The Van Cliburn Competition just ended with barely a ripple on the surface of public awareness. To a certain extent this is to be expected since the world of serious piano playing is relatively small and arcane. However in my memory the Cliburn used to generate quite a bit more awareness.
The biggest advantage of competitions is that they provide performance opportunities to serious students. No, I’m not referring to all the career opportunities that are supposed to come to the winners. In that area competitions seem like American Idol to me; the best careers often come to those who did NOT win. The performance opportunity is the competition itself, whether or not the individual makes it past the preliminaries.
For a serious piano student, playing for themselves only goes so far. The purpose of being an artist is to communicate and to do that one must have an audience. Playing for friends and family fills that bill, but to grow one must expand and learn the skill of communicating in difficult circumstances. These circumstances mean dealing with nerves, pianos good and bad, and the pressure of expectations. Entering a competition definitely ups the stakes and if one gets into the good ones, opportunities to play with good orchestras and chamber groups expand the experience. These kinds of opportunities, especially concerto performances, do not come along very often.
At a competition you also get to hear what your peers are doing as well as participate or at least observe master classes with artists you might not have exposure to otherwise. It’s a little bit like traveling to a foreign country after intensely studying a language. It’s one thing to sit at home with your tapes and books, quite another to get on the right bus or have a telephone installed.