FORT WORTH-During the last Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, one pianist who had never picked up a cigarette in his life became a chain smoker. Another abandoned his strict diet and went on a chocolate binge. And one young man suffered so much anxiety that he couldn’t walk onstage.

If the competitors seem tense toward the end of the Van Cliburn, a two-week international event, then their host families are close to becoming nervous wrecks as well. Having a competitor in your home, says Susan Tilley, a competition volunteer, is almost like having another child. But that doesn’t faze her. The month of May means that a time-honored ritual in Fort Worth has rolled around again: the fierce jockeying in social circles to be named a host family to one of the three dozen competitors in the world-class Van Cliburn competition.

Host families often spoil their competitor/guests in ways that their children rarely are. But despite efforts to match competitors with host families who share common interests, the matchups aren’t always successful. The chain-smoker, for example, specified on his application that he didn’t smoke, so he was placed with a family that was allergic to tobacco. “The young man got down here and became so nervous that he decided to take up smoking,” Til-ley says. “And the family was so fearful that we’d move him out of their home that they were willing to suffer despite the smoke.”

With only 37 participants this year, contestants-especially those from foreign countries-are in demand by prospective host families. Although anyone can volunteer, most host families have a piano and a schedule that’s flexible enough to conform to the competitor’s needs. Consequently, the competitors tend to end up in upper-class homes, a practice that volunteers hope to change. This year, says Mary Frances Barlow, directon of volunteers, more competitors will be staying with people who have an interest in music but don’t necessarily own pianos.

The needs of the competitors are many, but at the same time, says volunteer Beverly Smith, the rewards are great. In the past, parties were planned for the competitors, but this year’s schedule will be limited. The parties, given by such people as Perry and Nancy Lee Bass, Richard and Marsland Mon-crief and William and Carol McKay, evolve mostly around the jurors and special guests. While the jurors are touring a museum or enjoying a barbecue, the competitors will probably be at their pianos.

Typically, Smith says, the competitors practice for six to eight hours a day. Many, such as Youri Egorov, a 1977 competitor, share so much with their hosts that they develop enduring friendships. “Youri had recently defected from Russia, and we became his surrogate family,” says Smith. “You can’t share something as important as this competition with someone without absorbing their feelings.”


Keep me up to date on the latest happenings and all that D Magazine has to offer.