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Random access: notes heard 'round the world: technology and the Minnesota International Piano e-Competition.

January 2011, Tokyo. Back in the hotel after two days of recording the latest rising stars of the piano world. It was some of the best playing I have ever heard, and I am in complete awe, never imagining that such maturity and sheer technical prowess would possible in pianists whose ages averaged 15 (with a good number of 13-year-olds in the mix). One after another, they gave flawless and colorful performances of repertoire usually associated far more seasoned pianists: Chopin and Liszt Etudes, Hungarian Rhapsodies, late Beethoven Sonatas and more than a couple Scarbos and Ondines. Every player was amazing, and a few quite nearly transcended human capacity.

Fortunately, this is the first round of the Minnesota International e-Piano Junior Competition, so you don't have to take my word for it. These performances did not simply evaporate into the air where there were played; they were recorded ("preserved" might be a more accurate word) on a Yamaha Disklavier CFIII Mark IV PRO. In technical terms, this means that every nuance was captured with hundreds of tiny fiber-optic sensors discreetly tucked inside the piano. And because the Disklavier Pro models use what's known as XP MIDI (basically an expanded version of General MIDI, allowing more incremental data for each key or pedal movement), these performances can be reproduced, with every minute nuance intact, on other Disklavier Pro pianos. Additionally, the performances were videotaped with "sync" data coming out of the Disklavier, meaning they can also be replayed with exactly matching video.

Armed with a small digital video camera, a few cables, and an inhuman resistance to jet lag, Stella Sick, from the faculty of Hamline University in St. Paul, and managing director of the competition, travels the world to record these amazing young artists. I was lucky enough to tag along as technical assistant for two of the seven cities in this year's competition. By the time this edition of AMT goes to press, Sick will have compiled all the synchronized performances, and the judges will have screened each one, back to back, with life-sized video and a similarly equipped Disklavier Pro. The 24 young pianists they choose will then advance to the final rounds of competition in the Twin Cities.

An Idea Is Born

Originally conceived in 2002, the competition is an expression of technology born out of necessity. Founding President and Artistic Director Alexander Braginsky began the process of creating a new competition, and was committed to having Yefim Bronfman be a judge. Bronfman was eager to participate, but couldn't escape his demanding tour schedule to accommodate the request. At this moment, serendipity, creativity and technology all came together to provide a solution.

Bronfman's tour would take him through Japan during the time of the preliminary rounds. Yamaha Corporation of Japan was hard at work perfecting a concert grand "Pro" version of the Disklavier, and needed to test its capabilities. What if the recordings were captured with synchronized video (which in those days required a good bit of external equipment as well), then electronically transferred to Japan, where Bronfman could take a few hours to travel to Yamaha headquarters in Hamamatsu, where he would judge from the opposite side of the globe. The experiment was flawless--Bronfman screened the contestants just 45 minutes after they were played, and the competition has continued to grow exponentially ever since.

By the second competition, in 2004, Yamaha had unveiled the Disklavier Mark IV Pro model, equipped with the ability to output "sync" data, thus requiring less external equipment for video-synced recordings. Braginsky took this as a sign to take the show on the road, and thus reversed the process--instead of having a long-distance judge, they would offer the competition to long-distance contestants. This move widened the scope for pianists worldwide to participate with minimal travel and expense.

In 2008, the Junior version ("e-Piano Junior") of the competition was added to the mix, and the current rotation is to host Junior and Adult competitions alternating bi-annually. This year, there were 72 applicants, all under age 17, most of whom were invited to the Disklavier-recorded auditions in Los Angeles, Tokyo, Vancouver, Toronto, New York, Paris or Moscow.

But Why?

As a music technology geek, I get goose bumps thinking about all the potential of this kind of technology. But why would a world-class competition see the need for the distance element? It's not just a gimmick, says Braginsky. It's all about opportunity, fairness and progress.

With our ever-shrinking globe, efforts like the Minnesota International Piano e-Competition help level the playing field for pianists from around the world. One stunning contestant in Tokyo had traveled from rural China, jumping through visa hurdles and stretching the limits of her family's finances to participate. If U.S. travel had been required, the costs and red tape would have simply been too high.

With everyone judged by the same jury, competitors don't have to worry if they were evaluated by the same criteria as their peers. (Judges' relatives and students are also not allowed to participate.) And because the finalists are narrowed months in advance, travel arrangements to Minnesota become easier and far less costly.

Then, there's the whole issue of progress in the field. The "e" in e-Competition refers to the fact that the recordings are electronically available. Streaming video from piano competitions has become common, but the e-Competition remains the only one providing live recordings that can be reproduced in your home or school with a Disklavier. (In fact, any MIDI playback device, such as a digital piano or computer sequencer, can play these files, keeping in mind, of course, that MIDI playback is only as good as the device on which the sound is produced.)

Every solo stage of the competition (but not chamber or concerto rounds) is recorded on the Disklavier Mark IV Pro, and the recordings are made available on the competition's website (see below). This treasure trove of thousands of unedited live performances--recordings for every single competitor, not just finalists--has become the Web's most highly regarded collection of classical works available in MIDI format, and it's completely free to download. In other words, if you or your school has a Disklavier, digital piano, or even a MIDI player on your computer, you can download any of this repertoire for analysis and study. Videos (with audio, not MIDI for sound) are also available from all Minneapolis performances. There is no "sync" data in the online videos, however.

Best of all, do not forget that many of these free recordings are made by some of today's most highly regarded young pianists. Mei-Ting Sun (2002 winner) and Alessandro Taverna (2009 winner) now enjoy extensive performing careers and have adopted causes in music advocacy. Competition alumna Yulianna Avdeeva, from 2006, is an international sensation for her otherworldly channeling of Chopin. Claire Huang, Esther Park, Jie Chen (2004 Winner) and Jan Lisecki (2008 third-prize winner) all enjoy vibrant performing careers and have made significant marks in other international competitions.

What will come next? Perhaps a virtual orchestra to accompany the concerto rounds. Perhaps synchronized audio to collaborate with in absentia chamber players. Perhaps Internet services reliable enough to actually present the competition in real-time on a Disklavier. In the past, great composers (Beethoven and Liszt come to mind) made demands on piano builders, causing the evolution which brought us the modern grand piano. In the 21st century, this evolution continues as performers, composers and the worldwide audience stretch the limits of the technology at our disposal, giving birth to ideas that spur innovations like the Minnesota International Piano-e-Competition.

Beginning July 1, you can follow the progress of the e-Piano Junior Competition online at or (both lead to the same site). There, you'll also find information on the competition's unique format, as well as details for future competitions.


To find a specific piece in the competition's website, put your search engine powers to work: Open a search engine in your browser (such as Google or Yahoo).

Type the name of the piece you want to find in quotation marks, such as "Beethoven Sonata Op 111," followed by "e-Competition" and "MIDI."

Your results will probably contain a link (or links) to occurrences of that piece on the site. Scroll up and down the list to find the desired work.

If You Go

What: The final rounds of the e-Piano Junior Competition

When: July 1-8, 2011

Where: Hamline University, Sundin Music Hall, St. Paul, Minnesota

Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Visit for more details.

Shana Kirk is a pianist, teacher, technology consultant and arts advocate in Denver, Colorado. Focusing on teaching and performing technologies, she presents performances and workshops at music and music education events and conferences nationwide.
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Title Annotation:Professional Resources
Author:Kirk, Shana
Publication:American Music Teacher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2011
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