Although this town is better known for rodeos than recitals, lots of local booster have been spending their loose change on grand pianos lately.

The investment in music is largely due to the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition staged here over the past two weeks and climaxed yesterday by the victory of Steven DeGroote, 24, of South Africa.

But the grand prize in the prestigious competition - as far as the natives are concerned - is having a foreign contestant stay in your home, practicing eight hours a day on the baby grand in the parlor.

At $7,500 to $8,400 for a Steinway grand, that's a steep price for a foreign exchange student.

One Fort Worth family even arranged to buy the Steinway console in Van Cliburn's hotel suite. The family's unwritten contract had two stipulations: that the instrument remain in Cliburn's suite throughout the competition and that the legendary East Texas musician autograph it on the inside.

Unfortunately, not even piano owner here could boast an instrument worthy of an artist's inspection.

Yesterday's second-place winner. Alexander Toradze, 25, a Soviet pianist nicknamed the "Russian Bear" because of his bulk and his heavy hand at the keyboard, actually broke two keys while practicing in his host's home.

The piano hammers split - leading to jokes that the Russian musician holds a black belt in piano.

"It was a very nice family," Toradze later explained, "but a very old piano."

Toradze's experience was no surprise to Don Quayle, president of the Fort Worth Piano technicians' Guild. Quayle was assigned to rate the pianos in each home housing a contestant, and, if possible, to tune them into p condition.But that wasn't always possible.

"I asked one woman if her piano got tuned regularly," recalled Quayle in his Texas twang. "The woman said, Sure, it gets regular care.' Well, I found out that 'regularity' to her meant once every four years."

Presumably that's because that is how often the Cliburn competition is staged: once every four years, turning Cowtown - Fort Worth's official nickname - into Cliburn country. why is such a prestigious, classical music competition heldin Fort Worth, a prairie town of half a million where the public schools close for the livestock show parade?

The musicians maintain that the prizes are too unequal: For the winner, $10,000 plus a Carnegic Hall debut, a tour of major orchestras across the United States, Europe and the Far East, and a recording contract with RCA.

Second and third place winners receive $6,000 and $3,000 respectively plus concert tours to insure their recognition beyond Fort Worth.

The third-place contestant was the local favorite, Jeffrey Swann, 25, whose family lives in the Forth Worth suburbs.

The awards go on and on, down to the consolation prize of a $500 gold watch.

Yet for the past two weeks 76 of the world's most talented young pianists have assembled here - to say nothing of the renowned musical jury, the scores of talent scouts, record company representatives and music critics - helping to turn this into the Rolls Royce of piano competitions.

Greek-born contestant Panayis Lyras, 23, says Texas generosity is the answer, "No contest is as extravagant as this," he laughed, dangling the keys of an LTD loaned to him, courtesy fo a local For dealer. "My car has push-button windows and a CB. I don't have to pay for anything but the gas." (Even that's a bargain here at 53.9 cents for a gallon of lead-free.)

"The difference here is the money," Lyras said, "There are not this many people in New York who shell out the money. Apparently, they love the arts here."

Lyras and other piano competitors, ranging in age from 18 to 29, described lesser piano competitions where they ar crammed into youth hostels, dormitories and hotels without a family, a friend or even a rehearsal piano to provide support.

But in Fort Worth each contestant is put up in a private, often sumptuous home with across to backyard swimming pools, maids who lovingly iron their shirts and a family to hug and hope and even cry for them.

Mary Lou Falcore, the contest's public relations coordinator, says this remarkable piano competition evolved in Texas rather than on the East Coast because of the warm, Southern hospitality.

"Good luck trying to find 76 homes in New York to put those kids in for two full weeks," said Falcone, who lives in the Big Apples, "In New York these are so many events going on . . . that everybody separates. But in Fort Worth the focus is on this singular, spectacular event."

Maggie Carson, a New York music consultant who served as "den mother" to the competition's distinguished jury of musicians, agreed. "Texas know how to do things, how to accomodate you."

During the first few days of the competition, a grandfatherly, Russian-born pianist seated on the jury was "just miserable."

Nikita Magaloff complained that he couldn't sleep at night because his baby pillow, a small bundle of down that has accompanied him on concert tours around the world, had disappeared.

Apparently a maid at the Hilton, where the jurors stayed, had scooped up the pillow with the bed linens and sent it down a laundry chute.

"It's the first time I've lost it," mourned Magaloff, placing paternal hand on his listener. "It's a little pillow that has feathers and it helps me sleep when I have so much music in my head."

An emergency call went out to Neiman-Marcus, the fabied, Texas-based department store. Within the hour, Magaloff had a baby blue "boudoir" pilow - graitis, of course - and a comfortable night's sleep for the remainder of the competition.

With one crisis resolved, another arose among the jurors. Leon Fleisher, conductor of the Smithsonian Theater Chamber Players, needed to study the music for an upcoming performance. But room service at the Hilton could not supply a turntable.

Radio Shack, also headquarter here, loaned him a complete stereo unit.

The question of why this competition evolved in Fort Worth finally quits nagging when you spy Van Cliburn.

Oh, you recognize the face, it is the same wavy-haired head recalled from posters and concert programs. But those photos never captured the length and breadth of the man.

There he is outside the concert hall, leaning against the wall like a rancher against a fence post. He is two heads taller than the musicians he's chatting with, and his voice is three octaves lower. He has to bend down to greet everyone - especially the little old lady, a Fort Worth piano teacher whose name he remembers.

Seeing Cliburn, you know instinctively that a competition bearing this name couldn't be held anywhere but here in Fort Worth where the West begins, for Cliburn appears more Texan than virtouso.

Despite his corduroy leisure suit - a navy blue one despite his urbanity and polse, he appears a down-to-earth Texan.

When he won the first Tchikovsky competition in Moscow in 1958. Van Cliburn was a lanky adolescent from Kilgore, Tex., a Cold War hero, a star, the only musician ever accorded a ticker-tape parade in New York City.

Now he won't divulge whether he's 42 or 43 years old, just "21 plus." But when he converses, smile lines gather his eyes and the furrows in his forehead deepen, reminding observers that Clibrn's breakthrough to wealth and fame was 19 years ago.

He wants to remain the lanky kid who proved that classical music thrives in Texas. He's proud to think that Texans have one foot in the saddle and the other foot under the keyboard. That's why he gives his personality, his charm, his name, his aura to this competition. Texas is where he feels comfortable.

So Saturday afternoon when he walked into a hotel hospitality suite prior to a TV interview, it seemed totally in character for him to point to a pimple on the side of his face.

"Does it look terrible?" he asked of everyone, "I've got the feeling it's getting ready to blossom." He gestured to demonstrate a flower in bloom.

In New York, someone would have rushed to camouflage his blemished skin with makeup.

But Cliburn was down home in Texas.

"Don't worry, Van," a middle-aged admirer piped up. "It doesn't matter. Everyone thinks you're still a teenager anyway."

It was just what he wanted to hear and he hugged her warmly.

It was only two weeks ago that De-Groote, who won the grand prize, played to an empty hall at Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art. "That's the way it always is when you're unknown." said his manager, Susan Wadsworth. She expects a larger reception when the tall, blond artist returns to the Washington area next year for an engagement at the Jewish Community Center in Rockville.

Meanwhile, there was evidence this weekend that DeGroote had discovered something besides Fort Wworth hospitality to enhance his performance. In between his award-winning recital of Mozart's Concerto No. 3 in C Major on Saturday night, he downed a glass of Gatorade.