Piano opportunities abound for youth

Belinda Chen, 20, Bellevue, Wash., practices before her performance at the 11th Annual 1000 Islands International Piano Competition for Young People this September at the Maple Grove Estate in Cape Vincent. Justin Sorensen/ NNY Living

Belinda Chen, 20, Bellevue, Wash., practices before her performance at the 11th Annual 1000 Islands International Piano Competition for Young People this September at the Maple Grove Estate in Cape Vincent. Justin Sorensen/ NNY Living

Performers travel to Thousand Islands for elite international competition

On a Steinway piano inside a white tent feet from the banks of the St. Lawrence River, 15 talented young pianists spent a weekend in early September performing repertoires ranging from Baroque to modern during the 11th Annual 1000 Islands International Piano Competition for Young People, a competition as unique as it is prestigious.

Two weeks later, another 12 young pianists from across the country and Canada took the hallowed stage at SUNY Potsdam’s Hosmer Hall for the sixth year of the Julia Crane International Piano Competition and Festival.

Every day, inside the private homes of dedicated piano instructors or in groups at Comet Music Studio in Watertown or the North Country Arts Council or even the YMCA, young pianists clear their minds and turn to the piano, learning self-discipline, a work ethic and a universally beautiful, lifelong art form.

Cape Vincent brings talent, prestige to a picturesque setting

The pianists at the Cape Vincent competition ranged in age from 14 to 25 and hailed from cities across the U.S., China, Canada and South America, with most now studying in renowned music schools in the states.

“It’s amazing to be able to bring the community together with music for a weekend in this unique environment,” Brian M. Preston, artistic director for the competition and one of three judges, said at this year’s competition. “The fact that it’s outdoors — it’s charming, it’s folksy, it works really well.”

Mr. Preston, who received a bachelor’s and master’s degree in music from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester and now teaches piano in Rochester, attended the competition for three years as a teacher before becoming a judge four years ago. As the artistic director he helps hone the rules and musical programming each year.

“It’s very different from any other competition I’ve ever judged,” said William R. Wolfram, a New York City-based piano performer and a graduate of the Juilliard School of Music who judged the competition for the first time this year. “It’s more community friendly and the setting is beautiful.”

The outdoor, “home-spun” setting also gives participants the opportunity to overcome distractions such as bugs and noises from the nearby road, he added, experience that can be useful for future outdoor performances.

The competition has been held at the Maple Grove Estate at 596 W. Broadway for the past five years. It was started by the late Dr. William J. Grant, a Watertown native who loved classical music and summered in Cape Vincent after his career as a physician, and is now sponsored by the Chopin Society of the Thousand Islands and the Cape Vincent Arts Council. Fundraisers and donations help cover the $20,000 yearly cost of the event, said co-chairwoman Elisabeth P. Brennan.

Contestants compete in two divisions, under 19 and 19 to 25, and perform a full three rounds, with programs of approximately 20 minutes Friday, 23 minutes Saturday and 18 minutes Sunday. Friday and Saturday’s programs must include work from the Baroque Era, the Classical Era and the 20th or 21st Century, while Sunday’s program must be one major Chopin work or several shorter works.

Judges can award $2,000 for first place, $1,000 for second and $500 for third following a shorter slate of performances. A prize is also awarded to the audience favorite in both divisions, which started last year. Mr. Preston said the judges provide contestants feedback and offer them the opportunity to talk with the judges. He called the judging process “very involved,” taking into account everything from the basics of the pianist’s rhythm and clarity of notes to the way the pianist balances the tradition of the piece and composer with his or her own personality.

Constants primarily learn of it through word of mouth; Mr. Preston said about 20 pianists typically apply and the competition accepts the first 15, placing the rest on the waiting list in case someone drops out. The competition’s requirements of a substantial repertoire and high-level of playing by memory are sufficient for a self-selecting form of audition, but Mr. Preston said he anticipates that the competition could become well-known enough that auditions might be necessary within the next decade.

“The level of playing is incredibly high here,” said Gary R. Fisher, the third judge, who also judged in 2008 and teaches in Rochester, where he earned a doctoral degree from the Eastman School. He considers the invitation to judge gratifying and a “very meaningful sign of respect” from colleagues.

“This competition is really remarkable and continues to be more and more,” he said.

Vivian Ni, 14, from Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, said her teacher, who sent another student in the past, recommended the competition.

