Some Observations On the State of the GFA competition.

Published by Legacy of Matanya Ophee on

By Matanya Ophee

Editor’s note: this article is part of a larger article that was first published here in 1999, right after the GFA festival in Charleston, SC. The original article contained great many observations on the GFA in general, it’s organization and functionality. The article generated a great deal of anguish among the GFA’s top brass. Their main objection to it was that the GFA’s “dirty laundry” should not be washed in public. I was asked to remove the article. I eventually acquiesced and removed the article from GALI. Over the last decade, many organizational changes have taken place at the GFA, and many of my original complaints are no longer applicable. Having just come back from the 2010 GFA festival in Austin, TX, I am afraid that the event is still organized along a  fault line which almost guarantees that the end result, the selection of the winner of the first prize, is at best a crap-shoot. Hence, I am reposting those portions of the original 1999 article which pertain to the competition. All new observations added to it, will be marked with red.

I have never sat as a judge in a GFA competition and I have no first hand knowledge how this important event is actually structured. Now that I got this qualification out of the way, I will say this: I know many of the people who take part in this jury, and some of them are my close personal friends and colleagues. I think I know what goes on in there.

Personally, I think that the GFA competition, or any other competition for that matter, does not necessarily have a decisive role in establishing anyone’s career. Some of the most important guitarists active today, had never won a guitar competition, and some who did, disappeared from the scene without a trace. However, we maintain the fiction that winning a competition is a good thing, and for some people perhaps it is. Surely, it must feel good to come out as the winner, and that in itself may be a worthwhile contribution to the person’s self-esteem. In recent years, we have run into a new and interesting phenomenon: the professional competition winner. Winning first prizes, sometimes several in close succession, is not a bad way of making a living. Of course, there is a time limit on how long this occupation can be maintained, a limit that is dictated by age, if not by a declining musical and technical prowess. But if the money is offered, and the young man[1]I have not yet encountered a young woman in the ranks of these competition winners professionals, but I would not be much surprised if one showed up soon! thinks he has a good chance of receiving it, all the power to him.

So we provide the frame work for that and the GFA competition draws people from all over the world. The event thus becomes a marketing tool intended to increase attendance and help secure a positive balance sheet at the end. At the very least, this marketing ploy should attempt to provide good value for the time and money young hopefuls invest in purchasing the illusion of eternal Bliss and a seat at the top of the pyramid. In other words, it should make an honest effort to insure that the person who won the first prize, won it fairly. As an outside observer, I am not sure the present system guarantees that every first prize winner, in every single annual contest, is in fact the best one among those running. Sometimes, but not always.

It is easy to second-guess a jury. For example, I listened to the finals in the 1990 event in Pasadena, which is not something I can do in those years I occupy a seat at the Vendor’s fair. I had no doubt then, that the best performance that evening was given by Stanley Yates. Yet, he came in fourth. Same thing happened in the Montreal event in 1998. Everybody was enthusiastic about Denis Azabagic. A fine player no doubt, but one who did not move me much. Patrick Kearny on the other hand: there was a true musician at work I thought. Yet, he came in fourth. In the Miami contest in 1991, the first prize winner was Alexei Zimakov, a kid from Siberia who was only able to come because I paid for his ticket. I took that step because I was in the jury that gave him the first prize in Tychy in 1990, and I thought he was one hell of an exciting player. Yet, when he got that first prize in Miami, someone started a series of dirty rumors that the jury was influenced by the knowledge that I sponsored the kid, because, so the rumors inferred, it was not possible for one who played on a crummy instrument made by some incompetent bumbler in a back water country such as Soviet Russia, to be the best player when all the other finalists played guitars made by the best maker in New York City. I thought then that this kind of rumor-mongering (two people called me on the phone to advise me this was going on) missed the point that it was not the instruments that were being judged but the guitarists. Nevertheless, I must admit today, that even though Zimakov was the best performer among the four finalists on that occasion, the first prize had done nothing for him, and most probably was one of the main reasons why he no longer plays the guitar. (Zimakov, after a long hiatus, eventually came back to concert stage). It would have been much better for all concerned, if the first prize went then to someone else. Of course, there is no way for a jury to predict the fortunes of winners. The best a jury can do, is voice their opinion and select the one who is the best among the lot. I am sure that does happen. But the system as it stands today, makes an impartial and objective decision by a GFA jury a catch-as-catch-can proposition. I have sat in many juries in important European competitions to have a feel for this sort of thing. Here is what I think about this:

