Playing in Amateur Piano Competitions

Nela Rubinstein was married for 50 years to one of the greatest pianists of all time, Arthur Rubinstein, but in the years after his death, her attention shifted to amateur pianists. Her husband had sometimes remarked that those who played piano for the fun of it were just as deserving of the stage as he was. Nela saw the truth in that when she became a juror for the first-ever international amateur piano competition, Concours des Grands Amateurs de Piano, held in Paris in 1989. Nela remained involved in the Paris competitions for the rest of her life, and she is also directly responsible for the advent of similar competitions in the US.

In the early ’90s, Nela sang the praises of amateur piano competitions to Richard Rodzinsky, her godson. Rodzinsky was then the president of the Van Cliburn Foundation in Fort Worth, Texas, which was (and still is) known for holding a highly-regarded professional piano competition every four years. After observing several amateur competitions in Paris, Rodzinsky decided to take the idea home to Texas. “It certainly seemed to fulfill our mission of celebrating the love of music on the stage and at home,” says 70-year-old Alann Sampson, acting executive director of the Van Cliburn Foundation, who had traveled to Paris with Rodzinsky to witness the competitions.

The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs was launched in 1999, and the sixth competition is coming up in 2011. Since the Van Cliburn Foundation introduced amateur piano competitions to the US, more have sprung up in cities across the country, including Washington, D.C., Colorado Springs, Salt Lake City, Chicago, and Boston.

piano competition

Striking a Chord

“Before these competitions, a lot of people, myself included, just played at home for pure amusement,” says 60-year-old Robert Finley, a former competitor in the Van Cliburn competition, who was inspired to form the Boston Piano Amateurs Association and Boston International Piano Competition in 2001. “This has changed a lot of people’s lives, I think, because it gives you something to work toward and lets you share your love of music with other people.”

Sampson agrees. “The idea took off and struck a deep emotion with amateur pianists around the country, and really, around the world,” she says.

Don’t let the word “amateur” fool you: the competing musicians are incredibly accomplished, and many, like Research Assistant Professor Vince Schmithorst, winner of the 2009 competition in Boston, had to make a difficult choice between a career in music and a career in another profession. Schmithorst, 38, researches brain function at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, but much of his downtime is still dedicated to piano practice.

A few years ago, Schmithorst decided to make a return to the stage, and entered the Boston competition, performing a long list of repertoire, including Chopin’s Fantasy in F Minor, Mendelssohn’s Variations Sérieuses, and Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G-sharp Minor, among many other pieces. His technique, phrasing, and musicianship shone through the competition’s three rounds. He remarks that it was a bit stressful at times, but that the feeling of accomplishment at the end certainly made it worth the hard work.

For pianists who don’t usually get the chance to play outside of their living rooms, amateur competitions offer an invaluable experience. “It’s rare to be able to play on a wonderful nine-foot concert grand in front of an audience, and to have that opportunity is a treasure,” says Sampson. “So our participants don’t necessarily look at it as a competition, but as us giving them an opportunity to perform in public.”

Playing in Harmony

There is a remarkable sense of community at amateur piano competitions. “They call it ‘Camp Cliburn,'” laughs Sampson. “They stay for an entire week, and they keep up relationships with one another and see each other in the interim. And they’re always talking music. In their day-to-day lives, there probably aren’t many people that they can spend a week with talking about music, so this is their chance to do that.”

“You always find a lot of appreciative people in the audience, and you make a lot of friends from around the world. You enjoy the music, and it’s a very nice experience,” adds Finley.

Regardless of whether the contestants return home with a prize (both competitions offer finalists cash awards), they still get plenty out of the competition. “I think that everybody, without exception, gets inspired, motivated, and improves. It’s quite amazing,” says Finley. “I’ve heard some people play year after year, and they’re like different people now, from where they started. It encourages them to think about their playing, get a teacher, and learn new repertoire.” Plus, the competitions organize feedback sessions with a jury made up of professional performers and conservatory-level educators.

Jury members have a tough job, critiquing such outstanding performances. “The skill level is just wonderful, and you can tell it comes from a love and passion of wanting to play the music,” says Sampson. “It’s about, ‘I want to share this piece of music with you‘—you being one person sitting there, or you being 1,500 people out there. It’s a type of chemistry that’s very moving and very dynamic.” That’s something that both Nela Rubinstein and her legendary husband certainly would have been happy to hear.



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