By Their Fingertips: Teen Pianists In New Cliburn Competition

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The First Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition and Festival will give competitors 13-17 years old a chance at a Cliburn victory. (Van Cliburn Foundation )
The First Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition and Festival will give competitors 13-17 years old a chance at a Cliburn victory. (Van Cliburn Foundation )

The Van Cliburn Foundation is hosting its first international piano competition for young pianists — specifically 13 to 17-year-olds — beginning this weekend in Fort Worth, Tex. The main Van Cliburn International Competition, held every four years for adults, has helped launch professional careers. But with the new contest, which will be webcast live, a question has been raised: Are we putting too much pressure on young musicians too soon?

When you're good at piano at 25 — which is about the age of most of the main Cliburn competitors — you're already amazing at 15, says Jacques Marquis, president and CEO of the Cliburn Foundation. That's because you began at age 5 or even 4, he says.

"If we can kind of scout the field when they're young, we can at least first offer them a platform to measure their skills and to learn more about the piano world," Marquis says. "Second, we can also interest them in the Cliburn brand."

But Stuart Isacoff, a pianist and a longtime music writer, questions if the Cliburn Foundation really needs to worry about marketing.

"If someone is going to have their eyes on competitions, they're certainly going to think of the Cliburn maybe first, because it's so big, it's so important and the rewards are so great," Isacoff says.

Beijing native Youlan Ji, is competing in the First Cliburn International Junior Competition.
Beijing native Youlan Ji, is competing in the First Cliburn International Junior Competition.

The gold medalist from the last Cliburn competition in 2013, Vadym Kholodenko, won three years of international concert bookings, professional management, $50,000 and clothing from Neiman-Marcus. Because of the rewards, pressure on adult Cliburn competitors is intense. Isacoff worries gifted kids in the new junior contest — who could win up to $12,000 in cash and scholarship money — may be too young to handle that kind of stress.

"There are some very sensitive kids who may have great talents and should be carefully nurtured and not put under too much pressure too soon," Isacoff says.

Marquis agrees that the kids are bright, talented and sensitive. But he thinks they can deal with the competition.

"They have this unique free mind about playing the piano," Marquis says. "They want to share music with others, and I think they play without fear. You get the fear at 17, 18, when you realize you're almost there. At 15, you go and say hey — enjoy."

Fifteen-year-old Bejing native Youlan Ji has been playing for about half her life and is now a pre-college student at Juilliard in New York. She's not a fan of competitions, and she feels the pressure, but she's also a junior competitor.

Seventeen-year-old Adam Balogh, from Hungary, is in the Cliburn Junior Competition.
Seventeen-year-old Adam Balogh, from Hungary, is in the Cliburn Junior Competition.

"For me, it's more a learning experience, because every time I go to a big competition, I don't just expect to win anything or to do anything big," Ji says. "But all my peers, I learn so much from them, and I think that's why we compete."

Ji is already in Fort Worth for a piano festival and master classes, along with 17-year-old Adam Balogh from Hungary. To show their camaraderie, Ji gave him a high-five when she learned they've both lived mostly on their own, to study away from home, since they were 14. Balogh is also a Cliburn Junior competitor.

"Competitions for me are not something where I have enemies. I think, what she said before, that we all prepare and we all do our best," Balogh says. "I think it shouldn't be even called competing. We're just here to get experiences."

Experience and publicity. Balogh wants to make a life in music but says he still has lots to learn — though that hasn't kept him from posting a music video on YouTube.

Seminars during the Cliburn Junior Competition will provide some lessons for these young pianists. In between competition rounds, top players will hold sessions on everything from launching new careers to selecting the right piano and repertoire.

They're just the type of lessons that could come in handy if the young musicians choose to enter the main Van Cliburn competition when they're older.

Copyright 2015 KERA Unlimited. To see more, visit http://www.kera.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

The Van Cliburn Foundation is hosting its first international piano competition for young pianists -that would be 13 to 17-year-olds. The main Cliburn competition is held every four years. And since 1962, it has launched international careers. But Bill Zeeble of member station KERA reports that some wonder whether this new contest is putting too much pressure on musicians too soon.

BILL ZEEBLE: When you're good at 25, which is about the age of most of the main Cliburn competitors, you're already amazing at 15, says Jacques Marquis, head of the Cliburn Foundation. That's because, he says, you began at 5 or even 4.

JACQUES MARQUIS: If we can kind of scout the field when they're young, we can at least first offer them a platform to measure their skills and learn more about the piano world. And second, we can also maybe interest them of the Cliburn brand.

ZEEBLE: But does the Cliburn really need to worry about marketing, asks pianist and long-time music writer Stuart Isacoff?

STUART ISACOFF: If someone is going to have their eyes on competitions, they're certainly going to think of the Cliburn maybe first because it's so big, it's so important, the rewards are so great.

ZEEBLE: For example, the gold medalist from the 2013 Cliburn, Vadym Kholodenko, won 3 years of international concert bookings, professional management and $50,000.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PETRUSHKA")

ZEEBLE: Because of these rewards, pressure on main Cliburn competitors is intense. Isacoff worries gifted kids in the new junior contest may be too young to handle that kind of stress.

ISACOFF: There are some very sensitive kids who may have great talents and should be carefully nurtured and not put under too much pressure too soon.

ZEEBLE: Cliburn Foundation President Jacques Marquis agrees these kids are bright, talented and sensitive. But he thinks they can deal with the competition.

MARQUIS: They have this unique free mind about playing the piano. They want to share the music with others. And I think they play without fear. You get the fear at 17, 18, when you realize that you're almost there. At 15, you go there and say hey, enjoy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZEEBLE: Fifteen-year-old Beijing native Youlan Ji has been playing for about half her life and is now a pre-college student at Juilliard in New York. She's not a fan of competitions, and she feels the pressure, but she's also a Cliburn Jr. competitor.

YOULAN: For me, it's more like a learning experience because every time I go to a big competition, I don't just expect to win anything or to do anything big, but all my peers, I learn so much from them, and I think that's why we compete.

ZEEBLE: Youlan Ji is already in Fort Worth for a piano Festival and master classes along with 17-year-old Adam Balogh from Hungary. To show their camaraderie, Ji gave him a high-five when she learned they've both lived mostly on their own to study away from home since they were 14. Balogh is also a Cliburn Jr. competitor.

ADAM BALOGH: Competitions for me are not something where I have my enemies. And I think what she said before - that we all prepare and we all do our best - I think it shouldn't be even quote "competing." We're just here to get experiences.

ZEEBLE: And publicity. Balogh wants to make a life in music, but says he still has lots to learn, though that hasn't kept him from posting a music video on YouTube.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZEEBLE: Seminars during the Van Cliburn Jr. will provide some lessons for these young pianists. In between competition performances, there'll be sessions with top players on everything from launching new careers to selecting the right piano and repertoire, lessons that might come in handy if they choose to enter the main Cliburn competition when they're older. For NPR News, I'm Bill Zeeble in Dallas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.