By Carol Montparker
Reprinted from Clavier Magazine, Sept. 2003

The next time I board a train I will abandon all preconceptions about the engineer or the dispatcher. The first-prize winner of the New York City International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs was David Hibbard, a 56-year-old locomotive dispatcher from Fort Worth, Texas, whose Irish ancestors were train workers. From the moment I heard Hibbard sit down to play, it was clear that he has a natural and musical approach to the keyboard. He was an amateur in the truest sense of the French word: to love what he does, which was evident from the first notes as he played Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasie, Op. 61. Hibbard studied piano from an early age and attended the University of Illinois at Urbana for two years as music major before taking a train-dispatching job. Short of putting his piano on a railroad car, he somehow managed to keep practicing and stayed sufficiently in shape to win the competition organized by Phred Meller.

The annual event was held at the beautiful Goethe Institute on Fifth Avenue this year; the jury, made up of professors from various music departments, included Martin Canin, Luiz de Moura Castro, Eva Kovalik, Angelin Chang, and Sara Faust. There were also three members of the press, Harris Goldsmith, Leslie Kandell, and myself. The 35 competitors included lawyers, doctors, a system designer, and interior designer, a tax accountant, an iron worker, and others in any field but music. They were pianists who had considered seeking a career in music, but for various reasons veered off on another path, keeping music as an avocation.

Joseph Smith, a pianist and teacher who spoke during intermission, suggested that competitions cannot measure all the many elements of piano playing, nor can one artist with a certain set of talents be measured against another artist. The element of competitiveness is antithetical and destructive to music or art. Amateur competitions, however, seem to be a consolation prize for those who decided not to perform full time. They are an opportunity for pianists to perform and test their mettle along with their artistic and technical accomplishments.

This event had a lighter tone to it because none of the pianists depended upon the results for a future career; all had day jobs. The standards and criteria for this sort of competition are much less stringent than those for aspiring professionals. The most touching aspect of the event was hearing the results of the hard work of each participant and imagining the time and ardor it took to prepare the repertoire for the performance. In the final round five pianists played for approximately a half-hour each. Along with David Hibbard, the other finalists were Sihyun Park, an acupuncturist (silver medal); Brad Arington, an attorney (bronze medal); Nancy Futrell, a neurologist (outstanding performance of a modern work); and Debra Takajian, an attorney (audience award).

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