that the competition was over and that there had not been an honorable mention category in the competition. BUT, to my utter amazement, the five other people in the room who were part of the committee, told me they were going to vote this young woman her Honorable Mention and give it to her. I was astounded but that’s just what they did. No one outside the committee ever knew, but I knew, and it blew and still blows my mind. If you are someone who thinks this story is “nice”, please do not ever judge or participate in any kind of competition.
There are more stories, but these few will give you an inkling.
The purpose of competitions is to find talented young singers and help them get started in careers where they can become professionals, earn a living, or maybe even become stars. There may be other purposes, like receiving feedback from the judges, learning what it’s like to stand up in front of someone and sing while being judged, or being able to handle the nerves involved. It might also be about learning repertoire, being able to express the music in a strong way or other possible things. What it should not be is about learning things that have absolutely nothing to do with these criteria.
Think twice before you pays your money and sings your songs.