If Pianists Were Horses: Piano competitions, from both sides of the bench

I was not one of those kids who love winning piano competitions.

I stressed: unable to sleep for weeks leading up to an audition; my fingertips breaking out in a disgusting, never-seen-since excematic peel; my stomach flip-flopping hysterically-

I over-practiced: risking carpal tunnel and total burnout, putting in 8 hours a day obsessively/ mindlessly drilling danger spots, hiding my scores in another room to test my memory, making things, inevitably, worse.

I panicked: going into the audition room I'd be convinced that the seemingly harmless group at the juror table was actually some sort of a sadistic Orwellian firing squad in disguise, waiting with pencils poised to slash through my name at the first whisper of a wrong note-

I cried: unleashing tears of utter devastation whenever my name wasn't announced among the finalists, plunging into the depths of despair and self-loathing, vowing never to put myself through it again-

Sometimes, even despite my best efforts, I won.

So why, these many years later, do I direct a competition myself? Why perpetuate the torture and abuse on another generation of young pianists? Why not live by Bartok's famous dictum "Competitions are for horses, not artists", and leave the racing on the racetrack?

Because, of course, it turns out that when I was a kid, I was wrong.

Piano competitions exist for many reasons. Their merits and outcomes have been widely debated, their abundance discussed, their efficacy disputed. But this much I now know to be true: music competitions exist, above all, to discover talent. The pencils in the jury room are poised, yes, but they are poised to record something exciting, something good, a moment of beauty, perhaps even of greatness. I know this because now I sit at the jury table, and I know how much I want to find that moment.

Of course, in the jury room there is an element of danger. There is a certain insanity, a vulnerability that brings to mind the impossible challenge of the Olympic gymnast who trains her entire life for one all-or-nothing moment...
which can, with just a fraction of a second's error, end like this:

To give a wonderful performance during those few minutes in the jury room is a challenge,  not for the faint of heart (or the stresser, or the over-practicer, or the crier).
There are some who are born to face the moment (this week we have all been thinking of Van Cliburn, not only a competition winner, but a symbol of artistic triumph over politics and conflict), and there are those who learn how to meet it with grace. And there are those who are simply not cut out for it, and find a different, and often, in the long run, better path to their success.

The competition I started seven years ago, the Mondavi Center Young Artists Competition, began as a local effort, a natural outgrowth of the work I was doing already with young musicians in Northern California. It started small, as is usually best - I invited a few local youngsters to audition for the chance perform with me on a Mozart Anniversary concert at Mondavi Center. It was a beautifully successful event which led to local and wider interest, more formal auditions, a wider reach. With the support of tremendously generous donors, and the development of national partners including Steinway & Sons, IMG Artists, Festival del Sole, and Concert Artists Guild, the competition has now officially entered the major leagues, with auditions coming up this fall in Portland OR, New York and LA, as well as here "at home".

The growth and expansion raises issues for me: how to keep this project as healthy and nurturing as it has been in its smaller form, how to keep the commitment we've established to staying involved in and supportive of our winners' future careers, how to retain a strong focus on education and career development. I see the answer in the idea of building bridges. Bridges outwards from this wonderful performing arts center that is presenting amazing, forward-looking, unique artists and projects, here on the West Coast. Bridges inwards from the New York establishment with the big-management presence of IMG. Bridges to the next level of career development with our partners at Concert Artists Guild. And bridges for these talented young student musicians onto the professional stage.

I look to several national competitions as models for this kind of long-term commitment and multi-faceted development of young artists. Foremost among them, the Indianapolis-based American Pianists Association, whose finalists live a full, immersive year of musical experiences designed not only to test but to teach them, and emerge more accomplished and deeply informed by the process, regardless of outcome. I'll be profiling the five APA finalists on their competition journey in this space, starting next month, as well as journaling from the Mondavi Center YAC auditions as they unfold around the country (see below).

The mom in me thrives on taking a parental role in young musicians' lives. The pianist in me loves the ability I have now, as a member of the professional generation, to share my information and wisdom, such as it is, to help the young ones come up in our world.

The former competition kid in me? She shakes her head and regrets all the heartache, and wishes she'd known better.
And, if wishes were horses, maybe I'd do it all over again.

Prizes: $2000-$6000
Application Deadline: THIS FRIDAY!!! August 31, 2012

Young Artists Division 
Pianists and Instrumentalists ages 10–16
Founders Division
Vocalists ages 17–21

Regional Auditions
September 29, 2012: Sherman Clay,
131 Northwest 13th Ave.
Portland, Oregon
October 13, 2012: Steinway Hall,
New York City 
October 28, 2012: Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts,
UC Davis 
November 15, 2012: The Colburn School,
Los Angeles