Rachel Breen and Carter Johnson have one rule for their upcoming performances at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition screening auditions: It’s not personal. 

“We very much don’t treat competitions as competitions against each other,” Breen said. “It’s kind of always a question of ‘How well can I play?’”

The 25-year-olds met in September while studying for their Masters in piano performance at Yale. Now, the two friends are both auditioning to advance to one of the most prestigious piano competitions in the world, which is hosted in Fort Worth.

A group of 72 international pianists will perform over the next week, and only 30 will be invited back for the June competition. 

Although their paths have now converged, the duo’s journeys to becoming pianists were starkly different. 

Johnson admitted that he took the traditional route, starting professional piano lessons at 5 because his parents made him. At that early age, he felt inspired by his grandmother, who played classical piano for him despite his parents “hating” classical music, Johnson said.

He quickly fell in love with the instrument, and he continued taking piano lessons throughout college. 

Carter Johnson’s audition will take place Thursday at 2:30 p.m. at the PepsiCo Recital Hall on the TCU Campus. Rachel Breen will audition in the same venue 7:30 p.m. Friday. (Photo courtesy of Carter Johnson)

Breen also began learning piano at 5, but because she wanted to compete in her school talent show. 

“I auditioned at first, unsuccessfully, trying to balance a stuffed animal on a stick and was told that wasn’t a talent,” Breen recalled. “So I went home and asked my parents if I could try to learn piano.” 

Neither of her parents played piano, but Breen’s father decided to teach her despite having never studied classical music of any sort. 

When Breen was 10, she began taking professional piano lessons, which she said came as a major adjustment after learning as an amateur for the previous five years. But learning unconventionally made her a stronger pianist in the long run, Breen said. It gave her confidence and independence in making her own musical decisions and cultivated an interest in forming her own ideas and theories about music. 

In the future, both Breen and Johnson hope to continue performing piano long term. It’s a passion that’s hard for them to put into words. 

“Music is such a direct way to experience empathy with other people because you’re not really mediated by any of the things that can usually create boundaries — like maybe different languages or prejudices or beliefs,” Breen said. 

Earning a spot at the Cliburn competition would be one step further to their goals as professional piano performers. 

“What I would like is for us to both make it into the competition together,” Johnson said. “That’s how I feel whenever I’m competing alongside friends.” 

Any other mindset isn’t conducive to playing beautiful music, he said. “A pianist can’t try to create beautiful music and connect with their audience while also thinking ‘I hope I’m the only one who gets to play beautifully,’” Johnson said. 

Breen echoed that sentiment. For the two of them, the Cliburn is all about creating art — regardless of how far they make it in the competition. 

Cecilia Lenzen is a freelance reporter with the Fort Worth Report. Contact her via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Cecilia Lenzen is a senior at UT-Arlington, where she is studying journalism. She spent three years working at the student newspaper, The Shorthorn, and her reporting has also appeared in the Dallas Morning...

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