What it’s Like to Compete in the Cliburn Competition

What It's Like to Compete in the Cliburn Competition.jpg

I was one of 35 competitors in the Seventh Van Cliburn International Competition held in 1985. Though some things have changed since then, the basic experience is still the same. I’ll start from the beginning of my journey.

The application form is intimidating. Planning the repertoire I would play was complicated. Included in the application was not only the repertoire for the multiple rounds of the competition, but also a list of my complete solo and concerto repertoire. The application has always been designed to eliminate anyone not ready to play a professional concert schedule.

Many people are cut without even being heard. If one makes it past the application process itself, there are screening auditions where preliminary judges listen to more than a hundred pianists around the world. They choose fewer than 40 to compete every four years in person in Fort Worth.

My journey started with a videotape made at the Los Angeles Cliburn screening location. I had an hour to make a 20-minute video of three pieces. These preliminary auditions are no longer done by videotape. The 2013 prospective competitors performed recitals in front of a live audience and a panel of judges. 

When I got to Fort Worth, Lisa, a pretty girl about my age met me at the airport. She had knee-high walking casts on both her feet. She was recovering from bunion surgery. Bunion surgery wasn’t the first thing I would have dreamed I’d be discussing at the Cliburn, but it filled ten of the twenty-five minute drive from the airport to Fort Worth.

Our first stop was at the Hospitality Suite at the Americana Hotel. We were greeted by numerous well-dressed middle-aged women wearing Ferragamo shoes, sporting BIG hair and charming southern drawls. One of them handed me a giant packet of information.

“Die-yAnn,” as I was called for the following weeks, “Could you please tell us who wrote the cadenza you’ll be playing in your Mot-zart concerto?” asked one woman. “Die-yAnn, do you have any special dietary needs that you may have forgotten to tell us about?” asked another. “Die-yAnn do you have any questions about scheduling or your host family?”

As I left, another enthusiastic volunteer presented me with a large, potted, yellow chrysanthemum. So far the Cliburn competition felt like a meeting of the Garden Club.

Every occasion at the Cliburn is a social occasion. The first event was the picking of the numbers. This was held on the formal lawn of a patron’s estate and was called The Drawing Party.

I had a hard time deciding what to wear because I was keenly aware that the competition was being made into a documentary. I settled on a red sweater and a denim skirt but still looked like a minister’s daughter. (I am a minister’s daughter, which might explain the resemblance.) My host mother, Beth, whipped out a bright red straw hat. Presto! I looked almost artistic.

As each competitor draws and announces their number, the crowd says, “Oooooooh, aaahhhhhhhh! Oh goodness, number 18!” There’s a tradition that number one is bad, so everyone is trying to avoid it.

I walked nervously up to the oversized brandy snifter that held the numbers. I covered my face with my hand as I pulled out my number. “Number 19,” said Susan Tilley, one of the competition officials. I guess the hat was a success because I found a picture of myself in full color the next morning on the front page of the Dallas Morning News.

The Cliburn competition is more humane that others because it gives competitors two chances to play before the jury makes the first cuts.

Number 19 had pros and cons. My 1st round was scheduled for 8 pm. Prime time. The time most concerts are played. Unfortunately, my 2nd round time was at 9 am. Early morning is a dreadful time to play. There are the fewest people in the audience and it means getting up ridiculously early to have a chance to warm up. In 2013 the earliest performance time was 11 am. 

To give some perspective on the amount of repertoire required, this was my program:

Preliminary Phase 1

  • Bach English Suite in A minor (25 mins)
  • Beethoven Sonata in C Major, Op. 2 #3 (25 mins)
  • Chopin Scherzo in C sharp Minor, Op. 39 (9 mins)
  • Etude in G flat Major, Op. 10 #5 (3 mins)
  • Scriabin Etude in C sharp Minor, Op. 42 No. 5 (4 mins)

Preliminary Phase 2

  • Mozart Sonata in D Major, K. 576 (20 mins)
  • Beethoven Sonata in A Major, Op. 101 (25 mins)
  • Chopin Ballade in F Minor, Op. 52 (9 mins)
  • Ravel Gaspard de la nuit (20 mins)

Semifinals Chamber Music

  • Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34 ( 40 mins)

Recital Program

  • Ravel Gaspard de la nuit  (20 mins) One repetition from another round was allowed that year
  • Corigliano Fantasia on an Ostinato (8 mins) (the required commissioned work which we received four weeks before the competition began
  • Schumann Symphonic Etudes Op. 13 (23 mins)

Finals

  • Mozart Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K. 503 (30 mins)
  • Brahms Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15 (40 mins)

This totals 4 hours and 32 minutes of music when played straight through from beginning to end. It’s easy to see why managing so much music requires a plan.

