The Competition Life: Dale Kavanagh, Celil Refik Kaya, Sabrina Vlaskalic, and Stefan Schmidt talk about Competition Pros and Cons

competition life accepting the challenge Dale Kavanagh, Celil Refik Kaya, Sabrina Vlaskalic, and Stefan Schmidt

Few people reading this magazine will be surprised to learn that one of the driving forces behind the first international solo classical guitar competitions in Europe—birthplace of the musical genre—was Andrés Segovia, during the mid-1950s. So, put that on the list of the Maestro’s innumerable achievements, which also include his much-copied technique, the development of the instrument’s modern repertoire, and the very notion that a classical guitarist could have a successful performing and recording career. What might surprise you, however, is that first major guitar competition was held in Tokyo, of all places, in 1949, and then irregularly until 1957, when it became a reliable annual event. Since 1982 it has been known as the Tokyo International Guitar Competition; still a prestigious affair, and more truly “international” than it was 70 years ago.

During the 1960s and ’70s, more contests were created, some of them explicitly endorsed by Segovia, such as the “Francisco Tárrega” in Benicàssim, Spain, and what is today known as the “Michele Pittaluga” competition in Alessandria, Italy. France had its Concours International de Guitare beginning in 1959, and starting in the early ’70s, Rome hosted the “Fernando Sor” contest (and in the mid-’70s the city of Gargnano, Italy, joined the competition club).

Even with the success of those events, however, the virtual explosion of guitar competitions since that era would have been difficult to predict. The Guitar Foundation of America started its International Concert Artist Competition (ICAC) in 1982, and in the decades since, competitions big and small have proliferated everywhere, it seems, with hundreds of events all over the world—truly, in just about any country you’d care to mention. Guitar powerhouses such as Italy, Spain, France, Germany, the UK, and the United States all hold multiple events every year, as you might expect. But it’s been the proliferation of classical guitar competitions in locales such as Singapore, China, Mexico, Russia, and the former Soviet-bloc countries of Eastern Europe, that has signaled the global reach and influence of the instrument. Today, there are more competitions—and guitarists playing in them—than ever before.

For so many young guitarists around the world, competitions are seen as an important training and proving ground for a professional career—a place where musicians can test their mettle in a high-pressure environment, gain exposure to new audiences and to professionals who judge and/or attend the competitions, meet some of their peers, and, in many cases, see the world in the process. Does performing well in competitions guarantee a successful concert career? Absolutely not. But it undoubtedly helps, especially in this era in which the news of who won which competition becomes “news” on social media. Of course, the great majority of players won’t make their living primarily from concerts; today, as it has been for decades, teaching is still the best route to actually making a living as a classical guitarist—and it’s hard to say how competition success might influence that pursuit, besides perhaps giving a player a recognizable “name” in the guitar community, and whatever self-confidence might follow.

Recently, we contacted a handful of professional guitarists and asked them about some of the pros and cons of “The Competition Life.” Admittedly, this is a very small sample, but they make a number of interesting points about what has become a huge part of the classical guitar world. In email interviews, we heard from Turkish guitarist/composer Celil Refik Kaya; Sabrina Vlaskalic, a Serbian currently living and teaching in the Netherlands; Canadian Dale Kavanagh, half of the Amadeus Guitar Duo (with husband Thomas Kirchhoff), and cofounder of the Iserlohn festival/competition in Germany; and German Stefan Schmidt, one of the most successful teachers of young guitarists in Europe, having tutored such extraordinary young players as Jessica Kaiser, Jakob Schmidt, Amanda Jones, Nadja Jankovic, Isabella Selder, and Leonora Spangenberger, to name just a few. All had some experience in competitions, some more than others.

Vlaskalic’s first was in Belgrade: “My nine-year-old self was convinced that I was to win this competition with my very fine performance of Giuliani’s Agitato Op. 51, No. 3. However, it turned out that the competition results were quite agitating to me instead: When the lady from the competition called to inform me that I was awarded only a special prize for the youngest participant and that the 1st prize went to some Academy student, I decided to hang up the phone. My parents were not happy with my attitude, and to my displeasure I had to go to accept the award anyway.”

Kaya’s first was at age 12 at Forum Gitarre Wien (Vienna) “where I got 2nd prize in competition with 20-year-old players.”

Kavanagh notes, “As a child, I did youth competitions in Canada, however, not for guitar, but for piano and clarinet. I had lessons on both of those instruments for ten years each and did the usual local competitions that everyone does. I started very late with guitar competitions. In fact, I only did six in my life and they were all international competitions during and right after my studies in Basel, Switzerland. I was lucky because I won 2nd prize in my very first competition, which was in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, and was successful in all of the others ones also except for one in Chile.

“I had a great time and enjoyed it immensely. I liked the pressure and the friends I met. I looked at it as a test of my own strengths and also as a game. The game ended because I started getting concerts and had no more time to do competitions, but I would have loved to continue!”

