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June 5, 2002
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'Amateur' is not an insult to a musician

Players in Cliburn's contest bring mature perspectives to music


By SCOTT CANTRELL / The Dallas Morning News

It's only the second definition of "amateur," at least in Webster's New World Dictionary, that refers to performance "without professional skill." Taking its cue from the word's Latin root–"amator," meaning "lover"–the first definition is "a person who engages in some art, science, sport, etc., for the pleasure of it rather than for money."

In J.S. Bach's day, back in the 18th century, "amateur" was a compliment. Bach dedicated one of his most sophisticated collections of keyboard music, the third book of Clavierübung, not to professionals but to "amateurs and especially connoisseurs of such work." To Bach, a professional musician was a "mere" tradesman.

That intensely devoted – and often quite knowledgeable and skilled – amateurism will be celebrated this week at the third International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs, sponsored by the Van Cliburn Foundation. Seventy-four pianists from 24 states and four other countries will gather at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth to strut their Mozart, Chopin and Rachmaninoff – not to mention their Max Reger, Charles Tomlinson Griffes and Robert Muczynski. They will do so not so much for prizes and certainly not for career advancement, but for personal challenges and satisfactions.

Also Online
The Third International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs takes place June 3-8 at Ed Landreth Auditorium, Texas Christian University, University and West Cantey in Fort Worth.
Complete packages: $105
Semifinals, finals and awards: $60
Individual sessions: $10 for preliminaries, $20 for semifinals and $35 for finals and awards.
Call Central Tickets, 817-335-9000 or 1-800-462-7979.
Preliminary round (June 3-5): Seventy-five applicants will each present a program not to exceed 12 minutes.
Preliminary round schedule
Semifinal round (June 7): Eighteen semifinalists will each present a program not to exceed 20 minutes.
Final round (June 8): Six finalists will each present a program not to exceed 30 minutes.
The Competitors
The Jurors
First prize: $2,000
Second prize: $1,000
Third prize: $500
Other prizes: Press jury award; audience award; awards for the best performance of a work from the baroque, classical and romantic eras; best performance of a modern work; most creative programming award; and jury discretionary awards.
On the Web
WFAA Video: Amateurs attracting more attention
International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs
Cliburn Foundation official site
They will be testing themselves against others, true, but also exuding deeply personal relationships with music – the sort of personality too often ground out of professional music-making. They're in it for love, not money.

As at the Cliburn competition for budding professionals, the most recent installment of which was held last summer, there will be preliminary, semifinal and final rounds, all open to the public. But the top prize this time is only $2,000, and the whole spirit is far friendlier and more fun-filled than the sometimes-cutthroat competition among the youngsters.

While 30 is the upper-age cutoff for the professional Cliburn competition, you have to be at least 35 to sign up for the amateur contest. Although some participants have advanced music degrees and may even work professionally in some other area of music, for the competition's purposes they can't make their livings as either pianists or piano teachers.

The amateur competition draws some powerfully driven contestants, people with distinguished careers in medicine, academia, technology and law. This year's slate includes a missionary, a couple of accountants, a veterinarian and an architect.

You'll hear some less-than-polished playing, maybe even a catastrophic memory slip. But there will also be playing of fully professional skill. And the best of it will have a generosity of expression you'll hear from hardly any name-in-lights professionals.

A glowing moment

No one who attended the last amateur competition, in 2000, will forget Debra Saylor. When her time came to appear on stage, she was preceded by the tapping of a white cane. The audience gasped audibly at the sight of a blind woman negotiating her way to the piano.

But Ms. Saylor went on to play two pieces about moonlight – something she has never seen – with an unimaginable richness of color and freedom of rhythm. Her performances of Debussy's Clair de lune and Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata seemed to come from another world. By the end, people in the audience were dabbing at their own eyes left and right.

Ms. Saylor, who took third place last time, is back this year. So is MIT media professor Michael Hawley, who last time gave a revelatory performance of Liszt's woolly B-minor Sonata.

"As thrilling as the 'professional' Cliburn competition is," says Dr. Hawley, "one has the strong sense that these hyperspecialized people have relatively little personality and have lived laser-focused lives. They seem to be missing the kind of perspectives on life that really are what fill our musical worlds.

"By contrast, the amateurs in the 'other' Cliburn have had full lives, and are mature – insofar as 'over 30' makes one mature. That perspective, and the worldliness that comes from living lives in other fields, enriches the musical expression."

What's sad, as Dr. Hawley points out, is at least the appearance of decline in amateur music-making. In the first half of the 20th century, the parlor piano was perhaps the defining statement of reaching the middle class, and piano lessons were de rigeur. Now the grand piano is more apt to be a décor accessory for the newly affluent, and it's more likely to be played by a digital mechanism. Fewer and fewer people seem to have the experience of singing together.

"One senses that society continues to move away from a music- making culture and toward a music-consuming culture," Dr. Hawley says. "I don't think that's a good thing for our collective hearts and minds."

Musical amateurism has a rich history. The Prussian king Frederick the Great was a flutist of considerable skill and even an amateur composer. Queen Elizabeth I played the harpsichord, as did most upper-crust English ladies of her day – that or else the stringed instruments known as viols.

Harry Truman and Richard Nixon both played the piano with some skill. Albert Einstein played the violin, and Jack Benny did so better than he let on. William F. Buckley, Jr. has performed publicly on piano and harpsichord.

Orchestras of medical professionals are found in quite a few American cities. A pianist friend in New Mexico says Los Alamos is more seriously musical than Santa Fe.

A growing body of scientific research suggests that we humans actually have a need for music – a need to experience it not just aurally, but physically. And, although a wildly imperfect medium of communication, clearly music touches and opens otherwise inaccessible reaches of our psyches.

Another amateur competitor this time is Dr. Nancy Futrell, a neurologist from Salt Lake City. Working on a day-to-day basis with stroke victims, she has seen the literally life-giving aspects of music.

"When a person has a stroke that affects the right side of the brain, they can't talk," Dr. Futrell says. "But they can often sing with us, and sing the words, because music is on the other side of the brain.

"Oliver Sachs, the guy who wrote Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, has written about how music can get Parkinson's victims to move better. The power of music and rhythm as a way to get into a damaged brain, and as a way to rehabilitation, is something we've only begun to work on."

Other recent research has focused on the ability of music – and artistic expression in general – to help stimulate and organize the brain. It's no secret that musical practice and performance help foster discipline in other areas of life. Quite a few contestants in the Cliburn amateur competition became skilled musicians – some with multiple degrees in music – before buckling down to fiercely demanding day jobs.

"There are a lot of physicians in this competition," Dr. Futrell observes, "and I think it's because musicians are such disciplined people that it prepares them for success in other careers."

And, Dr. Futrell says, the challenge of learning – and memorizing – music helps keep the brain vital even in later years.

"I'm 54 years old and played a recital a week ago from memory. I haven't done that in 25 years. It was stressful, but I did it.

"We need to be achieving all our lives. Achievement isn't just for kids. You get to your 50s and 60s, and you realize that if you want your life to remain interesting, and your brain to continue to function, you need new challenges."

Dr. Hawley is no less convinced of the emotional value of music.

"Music makes me a better person," he says. "Learning and studying music has helped me open up emotionally; has helped me feel a certain kinship with the other great musicians who came before me; and has taught me patience, perseverance and how to practice ... .

"As with other forms of 'serious play,' the more you do, the more you practice, the better you feel, and the better everyone around you feels. You have to invest yourself, but the big reward is a big boost in self-esteem.

"It's completely infectious, which is why the great concert gatherings – symphonies, operas, musicals – are among the crowning treasures of human culture."


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