In light of the famed Tchaikovsky Competition opening to woodwinds for the first time since its beginning in 1958, the flute community was abuzz with excitement. A friend suggested I enter, and the first woodwind prize of $30,000 caught my eye, not for myself (as I’m well “expired”) but for other deserving flutists. Of course, I knew there was a catch as I read through the competition rules: “The age limit of participants as of the date of the Competition opening for instrumentalists is not younger than 16 and not older than 32 years of age inclusive.” Facebook’s latest vanity meme wants to know “How Well You Have Aged in 10 Years,” and in an age where we refuse to be defined by age, we sure like to be reminded that we haven’t aged one bit. However, the jury members of flute competitions do not care if we look 25; you can’t put filters on your birth certificate, and in the case of the Tchaikovsky competition, if you’re over 32, you’re TOO OLD. Compared to the other big International Competitions, the Tchaikovsky has a generous maximum age requirement. For the Nielsen and Prague Spring Competitions: cutoff is 30. The NFA Young Artist competition is also 30. The Kobe Competition, 32.
So, what is the message that is telling us? How is that affecting our mental health as musicians, for those who are older and for those who are in their 20’s or younger? I remember my 19th birthday. It was the first birthday I did not wish to celebrate, as I felt I was starting my race against the fast ticking clock of the classical music industry. It wasn’t until after I turned 30 that I started embracing my age, since I was already expired and nothing I could do about it (except printing a fake birth certificate, which I considered..)
Someone might argue that this is one purpose of competitions: to celebrate the people who effectively move forward through a system despite challenges. But, people grow! I didn't really understand how to process feedback until my 30s. (Bonnie McAlvin)
A recent New York Times article, titled “I Am an (Older) Woman, Hear Me Roar,” is a refreshing reminder that women over 60 are not just striving, but thriving. If Hollywood can embrace age with open arms, why can’t classical music do the same? I love watching child prodigy videos as much as the next person, but I’d much rather see someone at the height of their musical maturity blast the Ibert Concerto. Older and more seasoned musicians offer different ideas and bring life experience into their music, which 17 year olds would not necessarily understand. There are exceptions, of course. Korean flutist Yubeen Kim’s performances at the Prague Spring Competition, in which he was crowned winner at age 17, were both incredible displays of virtuosity and musical sensitivity. But that doesn’t help our age problem; and perhaps this is part of the bigger problem with shrinking classical music audiences and interest.
Some of us still love the challenge and growth that competitions bring well after the typical age cut off. And as was stated earlier, some of us got started later (while I started flute in 6th grade band, it wasn’t until senior year in high school that I had my first flute lessons) (Catherine Ramirez)
When I discuss flute competitions with non-musicians, they often compare them to the Olympics, the “Flute Olympics” if you will. Except in the Olympics, there is no maximum age requirement; you can enter as a downhill skier in your 80s if you like. Of course, I can’t imagine many do, but the option is there for them. (the only exception is Men’s Soccer, where only three designated team players may be over 23 years old). What is the difference between the Olympic Games, where athletes from around the world compete to be the best, and an international flute competition, where flutists do the same? Is it vanity? Is it about our industry’s obsession with youth? Many flutists are “late bloomers;” why can’t they be given the same chances as anyone else? The Tchaikovsky Competition’s website states:
“An artistic competition is a traditional starting point for gifted young musicians as it gives them a chance to encounter the admiration of an audience, be initiated into the worldwide professional community, and start a brilliant international career.”
If we eliminate the word “young,” it would open up many doors that, for many of us, have been closed for years. The current classical musical landscape is changing and has been for at least the past decade. We’ve had to adapt to using technology, creating our own career paths, finding non-traditional sources of income, branding ourselves on social media, and so on. We are working well into our 70s and 80s. As we all do not aspire to play concerti and classically formatted recitals for the rest of our lives, and as those opportunities are dwindling, why are we also limiting ourselves with ageism? We are making great strides to end discrimination on race, gender, and sexual orientation. Now it is time to stop discriminating based on age.
I wish there was a competition for "the rest of us" - too old for young artists competitions, maybe not even people trying to win auditions for orchestras, but who still have so much to contribute. Sometimes I feel people think that if you haven't "made it" by the time you're a certain age (30? 35?) that you're too old to be relevant. (Kate Fish, 45)
Upon taking an informal survey to flutist peers of all ages, the conclusion was unanimous: Eliminate age limits in competitions! Responses also included creating competitions for those over 30 or to create other categories in competitions for older professionals. The common factors included cost, which prohibits many young people from entering competitions, as so many recent graduates simply do not have the funds to prepare and travel for a competition. If one had to choose between doing a competition and paying three months of rent, it is obvious which will be the priority. Another factor is health. Many of us struggle with physical injuries and mental health, and for that we are being penalized, which furthers the problem. Depression and anxiety are at an all-time high for classical musicians, where a new study shows 70% of professional musicians having dealt with mental health issues, some of which can be attributed to age pressure.
I’m 26 and technically could do it but (1) it would be a HUGE financial burden and (2) they want people to list the international competitions they have participated in. The latter would mean that I’m not even qualified to compete which means that I should wait until I’m 30/31. (Karina Eijo, 26)
Some of us have to work as adults for a bit before we can afford the training we wanted all along. That puts our timelines off from the fortunate ones who could have the training at the "prime" ages. (Christina Condon-Numerick, 36)
So where do we go from here? Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article in next month’s issue, and please feel free to comment below!
Andrea "Fluterscooter" Fisher is the founder and owner of Fluterscooter Bags, co-founder and editor of The Flute View, and holds BM and MM degrees from The Juilliard School. A sought after performer and speaker, she often presents talks on Entrepreneruship and is best known for playing flute and organ simultaneously. In her spare time, she enjoys watching and photographing deer. www.fluterscooter.com
EDIT: From NFA Convention Performers Competition coordinator, Jennie Oh Brown: The 2019 Convention Performers Competition is open to all professional flutists and flute teachers. Deadline is February 19. Link to apply here.