Headed to the Cliburn Competition! (No, not me — but my student is… )

Headed to the Cliburn Competition! (No, not me — but my student is… )

By the time you read this In Between Sundays reflection, Simon Finlow, an adult student who studies with me at the Washington Conservatory of Music will have participated in the prestigious Van Cliburn Amateur Piano Competition down in Fort Worth, Texas. The final round (concertos with orchestra accompaniment) is Tuesday, October 18, but I am writing this on the day that he is departing to travel down there to compete — Monday, October 10.

For those of you who may not know, the professional Van Cliburn Competition (held only once every four years) is one of the most prestigious piano competitions in the world, and often broadcast live-streamed online — you may have also seen PBS documentaries about the event. It was established in name recognition of the famous American pianist Van Cliburn, who won the inaugural Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow in 1958, to great acclaim. Van Cliburn passed away in 2013.

The Van Cliburn Amateur Competition is almost just as prestigious as the regular Cliburn, and of course, these competitors are classified as “amateurs” in only the loosest most possible sense of the word. They are all wonderful and highly-trained musicians-artists in their own right — the only difference being that they decided to NOT pursue careers in the music or the arts. (I.e. they consciously chose to make $ for a living instead… ha!)

A number of these amateur piano competitions have sprung up in various parts of the world over the last 15 years or so, with the Cliburn being the top destination, and most coveted prize. 48 contestants were selected from a pool of more than 200 pianists from a total of 32 counties, by application and video audition. It is indeed a big honor just to be accepted. You can read about this year’s competition here.

My student, Simon, is a fabulous pianist and remarkable individual. A British citizen, Simon emigrated to the US after marriage and worked in the IT field for a number of years. Oxford and Cambridge-educated, Simon is also a published musical scholar. Now retired, he spends the majority of his time practicing the piano, playing concerts and competing in these types of events for amateur pianists.

The competition itself takes place over the course of 10 days, and consists of preliminaries, semi-finals, and finals. While I may consider traveling down there to hear him if he makes the concerto finals with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, I and many others of course, will be enthusiastically rooting for him here at home in Washington, DC!

While Simon assures me that he doesn’t enter these competitions to win (he says he goes for the experience and opportunity to mingle/compete with his peers), I know that he would be delighted to win a prize at some point. It would be the very real and welcome recognition of many hours of effort and diligence focus he has put into his art and craft, in preparation. Although I consider him more of a colleague than a student, I would be over the moon if he were to have success. I’ll definitely keep you all posted if that happens!

While I am not writing this column to brag or boast… after all, it is Simon who has the talent and makes the dogged effort, I share this as encouragement for all those of us slightly “older” folks… even those who have retired, but that still might have dreams and/or unfulfilled goals to embrace before the journey of life ends. Carpe diem or “seize (or pluck) the day”, as the Latin saying goes. Life is indeed short, and dreams are made to follow!


  1. Peter L Fort

    Bravo to you, Michael, and to your student, Simon! Very much appreciated and enjoyed your background on this story in addition to particulars about your student’s participation – both personal and professional. I was inspired also to search further and found these two related sites that added to my enjoyment of the story and knowledge of the process. Thanks much ~ Peter

  2. Michael Phillips

    Michael, that’s thrilling to read–and perfectly timed on the heels of hearing the astonishing 80 year old pianist Chucho Valdes at the Kennedy Center last Sunday playing a suite he’d written commemorating the various stages of his musical adventures over time. He played so skillfully and passionately and also wove in a 23 piece orchestra of Cuban master musicians to accompany him! Thank you for the reminder that age may have its limits, but dedication and delight in one’s work can go a long, long way! Go, Simon and congratulations, Michael, for mentoring him!

  3. Vickie Beck

    I had the wonderful opportunity to hear Van Cliburn himself when I was 8 years old, shortly after he had won the Moscow competition and was touring in the US. What an experience! Bravo to Simon for his work and determination!

  4. Michelle J Domangue

    I have not had a very inspiring day, but your message has changed my mood entirely. Thanks, and good luck to Simon and you!

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