“It’s really interesting — usually competitions are held in churches or big halls,” she said. “It’s really relaxing, it doesn’t feel like a competition.”

Ms. Ni, who has been playing since she was five and has competed in three other competitions including the Canada Music Competition, said she “would love to come back.”

Her mother, Wendy Hu, said that it “doesn’t feel like a competition to the parents” either, noting that her and her daughter’s host family prepared their meals even though they aren’t required to.

“It’s like a vacation for us,” she said. “It’s too touching.”

All but one of the 15 contestants is staying with a host family in Cape Vincent; one family is even hosting four, Ms. Brennan said. The competition encourages participants to get to know each other and stay in touch, and a picnic for contestants and families was held the first night of the competition.

Ms. Brennan praised the support of the community and volunteers, as well as donations of the main piano and two others for practicing.

“There are things that are tearing Cape Vincent apart, but this is bringing people together,” she said.

To further reach out to the community, one participant, Chao Tang, 25, of Shanghai, China, who started studying for a performance diploma at Indiana University this fall, spent the Monday after the competition playing at the Thousand Islands middle and high school, inspiring students and teaching them about what he does.

“The town is very generous and supportive. It’s a really great experience here,” said Kaori Y. Azzi, mother of Nadia Azzi, 15, of Palm Harbor, Fla. who began studying at the Juilliard School Pre-College Division last September and is one of two contestants who returned for a second time this year.

Most competitions have elimination rounds; preparing for three full rounds before “very credible judges” is valuable for young pianists and makes the competition unique, she said, and “it doesn’t matter if you win or not.”

The competition is also valuable in its opportunities for friendship; competitions in larger cities often have a “cold” atmosphere where “you show up, you’re in and you’re done,” she said.

The setting on the river also resonated with performers.

Clayton B. Stephenson, 14, of Brooklyn, who also studies at the Juilliard School’s Pre-College Division and learned of the competition through a friend who came two years ago, said he walked down to the river before each performance.

“I think it calms me, it helps prepare me,” he said. Parts of two of his pieces describe a river at night, though he said he did not choose them specifically for that reason.

“I want to represent the river so I have to go down and look at it to be able to impersonate it,” he said. “Since it’s here, I had to represent it to its full extent.”

Mr. Stephenson has been playing the piano since he was seven and practices daily for three to four hours, he said. He spent about three months preparing a repertoire for the competition.

Margaret G. Hinchliffe, 17, and a senior at Glen Ridge High School in New Jersey who studies at the Pre-College Division of the Manhattan School of Music, said she “basically spent the whole summer practicing and preparing” for the competition. She learned two of the seven pieces she played specifically for it.

“It’s really beautiful,” she said of the setting. “I probably would never have come here if not for this.”

Claudio Espejo Araneda, 21, of Temuco, Chile, and a senior studying piano performance at the Eastman School, agreed.

“This place is amazingly quiet and I love it,” he said.

Methods vary, but local teachers create tangible success

Only three local students have ever competed in the Cape Vincent competition, and all have been under the tutelage of the same instructor, Janine M. Johnson, who teaches from her home in Watertown. Noah P. Landers, now a junior at Carthage High School, performed in 2012 at age 15. Isaac J. James, then of Champion, performed in 2004 and Timothy S. Lanigan, Watertown, performed in 2005.

Mrs. Johnson has instructed Noah since he was five years old. Last March, he won the seventh annual James and Katherine Andrews Young Artist Competition hosted by the Orchestra of Northern New York, which is open to high school students from St. Lawrence, Lewis, Jefferson, Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Warren and Hamilton counties and is one of the few competitions in the nation that offers cash prizes and a chance to play with a professional orchestra. ONNY accompanied Noah as he performed the first movement of Camille Saint-Saens’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor at SUNY Potsdam’s Hosmer Hall during the orchestra’s presentation of the classic 20th Century Russian fairy tale “Peter and the Wolf,” which Mrs. Johnson said was a “huge thing to do at 15 years old.” Noah also frequently performs at various churches in the Watertown area.

Mrs. Johnson, who has been teaching for 20 years and received her master’s degree in piano pedagogy from Ithaca College, has about 50 students at any given time, most of whom start at a young age, and has had upwards of 80. She said she doesn’t encourage any of her students to consider the Cape Vincent competition unless they are highly motivated, but supports any students who want to attend competitions. She also puts on two recitals a year for her students, and called the Cape Vincent competition “a wonderful showcase.”

