Keyed up

9 insider tips for the best experience at the Cliburn Competition finals in Fort Worth

9 insider tips for the best experience at Cliburn finals in Fort Worth

Cliburn Competition, selfie
Superfans take selfies. Photo courtesy of The Cliburn
Bass Hall, Cliburn competition
The Cliburn Competition continues at Bass Hall through June 18. Photo courtesy of The Cliburn
Cliburn gift shop
Best gift shop in town right now. Photo courtesy of The Cliburn
Ilya Shmukler, Cliburn Competition, film crew
Film crews follow the contestants around. Photo courtesy of The Cliburn
Cliburn Competition, Bass Hall stage
It never gets darker than this inside the hall. Photo courtesy of The Cliburn
Bass Hall lobby, Cliburn Competition
Be sure to look up at the 60th anniversary banners featuring all the past winners. Photo courtesy of The Cliburn
Cliburn Competition, selfie
Bass Hall, Cliburn competition
Cliburn gift shop
Ilya Shmukler, Cliburn Competition, film crew
Cliburn Competition, Bass Hall stage
Bass Hall lobby, Cliburn Competition

When the iconic Van Cliburn International Piano Competition comes to town every four years (or five when there's a worldwide pandemic), the eyes of the classical music world turn to Fort Worth like it's a host city for the Olympic Games. But lucky North Texans don't just have to ogle the action from afar; they can catch it in person — and, from the people-watching to the gift-store shopping — it's a whole experience.

Musicians and critics analyze every arpeggio and hang on every fermata, but you don't need a piano degree to have fun at the Cliburn. What you need are tips on how to prepare for and make the most of a Cliburn Competition experience from someone who's been there, done that, and had a great time a few times (hand up, right here).

We're now starting the heated final round of the 60th anniversary competition. (The list of six finalists is here.)

From the practical (security!) to the frivolous (cocktails!), here are nine pro tips to make the most of a visit to this year's Cliburn before it exits the stage again, June 18, for another four years.

Note: Unlike in years past, there is no charter bus service being offered from Dallas to Bass Hall. Also in a change from years past, the finals will not be broadcast on radio station WRR-FM (101.1).

Do some easy recon before you go
The competition started June 2 with 30 pianists. The field narrowed to 18 quarterfinalists, then to 12 semifinalists, and now to the final six, who'll play concertos with the Fort Worth Symphony and Marin Alsop, conductor. If you're diving right in, here in the final week, keeping track of who's who is confusing. Catching up quickly is not. The Cliburn webcasts the entire competition live, with expert commentary in between performances. Each one is then archived and available to watch for free, any time. Just go to the Cliburn website and click on the handy tab called "Watch past performances." It'll redirect you to YouTube, where you can find performers by name, or watch entire previous rounds. There are also some short introductory videos hat give you a quick look at each pianist's background and personality. 

Easy recon, part 2: Buy "the book"
When you enter the hall, you'll be handed a single sheet of paper that has only the day's schedule. It won't help you figure out who you're seeing or what you're listening to. For that, you need to buy the $25 program book in the lobby. More than a playbill, it's a ginormous, 220-page souvenir tome with competitor bios and repertoire, along with anything you ever wanted to know about the Cliburn — history, winner updates, even the complete jury handbook. You'll find them stacked prominently in the lobby gift shop, or ask one of the volunteers for "the book." They'll know which one you mean. (Tip: It's a great gift for anyone who treats you to a concert.) 

Accessorize for success
Some sartorial strategy is necessary to ensure the best experience for you and those around you.

  • Even when it’s 100 degrees outside, Bass Hall is generally chilly and drafty, so tote along a wrap or light jacket.
  • Per security, purses don't need to be clear, but they should be on the small side (and they’ll be checked at the door each time you enter the building). Ditch the backpack for a cross-body bag that you can wear easily the whole time.
  • COVID-time face masks are optional now — strongly encouraged, but no longer mandatory. (Neither is showing of a negative test or proof of vaccination.)
  • Important but often overlooked: Avoid wearing stacked bracelets, dangling charms, or large earrings that announce their presence each time you turn your head. If you have a watch and a bracelet on the same wrist, remove one and slide it on the other wrist. Constantly clanging jewelry is as distracting as a cellphone ringing or a cough drop being unwrapped.
  • Sparkly, sequin headbands and accessories can also be distracting. Lights are kept on, so everyone in the audience can be seen at all times. Best to bring your sparkling personality and leave the rhinestone-crusted decorations at home.
  • Don't even think about a hat, cowboys.

