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Violinist Axel Strauss Shares Thoughts on the Impact of Competitions

“Does competition success propel a soloist into a career?” We threw the question to McGill University's Professor and violinist Axel Strauss for his advice.

Competitions are often regarded as part of the puzzle to assembling a performance career. The exposure and opportunities can be vast. As they may seem daunting to many, the competition experience can be life changing in positive ways. VC reader Vincent wanted to know how competitions can help shape a successful performance career. 


Do you find that competition success as part of the puzzle to a performance career? Or are there other ways to build that perfect puzzle? Please let us know in the comments below. We're all keen to learn more from you.


Axel Strauss violinist

Photo credit: Peter Schaaf

Violinist Axel Strauss Shares on How Competitions Shaped His Life and Career

Dear Vincent,

Ah, competitions! Can’t live with them and can’t live without them!

I have always had a love-hate relationship with them, although many of the ones I participated in have shaped my life as a violinist (and otherwise) in significant ways.

As early as 8 years old I began competing in "Jugend musiziert," a well-known national competition in Germany, my native country. I won my first international competitions in Italy and the Czech Republic at the age of 14 and later won the Silver Medal at the Wieniawski Competition in Poland, the Enescu Competition in Romania and the Bach Competition in Leipzig/Germany.

After moving to New York in 1996, I decided in 1998 to participate in the Naumburg Competition. Winning the Naumburg Award gave me two full concert seasons of recitals and concerto performances with orchestras all over the country. This visibility and a recommendation from then Naumburg President, Robert Mann, led to a teaching position at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where I taught until I accepted a position at McGill University in 2012 and relocated to Montreal.

Going back to the love-hate relationship, the "hate" part comes from the fact that I fundamentally don't believe in music as a vehicle for competition, which implies determining winners (and losers).

But participating in competitions also came with undeniable benefits:

  • They gave me a tangible goal to work for and motivated me to prepare with tremendous focus and determination
  • They made me learn and polish a lot of repertoire
  • They taught me how to deal with rejection (although I did not see that as a benefit at the time...)
  • The ones I won gave me great new concert opportunities and public visibility and got me in touch with managers, conductors and other important people that can help build a career

I see competitions as only one piece in the puzzle of assembling a performing career. In my case, that piece was rather large, and I am grateful for the many opportunities I have been given and for the many people that have helped me along the way!


Do you have a burning question for one of the pros?

Simply email: [email protected]


Axel Strauss is a former major prize winner at the Enescu, Bach, Wieniawski and Kocian International Violin Competitions and New York’s prestigious Naumburg Competition. He studied with Petru Munteanu at the Music Academies of Lübeck and Rostock and at The Juilliard School with Dorothy DeLay. He currently serves as Professor of Violin and Chair of the String Area at McGill University’s Schulich School of Music, in Montreal – and has also served as Guest Concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic and the Montreal Symphony.

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