Schmidt, who has been teaching since he was 15 and has groomed so many young players, says he only took part in two competitions as part of a duo, “both without much success.” Asked if he is usually able to discern whether a young guitarist who comes to study with him has what it takes to succeed in competitions and/or the concert stage, he replies, “In most cases I am able to tell. However, a precise prediction is impossible because competitive success depends on so many different variables. A good competitive guitar player needs to be extremely self-confident, mustn’t get easily frustrated, and should feel joy in competing with others in a fair and amicable way.”


The pressure, of course, in unavoidable, and hits the players from many fronts. These days it usually involves quickly learning one or more new required pieces for each competition, and the trend has been toward more abstract modern works—sometimes written expressly for the competition—which do not automatically play into the strengths of guitarists raised on more conventionally structured classics. That is on top of delivering on command the player’s own chosen repertoire with precision and personality in each round, conscious that every mistake has the potential to doom his or her chances of taking home a prize or any sort. And all that does not take into account the stress of traveling and, usually, financing trips to competitions.

“The downside of the competitions is that they are emotionally draining and can lead to a loss in self-esteem,” Kaya says. “Competing in the music world requires that you have a peaceful mindset, nerves of steel, and the capacity to control your emotions, so as not to be upset about the things we cannot control. Because we are human and have emotions, it is easy to fall into the dark side of these feelings, but it is important to have the ability to control them and rise above them. My own approach is to be myself and not try to impress anyone, but to share the joy of what I do with the audience—even if it is a competition.”

Vlaskalic recalls being incredibly scared when competing as a youth: “I was terrified to hear those loud guitars howl down the hallways, and fast scales piercing my ears through the doors of hotel rooms. Nevertheless, the scariest of all was the applause of the audience after my fellow competitors played. This was often paralyzing, and I would wonder if my performance would withstand the judgement of the same audience that just a moment ago, according to my perception of the applause, very much enjoyed the performance of a colleague competitor. Therefore, I did everything possible in order to avoid hearing that applause.”

She also cautions, “I don’t believe that winning competitions necessarily results in a stable, long-term concert career on its own, and I think that all young competitors should be aware of this seemingly innocent trap.”

According to Schmidt, “Many competitive guitarists only have a limited repertoire, because they tend to repeat and recycle the pieces that brought them success. Many of them also have the habit of placing too much focus on technical prowess, while taking no musical risks whatsoever. Guitarists who are successful at competitions aren’t always the performers that are musically the most gifted. An additional negative is that a lack of success can quickly lead to great frustration and high pressure.”

Kavanagh has a sunnier view: “I see no downsides of a competition. One has to look at it with a healthy perspective. It is simply a moment in time, where we challenge ourselves. If successful, great. If not, learn from the experience and go try again. There will always be subjective opinions about different types of playing. Learn from the experience, take advice, and then decide if you use it or not.”

What are the most positive aspects of “The Competition Life”? For Kavanagh, it’s “the challenge of testing your own strength, preparation, and endurance skills, all of which are important for realistic visualization of a real concert career. At competitions, I also made friendships and connections with people that have been important throughout my entire career.”

Kaya agrees. “For me, it’s the friendships that I’ve gained, regardless of the results. On top of that, being known to new judges and the possibility of opening the gates for more opportunities. Also, competitions encouraged me to practice more and master more challenging works. ‘Competition pieces’ added a different perspective to my musical personality.”

Vlaskalic, too, crows about “friendships all over the world! Long-term friendships that do not seem to be dying out, regardless of distances and years that have passed.”

Finally, we asked for advice for guitarists who are just starting out their competition careers.

Kaya offers, “My one important word of advice would be that the results of the competitions should not be taken personally. However, after each competition, asking the judges for feedback can be helpful to avoid future mistakes; for example, poor repertoire choice. If repertoire is a free choice, it should be chosen according to the musical taste of the country, as well as that of the judges [if you know about their taste]. Lastly, I’d like to say, successful people are successful because they never give up what they do.”

Vlaskalic adds, “I’ve been judging competitions for the last ten years and I find the approach of many competitors, regardless of their background, to be rather similar: Their repertoire selections and interpretations seem quite standard. Back in the day, my competition trick was to perform lesser-known repertoire that included works of such composers as François de Fossa, Joan Manén, Miroslav Tadic or even Rodrigo— his monumental three-movement Elogio de la Guitarra is an incredible work  and quite a challenge to play. However, when I did perform standard repertoire I found it very important to explore innovative interpretative solutions. I can’t say that all of them succeeded, but they definitely did shape me into being the musician that I am today. 

“Be yourself, be smart, be genuine, and know that there will always be a place for you!”

Kavanagh closes with some practical tips: “Make sure that your pieces are at the highest level that you can attain at the time. Make sure that you are well-tuned before going on stage. Stage presence is important! Don’t throw your tuner on the floor; maybe you shouldn’t even take your tuner on stage? (That’s my subjective opinion.) Tune quietly. 

“Say hello to the jury at the beginning, but then go into your world and forget them. Try and imagine a concert and not a competition. We want to hear the music and the competitor showing their love and joy of a piece—not only fast scales and a perfect machine. The machine must work in order to express the music, but in the end it is all about the music.”