La Scena Musicale

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Piano Hero 2015: Afterthoughts for Future Directions

Robert Rowat
Piano Hero 2015: Afterthoughts for Future Directions

By Jennifer Liu

This past January, hundreds of amateur pianists across Canada sent videos of themselves playing to CBC’s Piano Hero contest. Thomas Yu emerged as the winner of the competition, which included a voting component as well as a judging round. A periodontist by profession, Yu’s polished performance of the Schumann-Liszt transcription of Widmung received unanimous approval from the judges, including concert pianists Janina Fialkowska, David Jalbert, and Stewart Goodyear.

The final count totalled 243 video submissions from across the country, as diverse in style as the pianists were in background and experience. Video views topped 540,000, a testament to the CBC’s ability to reconnect with Canadian classical music enthusiasts and breathe new life into a field that is sometimes considered to be stagnating. It’s a winning formula for everyone: participants were able to showcase their playing, while the CBC improved its image as a supporter of the arts after recent cuts to its classical music programming.

Robert Rowat, project leader for the contest and community producer for classical music at CBC Music, offers an inside perspective on the competition’s logistics, as well as insights gained from the inaugural edition.

LSM: Can we expect another edition of Piano Hero in the future?

Robert Rowat: We were really impressed and encouraged by the level of participation in Piano Hero - not only by the number of people who entered, but also by the public's response. We will decide whether we will do a second edition in the next few months.

What lessons can be drawn from this year's inaugural contest?

RR: The primary lesson we learned was not to underestimate the amateur classical music community in Canada. When we decided to do this contest, we suspected that we might tap into a fun, engaged subculture, but we were not prepared for the overwhelming reaction. The amateur classical music community seems to be thriving, and is very present online and on social media, despite perceptions to the contrary.

The other major lesson we learned is that a music contest can be run entirely online. There are already several excellent competitions for classical musicians in Canada: Canadian Music Competition, OSM Competition, Honens International Piano Competition, Montreal International Musical Competition, to name just a few. We wanted to see if an entirely web-based contest, using video only, and making use of social media and online voting, could coexist with the other more traditional type of competitions. It's our hope that Piano Hero adds another, complementary dimension to this community.

Was the competition pitched in the same way to the anglophone and francophone communities?

RR: We approached the French and English communications in the same way. We used our extensive on-air networks to get the word out. We also spent some time contacting music schools and cultural institutions from coast to coast. And we used the social media networks of CBC Music and ICI Musique to reach the widest possible public.

How were the jury members selected?

RR: A few producers from CBC Music and ICI Musique had a brainstorming session on whom we should approach to be on our jury. We needed people with a profile in both English and French Canada. We also tried to think of pianists who would be supportive of a contest geared towards amateur pianists, and carried out entirely online. Our three jurors — Janina Fialkowska, Stewart Goodyear and David Jalbert — were very generous with their time and told us they had a good time judging the finalists.

Was there any difference of opinion between the judges when it came time to pick the grand prize winner?

RR: We used a mathematical judging system, to make sure the judging of the finalists was fair. When the results were tallied, we reached out to each juror to make sure they were happy with the winner, and all three expressed their satisfaction.

How did you come up with the concept of showcasing pianists exclusively?

RR: I was the project leader for Piano Hero, but a few key people conceived of it and worked hard to make it a reality. Guylaine Picard, executive producer at ICI Musique, played an important role throughout.

The idea to run an online video-based contest for amateur classical pianists was first discussed about two years ago at a meeting of CBC/Radio-Canada music producers. It was felt that the piano was probably the most ubiquitous instrument among amateur classical musicians, and would lend itself best to a video-based contest, partly because its solo repertoire does not need accompaniment.

So, did the contest live up to expectations?

RR: The outcome definitely exceeded our best expectations. We consider it to be a big win for the amateur classical piano community. We're really happy we decided to do it.

CBC is following up on the theme for open call for musicians with their 2015 edition of Searchlight, open to musical acts across all disciplines through March 29. 

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