Strike up a conversation
Just like the field of competitors is international, so is the audience watching them. You’ll hear languages you don’t recognize and superfans who’ve come from far-away places to watch the competition. They might be the family, friends, or piano teachers, or even journalists in from overseas. The room is also full of local “host families” keeping competitors in their homes and entertaining them. Hosts usually love to talk about all the places they’re taking them for a grand Texas experience. Don’t be afraid to say howdy and ask people’s “connections to the Cliburn” — everyone there has one.

Shop, shop, shop
The Cliburn Shop in the lobby is full of fun merch ranging from "stocking stuffers" like nail files, magnets, and lip balm to higher-end jewelry, clothes, even fine housewares like etched wine glasses and carafes. Hot sellers are mugs, T-shirts, posters autographed by all the contestants, handcrafted jewelry, candles, and a special 60th anniversary scarf seen styled in different ways by different patrons in the hall. Other unique finds: piano-themed reading glasses (yep, keyboards line the arms), piano hammer keychains, and comfy pajama pants. (Tip: Shop as early as possible because the last day or two, lines get very long.)

Make it the happiest hour
Concertos with cocktails? Yes, please. The Bass Hall bartenders are stirring together a few specialty cocktails just for the competition: The Virtuoso (Champagne, Beefeater gin, blueberry, lemon, $14); the Cadenza (Svedka vodka, ginger beer, lime, cranberry juice, $14); and a non-alcoholic concoction of lemonade and Sprite with blueberry syrup, for $6. There’s also a selection of wine, beer, and well drinks. Even better? Drinks purchased in a special Bass Hall cup with a sealed lid are allowed inside the concert hall during performances. Go ahead and make it a double, then bring the cup back tomorrow.

Play juror and vote for your favorite
Ultimately, the jury of professional pianists picks the winners — you'll never get to interact and chat with them, except at the Jury Symposium (see below). But you can weigh in on the all-important Audience Award by voting for your favorite contestants online. Officially called the Carla and Kelly Thompson Audience Award, presented by Medici.TV, it carries a cash prize of $2,500. All 30 competitors are eligible, and you can vote once per day until the competition ends; results will be announced at the awards ceremony June 18. View the ballot and vote here.

Take in a freebie
The last week of the event, the whole thing becomes more of a "festival," with some extra events that are absolutely free to attend. Stuff's expensive these days; free is good.

  • In the downtown area around lunch time? Drop by the free Piano Lunches at 12:15 pm June 14, 15, and 17 at McDavid Studio, and be entertained by some of the eliminated contestants (food is available for purchase).
  • Interested in learning more about why classical music even matters to the world or how the Cliburn jury picks a winner? Attend several different symposia June 14-17 at the Van Cliburn Recital Hall downtown. 
  • Make way for the Grand Finale. As a thank-you to Fort Worth, the Cliburn will host a big public celebration in Sundance Square, June 17-18. Events include finals concert and awards ceremony simulcasts on a big screen, a family festival, and a closing party starring Adonis Rose and the Fort Worth Jazz Orchestra. The entire schedule is here.

Act like a superfan
It's easy to get swept up in the "Olympic-like" excitement after just one visit. You'll see camera crews following contestants around for both the webcast and a documentary being made. (Smile and act normal if they catch you!) You'll see fans gathering outside at the stage door, waiting for their favorite pianist to emerge to take a selfie and sign their program book; you'll soon want to linger there, too. Take it all in. Look up, up, up in the lobby and view banners with photos of all the past winners. Cross the street at the crosswalk painted like a keyboard. Go ahead, post it all to Instagram like the big #Cliburn2022 superfan you'll become.