John Perry had explained to me how to maintain such a large amount of repertoire. I was to practice one or two rounds ahead of the round I was about to perform. In other words, I was to practice the semifinal material while I was still in the Preliminary Stages. In competitions which I entered after the Cliburn I did a much better job of this rotation practicing. At the Cliburn I had a hard time with it.

In my competition year, the preliminary round performances were shorter. We had to prepare the about the same amount of music as today, but the judges got to pick and choose from our offerings. 

The first round went well. The repertoire that the judges picked felt wonderful: The Prelude to the Bach A Minor English Suite, the Chopin C Sharp Minor Scherzo, and the first movement of Beethoven Sonata Op. 2 #3. The time of day was favorable, the hall was full and the audience enthusiastic. 

I hadn’t quite adjusted to the two hour time difference when the next round came around. The 9 am time still felt like 7 am to me. I hadn’t slept well, and I wasn’t feeling particularly well at all.

The judges sent their requests from my second round program to me backstage moments before I played. It was all the movements I’d just as soon not have played. Everything I hoped they’d ask for, Ravel’s Ondine for instance, was glaringly absent. Instead, they asked for the first movement of the Mozart Sonata, K. 576, the LAST two movements of the Beethoven Sonata Op. 101, and....Scarbo. I firmly believe that this final movement from Gaspard de la nuit should only be played in the wee hours of the morning in a hallucinogenic state derived from mushrooms, LSD or great sex. It is also the piece about which I’d had my worst anxiety dreams. 

I was terrified that the judges has chosen Scarbo, but I had no choice. I took a deep breath and walked on stage.

There were a few people scattered in the front row flipping their programs around. The light reflecting off them looked as if they were trying to send me a message via Morse code. It was so distracting that I left the stage after the first piece.

The Cliburn competition provides something no other competition does: a “Backstage Mother.” This woman, hand-picked for her motherly nature and unflappable demeanor, stays just off stage throughout the competition. She lovingly hands out Bandaids, glasses of orange juice and water, hugs and reassuring words. She stocks fingernail clippers, Kleenex, aspirin and Neosporin.

I ran offstage and up to the Backstage Mother. “Please,” I begged, “Get those people in the front row to move!”

“OK, honey. Just a minute and I’ll take care of it.” The Backstage Mother was the most humane fixture I ever came across in the world of international piano competitions. 

She got the culprits moved and I walked back onstage to finish my program. From there on it was a blur.

I walked offstage, sure I’d played miserably. The camera crews were waiting for me and caught every moment as I burst into tears. What I didn’t realize was that I’d played quite well and was missing my opportunities for curtain calls by standing backstage crying. Only when I watched the documentary later did I realized what had happened. The producers were quick to use the footage of me crying. At the time I was embarrassed, but now I see it as exploitive. TV producers love footage of people crying, and I had inadvertently supplied them with exactly that. It was a dose of reality television before knew what that was.

I forced myself to practice even though I knew I was doomed to be cue. The following night we all went down to the hall for the judging decision. We waited for what seemed like hours, but was probably only 45 minutes. The Director announced the names of the semi-finalists in alphabetical order. My name was not called.

The worst part of being eliminated from the competition was calling my parents. It felt like my parents’ disappointment was greater than my own. I think the Cliburn should provide someone to call your parents for you. If they are kind enough to provide a “Backstage Mother,” couldn’t they splurge and have someone called, “Surrogate Bad News Giver?” Today this would be irrelevant because the entire competition is broadcast live on the web. But in the old days we had to make those painful phone calls.

When I talked to my Dad he wanted to know if he could turn in the tickets he’d already purchased for the finals. He wanted his money back. I’m sure it seemed logical to him at the time, but it felt to me like going to a funeral and asking if someone had gotten a good deal on the coffin. 

After I got over the shock of not making the cut, I started enjoying myself. If they’d given a “Miss Congeniality” prize I would have won it. I went to all the semifinal and final performances. I made friends with the film crew and administration of the competition. I did press interviews. One thing the Cliburn can do is throw a party. It was delightful to attend them without having to worry about performing the next day.

Since that time the Cliburn has continued to influence my life in ways I could never have imagined. I’ve returned to Fort Worth many times to play outreach concerts and educational programs. I judged the Amateur Competition in 2002 and loved being on the other side of that equation.

When I watched the competition today, I knew exactly how those people felt not hearing their names. I wonder where these amazing performers will end up. I identify with them. I worry about them. I hope for the best. 

My fingers are crossed, hoping that the judges will pick the greatest artist, the most imaginative pianist, the person with the most to say.


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