Abram Chasins is 78 years old. He has, as he says, "been everywhere and done everything." He has served on the juries of many major piano competitions, and is a feisty eminency grise here at the Sixth Van Cliburn Piano Competition.And while he has nothing but the highest respect for the pale young artists with fire in their eyes who sit at the grand pianos before him and his colleagues, there are times when he thinks, "You poor dear young people, if only you had heard Rachmaninoff do this work."

But, as Chasins ssays, "We live in a mad time, a demanding time." It's not the way it used to be for a concert pianist, when there was time to plumb the depths of one's soul and find what lay hidden there, angel and demon. "It used to be that when a great pianist went on tour in, say, Australia, he went by ship; it took many days. He read; he had a chance to reflect, to know himself better, to stare over the bow at the beautiful ocean, and it all went into his music. Now it's Sydney one night, Who-Do, Massachusetts, the next and Tired Corners, Kentucky, the night after that. Now there's not even anyone who knows what you need after a performance. There's no one there to say, 'Now, my dear, what you need is a nice poached egg.' Now it's the whipped cream and mayonnaise circuit."

Chasins feels that the growth of competitions has improved the base level of performance but that "the peaks are disappearing." Still, he says, at this Van Cliburn competition "I have heard very close to the realization of a very great talent," though of course he will not say who that is.

He sees competitions themselves as "a necessary evil." Chasins will talk all night about grandeur and nobility and how when Rachmaninoff played "your heart began beating with his heart." But he also knows a thing or two about the world and what it takes to be a star. "How the hell else can a young artist get publicity, and for Christ's sake a manager, if not for competitions?" he asks. "Nobody knows you're alive and nobody gives a damn. So you steel yourself and you do it because, sweetie, it's the only damn game in town." Quick Vault to Celebrity

Every four years since 1962 a legion of the world's most gifted pianists under 30 comes to Fort Worth to compete for the magnificent prizes and the quick vault to celebrity. The winner chosen next Sunday will receive $12,000 and two years of international engagements, a recital debut in Carnegie Hall, a recording contract, a Far East concert tour, a European concert tour -- riches unequaled by any other international competition.

Everything about it is impressive--from the credentials of the members of the jury, one of whose pianistic pedigree goes back to Liszt; to the enthusiasm of the city that donates half the upper reaches of the social register to the endless details of a $900,000 operation, including an endless stream of enthusiastic audiences; to the intensity of the artists who aim to step onto the path blazed by Van Cliburn himself in 1958.

Then, he was the 23-year-old musical Daniel who walked into the political den of the Cold War to win the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow and returned to a hero's welcome in this country. He got a ticker-tape parade in New York and the adoration of a public who might not know Bartok from Beethoven but knew a winner when they saw one.

Van Cliburn himnself glides with a spectral elegance through the busy seas that surround him. "It's a joyous business, a wonderful event for the city, for the people," he says, his hands sculpting the air in front of him. "It's more like a festival than a competition. Everyone is here to enjoy great music."

And to look for that spectacular combination of artist and showman who can take the bruising schedule, the avalanche of publicity, then feed the celebrity and the self-doubt into the great maw of music and, in the end, do the competition and Fort Worth proud. In the beginning there were 39 such dreamers. Now there are 12. Playing to the Audience

"No, no, no," says Edward Newman, as he sits in the silence of an empty practice room. He does not find competitions nerve-racking. "I find them exhilarating," he says. "After all, that's my business. And if I can't handle that, I'm in the wrong business."

Edward Newman should know. He has, at 26, devoted 22 years to the art of the piano. He knows the sacrifices involved. Last yer alone he played in four competitions in Poland, Italy, Canada and Spain. He awoke in four different cities from the same nightmare: walking onto a stage and forgetting the music.

Last year he lost $4,800 in this business. He moved from New Ork to Gaithersburg, Md., to avoid the distractions and lives now in a Montgomery Village apartment whose primary virtue is the concrete floor that is an accoustical boon.

The results of the competition are secondary, he says. "I'm only competing against myself, against my own standards. I don't play for the jury; I play for the audience."

Now is not the time for full answers to simple questions. Not now, in the semifinal round of the Van Cliburn competition when there is much at stake. Particularly not now, when Newman has finished his piano quintet to a round of applause that does not seem to echo quite so loudly when compared with that received by the next competitor. Bravo! they shouted for the man who followed Newman, and called him back to the stage three times.

A friend, says Newman; he's a colleague, not a competitor. No telling what an audience will like, he says cautiously; how fickle they can be for a touch of flash. Funny though, he says. "I thought the audiences here would be classier than that." Diapers and Diminuendos

Before Santiago Rodriguez begins to play, he says a quick prayer and takes a quick look at the picture of his wife, Natalia, and his daughter, Veronica. He met his wife at a competition in Moscow, and three days after he met her he asked her to marry him. They live in Adelphi now and he teaches of the University of Maryland. "My wife and my daughter are the two dearest things in the world to me," he says. "They have changed me completely. I think before I became a husband and a father I was becoming a bit mechanical in my music; I had left behind my humanity. I was losing touch with regular people -- it's easy to do that in this business. But having to change a few diapers, and getting up at odd hours of the night when she cries, has brought me back to earth. The love that I've been given comes out in the music and the love that I've been asked to give in return opens me up. Music touches your soul, touches the part of you that you never knew existed."