My understanding is that the GFA system works like this: there are three rounds, each one is judged by a different set of five judges, who vote a yes or a no for each candidate. Sometimes there is a parallel point grading system involved, sometimes the second and third rounds are judged by the same jury while the first round is judged by another set and so forth. This is, then, not one competition, but rather two or three different ones. This setup opens the door for a skewed result, when the bias and prejudice of one juror can influence the outcome. It is enough that a player will do something that does not please one of the jurors, and that competitor is out, even though the other four would have found nothing wrong. A larger number of jurors and a more realistic grading system would greatly help to prevent such injustices. I think 12 to 15 jurors would be just about right.

Another thing is the grading system. In Tychy, following the system established long ago in the Warsaw Chopin Competition, each competitor receives a grade from 0 to 25 by each juror. All the jurors sit through the entire event, and the final result is an average of the points the finalists were given by each juror in all three rounds.

The yes or no, black or white system of the GFA, even if sometimes moderated by some sort of point grading, does in fact enable the jury to eliminate all those who are not yet ready. The Tychy system does the same thing. On the other hand, the Tychy system also guarantees that those who have a fair chance to make it to the end, are not eliminated by the bias and prejudice of one juror. It also gives a much better chance that those who are in the middle range at any given stage, still have a chance. Alexei Zimakov, in the 1990 Tychy competition, barely made it into the second round. He came in 13th when the jury decided in advance to admit only 12 to the second round. But since his average grade was only half a point below that of No. 12, it was decided to let him in anyway. He won the first prize.

So where does the GFA get 12-15 jurors? By asking the jurors who sit in three separate rounds, to participate fully in all three. It is also imperative to offer these experts, these people who are charged with the fate and fortunes of young guitarists, with their lives as it were, a fair compensation for their services. They perform a valuable service to the organization and to the entire discipline. They are the ones who ensure that the marketing ploy for which the competition has been constituted in the first place, actually delivers on the promise. In Tychy, when they ask me to be a juror, as they did every two years since 1986, they pay my airline fare from New York To Warsaw and back, pick me up at the Warsaw airport by a special limousine, drive me down to Tychy (240 km away) put me up in a luxury hotel, pay for all my meals, and give me an honorarium on top of that. A symbolic one for sure, but an honorarium nevertheless. They do the same for all other foreign jurors, people like Colin Cooper, Peter Päffgen, Danielle Ribouillault, and many other important guitar personalities from around the world. I have received a similar treatment from the organizers of the Alessandria Pittaluga Competition in 2007, and from the organizers of the Cáceres Norba Caesarinain 2008.

If the GFA competition wishes to rise to the level of other competitions around the world, it cannot afford to continue servicing its customer base, the competitors, with judges who agree to serve for free and who may or may not be the best qualified for the job.

I have been told by one of the organizers, privately and off the record of course, that the GFA is economizing on expenses for jury duties, by requiring performers who were contracted to appear at the event, to serve on the jury as part of their contractual obligation. That, in my view, is a dumb idea, no matter how much money is saved. See below.

TANSTAAFL is what Robert Heinlein used to tell us. There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. You get what you pay for. If the GFA is incapable of raising the money to pay for qualified judges, people with an International reputation and respect, then it should discard this competition idea as a hot potato.

Sitting on a jury and deciding the fate of young people and also deciding the degree of respect the organization stands to gain from the results, is just as much a performance based on knowledge and expertise, as playing a concert. Expecting jurors to volunteer their services because they are members of the GFA, or because as performers at the event, they were forced to agree to this in order to secure the gig, is not fair. We do not expect performers who are members of the GFA to donate their services, do we? Paying a fee for jury duty and taking care of the person’s expenses, would enable the organizers to obtain the services of a much wider pool of qualified jurors. Raising the funds for the jury should be part of the entire scheme of things. Either it gets done by the local guy, or it gets done by the national/international organization. But it needs to get done.

