The Cliburn

Amateur Competition Advice

2016 Amateur Banner

Dr. Carol Leone, Head of Piano at Southern Methodist University, and Shields-Collins Bray, Cliburn artistic consultant, give advice on how to prepare for the Cliburn International Amateur Piano 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 and a concerto.


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.


How should I select a concerto?

In the context of the Amateur Competition, it’s important to select a concerto which you feel will give you the most positive experience, and one that can help you to come away with concrete, practical, and applicable knowledge.

The most important thing to remember is that actual rehearsal time with the orchestra will be at a premium, and may feel limited to you. For that reason, we encourage you to choose a piece from our list that you have long acquaintance with, or even one that you have performed before.

The more familiar the piece seems to you already, the less likely you are to be distracted by the novelty of hearing yourself with orchestra for the first time, or the awkward feeling of learning how to steal glances at the conductor during important moments.


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.


How should I prepare for playing with an orchestra?

The first orchestral rehearsal of a concerto can often make a pianist uneasy, because almost nothing feels the same as it does when rehearsing or performing with a second pianist.

In general, things will feel a bit more spacious: the winds, brass, and percussion will be at some distance from the piano, and their attacks will not feel as immediate as those of another pianist. It’s very important to know exactly what is happening in the orchestra in every bar and moment, so that these new sounds and feelings aren’t disorienting.

A soloist’s rhythmic sense is of great importance, as well. While a skilled collaborative pianist may adjust to a soloist’s rhythmic license immediately, a conductor takes a split-second longer to move an entire orchestra along, particularly if there has been only one rehearsal.

Finally, and most obviously, a pianist must project much more sound into a hall when there is an orchestra involved. It’s why we often use phrases like “a soloist’s mezzo-piano,” etc. When playing with another pianist, the challenge is to differentiate your sound; with an orchestra, your job is to underline your sound, making it as substantial as possible, while still having a wide range of dynamics and color.


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.

Our Mission

It is the mission of the Cliburn to advance classical piano music throughout the world. Its international competitions, education programs, and concert series embody an enduring commitment to artistic excellence and the discovery of young artists.



The Cliburn is a not-for-profit organization governed by a board of directors, elected for a four year term. It is sustained by the generous support from individuals, foundations, corporations, the tireless efforts of volunteers, and embraced by the community of Fort Worth. The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition is a proud member of the World Federation of International Music Competitions.


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