The Chicago Amateur Piano Competition

14159810_10208827420736925_173395617_nLove them or loathe them, piano competitions are more popular than ever before and there are no shortage of entrants, irrespective of standard or ability. And subjective as they are, piano contests can fire the imagination, motivating players to reach new heights in their quest for keyboard perfection.

For a professional pianist a competition has a purpose; the winner (or winners) usually has the opportunity to advance in their career, particularly when the prize consists of many concerts and recordings. However, when a competition is for amateurs, such reasoning is less clear.

Last week I spent an immensely enjoyable and rewarding four days in the US, serving as a jury member of the Chicago Amateur Piano Competition, proffering the chance to fully observe a cross-section of adult amateur pianists. Presented by PianoForte Foundation, the competition (which runs once every two years) is going from strength to strength since its inception in 2010. This year fifty-five competitors from around the world competed in this well organised event.

Proceedings kicked off on Tuesday night with a ‘Meet the Judges’ session, held at the PianoForte Foundation located on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. American pianist and composer Adam Neiman, Russian/American pianist Konstantin Soukhovetski, and myself, were interviewed by Thomas Zoells (who founded PianoForte Foundation and is owner of PianoForte Chicago, Inc) about our careers and competition perspectives. This was followed by three and a half days spent in the balcony (with my colleagues) at the main auditorium in the Sherwood School of Music (part of Columbia College), listening to two separate competitions; a two-rounder and a three-rounder.

With a gleaming Yamaha CFX instrument at their disposal, competitors were free to present whatever programme took their fancy; all performances were live streamed. The first two days consisted of hearing fifty-five 12 minute programmes. This was followed (on the third day) by a whole of host of 15 minute recitals (with new repertoire) for the finalists (of the two-round competition) and semi-finalists (of the three-round competition). On the last half day, we heard five three-rounder finalists, who had all prepared a further 30 minutes of music. Many of the players have, by all accounts, demanding careers (including doctors, lawyers, and a whole host of musically unrelated jobs), whilst others were music or piano teachers; the work involved in such preparation by those with relatively little time on their hands, is both impressive and inspiring.

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The standard varied considerably; there were those who had never played in public before and were eager to try out a few choice pieces, and then there were the competition past masters, who were visibly confident, self-assured and professional in all but name. It’s no easy task judging such a variety of standards, repertoire, and musical competence. We adjudicated as we might any competition; by choosing those who were interesting musically, had a certain technical grasp, and who literally ‘moved’ us. A strict points system was implemented (taking into account every aspect of a competitor’s performance from musicianship, technique and sound, through to how they presented themselves), and we wrote copious notes accompanying each performance with the aim of providing helpful feedback.

What was really fascinating (for me) was the selected repertoire. As to be expected, many kept to the well-trodden path; Scarlatti (Sonatas), J S Bach (Partitas, Suites, Preludes and Fugues), Mozart (Sonatas and Variations), Beethoven (Sonatas), Schubert (Impromptus and Moment Musicaux), Chopin (Ballades, Scherzi, Preludes, Nocturnes, Waltzes, Polonaises, (and for the brave) the Études), Liszt (Études and showpieces), Brahms (Op. 118, Op. 119 pieces and the Rhapsodies), Schumann (Arabeske and Intermezzi), Debussy (Images, Children’s Corner Suite, and Pour Le Piano), Ravel (Jeux d’eau and Ondine (from Gaspard de la nuit)), Rachmaninoff (mainly Preludes and Études-Tableaux) and Scriabin (Preludes). And a smattering of Purcell, Rameau, Moszkowski, Scharwenka, Mompou, Granados, Ginastera, Messiaen, Fauré, Medtner, Godowsky, Prokofiev, Respighi, Hindemith, Bartók, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Rodrigo, and Kapustin.

But there were also some less familiar names; Takashi Yoshimatsu, Kosaku Yamada, Benjamin Lees, and two Chicago based composers: Margaret Bonds and Leo Sowerby. The addition of lesser known composers and Twenty-first Century music is always a welcome change, and the Japanese pieces by Yoshimatsu resonated with me particularly. They were beautiful and atmospheric, belonging to the Minimalist style which I love.

Consistency across two or three rounds proved challenging for some, and others found the sudden catapult into the spotlight, not surprisingly, a little awkward. Probably around half performed from memory. We deliberated after each round before selecting the semi-finalists, finalists and winners, but the verdict was always unanimous.

The winners, who all won cash prizes (there were three in each round (1st, 2nd & 3rd)), and those who were awarded special prizes (for particular repertoire groups), demonstrated poise and commitment through each stage. Some had studied the piano to degree level (both undergraduate and postgraduate), with one or two attending junior and evening college division music conservatoire classes. This training was certainly evident.

