A fourth-year dental student at Texas A&M University, Amy Chung attends two morning classes before seeing patients at a clinic for the rest of the day.
When Chung, 26, returns home, she sits down at a piano to practice “for a few hours before dinner,” she said. “And after dinner, I may play more.”
A proficient player since the age of 6, Chung said missing birthday parties and favorite TV shows sometimes made the daily practice and weekly lessons difficult. But the rewards of her skill continue to outweigh childhood sacrifices, she says.
Attention to detail, superior hand skills and discipline are all traits Chung attributes to the keyboard. The piano provides “time to relax and take my mind off of school,” she said. “It’s an outlet to express what I can’t put into words.”
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Chung is one of six 19-and-older “Outstanding Amateurs” chosen from a pool of contestants from more than 20 countries vying to perform in Seattle’s biennial International Piano Festival & Competition this weekend at Benaroya Hall.
The event, now in its fifth iteration, is open to youths, piano students of universities and conservatories and professional pianists, as well as amateurs, and offers master classes, lectures and guest recitals.
While competitors in the “collegiate” and “professional” category compete for cash, amateur participants are considered “unranked winners”; the six finalists receive gold medals and compete for performance titles.
To amateur pianist Elysia Harjadi, 20, these accolades are simply bonuses. The real prize: those few, “magical” minutes performing.
“It is, it’s so magical on stage,” said Harjadi, who was born in Indonesia and began playing at the age of 4. “It’s a special feeling. You can practice all the technical passages for hours, but when you perform on stage you will never know what you’re going to face.”
Every piano, she explained, is different. The performer must cope with the foreign instrument, and her anxiety, harmoniously.
Thirty minutes before each performance, Harjadi eats two bananas and one square of milk chocolate “for energy and concentration.” More than one sugary square, she said, and “everything just goes wrong.”
Although she has performed for an audience of 500, rattled nerves are still inevitable. As her fingers touch the keys, she repeats a saying she has garnered from childhood: “Just enjoy it and sing along with the music.” Harjadi quietly hums the notes, until the audience has disappeared.
A sophomore business major at the University of Southern California, Harjadi said the festival’s two-piece soundtrack application requirement took her “about three hours to finish.” “There was this slow passage and I just couldn’t get the feeling. I think I played those 10 bars, like, 15 times.”
Yiran Wang, 26, who works for a risk-management platform in New York City, selected arrangements by Brahms and Schubert for his demo.
Born in China, he used piano practice as a bargaining tool with his parents to ward off studying for the arduous college-entrance exam. Soon, however, the piano began to resonate with him as a faithful “friend.”
“You want to talk to a friend,” he said. “If I don’t play the piano for a while, it doesn’t feel good.”
He knows of professional pianists who relinquished performing and competing for a teacher’s reliable income. Making compromises to survive off the art could, Wang said, dry up the invaluable enjoyment he gleans from music, which is why he chose a career in finance.
“As a professional (pianist), you have to worry about money, you have to worry about, ‘if I didn’t do well what will my career be?’ But I don’t have to,” he said. “I just play what I love.”
And this Saturday, he and the other pianists will strive, in return, to make you love what they play.
Devon Geary: 206-464-2299 or firstname.lastname@example.org