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Another fiddled violin contest

Sunao Goko, a Japanese violinist, has won the newly-established Tibor Varga Competition in Switzerland. Congratulations.

sunao goko


Goko is a student of Pavel Vernikov at the Vienna Conservatoire.

Vernikov was one of the judges of the Varga competition.

In what way was this a fair and transparent contest? When will the violin world finally come clean?


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  1. I know it’s difficult to see how that teacher could be completely objective, but if you’re going to have teachers on the judges list then there are bound to be some of their students who would wish to enter. Would you bar them from entering because their teacher is on the panel? That seems unfair. Or would you ban any teacher who has pupils eligible to enter from being a judge?

    • Teachers should not judge contests in which their pupils are competing.

      • Many competitios have a rule that if there student is competing that their marks are left out of the averaged scores. I am not sure about this one but is often the case. Doesn’t mean he cant influence the other judge.

    • It seems very simple to me. If a teacher has a pupil competing in the competition, he/she should declare an interest and retire from the panel while that ‘contestant’ (gosh, this is MUSIC we’re talking about!) is performing and should have no input in to the decision for that person.

    • I don’t think it seems unfair that people whose mentors/teachers are on a judging panel should be barred from entering a competition. The less stringent approach, which I have seen, but still think can be somewhat unfair, is that that member of the jury who’s student is performing gets asked to leave the hall for the performance, and, more importantly, for the deliberations about that particular student.

  2. Norman, Hi! I totally agree with you! Teachers shouldn´t judge their pupil-BUT- this guy was amazing!!! He really was, i was there, accompanying his final. he plays one of the most impressive strads. His Beethoven concerto was very mature for his age. I think first Prize was a fair decision!

    • Agreed! Not fair to raise this debate, Norman and associate your collective thought with a singled out competitor. Sunao Goko is a very talented and worthy young soloist. Also a former 1st prize winner at the Menuhin Competition.

      • Zsolt Bognar says:

        On the other hand, for better or for worse, since competitions are not about audience opinion or consensus, the jury’s process should always be ready for the closest scrutiny and transparency, regardless of the talent and evidently eminent qualifications of the chosen winner. This would then continue to hold true if the prior competition-win credentials included similar jury processes. I am always happy when apparently a great talent receives well-deserved–but imagine the many other competitors who were never in a position to win but devoted hundreds and hundreds of hours of preparation with the assumption that competitions are a fair playing field. I have been surprised by the number of times I witnessed when jurors of major international competitions have privately confided that if competitors realized how things are decided, few would decide to enter. Competitions are indeed a big business, with career jurors often similar from one to the next. I once heard one say something to the effect of “sometimes it comes down to ‘which teacher’s student’s turn is it now to win.’ ” Some years ago, there was a petition to a federation of international competitions to adopt open scoring–I wonder what ever became of it?

  3. In many competitions if a juror has a connection to a participant they must abstain from voting for that competitor. I don’t know about this competition but usually jurors are notified in advance of the rules and must declare if they are somehow linked to a competitor.

  4. Jaakko Kuusisto says:

    Norman, you are being unfair especially towards this young winner. You are suggesting that he didn’t necessarily deserve to win. That’s not helpful to anyone. Also, if you are going to ban judges who have students in a competition, then you will have to expect either not to have first-rate teachers in juries anymore (not good), or alternatively no students of first-rate teachers competing (even worse).

    • I’m not unfair to this winner. I’m saying the whole system needs to be cleaned up.

      • sorry Norman, that’s not a reply to the very fair points made in Jaakko’s post. Having a student of a juror win a competition always looks fishy, but we can in no way be sure that anything unfair went on until we know more about the competition in question and how the voting system worked. As Jaakko pointed out, jurors are normally prohibited from voting for their own students anyway (other competitions, for example, with a yes/no system, may include a teachers “yes” to his own student in cases where a majority of the other judges agree. I have been in competitions where this was the case)

  5. Jaakko Kuusisto says:

    And by the way, in virtually ALL competitions, jurors are prohibited from participating in the judging of their own students anyway.

