For pianists in the competition, the Cliburn can be a nerve-wracking experience that has the potential to define the rest of their musical career. But for Cliburn superfans like Jane Conway and Ann Fairbanks, the competition provides a relaxing opportunity to enjoy one of their favorite pastimes: classical music.
Conway, an 85-year-old retired piano professor living in Fort Worth, said she has been a fan of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition since it first began in 1962. She has religiously attended every competition since then except for one, which she missed because of teaching conflicts at the time. She said she has enjoyed seeing how the competition and the quality of its competitors have evolved over time.
This year, she is attending some of the recitals with her friend, Fairbanks, who is also an avid fan of piano. Fairbanks, an 80-year-old semi-retired music professor from Houston, is in town for two purposes: to visit family and attend the Cliburn.
Although she is a flutist and not a pianist herself, Fairbanks grew up with piano as a fundamental part of her life. She grew up in a “musical family” and her father taught piano, so she was always aware of the Cliburn competition, but she never attended the competitions until a few years ago, she said.
Piano has always been part of Conway’s “life.” She received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music, then taught piano until retiring in 2008, but she never decided to compete. Nevertheless, watching the competitions has always been a source of inspiration for her own musical endeavors, she said.
One aspect of the competition that Conway finds particularly heartening is how much it’s grown internationally. During every competition she attends, she feels awed at how many pianists are able to travel across the world to perform in Fort Worth.
“I find that inspiring, and I think it’s a good thing to happen for our civilization,” Conway said.
As a former professor, Conway said she’s always interested in seeing the competitors’ repertoire and how it changes each year. However, she makes a conscious effort to not listen with a professor’s critical ear and simply enjoy the music.
“I put that on a back burner and find out what the young people are doing and how much they’ve achieved at their ages,” Conway said. “I think that’s overwhelming.”
One thing Conway hopes to see improvement on at the Cliburn competitions is attendance. She said she would see a “healthy” number of audience members during the competition’s earliest years, but that number has somewhat dwindled in more recent years, despite the competition being much more prominent today.
Fairbanks said she generally sees more older audiences than young folks at the competitions, but she hopes to see more young people become interested in classical music, especially at the Cliburn.
“They’re going to hear some fabulous music from top-notch players,” Fairbanks said. “It’s maybe a different experience then what [young people] usually get in more popular music, but it’s the best of the best.”
You don’t have to be a piano superfan to attend the Cliburn, Conway noted. Although you’re sure to meet one or two like her and Fairbanks, anyone with a passing interest in music will be sure to have an entertaining experience watching the pianists perform.
Cecilia Lenzen is a freelance reporter with the Fort Worth Report. Contact her via Twitter or email. 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.