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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.
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.
"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.
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