2/17 Musicale Notes by Tom Slavicek

​Special Topic: "Preparing for Piano Competitions" An interesting topic was discussed among our members for today's Musicale. Preparing for piano amateur competitions is a complex and "stressful" process, especially when refining pieces that you already "know", but realizing that there is always a better interpretation and technique available. It's a never-ending process. We had 10 members and guests participating in performances and our discussion. Included in our group was Keng Sim from Maryland (via Singapore) and Andy Liao from Texas. Starting out we discussed the various certifications that are helpful to have before entering a competition. Some certifications require experience in community service, music theory, ensemble playing, and a repertoire that includes various styles and levels of proficiency. Our first performer was Judy Darst performing Berceuse from the Opera "Jocelyn", by Benjamin Godard ,1849-1895 - (French). It's about a young man, attending Seminary, falling in love with a woman during the French Revolution. The Berceuse is a love theme from the opera arranged for piano. Although technically "easy" the piece requires a sensitive touch and dynamic attention. Judy gave a thoughtful, lovely and introspective performance. Next came the Sarabande Op. 14 No.2 by Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941) performed by Utako. Paderewski was the only Polish pianist who became his country's Prime Minister. His debut as a pianist was when he was 24 years old. His most famous piece is the Minuet, but he also composed many other pieces. He is one of the required composers for piano competitions. The Sarabande evoked an older period of music than when the piece was composed. Utako gave us a lovely interpretation of this lyrically romantic piece that is, sadly, too neglected today. Our discussion included information about competitions and pursuing various certificates. Keng started us off by regaling the various competitions that he has participated in. The first year it is wise to just be a visitor and scope out what that particular event is about. Andy Liao has also participated in various competitions in the States, including the Van Clyburn and the one in Boston - garnering third, second and first place awards along the way. Judy's first competition/celebration was in Colorado Springs. She was just an observer. Then, being encouraged, she decided to apply for the following year. Among the many hurdles to jump are nervousness and stress. Some judges don't like to hear certain pieces, like Moonlight Sonata, Appasionata, Chopin Fantasie Impromptu, and Chopin Ballade No. 1. These are so well known and so often played that the performer has to be really exceptional in playing them. A lesser known repertoire is best and playing pieces that are well within your capabilities is highly recommended. Testing the piano for a few minutes ahead of a performance is always helpful. Typically one has to prepare about an hour's worth of pieces to be ready to go beyond the first round. The repertoire in the first round typically includes a Chopin waltz. First rounds typically last about 15 to 20 minutes of playing time. About 150 to 230 pianists apply to the Van Clyburn each year but not everyone makes in - professional pianists are disqualified. New competitions usually accept all applicants. Hitting a wrong note every now and then, or having a memory lapse, are not the main things that judges count against. What counts is the musicality of the overall piece. Including a repeat has to have a good reason - does the repeat sound different and compelling? If not, it would not show good musicality. Planning for a future competition includes the building up of a repertoire at the present - refining your pieces that could be used in a competition. It's also important to play a piece that "speaks to you" and performing it from the heart. Attend a competition with the mind set of not winning, but rather having fun and meeting people. Lastly, you don't have any control over what the judges may be looking for, It can be helpful if the performer can talk with the judges ahead of time. It is always good to review the judges for that year and be wary about the same judges coming back year after year - they may be set in their ways and expectations. It is not necessarily wise to preempt the judges' tastes with a performance. Making it past the first round is not so easy. A good strategy is to enter a competition as if it was a recital for friends or a friendly group and do well in the performance, not expecting to move forward. The motivating factors in entering competitions are numerous. One is 'time on your hands" that provide you with plenty of practice time and getting together with others at a piano camp, etc. These experiences build up confidence. Another motivator is listening to others and thinking, "I can do at least as good, if not better." Utako, herself, has attended 11 competitions, including Van Clyburn and Chopin competitions. She submitted a video tape for her first one and was pleasantly surprised to have been accepted. Preparing for it she studied several hours a day for several months in advance. Amateur piano competitions have a range of performances - from amateur to "professional" in quality. Sometimes it's helpful to have a coach. But probably a good preparation idea is to record yourself - you will hear what you sound like vs what you think you sound like. Going to a coach is sometimes helpful after the piece is fully developed and memorized. A wonderful discussion full of great insights and information. Thank you all! Tom Slavicek

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