A week ago, Duane Hulbert spent 20 minutes playing the piano for a panel of judges at the University of Maryland and won his way into the semi finals of the 10th annual University of Maryland Piano Festival and Competition. Last Sunday, he flew up to Rochester to play Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto with the Rochester Philharmonic. On Tuesday, he was back in Maryland giving a recital that was his semifinal round in the competition, and yesterday he was waiting around the campus to find out whether he will be playing Samuel Barber's Concerto tonight in the final round of the competition.

The Maryland event is the third of four high-level piano competitions in which Hulbert is participating this summer. "I guess you could say that's a lot," he said, "but I have plenty of company. Of the 42 pianists who played in the preliminary round here, there are 18 who were in one or both of the other two competitions I have done so far this summer. After a while you get to know one another -- you find out that you have a lot of things in common, you make friends and cheer for one another. It doesn't matter so much who wins a particular competition, because there's always another one coming up and you can hope for better luck the next time."

Hulbert's last competition was the Gina Bachauer Award in Provo, Utah, where he took first prize. "I won a Steinway," he said, "and I'm not sure what to do with it. I already have a Steinway."

Hulbert, 24, a PhD candidate at the Juilliard School, was one of 13 semi-finalists who will be narrowed down to three for the final round tonight. Each will play a piano concerto with the Baltimore Symphony in the marathon final round, and the winner will receive a $5,000 cash prize and more than a dozen concert dates here and abroad, including seven appearances, with orchestras in the United States, Latin America and Europe. Most important of all, the winner will receive attention -- perhaps the attention of the all-important management agencies that control much of the musical life in the this country.

"It helps to have a management," says Hulbert, who doesn't have one but has managed to give 15 public performances in the last few months. "even if you get work without a manager, there are a lot of things you have to do for yourself -- things like publicity."

Hulbert and his dozen colleagues in the semifinals at Maryland are all seasoned veterans of the competition circuit, which is almost a profession or a way of life for aspiring pianists at a certain point in their development. They are working on one of the last barriers that confront a young pianist hoping to build a musical career. Once they have won some of the right competitions and attracted a good manager, there is only one more hurdle -- the audiences and critics who finally decide on long-term success or failure.

Earlier, they faced the problem of getting the right teacher somewhere around the age of 10 or 12, and then in their mid-teens they began climbing the ladder of competitions, usually beginning with small local ones and working up gradually to the major international competitions -- a category that now includes the University of Marland Competition. Nobody gets to the semifinals of a competition on this level without having first won prizes in at least half a dozen other contests.

There is a competition among competitions -- a sort of pecking order, just as there is among the people who compete. The University of Maryland event has now become part of the Federation of International Music Competitions, headquartered in Geneva, and that puts it in the big leagues. There is only one other contest in the United States, the Van Cliburn Competition, that meets the stringent criteria for membership -- including the requirement that a majority of the judges be from foreign countries.

"Competitions are necessary," says the Viennese pianist, conductor and scholar Walter Robert, who won the Boesendorfer Prize in 1930, has now retired after a distinguished career and is one of this year's judges at Maryland. "I wouldn't even call them a necessary evil, but a necessary condition for a career." Everyone connected with music competitions seems to have some reservations about music competitions, but Robert has relatively few. "Sometimes," he says, "you wonder whether he who plays loudest and fastest is most likely to get the prize -- but in this contest that is no problem because of the composition of the jury and the choice of quote simple unquote composers like Mozart and Beethoven -- works where the notes are easy but the music is difficult."

Walter also approves of the large number and variety of piano competitions: "There are so many now that you don't get suicides after failing one of them." "He believes that the number of competitions, and the correspondingly higher number of technically excellent young pianists, may be a sign that we are living in the instrument's heyday. "There were no pianos three centuries ago," he says, "and perhaps in another three centuries again there will be no pianos. Instruments seem to have their life-spans just like human beings -- and perhaps right now the piano is in its prime."

Fernando Laires, director of the festival and competition, has been a pianist since he was 3 years old and has gone into teaching and administration as well as performance because he believes "there is more to the piano than just playing."

The festival creates the feeling that there is more to the piano than just competition. More than 200 devotees of the instrument, mostly teachers and advanced students, pay $140 for Maryland's week-long celebration of the piano -- which includes master classes, teacher-training sessions and performances by some of the world's outstanding artists as well as the daily competition sessions.

In the lobby of the university's Adult Education Center, an impromptu book store is set up, devoted entirely to piano music. Browsers crowd around the temporary tables, leafing through bins of books that range from the classics to the latest compositions of people like George Crumb and Alberto Ginastera. There is a brisk trade in Beethoven, Liszt and Schumann, who tend to cost from five to 10 times less than the moderns -- as though contemporary music didn't have enough problems already.

Trade gossip circulates briskly in the cafeteria, the dormitory, whose 90 rooms are all filled, and the nearby motels from which shuttle buses run to the festival. One of the stories circulating this year is about a young pianist who got himself a management agency (no names, please), was charged $2,400 for a photo assignment and never heard from the agency again after paying the bill. aThere are plenty of horror stories about "the meat trade" in musical talent -- and plenty of young performers who want nothing so much as a chance to step into that meat grinder. A contestant asks, "When will the finalists be announced?" "Tonight," he is told."Good," he says, walking away, "after that I can go out and get drunk."

But underlying the tension, the gossip, the complaints and horror stories, the festival radiates a special feeling for the unique musical instrument that is its focus -- an instrument that is not very difficult in itself, compared to winds or string, but has the most fiendishly difficult repertoire of all and the toughest competition among its performers. "It doesn't matter too much whether I become a star," says one of the contestants, "as long as I can play regularly and perhaps teach a little."

"Like everyone else," says Fernando Laires, "I have thought much about the pros and cons of competitions -- and there certainly are cons. But a young artist really cannot do it on his own. Competitions give him visibility, exposure, a chance to have his abilities recognized. The competition tour is in many ways like the recital tour -- it subjects the musician to the same kind of tensions and prepares him for what he will experience in his professional life. It helps to develop guts, and that's what is really needed. I tell my students: 'If you don't have the guts not to win, don't go.'"