Oliver Steiner, Violinist

On Contests, Caution and Care

by Oliver Steiner

Heifetz called performance contests “tournaments”.

Unfortunately, many people who are artistically challenged simply don't comprehend what art is, but they *are* able to understand sports. If one understands art, one cannot say that Heifetz gets X number of points and Menuhin gets Y number of points. In attempting to fit art into the form of a contest, the contest then becomes an event for finding who makes the fewest mistakes. The number of mistakes can be quantified. It is then relatively easy to apply the false concept of assigning points to a performance. If this false concept is accepted, performing art education then largely becomes training to make the smallest number of mistakes. As a result of this training performing arts students are trained to fear mistakes, rather than to love profound musical expression.

I often tell my students that playing cautiously is bad, but playing carefully is good. Caution is the fear of making mistakes, and carefulness is the love of making something beautiful. What relevance does this distinction have to performing music? A fundamental one: In order to play a note with a beautiful tone one must first have the sound of a beautiful tone in one’s mind. Only if the beautiful tone is mentally conceived will it emerge from the violin. One focuses concentration on the sound of this tone just as one might very carefully wrap a birthday present for a dear friend. However, if the performer is cautious, the concentration is focused on the sound of the ugly tone that is feared! And the ugly tone conception will yield an ugly tone. In preparing a performance, the performer will certainly want to form the habit of directing the concentration to the desired beautiful result. This direction of concentration is not unlike the mental process of a religious person giving thanks for food. If the direction of concentration is done well, the person becomes grateful for the food, and it tastes better!