    • Zsolt Bognár says:

      Unfortunately, I have witnessed cases in which the mere presence of certain individuals behind the scenes of competitions could still have tremendous influence on the jury. For example, I saw this with several past Cliburn Competitions. There was a teacher showing considerable presence backstage; this prominent teacher’s presence reminded the jury (of which said teacher was not a part) of each member’s relationship to this teacher. If somebody outside a jury can have clear influence on his or her friends in the jury, imagine the power that a non-voting juror can still have in a round.

  6. John Sparks says:

    ‘He plays one of the most impressive strads’?? What the hell does that mean? Are you implying that the violin is a decider ? If that’s the case shouldn’t we ask all contestants to use the same instrument ? Strads are just another corrupt bankers currency anyway. Why encourage it?

  7. If you want to assemble a truly world-class jury, it’s inevitable some student/teacher conflicts may occur. One can only hope the internet and web streaming will bring about greater transparency.

  8. Norman, if you take out teacher of contestant from the jury, what would you do with his/her friends (also members of jury)?? Why do you realize that system must be cleaned up only now? Why not after last Queen Elizabeth competition, where the same thing happened? I am sure that Sunao Goko can play the violin very good. But question is, would he win if Pavel Vernikov is not in the jury?

  9. Beat Blatter says:

    Nothing surprise me in Switzerland [redacted]:legal. Like in France, Switzerland (especially in the French speaking part) is a country operated in the “copinage” mentality: friends helping friends, Free Masons helping Free Masons endlessly.

    In the first place Pavel Vernikov wouldn’t have gotten his violin professorship in Sion had it not be his “friend” Gyula Stuller who kept pushing him to get that post. Once occupying the job Pavel Vernikov became very despotic. What happened in the recent Sion International Violin Competition was a clear example of a teacher power play: several very talented candidates being eliminated in the earlier rounds thus leaving Sunao Goko to appear as the best violinist in the final round. Let’s not forget that the 2nd prize winner Liya Petrova is a student of Augustin Dumay who was also sitting in the jury of this competition!

    Unfortunately similar case also happened in the last Joachim Hannover Violin Competition thinking about its President……..

    • Gyula Stuller axis of power goes hand in hand with his friendship with Pierre Wavre, former Director of HEMU Lausanne, all typical Swiss schauspiel

  10. bratschegirl says:

    Perhaps Mr Lebrecht would be willing to specify what he means by “cleaning up the whole system,” since he is not satisfied with what appears to be the current standard of having jurors declare any ties to competitors and abstain from voting for them.

  11. Hallo from the Johannes Brahms International Competition in Pörtschach, Austria, where the great man wrote his violin concerto. We have 500 candidates from 47 countries in violin, cello, lied, piano, chamber music, and our jurors do not vote when their students perform, not even if they only attended a master class. No discussion among jurors, and the points given by each juror for technique and artistic value are held up in ice skating competition style immediately after each performance for candidates and audience to see. A fine and fair system – and has the added benefit that there is no chance of jurors falling asleep!

  12. There is no good solution. The best teachers are tapped to be judges. If their students are disqualified because of that relationship, who would go study with them? What is the solution? Only retired teachers? Behind a screen like orchestral auditions? Judge recuses themselves from present or past students? Have distinguished conductors be the judges? Don’t know.

    • I beg to disagree. Not all judges are the best teachers. Actually, many are not at all; ‘career judges’ is what I would call them. They get into the competitions so that they can promote their names going from bigger to really BIG. Then, of course, some are. And those are known – with rare exceptions – to pull for their own students mercilessly; if not by direct voting, then by persuasive talking to the fellow jurors, or even just by the “backstage presence” as Zsolt Bognár put it. For instance, it is a known fact that Russian David Oistrakh was a shark in this sense: his students always won all competitions in which he sat as a juror. One can try to argue that his students were all awesome, but that is not the truth. They were good, no doubt, but other – perhaps, more musical, more personal – players would never get the coveted First prize, while the Oistrakh student would, regardless of his/her real merit. It was the respect for the “maitre” – along with the maitre’s political prowess. (Similar things were done by countless others.)
      Have you noticed that in the major international competitions the judges are chosen from a pool of, say, 100 names? Do anyone really think that there are only 100 (or even 500) BEST teachers??? There are at least 100,000 teachers of that same caliber in our world of billions. Huge pool to avoid teacher-student tandem.

