Van Cliburn

For Cliburn Amateur competitors, it’s not about the prize money

Christopher Shih hold ups the first place trophy as Van Cliburn looks on at the close of the Sixth International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs in 2011.
Christopher Shih hold ups the first place trophy as Van Cliburn looks on at the close of the Sixth International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs in 2011. Ron T. Ennis/Star-Telegram

The chance to win $2,000 is not the reason dozens of amateur pianists have come here this week, some of them say.

“It’s not for the money,” said first-time Cliburn amateur competitor Alfredo Garcia Jr. “It’s for the love of the piano. Like Van Cliburn would say, ‘It’s the love of music.’ 

The competitors spent thousands of hours practicing and thousands of their own dollars to come to Fort Worth from around the world for the Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition. Play began Sunday with 68 preliminary competitors, who were narrowed throughout the week to 30 quarterfinalists, 12 semifinalists and, finally, six finalists.

The final round of the competition takes place Saturday at Bass Hall and will feature the finalists playing one movement of a concerto with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.

It needs to be known that there are so many great players that have to go to work on Monday.

Thomas Yu, finalist in the Cliburn amateur piano competition

The top three prize-winners will receive cash awards of $2,000, $1,500 and $1,000, respectively. There are also several $500 cash prizes for special awards.

In contrast, the Cliburn’s flagship International Piano Competition — which takes place again next year — awards $50,000 for first place, $20,000 for second and third, and several years of career management and concert dates.

The Amateur doesn’t launch professional careers. It is open to nonprofessional pianists over age 35 — nonprofessional defined as those “… who do not derive their principal source of income through piano performance or instruction,” the organization says.

“The perk is not the money,” Cliburn CEO Jacques Marquis said. “The perk is the joy of being here and talking with other people like them who are practicing the piano very early in the morning when the kids are up or very late at night when the kids are down.”

In fact, many pianists will lose money on the experience — even if they win. Competitors must pay for their transportation and lodging, plus a $100 nonrefundable application fee and a $120 fee “to cover the cost of special events,” the Cliburn website says.

Garcia, who lives in Ho-Ho-Kus, N.J., said his trip to Fort Worth cost about $3,000. He didn’t advance past the preliminary round. This was his first amateur piano competition, but the 62-year-old Merrill Lynch financial planner said he wants to enter more in the future.

$2,000 cash prize for first place

“I want to gain more exposure to performing, and not just playing in your living room, but getting used to playing in public,” Garcia said.

Semifinalist Deirbhile Brennan, a 46-year-old accountant, said a costly trip from Ireland was worth it because she challenged herself to learn a new Chopin ballade and a piece by Lizst for the competition.

“I enter competitions generally to have a go, to make me learn new repertoire,” Brennan said. “A year ago I started learning some new repertoire, and I thought this would be a good platform to play it in because as an amateur pianist you don’t get a lot of opportunities to play.”

Thomas Yu, a 38-year-old periodontist from Canada, is a finalist still in the running for one of the top prizes. He has spent more than a decade entering amateur piano competitions. When he was younger, Yu said, he entered competitions partly for his ego, but now it’s a test to see if he can still play at the highest level.

Competitions like the Cliburn, he said, are also an opportunity to show that it is possible to balance work with music.

“I want to be an ambassador for the amateur world,” Yu said. “It needs to be known that there are so many great players that have to go to work on Monday.”

Andrea Ahles: 817-390-7631, @Sky_Talk

Other amateur piano competitions and their prizes

San Diego International Piano Competition, July 15-17

Cash prizes of $2,000, $1,000 and $500 for first, second and third place

Piano Bridges International Competition in St. Petersburg, Russia, July 4-9

Cash prizes of 30,000 rubles ($450), 15,000 rubles ($225) and 10,000 rubles ($150) for first, second and third place

Chicago Amateur Piano Competition, Aug. 24-27

Cash prizes of $1,000, $500 and $250 for the top three places in the three-round track

Concours International des Grands Amateurs de Piano, in Paris, April 6-10, 2016

Prize winner receives $3,000 and gives a concert with an orchestra in Paris

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