To the untrained ear, the 24 soloists competing in the 2017 Thomas and Evon Cooper International Competition are musical masterminds.
But teenage violinists Adrian Steele, 17, and Oda Gunther, 18, say they are struggling to believe in their talent.
“I never feel talented. I think everyone feels not talented,” Gunther said. “You never get enough approval. There’s always a feeling of chasing something better. That’s the whole point of being a musician — it’s never perfect.”
For both musicians, having every draw of a bow eyed by scrupulous judges isn’t what makes them nervous. Competing against other violinists does.
Unlike a concert, a competition’s focus is on comparing, which Gunther said only makes her play worse. “I’ll hear another girl playing the same (piece) as me and while I’m performing think, ‘Oh, she did this better.’”
Now in its eighth year, the Cooper Competition offers a grand prize of $20,000 in addition to second and third prizes of $10,000 and $5,000. Each finalist’s prize package also includes a full four-year tuition scholarship to attend the Oberlin Conservatory of Music.
A 10-member jury of world-renowned performers has been judging the competition. It includes Oberlin Conservatory faculty members Gregory Fulkerson, David Bowlin, Marilyn McDonald, Sibbi Bernhardsson, and Milan Vitek; Jan Mark Sloman of the Cleveland Institute of Music; Chenxing Huang of the Shanghai Conservatory; Haik Kazazyan of the Moscow Conservatory; Mark Messenger of the Royal College of Music faculty in Great Britain; and Naoko Tanaka of the Juilliard School.
Judges look for a combination of well-prepared techniques and “a certain individuality that only you can bring to the table,” said Steele.
And that aspect of storytelling is exactly why they get on stage.
“Violin playing is like an iceberg. Most of the time, most of the iceberg is under the water and you’re feeling under the water and terrible,” Steele said. “But there are those few seconds of your violin playing — the tip of the iceberg — when you’re like, ‘Yes!’ And it’s worth it. It’s worth getting up and practicing way too much.”
Gunther does most of her thinking while playing, trying to dodge negative thoughts, including self-doubt that she should even be playing. It’s often easy to be consumed by those types of misgivings.
“I try to think that the moment I walk on stage, nothing more can be done. I know all these things, I know how to play, I know how to practice, but still,” she paused. “I’m still not there.”
Concerto finals with the Cleveland Orchestra will be held at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Severance Hall in Cleveland. Jahja Ling will conduct.
Tickets to the finals may be purchased by calling 216-231-1111 or at www.clevelandorchestra.com.
Tickets range from $15 to $25 and students under age 18 are admitted free with a paying adult. Student tickets for $15 are also available with a school ID.
Laurie Hamame can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @HamameNews on Twitter.