This is a re-blog of an article that appeared in the 2014 Cincinnati World Piano Competition Program.
Getting ready for a competition takes a lot of playing and planning. Spencer Myer, the 2005 World Piano Competition silver medalist, understands the pressures of competition. Before his last competitive appearance at the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition he participated in at least 20. “For six years, I did about three to four a year,” says the veteran competitor turned-pro who now averages 40 concerts and recitals a year. The trick is managing the inevitable stress that is a huge part of competing.
For Myer, that meant, not only knowing his repertoire thoroughly but also plotting a quick recovery if he made a mistake or suffered a memory lapse onstage. It was a multi-step strategy that took lots of preparation during the two to three months leading up to a competition.
“In general, people choose pieces they know and are very comfortable playing,” Myer says. “I made it a point to include at least one work I’d never played before in every competition. I didn’t want to be rehashing the same pieces every time, and I was also trying to embark on a professional career so I wanted to expand my repertoire.”
In theory, every participant prepares several recitals, a different program for each round. “It is a much greater amount of repertoire than you would ever play in such a short period of time if you were a professional, but it certainly is good for learning to practice efficiently in order to get yourself to that topnotch level,” Myer says.
A month before a competition, Myer’s practice sessions would intensify, making sure that every day he played at least half of the works that he had chosen for each round. “It gave me peace of mind, knowing that if I made it past the first round, I was just as prepared to go on.” This period of time also included playing for others, drafting friends to simulate the added pressure of an audience and jury.
A few days before the competition Myer shifted his focus to the first round, doing “major, major detail work and playing as close to perfection as I could.” It was during this part of the process that he would create different “mistake scenarios” and work out how to move on if they occurred. “It was a different way to exercise my brain, because I never wanted to play on autopilot,” he explains.
The last few days also involved work away from the piano, studying the score and embedding enough visual cues in his brain that he could actually picture the music in front of him if needed. And then, day one of competition: “If I didn’t play until the afternoon or evening, I would always sleep late,” he says. Eating usually was limited to a high protein/low carb meal of chicken and vegetables an hour or two before performing and a power nap if time allowed. Playing his entire first round repertoire was a priority. “I always felt the best and most solid if I had been playing right up until the moment I walked onstage,” Myer says.
One thing Myer didn’t depend on was luck. “No, I didn’t have a lucky shirt or shoes I always wore,” he says, laughing. “There was nothing I ever carried in my pocket for luck, either.”
A year before Myer competed for the last time he was the gold medalist in the New Orleans International Piano Competition. So, what does it feel like to take the top prize? “I can tell you it feels like a million bucks,” Myer says, clearly delighted by the memory. “To be acknowledged by a group of elders who have been in the business and heard so many great people play is just incredible.”