One argument against having a larger number of jurors and asking them to sit through all rounds, is that since we have so many candidates in the first round, 70 presented themselves in Charleston this year, this would be a heavy burden to bear for anyone. Agreed. I would not want to sit through 70 different renditions of the required pieces. Surely, by the time the last one played, no one could hear him. But once the first round was over, the burden is no longer there, and the jurors have a better sense what the competitor is capable of in the second and third rounds. They have heard him/her already. For a new set of jurors the competitor is an entirely new entity.

I would like to think that the large number of entries into the first round is not the result of a conscious effort to use the registration fee as a revenue generating scheme for the GFA. But it surely appears that way, and in many other competitions all over the world, it is this way. 70 entries at $170 a piece, makes almost $12,000. Not a bad piece of change when the entire budget of the event is probably not more than $60,000-$70,000.

This year (2010) the entry fee was $250.00, plus an additional fee of $50.00 if the registrant is not an active member. The number of participants was, if I am not mistaken, about 40 or so. In other words, the total take was about the same, and that is not counting the youth competition that did not exist in 1999.

I think it would be perfectly proper to limit the participants to a more manageable number, one which will give the jury a fair chance to listen carefully to each one, and give the competitor a fair chance to be heard and not be thrown out because of the jury’s fatigue. 35-40 sounds like a good number to listen to over a two-day period. You can actually go a little higher than that, assuming a certain percentage of no-shows. Limiting the number may prevent some genius wunderkind from attending. S/he heard about it too late, could not raise the money for travel in time, could not get the proper visas in time, got sick at the wrong time etc. But that’s tough. It’s show business. One who got refused entry for missing a deadline or because all slots were taken, would better pay attention next time. There is always a next time. Right?

The jury must include competent musicians who do NOT play the guitar. Violinists, pianists, conductors, musicologists, composers. They can provide an input that has nothing to do with technique, sitting position, RH position and other inconsequential trivialities, but strictly with musical performance and expression.

It has always troubled me when juries include active performers who are in the same age group, or even considerably younger, than the competitors. That is just as anachronistic as master- (or mistress-) classes given by juveniles who are just beginning to sprout facial hair and whose puberty was a quite recent event. One would like to assume that a panel of accomplished musicians who worked very hard, take their responsibilities very seriously. It is hard to judge from a distance how seriously these individuals took their responsibilities. But the format itself, a small number of judges, the majority of whom are active performers in about the same age group as the competitors, precludes the possibility of a fair and unbiased judgment. Having sat in guitar competition juries since 1986, I am convinced that often enough, consciously or otherwise, active performers do not make their judgments on the basis of the performance at hand, but on their estimation of the winner’s ability to encroach on their own budding careers.

I also believe that under no circumstance there should be in the jury anyone whose student is a competitor. In Tychy, they had a rule that such people will simply not vote for their own students. Last time though, I observed a couple of these voting with ridiculously low grades to those who posed an obvious challenge to their student.

The entire proceedings must be open to the public, including the first stage. I cannot understand what’s so special about the first stage that it must be done behind closed doors. Someone said recently that the first round is closed to the public because that’s the way it has always been done. If that is so, I think inertia is a poor excuse to continue the practice.

No other activity should be allowed in the festival while the competition is going on. No master-classes, no noon-time concerts, nada. Listening to young people doing their best to impress a group of musicians, is a valuable learning experience which can never be duplicated in a master-class situation. Of course, some of the competitors, if they chose to attend the auditions of their peers, might be frightened by the experience. Others, on the other hand, might be encouraged by it. Other participants, those who do not compete, teachers, students, amateurs, professionals, can only benefit from having this direct contact with the guitar experience in its multi-faceted countenance, the sublime and the mediocre at once. If the competition is promoted as the main event, then it should be the main event and not interfered with.

The Unpublished Set Piece

The idea of assigning an unpublished composition which recently won a prize in another GFA competition for composition, as a test piece for performers, however nobly motivated, has not been thought through in my view. It would be better if it was done away with as part of the performance competition.

If the GFA wants to encourage composers and give prizes for compositional excellence, that’s a fine and noble thought which I support, if the winning piece was something we can be proud of. But so far, few of these set pieces were good music. They would have survived better if they were. I can’t think of any that became part of the standard repertoire. Do instruct me otherwise if I overlooked some obscure masterpiece with this indictment. Sometimes I wonder if the people who serve on that jury, the set piece competition jury, are functionally deaf. Never mind that very rarely do we get any information on who these people are and what it was they had to choose from, and how they went about choosing it.

