2008 - Washington International Piano Artist Competition

December 13, 2008

above: The 6 Finalists from left to right: So-Hee Hur, Vincent Schmithorst, Rebecca Davis, Louis Dalaveris, Kathleen Penny, Ricker Choi

 

I competed in the 2008 Washington International Piano Artists Competition, and was awarded:

  • 3rd Prize,

  • the Press Jury Award,

  • Best Performance of a Romantic Work Award


It was an amazingly intense and nerve wrecking experience. 

Being my first time competing in this type of competition and highly inexperienced in concert performances, I encountered numerous problems and self-doubts.  (See further down for Lessons Learnt)  Any advice is very welcome!

 

COMPETITION FORMAT 

The competition is open to anyone above age 31 and not currently performing regularly as a professional concert artist. Amateurs like myself, music students, or ex-professional concert artists are all eligible. It was amazing to meet musicians from all walks of life: accountants, lawyers, software professionals, Master and PHD students in piano performance, and even a Julliard graduate and ex-concert artist - all compete in this great event.   Scroll further down for biographies of some of the finalists.

This was also a truly international event! Some competitors were from Vietnam, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Argentina, and Germany.

The competition is structured in 3 rounds, with increasing number of jury members:

 

  • Pre-screening - each applicant sent in a CD for pre-screening.

  • 1st round - July 17-18 - at a church: 15 min - performed Liszt's Mephisto Waltz to a jury of 8

  • 2nd round- July 19 - at the Mexican Cultural Institute: 20 min - performed Beethoven's Op. 109 3rd mvmt., and 1st and 3rd dances from Ginasteras Danza Argentinas to a jury of 11

  • 3rd round - July 20 - at the Embassy of France: 25 min - performed Liszt-Wagners Liebestode and Scriabin Sonata #5 to a jury of 13

 

FUNNY STORIES 
Followings really happened!


Arriving at the airport...

I asked the information desk personnel: So what is the must-see thing in Washington?

He answered: You must go to the mall.

I asked: Sorry, but what else besides shopping?

He clarified: No! The National Mall is where all the museums are!

 

Upon Arriving the dormitory...

I realized my room was right across the elevator.  This is convenient!, so I thought.  Inside the room, I realized the blinds didnt work and could not be drawn down. I thought, Wow perfect! I forgot to bring an alarm clock, so Mr. Solar can wake me up.

 

1:00 am: drunken university students yelled and screamed right outside my room.  Were they waiting for the elevator or just exiting from it?  They just seemed not willing to go away.  I thought of opening my door and also yelled and screamed at them, but decided otherwise.

 

5:00 am: mighty sun rose, and so did I - to grab a T-Shirt to cover my eyes.  But this lasted only 30 min. because

 

5:30 am: trucks racing towards a construction site across the street SCREAMED



When the Car Arrived to Pick Us Up to the Opening Reception...

The car had only 5 seats, but there were a total of 6 people.

 

The driver said: Well, someone just have to crawl up into the hatch at the back.

 

We looked at each other in silence. Finally a more senior gentleman looked at me and said, Well I am over 60.  So I am leaving this task to the young ones.

 

I looked away, tried to find a younger one, but only saw everyone already crawled inside the car, leaving me standing.

 

I climbed into the hatch at the back, muttering: Is this even legal? But I heard no response.

 

THE LESSONS LEARNT 

Preparing the Competition

June:

I was away for 3 weeks from Toronto in May. When I came back, I was worried about losing the music in my fingers, and so I went full speed with practising. Problem! I felt I was at peak already by 3rd week of June, and I still have 4 weeks to go before the competition!


Lesson Learnt 1: time the peak!


The program became a burden - I started to hate Mephisto - damn devil! To maintain the program, I scheduled about two to three mini performances during each of the next 4 weeks : master classes, friends gathering, or small charity concerts.

I was soon exhausted!

I totally over-practised and my forearms and hands were hurting. Finally about the 4th week of June, I had to stop practising at all as my forearms were extremely sore.

 

I sought help from everyone I could get hold of: chiropractors, acupuncture therapists, massage therapists. Turned out that my problem was very common amongst pianists. I was advised to soak my hands and arms into hot and then cold water, and do lots of stretching. After about 1 week of no practising, my arms fully recovered!

When I went back to practising, soon it hurt again. I quickly realized what was wrong!

