Tonight I edited our 1A story about the Van Cliburn piano contest. For those of you who haven’t heard about this, it’s huge. The best pianists in the world convene for 17 days of fierce competition. They compete for money, record deals and international tours. Just making it to the Cliburn guarantees a bright future for these young musicians.
And by “young,” I mean really freaking young. One contestant this year was 19. Nineteen years old! This just blows my mind. When I was 19, I’d just started to realize that majoring in piano might not be the most practical plan for my future. Yes, I love playing (still do, in fact) and yes, I played pretty well. But I had (and still have) crippling stage fright (the time I played on a Tulsa radio station as a “reward” for winning some competition was a total disaster; I hope my family either lost or burned the tape). I never wanted to teach music. That takes a patience I may never have.
This contest really is grueling. The lineups are insanely challenging, and the pianists play for huge audiences that include members of the press. The largest crowd I ever played for (aside from the times I accompanied choirs) had about 300 people. I seriously thought I might die from stage fright. The Cliburn contestants face far larger crowds — sometimes more than once in a day. *shudders* I seriously can’t imagine playing for as long as these Cliburn people have to play. I remember my stomach being tied in knots for a mere five-minute performance, for goodness sake!
I started piano lessons when I was 5. Each year I’d compete in whatever contests my teacher could dig up, which to my young mind seemed like a whole helluva lot. I’m pleased to report I never earned less than a 1 in performance, though I did make a 1-minus in theory a couple of times. The end of the year brought Guild (for the life of me I can’t remember the full name of the thing). During Guild we played several pieces from various periods. Before each we had to show proficiency in playing scales and arpeggios in whatever key the piece was written, and at the end of the session we had to sight-read a piece. I was never very good at that.
Guild was always stressful, but I’m glad I had that preparation for college. Piano performance majors were required to practice at least four hours a day, and at the end of the semester we had juries, which were the equivalent of finals. When I first heard the term “juries” I imagined playing for a jury of my peers, which seemed terrifying enough. But no, it turned out I wouldn’t be playing for my peers; I’d be playing an hour-long concert for all of the piano professors plus a handful of other professors in the music department. Talk about anxiety! I was just a freshman!
My first and only jury actually went pretty well. I’d prepared a Scriabin prelude, a Mozart sonata, a Chopin etude, and a prelude and fugue by Bach, which were pretty gorgeous and exciting for baroque music. Everything went really smoothly up to about the 16th measure of the Bach fugue, when for some reason my mind went totally blank. For the life of me I couldn’t remember what to do with my right hand, so for the next eight measures or so I played only the left hand while throwing in a note or two in the upper register. Amazingly I never skipped a beat or hit a sour note. Somehow I regained my wits and was able to finish the piece as Bach wrote it, but I was sure my error would cost me dearly. Maybe the rest of the concert was really stellar, or maybe the professors took pity on me, but somehow I ended up with an A. My mind was made up before I got my grade, however — I wasn’t cut out for piano performance. Sigh.
These Cliburn contestants kick some serious ass. The dedication, steel and artistry it takes to do what they do leaves me awestruck — and a bit wistful.