That is Santiago Rodriguez, sensitive artist, whose approach to music has been called Dionysian by one critic; who can discuss Dostoevsky and Thomas Hardy with great feeling; who can describe himself as having a weakness for sentimentality. This is not, however, to forget for a moment Santiago Rodriguez, contender -- the upper-class Cuban kid who lived in a New Orleans orphanage for two years waiting until his parents could come to this country, the one who knows what it's like to live in a project, the one who can say, "I'm confident. I used to be ashamed of that, but not anymore.After you've done your dirty work, you've got to pat yourself on the back. Nobody but me is going to make or break my career. It's like they say -- 'Though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil, because I am the meansest son of a bitch in the valley.' Nobody's going to take what I want away from me."

Santiago Rodriguez's dark eyes play a variation on toughness and tenderness, and once in a while there is a quick cool look to see how he's coming across. He's coming across just fine -- he's getting a lot of attention these days and one of the networks will be here to film him later in the week. How will he feel if he loses? "I will not lose," he says evenly. "I just will not win." Waiting Backstage

Eddie Maude Smyth watches with a sympathetic smile as Christina Kiss of Hungary prepares to go on stage to perform her recital. Smyth has come to every Van Cliburn competition there's been, but last time the organizers asked her if she wouldn't mind being a backstage mother. "They said, 'Just be a familiar face,'" Smyth says. "But it takes a lot more than that. I like to let them know that there's somebody here who really cares. You know, it can be a lonely situation."

And so she offers them orange juice or ice water and sets out soft napkins to wipe, sweaty brows. And a heating pad with a long extension cord so they can keep their fingers warm while they pace. She gives them all these things, and a shoulder to cry on if necessary. And that about does it for the Eddie Maud Smyth repertoire, although occasionally a contestant will make a more exotic request. "There was one girl last year who said, 'Well, some of us would like a little bit of the grape before we go on,'" Smyth remembers. "I told her I didn't have any."

Most of the time Smyth just watches as the contestants in the small area backstage wait out the long moments before the house lights go down and it's time to go on. Some of them pace, some sit quietly and wring their hands, others stand frozen with stage fright. After they play the quintets, she says, they usually come offstage beaming; but after the recitals, the reactions are more varied, from surprises smiles to exhaustion to tears.

When she sat in the audience, there was always one competitor who emerged as her favorite, she says, but backstage she roots for them all. After all, she says, "dor most of them it's the hardest thing they'll do in their lives." The Front-Runner

The consensus at this year's Van Cliburn competition is that the front-runner is a 28-year-old pianist by the name of Andre-Michel Schub. He is already an established concert pianist and was hailed as being ahead by some lengths before the competition even began. This is bad news if you happen to be Andre-Michel Schub and have just come off the stage dazed and drenched from the effort you put into your all-important recital only to be asked for the 400th time what it's like to be a front-runner. "We all play on the same level," he says in a sofe voice that still trembles from his efforts on stage. "The judging is entirely subjective. This has gotten to be like the last Derby race, where anything could happen."

Long sigh. So much of this is new to him. He hasn't played in such a setting since he was 21, and he even avoided the movie "The Competition," knowing he would be confronting the real thing soon enough. "No one wants to go through this," he says. "It would be nice if it weren't necessary to get the impetus for one's career. But now you need to make a big impact; you need the media. It does seem a little alien to the thing I love, which is playing music." The Final Factor

"I think what you're looking for," says Cliburn, "is someone who has his or her own aura, a magnetism. Naturally, the musical ingredients must be there. But you hve to have someone with a strong enough personality to have a conviction, a feeling about how he wants to handle his own career. Every artist has certain dreams, and how he handles his career is an expression of his own personality. This competition, after all, is a door, not a room."

"Who knows what they're looking for?" says Panayis Lyras, a semifinalist who is now sweating through his second Van Cliburn competition. "Once you get down to the finalists, there's not that much difference between them. It's a very subjective thing. Sometimes you wonder what it takes to make it in this business, whether it really comes down to being good-looking, to having an exotic name or staring a lot at the ceiling while you play. And if you're someone who is very honest about his music, who is sincere about what he is doing and loves it, it hurts that those things might be a factor; yes, it hurts. But time," he laughs, "is a great equalizer, if you live that long."

Lyras has played in a lot of competitions, has won a number of them, has done very well in others. This he thinks may be his last; the emotional strain takes away from the energy needed to play concerts. "Why do I do them? Certainly not for my peace of mind," he says. "But there's a lot of fine young musicians around and it's increasingly difficult to get heard and noticed and start out on a career. Competitions are the most successful way of getting your name in the papers and getting engagements."

Still, Lyras struggles to get by, playing about 30 concerts a year in small towns, big towns and medium towns along the way, making the circuit of the lonely hotel rooms and the long dark highways, spending the hours alone, practicing. "A sacrifice? I guess so. Sometimes I think, 'So what have I really done in my 20s?' I guess it wasn't a total waste, but you're only in your 20s once. After that there's not much difference between 30 and 40."