The music students at Montana State University are a small but close group, and never more so than the night waiting to learn the winner of the 2009 Concerto and Aria Competition.
Huddled in the vestibule of Howard Hall, which doubles as a lounge, the 15 competitors who had just hours before donned formal gowns and tuxedos to perform difficult pieces in front of discerning fellow musicians, waited for the judges' decisions. While they waited they talked and laughed about their summer trip to Southeast Asia, tricky parts of each other's performances, and the relative merits of Haagen-Dazs cherry vanilla ice cream.
"Students really get into this and spend countless hours preparing for their performance," says Shuichi Komiyama, the MSU music professor who organizes the annual competition. "It's a big deal for them."
This year was the 25th for the MSU Concerto and Aria Competition, which celebrates the best individual MSU student musical performances of the year. For those who rarely set foot in Howard Hall, home of the MSU Department of Music, the competition is sort of a classical version of "American Idol." The students select a classical work that they will perform before judges, and spend months preparing for it. All perform with an accompanist. Many perform the difficult pieces totally from memory. One by one, they perform in front of three judges who sit in the audience -- all classical musicians themselves.
The competition is divided into two sections -- the instrumentalists compete in the concert competition on the first night. This year there were 15 of them. The vocal musicians -- this year there were four -- sing the next night.
There are separate judging panels for each night. There is no Simon Cowell, nor Paula. In fact, these judges are silent. And the audience is small, composed nearly entirely of family, friends and professors. But the competitors say the stress and pressure is ample, nonetheless.
"I think most people who aren't in music wouldn't understand this," said Matt Makeever, a senior music major from Bozeman who performed a Haydn concerto on the trumpet. Makeever said he has been performing most of his life, yet he was nervous to perform in the concerto competition.
"There's something about performing, competing, with your friends," said Makeever, who is the son of two professional musicians. His mother, Sue, plays the flute and father Jerry, an MSU music professor, also plays the trumpet.
The students chose to compete in the contest and receive no extra credit for doing so. Makeever said it is no easy task. Students spend countless hours memorizing and preparing the music and practicing.
"We're all in several performing groups so we must do it in addition to our other work," Makeever said. "I don't think people who aren't involved in music realize how long this takes, how much work we do."
This year the competitors ranged from a tuba player to classical guitarist.
"I really like the guitar and I like the piece," said Epple, who is a sophomore music major from Bozeman. Epple said he plays the violin in the MSU Symphony but felt he "had more to offer" playing a complex classical guitar concerto by Rodrigo. He said he decided to enter the competition in the summer after he took a workshop with the famed classical guitarist Christopher Parkening and gained confidence.
Many of the performers are met with flowers and congratulations following their piece, including Lauren Redburn, who performed a Mozart concert on the flute. Redburn, of Bozeman, was beginning her junior year as a biology major when she decided to change her major to music, where she is now taking some freshmen classes. "But I love (music)," she concedes.
Stephanie Jones, a senior music major from Billings, won the competition two years ago, playing the same Mozart concerto on the flute.
"(Winning) definitely changed my life," Jones said. "It made me more confident." It also gave her the impetus to take advantage of several opportunities in the music department. Jones now serves as a student conductor, a sort of understudy for Komiyama. She plans to student teach in Long Island, N.Y. and said winning the competition will probably add weight to her resume.
"It definitely set me on my path," Jones said. She said she wishes more people on campus and the community knew about the competition.
"The opportunities that I've had here (at the MSU Department of Music) have been incredible," Jones said. "I don't know if I could have had so many opportunities if I'd gone anywhere else. I have really loved going to school here."
While tension builds while the students wait for the winner's announcement, there is little fanfare when they are announced. Komiyama pads into the lounge with his patented big smile and tells the musicians, who nearly all accompanied him when he took the MSU Symphony on a historic tour of Southeast Asia last summer, that they are all winners. Then he pins a plain white sheet of paper with the winner's name on a bulletin board and walks away while the students gather.
Winner of the instrumentalist/concerto competition for the year was Raquel Kober, a cellist from Billings who performed a difficult Shostakovich concerto. The following night Stephen Steffens, a sophomore from Helena with a soaring tenor, won the aria competition singing songs from Massenet and Mendelssohn.
"It was really awesome because I wasn't expecting to win," Steffens said. "The whole competition was a lot of fun."
Like many of the competitors, Steffens hopes to perform and attend graduate school, so winning will be helpful when applying to graduate school.
"I did it because I wanted to know what it felt like to compete (at that level)," he said.
After the list is posted, there is little commotion and the students, who were so animated while waiting, quietly drift off to do homework or partake in a celebratory beer.
Komiyama says later that the students will realize very soon that the beauty of the competition is not the winning, but is in the preparation.
"I do mean it when I say that they are all winners," Komiyama said. "It is difficult for them, and they spend hours (preparing). But they have all won by entering. That is how they get better -- by performing. It really is more about the process than the actual event."
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Shuichi Komiyama (406) 994-5770, email@example.com