As the School of Music Piano Program enters its penultimate week, piano students have the chance to put their skills to the test in the annual piano competition. The preliminary round will begin at 9:30 a.m. Monday, July 22 in Sherwood-Marsh Studios and continue throughout most of the day.
Though the competition is not mandatory for the Piano Program students, it is strongly encouraged that all students participate, and usually they all do. It is the second piano competition of the season; in Week One, students competed in the Sigma Alpha Iota Competition, which rotates each year between the School of Music’s Voice, Instrumental and Piano Programs. This week’s competition, on the other hand, happens in the Piano Program each year.
While the SAI Competition was done in concerto style — where students played a single piece with accompaniment by a second piano — in this competition the students play solo. They must play two contrasting pieces, from memory, to give the judges an idea of the breadth of their skills. There are no restrictions to the repertoire that the students may choose from.
“I think all things being equal, the judges would rather hear a pianist who plays a more varied program than one who plays a more uniform program, in terms of style,” said John Milbauer, co-chair of the Piano Program.
There are three judges for the preliminary round and three different ones for the final. All are from outside of the Piano Program. They will judge the students on a number of criteria including the cleanness of the playing, timing, pedaling, the shape of the musical phrases, the balance between the use of both hands and other musicianship skills.
“That’s maybe the primary consideration, but the superseding one is: Are they making something beautiful?” Milbauer said. “Are they conveying the music in a way that is most resonant or most compelling and most beautiful? That’s where we rely on the judges, because that’s very subjective.”
There are usually four to five students who move on to the final round, which will take place at 1 p.m. Thursday in Fletcher Music Hall. Finalists will get to play either several new pieces, or they may play the full version of what they chose for the preliminary round. First, second and third place will then be awarded.
The winners will receive a three-part prize: a cash prize — usually around $1,000 or $2,000 — an offer to return to Chautauqua next year on a full scholarship and a place in the winners’ recital at 4 p.m. Friday in Fletcher. The money for the prizes comes from donations from the community and supporters of the Piano Program. The second and third place winners will play the first half of the recital, while the first place winner will be given the entire second half of the recital to perform.
This competition always takes place during Week Five, which is typically the final week of the Piano Program. Usually, it is the culmination of all that the students have learned over the summer, meant to be one last exhibition before they leave the grounds.
“It focuses their energy, and you hear the results in their playing,” Milbauer said. “It’s a great showcase for that.”
This year, the program will continue for one extra week, giving students time to wind down from the pressures of the competition and continue learning and performing at Chautauqua for a while longer.