LATHAM -- Most 11-year-old boys spend their free time out on some athletic field or in video games. But not J.T. Sterle. He practices piano.
“I do about two or three hours a day,” he said.
Sterle, who lives in Clifton Park and attends Acadia Middle School where he’s in sixth grade, spends this much time at the keyboard because he has a special goal. He wants to win his division in the 12th annual Chopin Piano Competition, which will be held on Saturday.
“It’s exciting to win,” he said.
Sterle should know. Since he began piano at 5 years and studies with local teacher Bella Brusilovsky, his skills have attracted much attention. He has been given outstanding high marks at New York State School Music Association, New York State School Teacher of Music Association and Piano Guild events, won his division at the 3rd annual Tchaikovsky Competition in Albany last year, and won his division at last year’s Chopin Piano Competition.
This is in addition to accompanying his school choir and playing at local benefits, such as the local Polish Festival in June.
“It was my idea to compete,” he said. “I like to share my feelings through music, so at competitions I’ve learned how important it is to play with emotion.”
Chopin winners and Zavas performance
Chopin Piano Competition winners
WHEN: 2 p.m. Sunday (Reception follows)
WHERE: Blessed Virgin Mary of Czestochowa Church, 250 Old Maxwell Rd., Latham
HOW MUCH: $10, $8
Pianist Juana Zayas in recital
WHEN: 7 p.m. Saturday (Reception follows)
WHERE: Blessed Virgin Mary of Czestochowa Church
HOW MUCH: $20, $15, $10 (10 or more)
MORE INFO: www.bvmc.org
For his division, which is 11 to 14, Sterle will play Chopin’s Ballade in G minor. Last year in the 6 to 11 Young Chopin group, he won with Chopin’s Polonaise in G-sharp minor.
“I heard the other competitors last year and thought I had a middle chance of winning,” he said. “I was surprised to win.”
Inspired by the talents of Lang Lang and Yundi Li, Sterle said he was just glad to be out on stage, win or lose.
Plenty of pianists
He’ll have at least nine other pianists in his Apprentice Division to worry about. There are also 10 pianists competing in the Young Chopin level and 10 pianists in the 15 to 21 Master level group. That’s all the one-day event can handle, said Regina Pollack, the competition’s promoter and founder. That’s a far cry from when the competition began.
“It started as part of the local Polish festival and evolved to become very popular,” she said. “We couldn’t play with the polka bands playing out in the tents — we had a different audience. So in 2009, we made it a separate event.”
They moved the competition to a small church, but that too proved difficult as the competition soon outgrew that venue. So Pollack formed the non-profit Capital District Council for Young Musicians, whose purpose was to find a venue for the competition and provide performance opportunities regional for those who won.
“I didn’t know what I was in for in my first year, but it has turned out to be such a spectacular event,” she said. “Teachers have come to take this event very seriously. It gives kids and the teachers a forum to perform and to strive. Because the competition is in September, it keeps kids motivated to practice all summer.”
Many winners go on into music. One of the biggest success stories, she said, was Ryan Reilly, who not only is currently at the Juilliard School, but was the soloist last spring with the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra.
Refining the process
Although Pollack herself plays piano, she knew from the beginning that she needed feedback. In the last 10 years, Young Kim, who teaches at The College of Saint Rose, not only sent her students to compete, she also gave Pollack some suggestions.
“I thought there should be at least two judges and that they should be different each year,” Young Kim said. “If a pianist chose a mazurka, for example, they should also choose one more from a list of mazurkas. I liked them to prepare more pieces.”
Over the years, her students have done well, often winning.
“There are not many competitions locally. Music is hard, but is easier when you have a goal,” she said. “Seeing other people playing [at a competition] and maybe wanting to play that piece. They learn how and what to prepare. And every year this competition has gotten better. It’s great to see it grow.”
Word of mouth has helped that growth and she has seen the level of pianist improve, Pollack said. She sends the notice of the competition out in February and this time, for the first time, she had filled up by May. There is a waiting list of seven, with most competitors coming from the Capital Region, Massachusetts or Connecticut. Many of the same performers will also compete in the local Tchaikovsky Competition, founded a few years ago by Margarita Khaitov, which is held in the spring, at which only Tchaikovsky’s piano pieces are performed.
Judging the contest
This year’s judges are Krystian Tkaczewski and Timothy Dunne. Tkaczewski made his Carnegie Hall debut in 2007, has won prizes at several international piano competitions and founded his own Chopin International Piano Competition in Hartford.
Dunne has also performed internationally, studied at the St. Petersburg State Conservatory in Russia, and is a composer of note. Currently, he teaches theory and piano at Saint Rose.
The winners and runners-up in each division perform publicly on Sunday. Cash prizes are: $100 for Young Chopin; $500 for Apprentice; $1,000 for Master; $50 for each runner-up.
Funding comes from donations and the families of Dr. John Cetner and Jana Brennan. Artist Pianos donates a Yamaha grand for the event.
As a special concert, local pianist Juana Zayas, a frequent guest soloist with the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra, will give a recital on Saturday night. Her program includes works by Schumann, Schubert, Joseph Fennimore, and, of course, Chopin.