“When you hear the caliber of playing, I ca n’t imagine there’s anything harder than that except for really high-caliber events,” she said. “It’s a tough regiment. It’s three days of playing and it all has to be memorized. It’s a huge, huge requirement…you have to be really serious and motivated and want to do it.”

Noah spent six months to a year preparing a repertoire for it, she said, and decided to take this year off to have additional time to prepare the challenging repertoire he expects of himself in hopes of competing again in 2014. It was also his first major competition, she said, though he had previously competed in smaller ones in Syracuse.

“He did a wonderful job. It was a big step for him,” she said. “From an early age, he loved music. He did know that this was something he wanted to do.”

He’s considering such renowned schools as Eastman, Oberlin College in Ohio, and Indiana University, she said. Thirty of Mrs. Johnson’s students have gone on to music school in large part because of her approach to teaching. She uses the Suzuki method, which entails starting with ear training and pattern development, then teaching the student to read music once they are playing well, similar to the idea that language is acquired through spoken word before reading.

“By developing the ear first and learning to play by method, they internalize the music. It becomes part of them,” she said. “Students who start with the Suzuki method can play at any time and play with great depth and feeling.”

Without having to read music from the start, students can focus on their hands, developing impeccable technique and sharp listening skills, she said.

Mrs. Johnson said she has high demand for lessons, and typically has a waiting list, but acknowledges that she requires a lot of students and that her classic training and method is not for everyone.

Mr. James, who studied with Mrs. Johnson for nearly four years after moving to Watertown with his parents in 1998, said his performance was a great experience for a young performer and credits the experience with shaping the pianist he is today.

“It made a big impact,” he said. “If it wouldn’t have happened, I can’t say where I would be right now.”

Mr. James now lives in Vermont, where he teaches and repairs piano and works as a choral conductor, and also performs throughout the Northeast. He is returning to the north country, where his parents live, for his first solo performance in the area at Jefferson Community College on Dec. 6.

Even though he went through what he describes as a “rebellious stage” in his late teens where he tired of classical music and started studying with a jazz and blues teacher in the area, he credits much of his success, particularly during his time in the north country, to Mrs. Johnson’s instruction, who he said believes in the importance of performing. He said he found numerous great opportunities for that during his time in the area, though, as in every community, there could have been more.

“Janine Johnson is a phenomenal teacher—she’s one of those teachers that comes out very harsh and strict, but at the same time it pays off,” he said. “She’s something that you’d find in a large metro area. She was a great teacher to be with.”

Mr. James is in the process of starting a yearly piano competition, possibly to be held in the north country, and has garnered substantial interest but been held up by administrative issues. The competition is named for the late P. Owen Willaman, a former president of New York Air Brake Co. and Israel A. Shapiro Award recipient who died in 2009. Mr. James befriended him at the Cape Vincent competition and along with his wife, Dorothy, the three would attend Syracuse Symphony Orchestra concerts and the Willamans would attend Mr. James’s concerts in the area.

Other piano teachers in the Watertown area take a slightly different approach to teaching. Jason D. Comet, owner of Comet Music Studio in Watertown, has modified a group approach he used to teach organ to adults for teaching piano to groups of children, using the Mayron Cole Piano Method based in Texas. He began experimenting with it this summer, through classes at the North Country Arts Council, the Carthage YMCA, the Fairgrounds YMCA and Double Play Sports Community Center in Lowville, and had more than 60 students take part.

He teaches using a fleet of seven digital pianos, each about 4 feet long, and also uses games and other age-appropriate activities. This September he told the Times that “as far as I know, I am the only teacher offering group piano lessons for kids in the north country,” adding that he believes his method results in higher retention rates in attendance and knowledge than more traditional private lessons.

But the method, in the end, is of secondary importance to the benefits of exposing and immersing children in music.

Mrs. Johnson said she thinks all children should study music, and started piano with her own daughter at the age of two (it was a little too young, she acknowledges, and they began again “in earnest” at four).

“I think music education is really important,” she said. “Music and the arts are what transcend life, what helps us find joy and beauty. I think it’s so important, even if a student doesn’t become a performer, to have an understanding and appreciation of music.”

Leah Buletti is a staff writer for NNY Magazines. Contact her at 661-2381 or lbuletti@wdt.net.