I tagged along with a friend to the Steinway Gallery at Palaise Renaissance, Singapore on Tuesday for the launch of the Steinway Piano Competition 2016.
This competition is held once every two years (sort of alternates with the National Piano and Violin Competition) and this will be its third edition. The purpose of this competition is to select a deserving Singaporean to represent Asia in the International Steinway Festival in Hamburg, but there has been no Singaporean so far. The General Manager, Ms Celine Goh, wondered aloud if there is a derth of talents in Singapore and invited Prof Yu Chun Yee, an experienced adjucator and ABRSM examiner of more than 25 years, to give his take.
Prof Yu began by pointing out the four parts of an ABRSM exam which embraces a more holistic approach than a competition –
(1) Scales – This is ususally at the start of the examination so that the candidate can get used to the piano. He advocates aiming for full marks here by (a) not just playing well (as accuracy and eveness, though important, are not enough), but having a sense of musical rhythm (and not just accents) and (b) responding reasonably quickly as promptness to scales must be in the blood of every good pianist.
(2) Pieces – The three pieces would reflect the different styles and periods. It is a given that timing, rhythm, balance and tone are expected. What is important is for the candidate to play from the heart, and not just churning out what the teacher has said/taught. Candidates must devote slightly more time to stylistic matters, especially in the higher grades. This is unlike in the lower grades where candidates can perform well as long as they have been well-taught by their teachers.
(3) Aural – This is another section where the candidate can score full marks. Aside from accuracy, promptness and naturalness of response is very important. Candidateds must not think too long before answering/responding.
(4) Sight Reading – This is one section where obtaining full marks at the higher grades is extremely difficult. What is demanded of the candidates is the musical understanding or message, not merely the accuracy.
Overall, according to Prof Yu, Distinctions are awarded to 15% of the candidates, Merit to over 20% and most will Pass.
Now, again according to Prof Yu, competitions are completely different from examinations. Here, contestants must know their strong points, what they know best and what their natural gifts are, for eg fingerwork, musical sounds or nice big chords. Two important points to note are therefore (a) the choice of pieces and (b) to ‘be yourself on stage’.
At this point, two budding pianists and potential contestants of the Steinway Piano Competition took to the stage to perform pieces for Prof Yu to critique.
The first piece was performed by a young boy of perhaps 7. All Prof Yu commented was that this boy had a fantastic personality, his finger jumps were not very accurate and the voicing in the left hand needed more focus to give it colour.
Then a 6-year-old girl who started to play the piano only a year ago so impressed Prof Yu that he declared she was a raw talent with a fantastic natural response.
Prof Yu’s final comments are that too many young talents burn out because they do not have enough patience to sit at the piano to do very uninteresting work for long hours every day in order to build up a solid technique. He reiterated that it takes a lot of hard work and effort to be like Fu T’song or Lang Lang (who is famously known to have practised 3 hours when he was 3, 5 hours when he was 5 etc).
In answer to Ms Goh’s question earlier, Prof Yu remarked that Singapore definitely has talent; it depends on what we do with them.
At this point, a past winner was invited to share her experience in the last two Steinway Piano Competitions.
Ms Nicole Tay was 12 years old when she was declared the joint-first prize winner of the Intermediate Category in 2014. She had taken part in the Junior category in the first edition where she reached the semi-finals. This motivated her to work harder. She was preparing for her PSLE and piano diploma when she reached the finals of the Intermediate category. It was a stressful period but an unforgettable experience. She learnt to manage her time and her strategy was to do her school work first. She became more self-disciplined juggling studies and piano and this has been a very rewarding experience because it opened doors for her. She was then asked to performed “any piece” she ‘has practised’. She chose to play two of the pieces in her repertoire of works for the recent National Piano & Violin Competition (NPVC). I enjoyed the first piece very much, though neither my friend nor myself recognised it (perhaps a lesser-known work by Debussy?). Her second piece was Schumann’s ABEGG Variations, Op 1. It was very well-played but I was not surprised to find out that she did not even make it to the semi-finals of the NPVC.
Still, it was a fruitful and enjoyable session. I hope I get invited to the Competitiion (from May to June 2016)!