by Amanda Holloway
Reprinted from Pianist Magazine, Feb-March, 2005

As Pianist and Yamaha launch a competition for outstanding amateurs, Amanda Holloway looks behind the scenes of the world’s biggest amateur competition to find out what motivates the participants.

As a child, I went to enormous lengths to prevent people hearing me play the piano. I stopped practicing the minute my parents came home. I taped paper over the window of my school practice room. I went to my weekly lessons with shaking hands and a sinking heart, and as an exam approached, I would get unbearably gloomy and anxious. Later I learned that there were pianists who actually enjoyed performing for other people.
I assumed all those courageous, talented people went on to conservatories and became concert pianists, playing in public for a living. Then I read an article about the Van Cliburn Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs. Here were doctors, lawyers, antiques dealers and computer experts choosing to play the piano in grueling knockout competitions in from of international judges and a huge audience. Why?
‘It was something I did on the spur of the moment,’ says chemistry professor Victoria Bragin. ‘I hadn’t played a solo recital in 25 years. But the time was right…my husband was relocating, my job came to an end, and I had time to prepare. It was something I had to do.’ She went on to win the Van Cliburn Competition for Outstanding Amateurs in 2002 and has never entered a competition since.
Carl Tait entered the first Van Clliburn amateur competition in 1999, and the web log he wrote in the days after the event captures the spirit of camaraderie among the entrants. ‘I’ve never felt such a lack of “competition” in the usual sense of the word,’ he wrote. ‘Yes, we knew we’d be narrowed down to successively smaller groups of active performers, and someone would eventually win, but I sensed none of the edgy terror that usually accompanies such rituals. Instead, there was palpable enthusiasm, excitement, and sheer happiness at being included in a large group of people with similarly intense feelings about piano playing, despite our chosen careers in fields other than music.’

Rising standards

The rise in the number of amateur competitions is a tribute to the many dedicated pianists out there who are not full-time professional musicians, but instead are homemakers, doctors, pensioners, computer programmers or lawyers. Since the first Concours International for Outstanding Amateurs was held in Paris in 1989, Americans, in particular, have taken up the idea with gusto. Pianists are queuing up to show what they can do with the really big pieces like Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata and Chopin’s B minor Sonata.
‘I think it’s an idea whose time has come,’ says former cocktail pianist Phred Meller, who launched his own competition in 2000, initially as the Northeastern (they’re all called ‘Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs’, by the way!), and later as the New York City after he moved it into Manhattan in search of an audience. ‘There are so many talented pianists out there. When I first went to Paris, I saw the high caliber of entrants. And when you enter a competition, your standard shoots up because you practice so much more.’
Robert Finley, a second-prize winner in the last Washington competition, and director of the Boston competition, agrees, ‘Our goal is to provide performance opportunities for the highly talented adult amateur pianist, who encourages them to learn new repertoire and improve the standard of their playing. It is a very inspiring and motivation experience.’ In the long term, ‘We hope to interest the general public in classical piano music, to keep music alive.’ The gladiatorial aspect of competitions certainly helps sell the events to audiences who might otherwise not have considered going to a piano recital.
After the Paris Concours, the best-known amateur competition is the Van Cliburn, an offshoot of the professional competition held every four years in Fort Worth, Texas. The amateur section was such a success when it was first held in 1999 that it is now a regular event on the circuit every two years. There are also competitions in Boston, Massachusetts; Washington, DC and Colorado Springs, as well as the Gina Bachauer Competition held in Salt Lake City. This year the UK will get its own centre of amateur pianist excellence in the first Pianist-Yamaha Competition, to be held in London in autumn 2005 (see information at the end of this article).

Going public

Why this sudden surge of interest in amateur competitions, especially those for piano? Most children who learn a musical instrument start on the piano. Some particularly gifted ones become professional musicians, but most choose other careers while relegating the piano to hobby status. Amateur pianist, unlike singers and other instrumentalists don’t have the option of playing in an orchestra or joining a choir. As Phred Meller points out, ‘It’s boring just to play to friends in your living room.’
Could this desire to go public with their talents have something to do with the have-a-go, Pop Idol phenomenon that Prince Charles so rashly deplored as ‘people who think they are qualified to do things far beyond their technical capabilities’? These competit9ioins show that more players have the technical capabilities’ to perform to professional standards than anyone had guessed. They remind us that thousands of people could have taken up music professionally, but chose to pursue other careers.

