Strike up a conversation with any of the pianists who’ve been part of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, and they are likely to start talking—with some emotion—about their host family. Having local families adopt and house a competitor is a tradition that goes back to the first Cliburn competition of 1962, when the piano teachers and civic boosters were making it up as they went along. But then, as now, it seemed like the right thing to do—to give these young men and women, most of them very far away from home, a local family of their own. It remains one of the best-loved parts of the social support structure that sets the Cliburn apart among the world’s great piano competitions.
So, how is this match game played? To find out, we talked with piano teacher and longtime Cliburn volunteer Maureda Travis, who is chair of the host family committee for this year’s competition. Travis and fellow committee members Adelaide Leavens, Fran Blanton, Becky Brooks and Julia Huseman have been thinking and planning since their first meetings last summer. But they “really got down to business” in December, selecting families and matching each competitor to one household. Host families finally found out at a social night on May 8 who “their” pianist would be. Some interesting items from this year’s match list:
- Russian pianist Nikita Mndoyants, as reported in another TJ feature, is the first-ever child of a former Van Cliburn competitor to be chosen for the competition. His father Alexander Mndoyants shared a fifth place prize in the 1977 competition. (In earlier competitions, both fifth and sixth place prizes were awarded.) And here’s the fun part: son Nikita will be staying with the Steves family, who hosted his father all those years ago. The elder Mndoyants has remained close to the family, and, says Travis, “it only makes sense to have the son with the family the father wants him to be with. I think it’s lovely, that the competition has been around long enough to be developing that kind of history.”
- Two sisters and their families will host a competitor and his teacher—who himself was a competitor at the Van Cliburn in 2005. Pianist Davide Cabassi of Italy (one of the six finalists in 2005) will return to stay with the Kleinheinz family; his student in this year’s Cliburn, Luca Buratto, has been matched with the Gorski family. (The two wives of these families are sisters.)
- Host Jon Suder will have a reunion with Italian pianist Alessandro Deljavan, who is the only competitor from the 2009 competition coming back this year. Suder and Deljavan hit it off in a big way four years ago, and both are delighted to have a second time around.
What are the criteria for a host family? “They must have the time, of course,” says Travis. “This isn’t a matter of a couple of days. The competitors begin arriving on May 18, and most stay through the end of the competition on June 9. But most of all, we are looking for families who want to take a competitor and make them a family member.” And that, much like knowing what your own child needs as he or she gets ready for a big exam or a sports event, could mean anything: fixing a special meal, shopping for clothes, helping the competitor find “quiet time” for practice, and so on.
And what makes a good match? “We’ve learned so much over the years,” says Travis, who can recall only “one or two” times in the past 20 years when things didn’t work out. Each Cliburn competitor and all potential host families are asked to complete a detailed questionnaire. Questions cover a lot of ground: language, dietary needs, sleep or “noise level” preferences, and much more. “Years ago, smoking—either by the competitors or hosts—was a big issue. Would a competitor mind smoking outside if the hosts don’t smoke—or object to being in a home with smokers? Now there so few smokers, but we’re having issues with pets in the homes—this time around, it seems many of the competitors are allergic to cats and dogs. We always ask about languages spoken and preferred, but even that is less and less a problem, as most of our competitors seem to be coming in with a strong understanding of English.”
“Among the things we ask is whether the competitors would mind being in a home that has young children,” Travis adds. “And some of the pianists say No, I’m sorry, but I can’t take the chance of noise, or distraction, or lost sleep. But others come back and tell us Oh, yes, yes, I would love to be in a big family! And as a piano teacher, I can only think how lucky it is for those children, to have that kind of example—to see how hard they work, how dedicated they are to their art.”
If there is a favorite competitor group, Travis says with a laugh, “it’s probably the Italians. I have families who come up and say to me, Oh, if you could match us with an Italian….The Italian competitors are so sociable, and the minute they have a bit of down time, they always want to get into the kitchen and cook!”
And the Cliburn organization has thought of everything, it seems. Want to host, but aren’t sure you can be a 24/7 entertainment committee? Enter a new idea, the Cliburn’s crew of “social hosts”—young singles or married couples in their 20s and 30s (about the age range of the competitors) who know where to find the clubs, music and sports venues, hip restaurants and dance floors around Fort Worth and Dallas. Many of the host families include husbands and wives with demanding jobs or complicated kids schedules. “This way, if a competitor has some down time or needs a change of scenery,” says Travis, “the social hosts take them out and get them home safely—and the host family doesn’t have to worry, or to be out late.”
There’s no doubt that the top-notch pianists competing at the Van Cliburn work hard at their craft. “It’s practice, practice, practice from the minute they arrive,” says Travis. But if a competitor finds they aren’t advancing to the semifinal or final rounds, that’s a time when host families and competitors can really get to know each other—and have fun sampling the local attractions. “They go to ball games, to the North Side for barbecue or the rodeo, or visit the museums,” says Travis. “The host family relationship is really so lovely—and it’s a situation I don’t believe any other competition provides.”
◊ Jan Farrington is a freelance writer and editor based in Fort Worth. She skipped school to attend some sessions of the very first Van Cliburn competitions in 1962 and 1966…and isn’t a bit sorry!