May 25th, 2017 was a significant day.
For thirty pianists, it was the beginning of the quadrennial Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, once dubbed the “the most prestigious classical music contest in the world.”
For me, it was the day I accepted a new job.
I wouldn’t normally associate two such dissimilar events, but as I’ve read Nigel Cliff’s account of Van’s inspiring legacy, I realized my path held something in common with the famed pianist. And it wasn’t concertizing. [The only performance I’ve given from memory occurred after I won a college competition, and executing the third movement of Weber’s second concerto for clarinet just may have been the most terrifying six and half minutes of my life.
[No, wait. That dubious honor goes to my driver’s test.]
At the beginning of the academic year, my goal was to line up a new job by June. I was ready for change, and nine months seemed like a reasonable timeframe.
It wasn’t long, however, before doubt and discouragement crept in. By November, I’d hit a slump. I distinctly remember staying up late one night to finish an application and calling a family member afterward. “I feel like I have nothing to offer,” I croaked into the phone.
“What?! Nonsense!” He said. “Get a good night’s sleep. It will all work out.”
He was right, of course. But the path forward definitely took patience. And in his own way, Van Cliburn learned the same lesson.
In 1957 he was a Juilliard pianist stuck in a rut. “Going nowhere, fast!” He exclaimed to a friend.
Later that year, his teacher urged him to enter the Soviet Union’s inaugural Tchaikovsky piano competition. She believed he could win, and the hard work needed to get there would boost his morale.
Fortunately, after some intense persuading, he finally agreed to go. The odds, however, were stacked against him. The Russian judges had already decided who would win first prize. And it was not intended for an American.
Yet, as the competition progressed, this gangly Texan with a mop of springy hair endeared himself to the audience. Artfully and effortlessly, he won his way into their hearts, performing to such high caliber that even the judges couldn’t deny his artistic and technical merits.
They awarded him first place.
My own achievement, while not nearly as prestigious as garnering an international prize, did share one thing in common: an inauspicious start. As the process unfolded, I questioned whether or not I could “win” this particular position. Even after weeks of preparation, I arrived for my campus interview wondering if the task ahead was insurmountable. My preference that morning would have been burrowing under the bed covers instead of subjecting myself to scrutiny.
But by the time I’d showered, dressed, and prepped for my presentation, I was surprised by the polished, confident reflection that greeted me in the bathroom mirror. It was time to put my hard work to the test. And I was ready.
As a musician and librarian, I’ve experienced the what it’s like to prepare for both auditions and interviews. While they aren’t quite the same, the thrill of achievement from one field to another can be. When I earned a 100 on my tenth grade All-State band audition in, I felt as though I’d just won the gold medal in Olympic figure skating – a feat I’d seen Sarah Hughes accomplish just weeks prior during the 2002 winter games.
Though I haven’t nearly done justice to Van Cliburn’s entire legacy [blogging in a timely manner can be a challenge when one is planning a move], I’ve certainly appreciated his story and its parallels to my own.
Since the events of May 25th, not only has a new winner has been crowned, but I’ve begun packing. And after taking my exit interview and boxing up my office a week ago Thursday, I realized it had been another significant day.
It was June 1st.