  13. There IS a solution. Open scoring. There.

    • Boris, Mary – why do you think open scoring is a solution? If you are to argue that the outcome is a forgone conclusion because of some behind-the-scenes power struggles or favoured relationships, there’s nothing to stop the scoring being made that way whether it’s open or closed. Juries frequently choose people the audience don’t, even in the very fairest and cleanest competitions, so you can’t say that the audience can really scrutinise open scoring, nor will the audience or public know of any jury-competitor relationships (direct, or via friends-of-teachers or similar). It just isn’t that easy.

  14. I agree with Boris-Open Scoring! That may prevent the jurors from cheating so very blatantly.

    Jaakko K.-WAKE UP!! Almost ALL violin competitions allow the teacher of the contestant to vote for him or her. It is the rule rather than the exception. For example, the most recent competition in Germany (Schöntal) last week even allowed the mother (a jury member) of the contestant to vote for her son! It is therefore not surprising that most of the laureates of the competition this time were made up of the son and students of the Russian and Chinese judges (the dominant ones) on the panel. But even if the teacher cannot vote for his student, the panel still feels the pressure as they usually feel close to or are afraid of their colleague (especially if they are in the same “circle”). Another example of this disturbing trend is the Wieniawski Competition in Lublin where the top laureates are almost always students of the very same Russian, Japanese, or Polish judges on the panel. These “leaders” of the jurors have already pretty much decided the outcomes and use the rest of the panel as “puppets” to put on the show.

    There are always a couple of REAL talented violinists in most of the competitions, but they are often eliminated by the final round unless they have very good timing as well (none of the jury members have a relative or student for that particular year).

    Thank you so much for bringing up this issue Norman! So many people are unaware of the corruption and unethical behavior which exists at these competitions. The young competitors are often so innocent and in the dark. If more people knew about the current judging system, they would soon realize that competition results are just simply outcomes of one panel’s game at one point in time. One should only judge or rate a musician with one’s own ears, head and heart!

    • Jaakko Kuusisto says:

      I am in no need to wake up on this, and one small competition in Schöntal is not exactly sufficient proof. I do know what I’m talking about.

  15. These matters, on relations between student and teacher in situations regarding competitions (as well as auditions, job openings, whatnot), are they solveable? Norman has suggested “cleaning up the whole system” – not exactly a substantial response to the otherwise interesting discussion that has started to take place here. HOW are we to clean things up? WHAT ought to be done? Norman gives no answers so far.

    I’ll relate with a few stories. A concert-master in the orchestra not awfully far from where I live is also a sought-after teacher in the music academy of the town, which is almost next door to the orchestra. In his role as a sought-after teacher, he naturally has had the “best” violin class of that town, and has also noticed students who clearly are more interested in taking the path of becoming orchestra players, rather than freelancers/soloists/etc. In other words, he knows who to call when a substitute is needed…except that he stopped suggesting his students as possibilities to the orchestra a few years ago, as it turned out that people in the violin section talked behind his back on the apparent “inappropriateness” of such behaviour. In the name of “fairness”, he stepped down and doesn’t take part in these dealings anymore.

    Here’s another story. In a large-scale international competition recently in the town where I live, a teacher on the jury acknowledged having taught two of the competitors, and abstained from voting on them. In one case, however, he had only taught the student in question half-regularly for a 6-10-month period (roughly) SIX YEARS prior to the competition. Meanwhile, another teacher on the jury most likely did not mention in any way that she had given private tuition (and masterclasses, etc) to one competitor. All three mentioned competitors reached the finals, after which Teacher nr 1 left the room when judges discussed his own ex students performances. To my knowledge, the second teacher did not, even though word got out that she had taught one finalist, was mentioned in the press etc. Her student, who had done a mostly stable but in-the-middle-of-the-road impression, won 2nd prize. The other two finalists remained without a prize, though Teacher nr 1 said he might have given one of them first prize (the one who only studied with him half a year 6 years ago). The two candidates with a so-called “fair” juror as ex-teacher made FAR MORE artistically valuable statements, included improvisations/own pieces respectively (the competition had an option to either improvise, play your own piece, or one of the two commissioned works) and were light-years ahead in terms of collaborating with conductor and chamber music partners. Fair?

