Few insults sting like "amateur."
For a performer, the word suggests second-rate talent, especially when paired with its vicious cousin "rank."
Amateur night at the local club tends to attract jugglers, unicyclists
and a dozen off-key renditions of `Tonight' from `West Side Story.' It is
So why would the Cliburn Foundation invite 75 amateur pianists to
struggle through Brahms for a week, and why would anyone pay to see them
Because the pianists who come to the International Piano Competition
for Outstanding Amateurs are amateurs only in the most limiting sense of
the word. They play for joy's sake, not money - doctors who sneak in a Bach
cantata between surgeries, scientists who plow through Rachmaninoff to relax
- but they are talented performers who pursue interests outside of work with
the same passion and dedication that they give to their professional lives.
These people do not watch television. There is not enough time.
"One can become one-dimensional, and I find it terrifying," says
Rocky Nevin, a competitor from California. "When I get back in contact with
some other part of me, there's a sense of `Oh, thank you for remembering
I was here.' That's very important, those little voices."
Their playing is free of the vagaries of the music business, the
grind of constant performance and the struggle to survive playing music that
Their lives are impossibly rich, and they are perhaps more inspiring
than the tuxedo-clad professional virtuosos because they are so approachable.
They have day jobs. They commute. We watch them perform and imagine ourselves
on stage, seeing our own greatness emerge.
"You're just in awe of them," says Richard Rodzinski, Cliburn Foundation
president. "Where do they find the time to be such livers? To become a complete
human being, you can't just have your professional life and then go home
and eat dinner and maybe watch a little television. You have to nourish that
other part of you."
Take Michael Hawley.
By day, he teaches electrical engineering at MIT, where he helped
George Lucas develop the digital camera technology behind the newest `Star
Work has also taken Hawley to the top of Mount Everest, where his
computers have detected that Nepal is inching toward China one fingernail's
width at a time.
Add double degrees from Yale - music and electrical engineering -
to Hawley's resume. Then there is his luge habit. And his membership in the
U.S. Bobsled Federation. And his Duncan yo-yo championship, circa 1970.
"I get more requests to do yo-yo tricks than play piano," he says.
Great pianists, he insists, lead great lives. The bombast of Franz
Liszt's work comes from his spectacular life as a notorious philanderer -
a role that brought him duels and attempted poisonings - and a devoted churchman
given the title of abbe by Pope Pius IX.
"Music is about life and sex and death," Hawley says. "All that stuff."
Fort Worth's competition was born on the suggestion of Arthur Rubinstein's widow.
Rodzinski had gone to Israel to attend the competition named for
the legendary pianist, and while there, Nela Rubinstein mentioned an amateur
competition under way in Paris.
She told him, "There are people performing whom my husband would
have said, `They belong on stage as much as I do.' You might want to check
it out," Rodzinski recalls.
First held in 1999, the amateur Cliburn competition drew international
attention. Critics raved the following year when competitors turned clichéd
standards upside down, notably Debussy's `Clair de Lune' played painstakingly
slow - a taboo in the professional world.
"What was so wonderful," Rodzinski says, "is newspapers around the
country would start rooting for their local railroad engineer."
The idea has always been to create a sort of musical Olympic games. Professionals and profit seekers need not apply.
This year's competitors were whittled down from 150 audition tapes.
Applicants who weren't outstanding, who failed to bowl the judges over, were
More than a dozen performers are doctors, but the rest are so varied
that they could have been scooped up at random. A homemaker from Alabama.
A news anchor from New York. A chemist from Michigan. A missionary from Florida.
Then there is Nevin, a computer programmer from California whose
doctoral thesis examined the neural networks of the common cricket.
His motivation for playing: terror.
"I've always been terrified of being stuck in one thing," he says.
"The analytical parts of my life, those parts really can dominate and take
Playing for an hour a day can keep Nevin's piano side from going
inert. He can feel it start to droop in the same way an avid exerciser starts
to feel flabby after a week away from the gym.
"Amateurs are some of the most passionate players on the face of
the Earth," says James Scott, dean of the college of music at the University
of North Texas in Denton. "I've been particularly moved by amateur chamber
players. Any time they have a few days off, they will find people to play
string quartets with."
In Europe - where vacations are doled out in months, not in weeks - life outside of work is considered essential.
There is a greater craving for an inner life, Rodzinski says. The
European schedule has a more varied rhythm than the work-sleep-work-sleep
routine of American life.
We should emulate this "richer, fuller enjoyment of life," he says.
"It can be charitable work. It can be working as a volunteer coach on a baseball
For many Europeans, music is the chosen diversion, says Tamas Ungar,
piano professor at Texas Christian University who had three students compete
in the 2001 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. To them, it is less
a form of recreation than an essential part of being alive. Music is something
to be studied rather than switched on for background noise, and to play it
well is commonplace.
There is a need to pursue beauty that shows up frequently abroad,
Rodzinski says. He recalls an apocryphal story told by the mayor of Jerusalem
about a beggar in Shanghai. People passed him by for weeks until one day
when a man dropped two copper coins into his hat.
The beggar rose and, with his earnings, bought a bag of rice and
a flower. This astonished a nearby merchant, who asked the beggar for an
"I bought the rice so I might live," the beggar answered, "and the flower that I might have a reason to live."
No one will make the argument that the professional pianist lacks passion or is tainted by commerce.
Pursuing music full time is a brave gesture in any genre, but especially
one in which the music is hundreds of years old. Intense love is all that
can drive a person into a field that so often leads to failure.
"The decision to fling yourself off the cliff into the free fall
of `making a living' as a classical artist reflects a certain unescapable
joy, or obsession with making music," says Andrew Russo, a New York-born
pianist who competed in last year's Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
"Otherwise, we could certainly find less ulcer-inducing ways to put food
on the table and pay the rent."
The grind of constant performance can deplete some of that joy, like
the ups and downs of any career, but Russo says it always returns.
Joy and practicality, he says, are compatible. Russo points to Charles
Ives, the influential American composer who made his living selling insurance.
Ives watched his father shun the family banking business and take
a stab at music, adopting a style so experimental that he sometimes marched
several different bands through the streets of Danbury, Conn., all of them
playing different tunes. By the end of his life, George Ives had to stoop
to working for his nephew in the bank his father once owned.
"It is probable that Charles sensed the futility of his father's
efforts and therefore chose instead a career in business and a private musical
life," wrote J. Ryan Garber in a 1996 article for the `Classical Music Pages
Quarterly.' "Charles achieved what his father failed to accomplish not only
in business, but in music as well."
The appeal of amateurs is undeniable. They are the underdogs everyone can cheer.
They represent everyone who took piano lessons at age 10, suffered
through recitals and begged their parents to mandate some other form of self-improvement.
But they kept playing. Music awoke some dormant side of them that
stayed alive even when they realized it would never earn them a living.
"It's the brain surgeon from Paris and the auto-glass repairman from
Oklahoma," Hawley says, "and yet each of these people, when they sit down
at the nicest Steinway that Steinway has, they're glowing like a 1,000-watt
The chance to see that side - persistent, triumphant - is what draws
an audience. It is worth knowing that someone with a 40-hour work week can
squeeze so much joy out of life.
And that so could we.
Josh Shaffer, (817) 685-3957