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For Cliburn Amateurs, Contest Helps Rekindle Love for Piano


by Stephen Becker 27 May 2011

This week, 72 piano players are in Fort Worth for the Sixth International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs. For these players, competing is about rediscovering their passion for the piano. And the competitors have unique stories of how they reconnected with the instrument.

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This week, 72 piano players are in Fort Worth for the Sixth International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs. For these players, competing is about rediscovering their passion for the piano. And the competitors have unique stories of how they reconnected with the instrument.

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Leticia Martinez thought she’d play professionally as she finished up a degree in piano performance. But then she changed directions.

MARTINEZ: “I didn’t feel like I had it in me to have piano only, because to me it’s a very lonely job to have. You practice all by yourself, all the time, hours and hours.”

Instead, she went to law school. Today, she’s a criminal prosecutor and an assistant district attorney for Tarrant County. She all but abandoned the piano as she began her career and started a family.

That’s a common story – once they realize they’re not going pro, most of the amateurs let go of piano for a while. But the stories about what brought them back are interesting.

Martinez says she picked it up again as a way to expose her young twins to classical music.

MARTINEZ:  “I started playing again for the kids, but now it’s taking away from the kids, because I can’t focus as much on them because I’m so focused in on trying to prepare. My husband has really taken up the slack.”

Michael Brounoff was introduced to the piano at the age of 3 by his father, who was a violinist in the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. But in college, studying psychology, he stopped taking practice seriously. Then, after school, he was stationed in the Philippines in the Navy. The wife of a Navy Captain got wind that he played piano and asked him to put together a recital.

BROUNOFF: “Now, if the captain’s wife says you’re going to give a recital, you’re going to give a recital. So I worked up a program, and I played a recital in the base theater in the face of an approaching typhoon. They were shuttering the windows. And at one point during my recital, the power went out and somebody came up on stage with a flashlight and illuminated the keyboard and I kept playing.”

Today, Brounoff is a U.S. Administrative Law Judge. He lives in Plano. And he says he mostly plays to relax.

BROUNOFF: “I can come home after a stressful day at the office, sit down and start playing anything. The tension melts away and I can get lost in my own world.”

Dominic Piers Smith also uses the piano to change gears. When he gets home from work he tries to squeeze in an hour or so of practice.

That’s quite a shift from the sound of his workplace.

Smith designs Formula 1 racecars for Mercedes Benz in Oxford England. Racecars and pianos couldn’t be more different, right? Think again, Smith says.

SMITH: “They seem like quite separate things, but I think in a number of ways there’s a lot of similarities. How you get the best out of a piece of music is quite similar to how you design a racing car, really. You have to get the details right, but you also have to get the overall structure and the compromise between the different facets of a piece or a car. I think both require a degree of perfectionism.”

Finding time for perfectionism can be tougher for amateurs with regular jobs – after all, the pros can practice all day. But for these competitors, the contest isn’t just about winning. And, besides, as Michael Brounoff, the judge, says:

BROUNOFF: “In the amateur competition we’re not looking for a career – we have other careers already. But we have a possibility of making friends who share a common interest, keeping in touch between competitions, getting together, and sharing and spreading music together. And I think it’s a powerful force for good in the world.”

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