I lived in an apartment and could not practice on a real piano (neighbors didnt like my interpretations and threatened to sue me when I did have an upright). So I have a digital piano, which I spend 90% of my time practising on with headphones plugged in. Because I cant turn on the sound too loud, I had unconsciously played every piano key with much more force than I needed on a real grand piano. Especially when I practiced the loud passages, the force applied was too great for my arms to handle.  Furthermore, I tended to have long practice sessions with no break, in which my mind simply went numb and failed to sense the tenseness in my body.


 

Lesson Learnt 2: practice with lots of breaks in between!


A chiropractor taught me techniques used in sports training: cross-training and mental visualization.  I needed to be creative in practising, such that physical strain is at the minimum:

  • Read the score silently without touching the piano, and imagine the sound I want

  • Close my eyes and visualize hand movements

  • Practice very slowly sections at a time, watching and feeling my whole body for any tenseness or over-usage.

  • I set an alarm to beep every 20 min, at which I stop practising and stretch for 5 min.

  • Every night I soak my hand and arm in hot and then cold water


July 1-19  Final 2 Weeks Before Competition:

I didn't practice much these 2 weeks. I now realized I could perform the piece next day just by going through slowly the pieces on the piano or even just mentally in my head the night before. Gosh!  Why did I practise so much before! I continued this relaxed regime for the rest of my scheduled mini-performances.

July 17-20  Competition:

During the competition, I was practising about 4 hours per day. I split up the 4 hours into blocks of 15 min, and took very long breaks every 2 hours. After each 15 min block, I rested and stretched for at least 5 min. It worked! I felt very little physical strain.



Before Going On Stage

For 1st and 2nd rounds, before going on stage, I spent 30 min listening to music on my Ipod that I thought would create the mood I needed for the piece. I listened to mostly movie soundtrack or jazz.  I visualized imageries that would create an emotion for me. For Mephisto Waltz, I imagined a bunch of devils all over the church fooling around with the jury, and pounding out the jazz tune on the piano with their toes, tongue, elbows

It worked in relaxing me before going on stage, but once I got on stage, I got intense emotionally that my playing became stiff and uncontrolled.

When I saw Rebecca Daviss (2nd Prize Winner) performance, I was stunned by her poise and calmness even during moments of huge emotions. She simply played everything easily and be able to make a big sound. Later watching Vincent Schmithorsts (1st Prize Winner) performance, his confidence and solidity in his playing inspired a similar confidence in me.

So for the final round, I tried a different approach: I didn't spend anytime getting into the zone. Instead, I simply listened to other finalists, and chatted away with others  simply having a jolly mood even just minutes before me walking on stage. I even attempted juggling a pair of hand-warmers someone generously gave me. When I was on stage, I simply took 2 deep breaths, placed my hand onto the keys, and boom! The opening chord of Liebestode filled the hall dramatically. It worked magically (at least that's what I thought)! I was able to perform in a very relaxed manner, with little tension, and very little concentration problem.


 

Lesson Learnt 3: plan the emotions and imageries when practising, but forget about them when performing! When perform - simply listen, feel, and play. Especially listen to the sound and silence between notes.

 

Adjusting My Inner Ear

In a bigger concert hall, the sound travels outward, and there is no wall to bounce back the sound to the performer. I often find the sound from the piano subdued on stage, but to the audience, it may sound perfect. In the past, when I performed in Markham Theatre, I will get disoriented and feel I have to press harder each key to project the sound, but in fact the sound balance may just be perfect if I play normally.

After the horrific experience in 1st round of not hearing myself well, I thought of a crazy idea: practised with ear plugs - focused on how much pressure I felt on the piano key, and adjusted my inner ears volume expectation. When I performed in the final round, I believed I was able to adjust my inner ears to the lesser volume I heard on stage and not to second guess myself. At the end, I asked a few  friends about my performance, and they say the balance was right (except one who preferred to hear more middle voices).


 

Lesson Learnt 4: don't always expect the same sound from all piano or concert hall. Judge also by the feeling of pressure on my finger tips and adjust my inner ear accordingly. For big sound, just be relaxed  never play harder than normal even if the sound seemed weaker to me at the piano.  Have someone at the concert hall to check my sound projection.


[Anyone can tell me if this makes sense or not?]

An organist friend of mine, Eva, just told me upon reading this - that in some churches, the reverb time is so long, and the pipes and the console may be placed at opposite ends, causing a noticeable lag in sound to the organists ear. In such a situation, it is impossible for the organist to hear what is going on.  Reliance on inner ear is critical in these situations.