    Here’s yet another story. In a recent piano competition, one of the biggest in the world, a teacher/juror found out the results of the preliminary video selection, and that his own student was not selected. Scandalously, he said he would not participate as a juror if his student was not in the competition. A few weeks later, a selected group of previously dismissed candidates (which curiously includes one of the un-named pianists above, too!) got a second letter where it was explained that they could take part in the competition. The student of the juror in question was admitted in the end, in other words, and ended up winning the whole thing, to the surprise of quite many. I’m afraid of mentioning names here, but the competition in question is among the top 5 in the world and can be followed online.

    If we are talking Vernikov, I happen to have met him in courses, know some students of his, and I have also studied for several years with a pianist who is a “part of the same maffia”, so to speak – and outstanding pianist, pedagogue, has had students win large-scale competitions like Leeds, Clara Haskil, many others. He has an enormous reputation as a teacher and I know professional pianists in the business who, still at the age of 35-40, go for lessons to him. Wonderful as he is, there are also traits of a maffioso behaviour in him. He advises students to go to competitions where he knows other jurors. He advises students not to take part in other competitions because of either not knowing jurors, or because of having bad relations with them. Still, as a teacher, he deserves endless respect for his devotion to his students.

    There are endless stories! Why am I saying all of this? Simply to give a bit more nuance to the initial black-and-white statement from Norman. Real life is more complicated, and just the fact that Vernikov was on the jury and the fact that his student won doesn’t necessarily prove anything. Will he add anything more to the discussion?

  16. Martin Malmgren says:

    “4. Any applicant who falls into one of the categories below will NOT be eligible for this competition:

    related to any member of the 2014 Competitor Selection Jury or the 2014 Competition Jury, or
    has studied as a private student or student at a University or School of Music in the past five years with any member of the 2014 Competitor Selection Jury or the 2014 Competition Jury as their primary teacher [excluding master classes, summer programs and festivals] or,
    has been coached by a member of either of the 2014 Juries in preparation for the 2014 Hilton Head International Piano Competition”

    Similar rules can be found in numerous competitions throughout the world. Again – is it REALLY the desireable option, though? Perhaps yes, considering the amount of competitions any young musician can enter these days. But perhaps no – should a young talent be prevented from entering various big competitions just because he/she studies with a sought-after teacher who in addition often gets invited to judge competitions…?

    In about a month from now, I will be taking part in a multi-instrumental national competition. The jury is mixed – there’s a singer, a conductor/violinist, a clarinetist etc etc, and there’s also a pianist…whom I happen to know somewhat, as the music scene isn’t huge over here and it’s inevitable to know more or less everyone after having been around for sometime. If I would happen to win, are you – Norman – planning to make a similar follow-up to the one you’ve just made on Sunao Goko…? What about another national competition in 2014 where I can consider two of the jurors “friends/colleagues” though I’ve never in my life taken a piano lesson from either one? How am I as a young musician to avoid situations of this sort? Please, “clean up” the system for us, mister!

  17. Alexander Brown says:

    I am a singer, and when young I entered about 8 competitions, all of them more or less unfair. The fact that I won one of them was a miracle, but the fact remains that competitors who have their teachers on the jury inevitably benefit from an unfair advantage, even if that teacher does not vote, he/she will inevitably have allies on the jury, so “cleaning up” will probably be impossible.
    This leads to the next consideration: all competitions are flawed, because they are based on subjective opinions. Even if, by some chance, the judging system were cleaned up, the ears of the ‘clean’ jury will always be prejudiced in some way.
    The answer: don’t bother to enter competitions! Find a good conductor or agent who believes in you (difficult to do nowadays, because few of them are willing to take risks with young, unknown musicians) and make your career without the useless stress and expense of entering competitions.
    How many competitions did great musicians like Barenboim or Menuhin or Toscanini win, I wonder?

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