Dr. Carol Leone, Head of Piano at Southern Methodist University, gives advice on how to prepare for the Cliburn International Amateur Competition.
How can participating in the Cliburn’s Amateur Competition benefit adult students?
It is an important venue in which to be heard, and it’s do-able—the requirement is to prepare only one hour of repertoire for performance.
What repertoire selections do you think are most interesting for an amateur competition?
Judges aren’t necessarily looking for polish and virtuosity. Find repertoire that builds on your strengths, something for which you’ve already received positive responses—something tried and true.
You should be playing repertoire that you’ve already learned—this event should be considered a performance opportunity, not an opportunity to test new repertoire.
Your first round should be strong and memorable. Select pieces that show off your emotional range and can generate excitement. At this stage, there are so many pianists that you need something to distinguish yourself from the others.
For the semifinal round, pick something provocative and memorable. It could be charming or possibly avant-garde.
Unlike professional competitions, versatility is not king here. Your selections really need to showcase your strong points, but don’t necessarily have to cover the breadth of repertoire out there. However, if a student is versatile, his program should reflect that.
What about playing from memory?
At the Cliburn’s Amateur Competition, memorization isn’t required of course, but the most successful pianists typically do play from memory. They’re much more free.
Would you encourage a student with so-so ability to enter—simply for self-improvement or enjoyment?
Amateurs enter with different goals in mind—for some, it’s to win. For some, it’s to prepare a longer-length program, for some, it’s just to get their feet wet.
But no one should get onstage unless they feel confident about their abilities. They need to have something to say. The beauty of an amateur competition is having the chance to share music with freshness and personal interpretation. Anyone who is well prepared is welcomed.
If you’re a teacher but not a competition veteran, what can you do to help prepare and encourage an adult student to enter an amateur competition?
You can prepare the student, working with the end in mind. Do allow at least a year, minimum, to prepare for the competition, if not more. It’s especially necessary when working with a student who has a busy career to work around.
Start with the performance date in June and think backwards—Where do I need to be in April?
The student should begin performing several months in advance of the competition and those performances should be recorded and reviewed. The way a student plays at a lesson or in practice can sound much different than how he or she sounds in front of an audience.
Also, soliciting constructive criticism from an experienced listener at pre-competition recitals can be illuminating.
Finally, the teacher should make arrangements with another teacher who does have competition experience for coaching sessions with the student, with his or her teacher in attendance.
What are your comments on concert attire?
Some men choose to wear a suit and tie, while others opt for a simple turtleneck and slacks. With men or women, concert attire should be unobtrusive and uninhibiting. Dressing elegantly but simply is preferable; to me, there is no place for something overtly sexy or frou-frou on the concert stage.
Carol Leone is Associate Professor and Head of Piano at Southern Methodist University. Dr. Leone has received national recognition as a performing artist. She has been a prizewinner in international and national piano competitions such as the National Beethoven Sonata Competition, the Missouri Southern International Piano Competition, and the International Masters Competition. Dr. Leone has developed an award-winning studio of college and pre-college students, and is active as a teacher, lecturer, and adjudicator.