I have been following – online – the Van Cliburn piano competition which takes place every four years in Fort Worth, Texas. As well as being one of the world’s most prestigious it must be the most generous, with an array of prizes and offers of management, concert bookings, recording opportunities, media training, financial training, tax advice, logistics support and all the things most of us feel we never got enough of.
I followed the competition with a feeling of amazement and gratitude that classical piano is still considered so important.
This year the Gold Medal was won by Yunchan Lim, an astonishing 18-year-old pianist from South Korea. One of his bold decisions was to devote the whole of his semi-final recital to Liszt’s Twelve Transcendental Studies. Passing up the opportunity to ‘show his range’, he put all his eggs in one basket. And with sensational results, as you can hear if you seek out his semi-final recital on YouTube. It was hard to imagine how such a young person could have developed the technique, the command, the memory skills and the confidence to perform such a feat in front of a huge audience and a jury of celebrity pianists.
There’s a saying about how ‘it takes a whole village to raise a child’. I think about all the people who must have been involved in the making of a young master. To be so expert at the age of 18 implies a very young start and a phalanx of people who – years ago – could see his potential and were prepared to devote themselves to supporting him. Parents, music teachers, school teachers, mentors, siblings, fellow piano students, non-musician friends – all must have had a role to play.
I think about the countless hours of practice, the things that other people had to do (or give up) to make it possible. Has this been going on since he was three years old? I wonder who encouraged him to keep plugged in to the task through the storm of adolescence. Knowing how many teenagers, even talented ones, turn away from the piano when other passions hit them, there may have been times when people around him had to steady their nerves and figure out when to keep quiet and when to put the pressure on.
When I watch a supremely talented young pianist, I don’t only see flashing hands and hear effortless torrents of notes; I see a hinterland of support, belief, empathy and probably tears and sleepless nights experienced by those who worked towards this goal. They are the untold story behind the headlines.