How to win music competitions even if you lose: Tips from Paul Lewis of the Leeds Piano Competition

By Stephen Raskauskas |

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Pianist Paul Lewis (Photo: Molina Visuals)

“It’s quite fun to say this, but I actually hate competitions. I really can’t stand them,” Paul Lewis said as he took a break from practicing at Symphony Center in Chicago before a recent piano recital there. His strong dislike of competitions may seem dissonant with his current role as co-artistic director of the Leeds International Piano Competition, one of the most prestigious anticipated events of its kind.

“I guess the reason why we have so many reality TV competitions these days is that people like competitions. It’s brutal, but people like winners and losers,” he said seated at the piano bench. But when it comes to competitions, televised or not, Lewis reiterated, “I hate them. My kids watch the Great British Bake Off,” syndicated as the Great British Baking Show in the U.S. “They love that. For me, it’s all that stuff when they announce who goes through and who doesn’t go through, and the suspense, and the silence, and all that. I just can’t deal with that. I can’t deal with it at all,” he said emphatically.

Lewis said that he has participated in few competitions as a contestant. “In fact the last competition I did I was 21. I did maybe 5 competitions in all up to that age. I just decided to draw the line there. It wasn’t for me. I don’t enjoy it. It just felt like getting into a boxing ring,” he said. “If things ‘happen,'” for a musician, he said, “they all happen independently of competitions. They can be a help, but I just decided it wasn’t for me.”

Fast forward to “twenty-some-odd years later, when I was asked to get involved with the Leeds competition, my initial reaction was: ‘No, of course I don’t want to!’ Then, I thought: ‘Well, to take on a competition of that level, with that kind of name, and try to turn it into something for the 21st century? That could offer a rewarding experience for all who participate, somehow.'”

Lewis accepted the position to lead the Leeds competition as co-artistic director, a title he shares with conductor and BBC 3’s editor of live music Adam Gatehouse, as “quite an interesting challenge. Competitions are still around, they’re still there, they’re big news, they’re not irrelevant, and if it’s an evil that we must live with in the music world, why not try to make it less of an evil? If I’m completely honest,” he confessed, “yes, I’m still slightly conflicted about it, but that’s fine. I want to try and make the best of this that I can.”

Lewis has helped to usher in significant changes to the Leeds competition so that even those who don’t come away with top prizes don’t leave as losers. Instead of holding the competition during a single, three-week period, Leeds will now consist of multiple rounds, the first of which will take place in three different cities – Berlin, New York, and Singapore – six months before the second round. He hopes that by breaking up the competition, it will be less grueling for contestants and jurors alike. “When you’ve got 79 pianists, how on earth can you remember what you’ve heard? You take notes and all that, but fatigue is inevitable,” he admitted.

The Leeds competition, held every four years, has also changed the requirements for repertoire contestants are expected to prepare. Now, contestants will need to play chamber in addition to solo works. They will also be asked to play something “relatively new,” which Lewis defines as a work that “goes back as far as Boulez and up to the present day of living composers.” Contestants will also need to prepare an alternative recital program and write 500 words explaining their programming choices. “To have as many different ways as possible to convey the message of the music has never been more important than it is today,” he said.

Lewis also wants to foster mentorships between jurors and contestants, removing the physical distance between those behind the judging table and those onstage being judged. He hopes that likewise, contestants will be able to find a collegiality through their shared experiences, and perhaps even meet potential collaborators.

Another significant change Lewis wants to make to the Leeds competition is “to take the politics out of it as much as possible. I do remember that feeling, when I was 20, when you turn up to a competition and seeing all these piano teachers on juries and then realize that their students were competing. Of course, I’m not suggesting that everyone is corrupt or anything like that,” he conceded. “But our jury is performer led: half are pianists and we’re having a violinist, a composer, and other people from the music industry, but I wanted to take out that aspect of the jury.”

“People can still have their winners,” Lewis said. “That’s what they want to see. For someone who follows competitions, it’s all about the competition. But for the people who are taking part, it’s got to be a lot more than that.”

Lewis shared some tips that could be helpful to any musician.


“Don’t expect anything, do it for the experience”

A lot of people 20 years ago were saying, “You just do it for the experience.” And I think that’s true, that really is what it’s about. The problem is when the competition isn’t an experience that you can learn from and develop through, or it’s just a horrendous experience that you come away from psychologically bruised, for whatever reason, then it’s just damaging and no use at all. Don’t expect anything, do it for the experience. But still see how you can grow and develop in some ways.

“Don’t worry about nerves”

It doesn’t matter if I get to my 80s and I’m still performing, I’m never going to walk out on stage and not feel nervous, or not feel something. It’s a question of, through your long experience, how you manage those nerves and turn them into something positive.

So I say, just don’t worry about nerves. Accept them as a natural part of the process. In some ways, they are an essential part of the process, since they enable you to go out there and deliver something special. It’s reassuring and helpful to know that we all deal with anxieties and insecurities.

“Play what you believe in… be honest and genuine”

You just have to play what you believe in. This stands for a musician at any stage of their career. You play what convinces you because if you don’t, then you have no chance of convincing anyone else. If you really love the Appassionata Sonata or the Moonlight Sonata or something that we’ve heard God knows how many times, then inevitably that will come through.

It’s not necessarily about having something original to say; you don’t have to go out of your way to find something original to say about standard repertoire. If you genuinely love it, they’ll be some of you in there, just because you love it.

I think people who seek to put an individual stamp on something sometimes get in the way of the thing itself and have missed the point. The point is for people to be honest and genuine about what they do.