‘The emphasis in these competitions is more on the sharing and joy of music-making and less on the competitive aspect’

Steve Hyman, an anesthesiologist at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, was a gifted musician in his childhood. He was also academically very bright, and being able to do anything he put his mind to, he chose to study medicine instead of majoring in music. Looking back at the decision, he says, ‘The reasons people choose to do things are not always the best ones. Perhaps they’re pushed to do things that make money-musicians may not eat very well! I believe that a contributing factor as to why so many people are dissatisfied with their jobs.’
Steve didn’t play at all between the ages of 25 and 40, but the urge to take up music became overwhelming. ‘I went partly because I needed credibility with the professional musicians I was working with on research into things like stress. Because I wasn’t a “professional”, they thought l couldn’t understand what performing at a high level was like.’ He heard an item about the Van Cliburn amateur competition on the radio, but it was two years away, so he entered the Paris Concours first. Why did he feel the need to enter? ‘Performing in front of people was a big motivation for me. Part of the fun is going out on stage, and even if I don’t win, I say to myself, I need to work harder here and here. The downside is that competitions add to your insecurity. Some of the other entrants were such good players and so much better than me that it made me ask, “should I be here at all?”
It also made him ask, are these people really amateurs? The competition rules state that entrants should not earn their living playing or teaching full-time. Although the Paris Concours allows entrants of 18 or over, in the US the minimum age requirement-31 (Washington), 32 (New York) and 35 (Van Cliburn)-usually weeds out those who are still ‘students’ playing the competition circuit for money. Phred Meller reckons by then they’ll have a full-time job which limits their practice time. But, says Steve Hyman, ‘Some so-called amateurs, usually Europeans, play at an extremely high level, and you have to ask “are they ringers?” On paper they do have other careers, but they’re so good it’s hard to believe they are amateurs. Competitions in the US have made an effort to establish that they’re genuinely amateur, but their biographies are often a bit fishy.’
In general, though, the atmosphere at these gatherings is free from the jealousy, bitchiness and politicking that one reads about in other high-level competitions. ‘Emphasis is more on the sharing and joy of music-making and less on the competition aspect,’ says Phred Meller. ‘Music attracts a wonderful and varied group of people. We get a lot of doctors and lawyers (in my view the lawyers aren’t as musical or as interesting as doctors!). We did have an ironworker recently, and home-makers, and pensioners. There’s a regular group of people going round the competitions but new ones appear every year. Last year the winner came out of left field-homemaker Rebecca Davis came all the way from Minneapolis!”

‘I love to perform, and it’s like giving a paper-just make sure you’re prepared, and feel you’ve done your best’

Robert Finley says he’s made many friends through the competitions. ‘The level of my playing has improved enormously and I received valuable feedback on how my playing came across to the audience’. His advice to contestants is to play what they love: ‘Never play to the jury, play within your capabilities, don’t play to win, don’t play too seriously, and above all, play for enjoyment. .’
He says finding time to practice is very hard with a full-time job. ‘Usually a competition requires about an hour’s worth of repertoire, split between three rounds.’ The way people prepare for competitions varies, though all say they step up their practicing in the months before the event. Van Cliburn winner Victoria Bragin says she’s not the kind of person who can sit at the piano for hours and hours. ‘I practiced mentally, and I recorded myself and listened over and over.’ Steve Hyman writes out the music he’s playing so that he can memorise it visually. ‘I used to rush to get my music learned and prepared. Now I know I’m properly prepared, it helps get rid of my nerves.’ Nerves are not a problem for Bragin. ‘I love to perform, and it’s like giving a paper-just make sure you’re prepared, and feel you’ve done your best. You know this is something you have to do, and you do it.’
She admits that during the preliminary and semi-final stages she couldn’t watch other competitors play because it was making her nervous. And before the final, ‘I didn’t get a single second of sleep. In the final I played the Chopin B minor Sonata, and I felt exhausted. I just wanted to finish it, but I didn’t have any strength at al. I came off knowing I could have played so much better.’ The judges obviously disagreed-not only did she win the overall competition, she also got the audience award and awards for the best performance of a Romantic and a Modern piece.

Choice prizes

Practising is a big time commitment, and contestants also have to take time off work to travel to competitions. 'The round trip to Paris takes ten days, and there’s also the expense of being in Paris,’ says Hyman. He can’t wait for a competition in London, and an excuse to visit England for the first time. Most of the American competitions are spread over three or four days, with auditions by CD, a preliminary round, semifinal and final. Prize money varies between $1,000 for the New York Competition to $3,000 for the Gina Bachauer Competition. First prize-winners are offered a recital, or in the case of Paris Concours, the chance to play a concerto with the Symphony Orchestra of the Republican Guard of Paris.
Victoria Bragin found herself in demand for the first weeks after she won in 2002. ‘But I can’t say it changed my life: my life was changing anyway. I retired from teaching chemistry and I’m now music artist-in-residence at the Huntingdon Museum of Art in West Virginia. As a Van Cliburn winner I’m sometimes asked to give recitals. I’m happy to do it because I love playing, but I realize that there are plenty of young professional pianists out there who are trying to make a living.’
She doesn’t feel the need to enter another competition. Others get hooked on the excitement, and the challenge of preparing anew for each competition and knowing they can do better. Veteran of three Van Cliburns, and winner of the New York City Competition, computer scientist Carl Tait has no doubt about the value of his experience: ‘So was the endless practice and associated emotional turmoil worth it? Certainly. Without a doubt. Or to pay tribute to the competition’s country of origin and the nationality of its first winner, one might quote Edith Piaf: “Non, je ne regretted rien!”

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