That was the situation in 1999. Since then, it so appears, the set piece is not chosen by a competition and a jury, but by some arbitrary process which is entirely hidden from the public. No one is told who chooses the set piece and what are the criteria used. There are, though, some indications of how this might be done, and they do not inspire me to believe that the choice is made by any independent and impartial process. As it looks to me from the outside, and I would be much relieved to learn that my paranoia is unfounded, the choice of the set piece is determined by pecuniary considerations, and not by any artistic evaluation. At least in this year’s competition, it looks like a certain Canadian publisher, one who is supported financially by the Quebec Government for the purpose of promoting Quebecois composers, donates a large some of money to the GFA, how large exactly I do not know, with the result that the set piece chosen was composed by a Quebec composer and published, or planned to be published, but his publisher. That, as far as I can tell, had happened more than once. Other set pieces in the recent, may have been chosen by other means, pecuniary or otherwise, but nevertheless, the process of choosing was completely obscured from the general public in general, and from the GFA membership in particular. That is not right.

The entire effort would have some meaning if the GFA also undertook to publish these works, either directly or in cooperation with an established publisher. ( Mel Bay had done a small book of some ”set pieces,” but it was highly selective and did not present the best there was.) For example, the set piece in the Tempe event in 1987 was one by Douglas Hein, as you surely recall. If I got my ducks in line, this was the first GFA competition to employ an unpublished set piece. The composer never got any money, he wasn’t even invited to attend the event, and the piece, and he himself was soon forgotten. What’s the use of that?

On the other hand, the Douglas Hein Fantasia which I published in 1983, and which is still in print, an excellent composition which I published because I thought it was good music and because I was encouraged to do so by several GFA personalities from Southern California who knew the composer and his work, was a total publishing failure. I think I must have sold a grand total of 50-60 copies in the last 23 years and I have never heard anyone performing it, especially not any of the people who encouraged me to publish it. Now, if the published Fantasia was chosen as the set piece in Tempe, Doug Hein’s fortunes as a composer would have been in a much better shape today. He probably would not have made more money from increased sales of the piece than he got as a prize, but I, and other publishers as well, would be encouraged to publish more of his music. As it stands now, few are those who even heard of him.

The mere fact that a given unpublished composition was selected as the set piece for the GFA competition, is one deadly strike against it. No right thinking publisher would invest money in bringing out in print a composition which already circulates in freebie copies around the world.(Except, of course, in the case of our Canadian friend, where the publication of the set piece is financed by a Quebec government grant, and thus, it makes no difference if anyone bought another single copy of the piece or ever performed it again.) Back I 1992, I agreed to publish the GFA set piece, the Danserie No. 3 by John W. Duarte. I even prepared the engraving of the piece myself, and that was what was given to the competitors. It then occurred to me that the only people who might be interested in playing this piece, those who entered the competition, already have it for free. Spending more money on printing the piece and trying to sell it commercially would not be such a good move. The piece was eventually published by Lemoine and it is selling in the US for $22.00 for five pages of music. I do not recall ever hearing anyone playing it in concert after 1992.

Should the GFA truly wish to promote new music, it should either publish the set piece as a supplement to Soundboard, in a form that could enter regular commercial distribution channels after the event, or actively seek the cooperation of an established publisher in bringing the piece outbefore it is distributed for free. Competitors may be required to purchase the piece, or its cost could be included in the registration fee. That would be a more effective support of new music and the composers who write it. Giving the stuff away in Xerox copies of an unpublished manuscript is not.

Either way, I fail to see why this effort to promote new music should be affiliated in any way with the performance competition. Bananas and apples, that’s what! First of all, some poorly written pieces of music were foisted on the kids as set pieces. One cannot possibly encourage people to play well when they are presented with a strange piece that they need to learn in a hurry. If the logic is that the set piece provides a level playing field for all competitors, so do the myriad other pieces already in print. One person may have learned Choice No. 1 published by Joe Tsutskin in Lower Paphlagonia already ten years ago, while another who had never heard of it before, will have just as much time as when the competition was announced. There is no possible way to know which one of the two will present a more convincing account to the jury. For all we know, the fellow who knew the piece for ten years is a bumbling fool who should not have entered the competition, and the kid who just found it is a genius who could memorize the piece in an hour.

