Playing it safe – The Leeds and competitions in the time of COVID

The Leeds International Piano Competition has spent the last year working out how to run its event safely in the era of COVID. CEO Fiona Sinclair shares their discoveries with IAM

The last year has presented unique challenges for those who rely on the international mobility of artists. Resourceful programmers such as Wigmore Hall and the Kennedy Center turned COVID travel restrictions into a strength by creating vibrant programmes with their home-based artists.

But for many competitions, whether that’s a musical contest or the Olympic Games, their internationalism is intrinsic to their very being. At the Leeds International Piano Competition, we create a global platform which celebrates talent and prepares young people to thrive in a world of constant evolution. These opportunities can be life-changing and we believe competitions will play an increasingly important role for young people.

Fiona Sinclair, CEO Leeds International Piano Competition
Fiona Sinclair, CEO Leeds International Piano Competition

There are estimated to be over 900 piano competitions worldwide, and those of us who are members of the World Federation of International Music Competitions (WFIMC) enjoy a high level of friendly collaboration. Whilst at least 150 competitions deferred or cancelled in 2020 alone, some – including the Sydney and Cleveland International Piano Competitions – started to experiment with fully online formats. These provided inspiration for the rest of us.

Approaching the milestone of our 20th competition (and with a measure of Yorkshire-stubbornness), our team refused to consider cancellation as an option. We began to reimagine how it could be done by tackling our First Round – a series of live performances which needed to take place across Europe, Asia and the US in April 2021.

From the outset, we knew demand was likely to increase for our 2021 competition. Pianists had more time at home practising their repertoire and crafting their applications. But we were not prepared for the avalanche of submissions we received, an increase of 43%. Intensified through the lens of lockdown and cut off from their audiences, it was humbling to read the hopes and dreams contained in each one. Their initial online application was made through a specialist platform used primarily for higher education visual and performing arts courses, and our selection panel met digitally, rather than in person to choose 62 competitors to progress to the International First Round.

The Leeds finalists in 2018
The Leeds finalists in 2018

During the First Round of our last competition, we toured the jury, film crew and operational staff on a round-the-world ticket, stopping off in Berlin, Singapore and New York to hear 60 competitors, who themselves had flown in from multiple locations. Local audiences attended, along with aspiring music students, city partners and politicians, all eager to support the young musicians on their way towards a place in Leeds, and the experience was imbued with the spirit of global cultural exchange. So it was with some sense of loss that we accepted that travel and live audiences would not be part of the 2021 First Round experience.

In order to maintain the integrity of the round, we needed to create the optimum conditions for recording the competitors’ performances whilst minimising the risk to the individuals. We began by discussing all the options and contingencies for each competitor’s travel plans to our four centres. However, as cases rose during the winter months, we realised that any cross-border or even interstate travel was going to be impossible for all but a few. This necessitated quadrupling our performance locations from four to 16 in a matter of a few months.

We identified potential hosts, appealing to professors and institutions connected with our pianists and our close partners, Steinway & Sons. The Beijing Central Conservatory of Music, alma mater of our global ambassador, Lang Lang, was the first to offer their help, and one by one, others responded with universal generosity and a shared determination to keep opportunity open to young musicians.

Because of the geographical spread, in some cases venues will be hosting only one competitor. This has meant that we have been able to offer vacant slots to some of our competition colleagues who have also been looking for ways to achieve what we are doing, sharing some costs and providing mutual support along the way.

In preparing for the round, quality and integrity of the musical experience are of the utmost importance. For us, it all starts with an outstanding piano and each venue will have a Steinway Model D concert grand, prepared to the highest standards by a specialist technician.

Secondly, the film and audio need to be broadcast quality, so we tracked down local film crews who were skilled in our kind of music production. Our London-based producer, Simon Weir of Classical Media, will co-ordinate all aspects of the filming remotely, establishing a detailed production brief with the 16 local crews which encompasses stage layout, technical specification of HD audio-visual equipment, camera angles, microphone positioning, as well as guidance on recording and editing style.

The venues will provide stage management and have robust COVID-safety protocols in place. We have also brought in our own local staff, including interns from past competitions now living in some of our locations. They will provide a warm welcome and support for competitors, making sure that conditions are in place for our pianists to perform their very best.

In an epic co-ordinated operation, the majority of the 62 performances will be filmed, edited and 46 hours of footage delivered to our jurors within 48 hours of the commencement of the First Round. Then the jury has a fixed time period to listen and make their decisions in the comfort of their own homes. 24 musicians will be invited to Leeds in September 2021 for a competition like no other.

The Leeds 2018 winner Eric Lu
The Leeds 2018 winner Eric Lu

Our various contingency models all develop the competition experience through a live-digital programme, so regardless of any physical social distancing, we can retain the integrity of our artists’ performances and enhance our audience experience.

Whilst we hope that protecting our artists won’t be the primary concern in future competitions, by bringing people together around a shared mission we’ve developed a sustainable model which can save our resources and which is kinder to the planet. It feels more important than ever to look outwards and remember that the arts ecology is a worldwide one. We are inspired by our new friendships and will nurture them – these like-minded optimists are proving the collaboration, culture and exchange that will bring back unity to our fractured world.

The International First Round will take place between 28 March and 8 April in London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Basel, Milan, Warsaw, Arvika, Moscow, Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul, Miami, Kansas City, Cleveland, and New York. 

The 20th Leeds International Piano Competition will be available free-to-view on this summer. Visit