Firm friendships can be formed; a shared love of the piano, classical music, and a wish to develop their playing further, sometimes instigates an intoxicating camaraderie. After the competition was over, everyone I spoke to had found it a wholly memorable, exciting and satisfying experience, and one which they were keen to repeat.

This piano festival ended with three two-hour master classes each given by Adam, Konstantin, and myself, to selected competitors.

Competitions such as this demonstrate the popularity of amateur music making. Most importantly, they provide pianists with an excuse to play to fellow musicians in front of a friendly jury, receive feedback, and hopefully, discover new music and musical companions.

The Chicago Amateur Piano Competition couldn’t have taken place without careful preparation (over a two-year period) by Thomas and Darcy Zoells, Sally Olson, Giovanna Jacques and an army of volunteers. I thank them for arranging such a wonderful four days of music making and wish them luck for 2018.


Top Image © Sally Olson. From left to right: Adam Neiman, Konstantin Soukhovetski, Noah DeGarmo (2nd prize in the three round competition), Michelle Steffers (1st prize),  David Swenson (3rd prize), myself and Thomas Zoells.

Lower Image © Melanie Spanswick: judging from the balcony!


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

Meet the Judges Live Stream Interview

14064206_10154295173330516_9004869624879616375_nAs you may have gathered, I’m in Chicago all week adjudicating at the Chicago AmateurPiano Competition. Judging starts today, but this competition offers an impressive events roster (a fairly unique concept amongst competitions), which runs in tandem, therefore proceedings actually started last night.

Fifty-five talented pianists will play a short programme over the next two days with finals taking place on Friday (for the two-round competition) and Saturday morning (for the three-round competition). However, events kicked off last night with a ‘Meet the judges’ interview which was live streamed on Youtube. Russian/American pianist Konstantin Soukhovetski, American pianist and composer, Adam Neiman, and myself (pictured above on stage and ready to go, before the live stream event!) will adjudicate over the next few days and this interview was designed to introduce competitors to their judges and provide an opportunity to ask questions about our lives.

You can watch the whole interview (although sadly, the connection was lost at the beginning so around 10 minutes of the opening has been cut!), by clicking on the link below. The competition starts in just a few hours, and we will be hearing around half of the competitors today. I hope you find it interesting!


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

So You Want To Organize A Piano Competition? Part II

Amateur pianist and competition planner, Sally Olson, lives in Chicago (US) and is on the committee of the Chicago Amateur Piano Competition 2016. This competition, which began in 2010, is steadily growing in popularity, with entrants hailing from many countries (the 2014 winner came from Glasgow).

Few realise the tremendous amount of planning, fund-raising and marketing behind such an enterprise. Last year Sally wrote her first post for my blog about the competition (you can read it here), and in today’s post, she discusses the marketing campaign. Over to Sally.


Comp 1

Marketing your competition.

In September 2015 I wrote about the necessary first steps when planning a piano competition.  I fully anticipated that I would write Part II a couple of months later, but this didn’t quite run to plan.

So what happened?  After the venue was set and the judges selected, we focused on a marketing plan to attract competitors.  It consisted of placing advertisements in music or piano based magazines, diligently posting information on our Facebook page, and writing blogs on our website.  What I didn’t expect was those wanting to apply for our competition would not do so for months.  By February we had about 12 applicants and we needed 60!  With this level of interest, would there be a competition at all?  People were most definitely noticing us because our website averaged 100 hits per day.  With that in mind, we kept our fingers crossed, and moved on to planning an “Event Calendar” which was designed to create interest and anticipation for those considering applying; these attractions, which are essentially a mixture of festival and competition events, certainly caused a buzz.

When May 1st arrived (our deadline for applications) we were inundated with over 70 applicants, and by this time, had also achieved 1,413 hits on our website!  Much to our surprise, the two-round competition (intended for 20 competitors) had as many applications as the three-round.  So we expanded the two-round event to accommodate 29 competitors.

The advertising campaign had been a great success, with two out of three applications coming from pianists who had never previously attended the competition.

Statistics about our competitors:

  1. We attracted people from 9 countries (Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, Russia, Italy, The Netherlands, France, Canada and USA)
  2. We have an almost equal number of men and women competing
  3. Those competing have already competed in over 150 other competitions – so they are a very talented and seasoned group of competitors.
  4. Over ½ of the applicants requested master classes.

Our conclusions at the end of the marketing campaign? Both printed publications and social networking (including a website) have proved crucial. The organisation of other ‘extra’ events has also helped to cultivate greater interest, readership and create a following too.


In her next article, Sally focuses on the planning of extra events and customer relations.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.