The annual Piano Competition is a highlight of Chautauqua’s Piano Program. This competition usually happens during Week Five, which is the final week of the program. The preliminary round of the competition, with every student playing 15 minutes of music, occurred on Monday. The finalists were announced after that preliminary round. Six out of 22 piano students — Lorenzo Medel, Arsen Jamkotchian, Kyunghoon Kim, Yi Chen Feng, Jane Liu and Chen Liang — made it the final round.
These six students will play in the final round of the competition at 1 p.m. Thursday, July 26, in Fletcher Music Hall.
According to Nicola “Nikki” Melville, the Piano Competition is a “galvanizing experience” for the Piano Program, while the Music School Festival Orchestra has its orchestra concerts, and the Voice Program has its operas.
“It’s exciting for the students, and it’s exciting for the program. … We have people who say they choose to come in Week Five because they want to see the Piano Competition,” said Melville, Piano Program co-chair. “The public is excited to hear the students play.”
For Melville, this competition is an opportunity for piano students to “learn by performing under pressure” rather than focus on winning.
“The sole goal should not be that they feel like they should win the competition,” Melville said. “We want (the competition) to have more meaning than that.”
Melville said she and John Milbauer, co-chair of the Piano Program, try to make the competition an extension of the students’ experiences at Chautauqua.
Melville said most people approach competition with the idea that they have to play the most reliable and most well-known thing.
“This is not why we do the competition,” she said.
Instead, Melville and Milbauer encouraged the students “to continue their pedagogical journey” from the beginning of the summer.
“We put a big emphasis on participation,” Melville said. “(The piano students) are here learning new things.”
Melville told the students in their preparation for the competition: “If you’ve got a new piece and you want to see how it does under pressure, play that.”
Melville said piano programs in other music festivals have competitions as well, but what makes Chautauqua’s program unique is that the two co-chairs “don’t start the whole summer talking about the competition.” The competition is not the focus of Melville and Milbauer’s interactions with the students until much closer to the actual event.
“(Milbauer) and I put in a lot of time in not just the music part,” Melville said, but also having conversations with students to create a “general sense of community.”
“Students learn best when they are in an environment that feels supportive and nurturing,” Melville said.
According to Melville, there were many students sitting there listening to one another play in the preliminary round.
“They are all supporting each other, clapping for each other,” Melville said. “Of course, they want to do well, but they are also happy for their friends who do well as well. It’s not that sense (of) intense competition amongst the students. The competition is about playing well. It’s not about who wins or who beats whom.”
Artist-in-residence Jon Nakamatsu, who served as one of the judges in the preliminary round, said it is exciting to hear the students play. He hopes no student is disappointed in the outcome.
“It was not an easy decision, and every single person who played has something that made us discuss and made us think,” Nakamatsu said. “That’s good because if it’s too easy a decision, usually it means that there’s not enough interests in the group. And this group has a lot of interesting players. Everybody had something to say about something. I was very pleased to hear that today.”
Nakamatsu said there are always surprises for him in piano competitions.
“(Sometimes) somebody who I thought was obviously the best doesn’t make it into the next round, and somebody who I thought, ‘Oh, this is somebody who clearly wouldn’t make it’ passes,” Nakamatsu said. “There’s always, always, always a surprise to me. And that just shows you how imperfect these competition settings are.”
Nakamatsu said there are multiple variables that easily affect the competition results, including the dynamic of the panel and the voting system.
“What we judge, or what we deem as candidates that progress (into the next round), doesn’t mean anything except that it could be how the votes were tabulated, what the system in which we were asked to vote, the panel of the time, what the dynamic of the group was,” Nakamatsu said. “The next day, we could hear the same thing — maybe the decision would be different.”
Nakamatsu said even though it’s hard for a judge to say this, “results really don’t matter.”
“Particulation and progress and just going through the process is the absolute most important thing,” Nakamatsu said.
Piano student Tyler Ramos had a similar opinion and said the competition just happens to be a milestone in that process. Ramos said the competition is good preparation for seeing how much he can discover in the music he plays.
“For me, it’s not about the results. It’s just the process, always the process, how can I really express this music, what’s at the core of the music,” Ramos said. “Maybe this competition wrapped up that process a bit more than I usually do.”