 


Practicing Different Touches

(This one is a bit controversial I might be over-analyzing / over-complicating things - please advice!!)  The piano on 2nd round was a Steinway that can produce a huge sound, but when you attempt to play pianissimo, the action is too stiff and often there is no sound produced. The solution (I thought at that time) was to play very deeply into the key and feel the depth even when playing very softly. I tried to anticipate this issue by practising the opening of Beethoven Op. 109 3rd Movement with two types of touches: pull and push. I practised both ways such that if the piano was able to generate a mezzo voce sound without much effort, I would pull each key towards me. But if the piano key was too stiff (like the piano on 2nd round) I would resort to pushing deeply into the keybed where I could feel the depth of each note played.


 

Lesson Learnt 5: anticipate different piano key weight, and come up with alternative solutions for each critical passage.





Wrong Notes are Ok!

At the very end of the competition, a few jury members approached me complimenting on my performances. I kept asking them, but didnt you hear the wrong notes? I asked the same question many times to audience who heard me throughout the competition. But nobody seemed perturb by my wrong notes. The answer I often got was: it is the personality that matters the most.  A even more amazing answer I got was, Forget about mistakes in wrong notes just dont make mistakes in tone colors.


 

Lesson Learnt 6: wrong notes are ok! It is personality and tone colors in a performance that counts, and dont make mistake in these 2!


(sounds obvious, but I always forget when nerves got me!)



True Spirits of Competition

I was extremely nervous, kept worrying being kicked out 1st or 2nd rounds. But talking to the other competitors, I heard numerous stories about so-and-so winning competition X, but then didn't even get through 1st round in competition Y. Everyone knows competition outcomes are always subjective. I must remember that I can only do my best. The jury can either love or hate me, which I have no control over. I can only have control over my performance.

At the end of the competition, some jury members generously told me that they loved the personality that came through my performance. I need to remember in the future, when I enter competitions, I just need to convey my personality and not worry about people liking or not.


 

Lesson Learnt 7: true spirit of competition is doing my best and forget the outcome. I am not there to please the jury, but to learn from the experience. I do what I planned, and outcome of a competition is not the most important thing.  I don't change my interpretation in an attempt to please the jury.


I know I am over-analyzing and over-complicating things. If there is anyone who can simplify my problems, please drop me a note and give me some suggestions.


VINCENT"S RESPONSES 
Vincent Schmithorst (1st Prize Winner) responded as follows after reading my blog:

Hi Ricker,

Congratulations again on your awards and performance at the WIPAC. I mostly agree with your lessons learned.

1. Time the peak - I only started to seriously prepare my program about a month before the competition. I'd start earlier if I were learning new repertoire, or re-learning old repertoire I hadn't played in years. But performing the same repertoire in concert after concert is counter-productive - and when do you get the time to learn any new repertoire? Performing in itself is good if you can find the outlets to do it (I couldn't) - but not the same program time after time. And as I told you earlier, you should NEVER push things to or beyond the point of pain. A little soreness/aching is normal, just like it is after any physical workout, but pain is your bodys warning sign to stop IMMEDIATELY. You are in SERIOUS danger of injury. Many pianists have in fact injured themselves in this way, sometimes seriously, which took them out of commission for months at a time. Try to get your whole body involved in your technique. Its not just the fingers, not the just the wrists, not just the forearms, and even not just the upper arms. Your whole upper body should be involved in your sound production, and even lower body for leverage for the big sounds. This will lessen the physical strain quite a bit.

2. Practice creatively - My difficulty isn't so much physical strain, but mental strain. I make sure I take a short break before each new piece I practice, to get my mind in the mood for the new selection. I get up, get a drink, check e-mail, etc. Also, much practicing is done away from the piano - I hear in my mind the way I want the piece to sound - and let the music speak to me.

3. When perform, simply listen, play, and feel. You were cool as a cucumber backstage before your final performance and I knew it was going to be great (although I couldn't listen because I was preparing for my own performance). Dont overthink it. Let it flow. The time for thinking the music is during preparation and practicing. Let the music speak during the performance. You've got something to say the audience wants to hear.

4. Dont expect the same sound from all pianos or concert halls. The circumstances were a bit unusual (we would hope) at the WIPAC because the 2nd and 3rd round pianos were so bad. Its not true that however you get no feedback on how your sound is projecting performing in a concert hall. The piano lid is opened towards the audience, the biggest section of the hall, true, but some sound does reverberate from the closed area of the stage. If you have the chance, practice in a concert hall and train your ear to listen to the particular acoustics there. Also, since youre computer-savvy, if you wish to get fancy, you can record yourself (with the microphone right next to the piano) and then simulate the acoustics of a concert hall (such as the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam) - this is what the professional recording engineers do. They were actually very high-tech about it - they actually went and fired a gun inside the auditorium and then measured the reverberations! Youll see that what the audience hears is a little different, but not THAT much different, from what you hear when practicing.

