Monday, October 26, 2009

They Came to Play

I saw this movie this evening: They Came to Play.

It's a documentary about the 2007 Van Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs. Held in Fort Worth, Texas, every 4 years, the competition chooses 75 pianists for the preliminary round based on recorded applications, narrows them down to 25 for the semifinals, six for the finals, and then awards three prizes. Amateur is defined here someone who does not earn their living from playing or teaching piano. The requirements are much looser than for professional competitions -- there are no repertoire restrictions, and music does not need to be memorized.

The documentary was fantastic. This was the premiere showing in a commercial theater (it has been shown at several film festivals and has won prizes), and the producer of the film was there as well as a couple of the competitors, who played after the screening. If you go to the film's website at the link above, you will get a taste of the look and sound of the movie.

What was especially interesting to me was that almost all the people in the competition were middle-aged, with full-time jobs, families, and other interests. Some were older and retired from long nonmusic careers. Some had had terrible setbacks in life, such as major illness, drug problems, family problems, and dislocation from their birth countries. But they were all highly intelligent, articulate, and interesting people who had made the best of their various situations. A number of them had studied piano seriously and gone to conservatories. They were all very good players, some excellent.

I guess what I'm driving at is related to my previous post: that it's possible to have a full life, not be a starving artist, and also achieve a high level of playing an instrument. Not doing it for money (the prizes in this competition are extremely modest -- first prize is only $2,000; the real prize is getting to participate) seems to enhance the experience.

One of the competitors in the movie quoted Stravinsky: "If you can make a million dollars doing something other than music, do it."

Another, berating himself for not playing so well after he came off stage, said, "I have to turn the switch and remember that I'm an amateur!"

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