Concerto Competition background

contributed by Sonja DeWit of Sooke Phil High Notes

May 1st is the annual Don Chrysler Concerto Competition, always an exciting time for young musicians, the orchestra and our audiences alike. Of course, the winner will be our October/November concert soloist. We talked to Norman Nelson, SPO conductor, and Paula Kiffner, the teacher of last year’s winner, Rylan Gajek, for a little background.

Norman tells us:

“It’s always an exciting time between the initial CDs from the applicants and the end of the competition concert– a bit like playing a pinball machine. You never know what’s going to happen. I always hope that I’m going to agree wholeheartedly with the jury– another game of chance, this one more like roulette.”

Paula Kiffner, the Victoria cellist who taught last year’s winner, Rylan Gajek, has also furnished us with two other young soloists, Hannah Addario-Berry and Oliver Aldort, talked to us about her role.

Rylan Gajek

Rylan Gajek

High Notes:  Does the student choose the concerto, or do you?

Paula Kiffner: It’s a joint decision. I often get a feeling about what sort of piece the student might really enjoy learning, and therefore recommend a concerto. Sometimes the student brings in a piece they’re excited about learning.

The best progress is made when a student is excited about learning a work. In my mind, the natural order of events is: musician is ‘grabbed’ by a piece; musician learns piece; musician decides that it’s sounding so good he/she would like to share it with others; musician enters a concerto competition.

I don’t start out with the idea that a student should enter this or that competition before there’s even a piece in the offing. But a concerto is a very specialized piece, requiring a whole orchestra to fully realize it. I teach concerti to talented students because of the scope of technique and emotional depth that a concerto demands, and inevitably it seems right for the student to enter a competition.

H.N.: The deadline for applying to the Concerto Competition is March 31st, the actual Competition is May 1st. How long in advance would a young student typically be able to play his or her concerto, to be in a position to send in a viable application?

P.K.: The student should have all movements of the concerto well in hand, (even though the student will continue to refine the work up to the performance) enough to be able to play it with piano accompaniment and up to tempo, before sending in an application.

H.N. How long before that would he or she have started in on the concerto?

P.K.: As I mentioned, the piece should be at the stage that begs for a performance, so it all depends on how long it takes the student to learn a piece. In Rylan’s case, he had begun work on the St. Saens several months before the season in which he played it. In the case of the Haydn Concerto in C, which he played with the Victoria Chamber Orchestra, he had learned the piece more than a year before, and then put it away. We then brought it back into his repertoire when the possibility of the VCO competition came up.

H.N.: When you first get a young student, does it sometimes look like this particular kid may go places? What would you say is the most telling – for instance: being keen, willing to listen to you, good ear, likes practising, able to focus, manual dexterity. Are there personalities or character traits that really count in young students?

P.K.: I can usually tell if a student has the potential to excel in music for precisely those characteristics you mentioned. Add innate musicality. The ability to concentrate for long periods is one of the most important factors for rapid and comprehensive learning. Aside from those musical attributes, other characteristics that help to ensure success are a positive attitude toward others, sociability, and integrity.

H.N.: Beginning young music students usually take a while to get what this music thing is all about – would you agree with that? What drives them in the beginning? Are young kids ambitious, or does that come later, when they get good on their cellos (or whatever)?

P.K.: Every student is different. Some just naturally get it right away, even though they probably couldn’t put it into words. I think their minds are fresh enough that music can just take them over. Ambition tends to show up later, when the student has more experience. Those students like Hannah, Oliver and Rylan I think are drawn to the cello for its sound, and they simply enjoy the instrument.

Rylan Gajek 2

Rylan Gajek

H.N.: The student doesn’t know till a few weeks or at most a month that he/she will be competing. What is the role of the teacher in the final weeks before the actual competition?

P.K.: My role during the time leading up to the performance is to refine the playing, and give the student advice on the mental and physical preparation needed for the performance. Advice such as: Don’t obsess! Get lots of rest and eat well. Exercise to keep yourself physically in shape. I often ask students to do something aerobic, then, heartpounding, sit down and right away start to play their most difficult passages. Doing this 2 or 3 times prior to the performance allows you to learn how to handle the elevated heartbeat and increased breathing which often go along with performing.

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