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Funny stuff...


Piano competitions have been proliferating for decades, providing opportunities for young artists to display their talent and, in some rare cases, to jumpstart important careers. However, a new phenomenon forcefully entered the circuit: piano competitions for amateurs.

To me, the word ‘amateur’ doesn’t inspire trust. I’ve always attributed a not-so-positive connotation to it, and it seems that labeling someone an amateur implies accepting the fact that that person may love music, but the quality is not quite there simply because they are musicians who do not make a living by teaching and/or performing. In some cases, that is not true at all. The quality is very much there, only they are doctors, lawyers, writers, limousine drivers…

Pianists from all over the world fly to Fort Worth, Boston, Berlin and other cities to compete in what I would describe as a rather vain proposition: while it becomes almost inevitable for a young artist to participate in competitions to possibly open doors to a career, these opportunities are created for individuals who do not intend to develop one, with prizes and rewards that do not live up to the standards of the major international competitions.

Several years ago, I was invited to sit on the panel of the Boston Piano Amateur Competition. I was looking forward to spending time with four really lovely colleagues of mine and listen to some truly talented pianists from all over the world. In some cases, their playing was of a very high level: I believe not coincidentally, those pianists were the ones that had some formal training and some true sense of both technical command and style.

One of them, possibly among the youngest, played with confidence but with a complete lack of imagination and a limited range of sonorities, which unfortunately prevented him from placing high enough... to make his wife happy. And by that I mean… a complete act of submission: after the award ceremony that concluded the event, his wife, who claimed to be an opera singer, came to talk to me, while her husband was quietly standing behind her, the woman becoming at the same time a protective shield and a security blanket.

The scene opened with a woman approaching me on stage, impatiently waiting for me to wrap up a conversation with another contestant. Even though I had no idea who she was, I noticed her presence for her considerable height and long flowing hair. When I was done, she stepped forward and I noticed who I thought was her husband swiftly joining her. I still didn’t know what they had programmed.

“Hello, I’m the wife of ----- -----, and I would like to talk to you. First of all, my husband and I are very disappointed about the results. I mean… don’t you think it’s unreasonable? He should have placed much higher! I mean… didn’t you hear the audience’s reaction to his performance? He got the loudest applause!” Taken by surprise, the only thing I could think was “WHY ME???” while the volume of her voice kept rising, her accusations becoming more and more arrogant.

“I mean… You guys should know better!!! SUPPOSEDLY (!!!), you are professionals! I can’t believe you are unable to hear a thing! I mean… my husband played so much better than the other contestants! What were you thinking!!! I can’t believe this is happening, and I’ll hold you responsible for this! This is just unacceptable! Didn’t you hear the way the audience reacted? The way they clapped after my husband finished?” Meanwhile, her husband was semi-hiding behind her, not saying a word. For a split second, I had this nightmarish vision that she would turn into a gigantic rattle snake in slow motion, pulling out her fangs and biting me to death.

While she was insulting me and the others on the panel and screaming at the top of her lungs, I was just standing there, determined to have something constructive for her husband, and I suspected slightly more polite as well. Some people surrounding us had already noticed the commotion. I let her angry tirade wind down. I remember her spiel ending with “so, what do you have to say to that?” I still believe that the reason why she attacked ME and not the other jurors is because her husband was about my age and they thought they would have a better chance of directing bitter remarks to someone belonging to their age group.

My reply was at first quite gentle. “Firstly, I don’t mind talking to your husband about his performance, which certainly was accomplished, alas not at the same level of other contestants. However, I have no intention to talk to you unless you change your tone, and unless it is to clarify why your husband didn’t place. And in a way, I think it would be better if your husband participated in the conversation, too, don’t you think?” at which, he nodded and stepped forward, just enough to appear as if he were engaged in the conversation.

“Secondly, let me remind you that there’s no reason to insult us: I believe we were asked to be on the panel because we are professional pianists. Let me remind you that you are not, so I believe we know a thing or two more than you do”

The woman resigned after that, moving to the side and letting her husband be in the foreground. I then directed my words to the man: “I was quite impressed with your playing. However, I do think it would benefit from a wider range of dynamics. Also, I think you tend to give us a very monochromatic approach to characters. I’m referring specifically to the more aggressive, edgy, fierce moments… I think there wasn’t enough 'bite'. Maybe… you could learn a thing or two from your wife…?”