5. Anticipate the piano weight - this is the only lesson I somewhat disagree with. Most concert actions are pretty standard, and there really isn't a whole lot of difference. The problem with the 2nd round piano wasn't so much the action, but the voicing of the strings. Same with 3rd round piano - one register was noticeably voiced different than the other. Using a different technique wouldn't really help. I struggled with Ravel Jeux d'Eau all the way through in the 2nd round due to the piano, and this was of all my pieces the one I felt didn't come off the way I would have hoped. I guess the only question is should you plan your repertoire around the possibility you may get a crappy instrument. ((Hush, hush) If all goes well, Jelena and I are going to solve this problem for next years competition.)

6. A few wrong notes are OK. Too many wrong notes are not, and a competitor with an enormous number will be eliminated, no matter what anyone tells you. Practice to note-perfection, but then don't worry about wrong notes when you perform. It will be more than accurate enough. Indeed, worry much more about personality and tone colors during the performance. I was much more worried about giving a flat performance in all of the rounds then about a few wrong notes (I played a few wrong notes, too, but only a few).

7. True spirit of competition is doing your best - yes. You will never win if you deliver a bland performance. The jury won't hate you, but they wont love you either, which is what you need to win. Just convey your personality - that whats music is all about the first place.

Best of luck and I hope to see you either at WIPAC next year or possibly at other events.



My Next Stop 

So what is my next stop? I need to start getting ready to organize my next Music Heals! charity concert: Oct 18 7:00 pm - Fund Raising for 08 Sichuan (China) Earthquake. There will be a jazz trio, a soprano, and some solo piano from me.



BIOGRAPHIES 

Vincent Schmithorst - 1st Prize WinnerVincent Schmithorst (1st Prize Winner) began his piano studies at the age of four and soloed with an amateur orchestra at the age of eight. At ten years of age, he soloed with the Cincinnati POPS Orchestra, and has since also soloed with the Cincinnati Symphony, Indianapolis Symphony, and Columbus Symphony Orchestras. He continued his studies at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, where he double-majored in piano performance and physics, graduating with a Bachelors of Science and Bachelors of Music at the age of eighteen. Subsequently he pursued doctoral studies in physics. After receiving a Ph.D. in physics, he joined the faculty of Cincinnati Childrens Hospital Medical Center, where he is using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology to study how the brain processes sound in children with unilateral hearing loss and auditory processing disorders, and is also interested in the effect musical training in childhood may have on other cognitive domains such as math processing. He continues to perform piano in solo recitals, and his awards include sixth prize in the American Music Scholarship Association World Piano Competition, and was a finalist and diploma-recipient in the first international Piano and Organ Competition held in Vilnius, Lithuania. Recently he was awarded First Prize and the award for Best Performance of Classical Period at the Sixth Washington International Piano Artists Competition held July 2008 in Washington, DC.

Rebecca Davis (2nd Prize Winner) began her studies at the age of four in Philadelphia and by thirteen had already performed Schumanns Piano Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra as well as being a finalist in Leonard Bernsteins Young Peoples Auditions. As a student she was selected to perform in the master classes of Claude Franck, Guido Agosti, Gina Bachauer, Beveridge Webster and Irwin Freundlich. A recipient of numerous awards, grants, and scholarships, she also received a coveted Teaching Fellowship at The Juilliard School while working on her Masters Degree there and subsequently became a faculty member in the conservatorys Pre-College Division teaching theory and ear training. Five years after graduating from Juilliard, she began a twelve year hiatus before returning to performing/competitons. During the past few years she won top honors (First Prize, Second Prize, Music Critics Awards, Audience Favorite Performance Awards, finalist) at international competitions held in Berlin, Paris, New York, and Washington, D.C., and has performed in France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Switzerland and the U.S. In the mid 1970s Ms. Davis was invited to participate in the Lincoln Center Program (a program that sends performing artists into the New York public school system) and through the years has continued her philanthropic activities. She was awarded a Certificate of Merit by her peers at the Minnesota State Arts Board in recognition of being an arts leader in Minnesota, and in November 2007 gave a free performance at the Charite (the largest hospital in Europe, located in Berlin) for patients, staff and visitors to the hospital. Volunteering to give free performances in public schools, for at risk students, in senior citizen facilities, homeless shelters, and serving as a juror for arts organizations are among her many other activities. She also produced/hosted her own classical music program on NPR (National Public Radio) while living in Los Angeles.

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