The level playing field theory is a fallacy that is maintained by inertia and serves no useful purpose. Some people get the set piece instantly when it becomes available. Also, the piece is mailed out to registrants at different times, depending on when they registered. And no one has control on how fast the mail is delivered anywhere.

We try to promote new music and we do so in the most inefficient way possible and actively do it against the best interests of the composer and against ourselves, and then we take this abortive product and use it as an obstacle course for the competitors. Serious contenders to a career as performers, should not be forced to participate in promoting a piece of music they may have no interest in.

If, on the other hand, all the test pieces for the competition were chosen from the available printed repertoire, as it is done in most reputable competitions world wide, the entire guitar music industry, composers, publishers, guitar shops and mail order houses, would be directly supported. Competitors would have the choice to take part or not, if the chosen pieces are not to their liking, beyond their capabilities and entirely out of whack. No one would be presented with a last-minute double-whammy surprise, and the level of the competition could only get better.

And here is another gripe, which is very much relevant to the skewed results of the 2010 competition. Competitors are asked to play a certain number of “free” choices in the various rounds. The GFA rules states:

All competitors will be asked to proof the printed documents with their free choices for all rounds at the Competitors’ Orientation Meeting. Any changes to your submitted program may be made at this meeting, after which programs may not be altered.

What is not specified is which edition of any particular free choice should be used. That is a factor that seems to have played a role in the final results in this year’s competition. Let’s assume that a competitor had chosen to play the Rodrigo Invocation et Danse. At the present time there are two editions of this currently in print and in general circulation, not to mention the original 1962 edition of the work edited by Graciano Tarragó and still available in some circles, though it is officially out of print. All three editions are drastically different in many important aspects. It would be far fetched and completely unwarranted to expect jury members, particularly those who belong to the bimbo persuasion, to be fully aware of the differences between these editions, and to know exactly which version is being played by the competitor. Hence, when the competitor plays a version that a jury member is not familiar with, the natural reaction would be to accuse the competitor of playing wrong notes, making mistakes etc. It gets even worse when the competitor had chosen a piece like the Barrios’ Una Limosna por el Amor de Dios, of which there are 5-6 different editions currently in print.

The solution here is so simple, it baffles me why it has never occurred to the powers to be at the GFA. There are free pieces, but they are to be chosen by the competitors from a carefully compiled curriculum in which every piece, original or arrangement, will be specified exactly, with a full bibliographical citation of the particular edition to be used. The curriculum can be at any size. 50 pieces, a 100 pieces, it matters not. What matters is that the jury members know exactly what it is the competitor is playing.

One more thing before I go. Music competitions are a respected and hallow business all over the world. There are many of them, and there are several International organizations which promote this business. The most important among them is the World Federation of International Music Competitions.  It appears from the data base of this web site that the WFIMC does not know about the GFA. Other international guitar competitions, the Pittaluga for example, have been member so this organization and greatly benefitted from the additional promotion and net-working they provide. I do not know it for a fact, but such organizations usually require their members to adhere to some internationally recognized standards. If the GFA does not qualify for membership at this time, I am sure they can learn a great deal from interacting with this organization.

There you have it. One disgruntled member point of view. I am probably one of the few people who can afford to speak out loudly, without risking retribution from those on whose toes I stepped. There are many I know who are just as upset as I am, but are not in position to say so openly: the teacher whose favorite student was unfairly thrown out of the running in the competition, the serious contender who came all the way from a distant land only to be discarded by a jury so overwhelmed with fatigue they could not possibly give him a fair hearing, the jury member who was forced to sit through an interminable procession of contenders for no compensation at all, the composer whose piece was selected as the best new music could offer, only to be forgotten instantly after the event, and finally: the member of the rank and file who took the trouble to come to the event, at considerable personal expense of time and money, only to be confronted with far less than an exemplary artistic program.

No. No one asked me to be their spokesman. This is the expression of my own personal frustration, my own personal fears that this extraordinary experiment to elevate the guitar and make it a vital part of the human experience, The Guitar Foundation of America annual Competition, is a moribund victim of inertia and greed.

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1 I have not yet encountered a young woman in the ranks of these competition winners professionals, but I would not be much surprised if one showed up soon!


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