During the summer between my junior and senior years in high school, I traveled to Denver, Colorado with my parents to participate in the “Talents for Christ” competition. The winner in each category was awarded a year’s free tuition to the GARB (General Association of Regular Baptists – say, I wonder if that phrase has been joked about over the years) college of their choice.
As it turned out I did win the piano competition. I remember my dad being quite pleased that I made it into the second day of competition, because we were guaranteed a first or second place finish, and even a second place got you 1/2 year’s free tuition.
Looking back, the sight reading portion of the competition had a humorous twist – they kept putting music in front of me, and I would look at it and say, “No, I’ve played that”, or “I’ve heard that before.” Part of the equation here is that when you have perfect pitch, you can look at the music and know exactly what it sounds like, if you’re willing to do the mental gymnastics on the more difficult pieces. In this case, most of the selections were not that difficult, so I could tell immediately whether I was familiar with it.
It wouldn’t have been quite so unfair to go ahead and sight read something I’d heard but not played if I didn’t have perfect pitch, but that would have given me a serious advantage, in that knowing how the song sounded in my mind, my fingers would have almost automatically gone to the correct notes. I think I ended up playing some simple piece out of a John Thompson book, as they couldn’t find something else for me to play that wasn’t too difficult and thus unfair, in comparison to what the other finalist sight-read.
My competition in the finals was a young man from Grand Rapids who had been confined to a wheelchair for some time; I don’t remember precisely why that was. I think his father was in the administration, perhaps even the president, at a Bible College, maybe one that was linked to the competition – Grand Rapids Baptist Bible College sticks in my mind. I forgot to mention earlier that there were less than 10 GARB schools in the country at the time, so my college choices were limited.
The day of the finals, I wasn’t nervous. I attribute much of that to my piano teacher back in Seattle, Alexander Mlynarski…
*I’m preparing to play my pieces at the competition; flashback to a couple years earlier taking a piano lesson…*
(Spoken in Mr. Mlynarski’s inimitable accent – he was half Polish, half Jewish, and had a fairly thick accent): “You must always use the correct fingering on every note, every time you play this piece. Write the fingerings above the notes if there is any doubt which finger should play the note. We will play it very slowly, always counting aloud, always using the correct fingering and good hand position. This way, your hands will memorize the piece, and even if you are nervous and forget what comes next, your fingers will remember what to do, because they have played each note of this song the exact same way every time you have ever played it.
You must always use the metronome when you practice, and you must only play the piece at a speed at which you can play it perfectly. There must be no flirtations with neighborly notes, no imperfections, no deviations from the correct fingerings.”
Flash forward: Okay, it wasn’t in my nature to be nervous about such things, for whatever reason. My mom always said I performed better under pressure, whether sports or music; I don’t know if that was always true, but she said it now and again, and as she was quite convinced it was true, I eventually believed it must be so!
But my piano teacher had prepared me well. I was required to play one sacred arrangement of some sort, and one classical piece. The sacred piece was “Face To Face”, arranged by Harold De Cou. I mentioned in one of my other blogs that Mr. Mlynarski would not help me with that piece – if it wasn’t legit classical repertoire, he wasn’t interested. (I remember him berating the “Warsaw Concerto”, a piece which sounded classical to me as a kid, because it was too “Hollywood.” I get that now). But using his techniques, and receiving some help from my previous piano teacher, Mrs. Dorie Sharon, it sounded reasonably good.
The classical number I played was Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata, first momement. It starts with a slow, ponderous passage which includes a couple difficult descending runs, culminating in a V 7b9 chord before we’re off to the races in the “presto” middle portion of the piece. There are 2 more recurrences of the slow section, but each is quite brief, and only a solemn interlude before it breaks back into the frenetic uptempo music each time, the last being rather short, and building to a sudden climax.
My opponent in the finals played Chopin’s Bb Minor Scherzo, a piece which I think may have been too difficult for me at the time, though I may have been able to pull it off under my teacher’s patient and painstaking approach to playing. I seem to remember hearing a bit of it while he was warming up before the finals – we each were allowed a few minutes on the piano in the main hall shortly before we were to play for the judges – and I noticed some flaws in his playing. Perhaps that contributed to my lack of nervousness. At any rate, I suspect he didn’t have the kind of teacher I had – kind, but very demanding and exacting, never never accepting any compromises in my practicing or playing.
Looking back, I know I was extremely fortunate to have had such a great teacher. There is absolutely no doubt that had I had a lesser teacher I would have had little chance at the competition. I was, after all, barely 16 when we took the trek to Denver, and rather immature. As well, I was not a child prodigy – I had to work for everything I got, albeit with a little head start from my innate musical talent given by God.
My teacher did not invent all these techniques he used – he had been taught by Stojowski, who had learned from Paderewski, and generations before that, one of my ancestral teachers was Beethoven himself! I haven’t told you about the various scales, technique books like Hanon, and exercises for which there wasn’t even any music, that my teacher employed – but they, of course played an important role in my development as a pianist and musician as well.