The Washington Post

Whatever Happened To ... the competitive pianist?

Pianist Dan Moran at the 2003 William Kapell International Piano Competition. (Carol Guzy)

“A marathon of beautiful music.”

“Making love in front of clinicians.”

“The anti-Christ.”

Those descriptions were all used in a 2003 Washington Post Magazine story to capture the nerves-and-knuckle-battering William Kapell International Piano Competition. The story followed Canadian pianist Dan Moran through his second and final trip to the event, which takes place annually (this year from July 7 to 21) at the University of Maryland.

And how did Moran sum up his performance in the semifinals that year? “The worst nightmare that I could ever possibly imagine.”

Pianist Dan Moran today. (Courtesy of Dan Moran)

Eight years later, Moran still considers competitions potentially soul-wrecking endeavors that can rob performers of the confidence they so desperately need to make it in a highly competitive classical musical business. “They are anti-art. They suffocate the inner artist,” he says.

Without boundaries between “what I do and who I am,” each rejection of his performances felt like a rejection of him as a person, Moran says. Even when he did advance to the semifinals of an international competition, satisfaction eluded him.

That stress hit a breaking point shortly after the 2003 competition. Moran began feeling sick and losing weight. Tests showed an intolerance for wheat. Moran radically changed to a regimented holistic diet. He started doing yoga. The stress of competitions, he guesses, likely exacerbated the allergies. He fell in love that year, too, with another musician. In 2007, he finished his doctorate of music at the University of Montreal. And most important, Moran says, he “began to separate myself as a pianist from who I am as a person.”

With that distinction in place, Moran has been able to play the piano without losing himself to the pursuit of stardom. He performs at classical music festivals, on radio concerts, with national orchestras and symphonies in the United States and Canada. “It is exhilarating and expansive — a rush that competitions never provided,” he says.

Moran, who is on the music faculty at University of Montreal and two conservatories, also relishes teaching. His favorite students are the youngest. “I never would have guessed it, but I love teaching kids, showing them basics,” Moran says.

If a talented student was considering entering an international competition, Moran says, he’d encourage him to go for it, but also to be realistic and revel in the effort, even if it fell short. It takes a true love of the piano to keep playing, knowing that you may never become a star. “I am truly, truly happy,” Moran says. “And I’m proud of my performances.”

Even the one he deemed nightmarish? Yes, he says. In fact, last summer, while cleaning out a storage space, he found the crystal piano bestowed on Kapell laureates. After having let it collect dust for several years, Moran says, “You know what, I’m going to parade that thing around.”

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