By Court Mann at Daily Herald
Conlan Miller keeps his fingers busy. But that’s to be expected.
The 24-year-old pianist and Provo resident sat down with the Daily Herald this week, discussing his involvement in the upcoming Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition. A ring of keys sat in Miller’s hands, his fingers manipulating them for the duration of the interview. Not in a showy or overt way, but enough to reveal his trade. If there’s ever been a time for Miller to keep his fingers busy, it’s right now.
“I’m a human being. I get nervous,” he said. “Everybody gets nervous. I’m definitely going to be terrified the night before, just like I am the night before every performance. This is my first competition at the international level, so I have no idea what to expect. I don’t know where I stack up yet.”
The Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition is one of the most prestigious piano competitions in the United States. Miller will be competing in the International Artists Competition for pianists age 19-32 — the competition’s highest category. 37 pianists from across the globe will take part, chosen from auditions that occurred at nine different locations worldwide. Luckily for Miller, the competition is based in Salt Lake City. Beyond international bragging rights, the winner gets $40,000 and a concert circuit under the Bachauer name.
To say the competition is thorough would undersell it. The 37 finalists will be whittled down over the course of four rounds that start Thursday and run through June 25. Miller and his competitors must each prepare 12 separate pieces of music to perform over those four rounds. One of Miller’s selections is Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 3.” It’s an infamous piece of music: Actor Geoffrey Rush won an Academy Award for the 1996 film “Shine,” about real life pianist David Helfgott, who suffered a mental breakdown after trying to master that same concerto.
“It’s a little overdramatized, in my opinion. It’s a hard piece, but if you can’t play it, you shouldn’t be playing it,” Miller said. “It’s exhausting. 45 minutes of really technical stuff, but it’s also emotionally exhausting because it’s a really big, romantic piece.”
Twelve pieces is a lot of music. These days, Miller practices for 10 hours a day. He usually divides his daily practice into three sections. First is giving a few pieces a complete run-through. From there, he’ll spend a couple hours fine tuning the problem spots, then concludes the last portion of the day “really drilling through everything all over again.”
His coach, Dr. Irene Peery-Fox, said adequate preparation for a piece takes eight times the piece’s length. For the three-plus hours of music that Miller is prepping for the competition, it’s impossible to get through it all on a given day.
“I told him to think about it as a full time-and-a-half job,” Peery-Fox said.
She’s worked with Miller for the entirety of his young career, starting lessons with him at age 10. It was actually a pretty late start — most students, especially those who play at Miller’s level, start somewhere around age 5 — but Miller’s mom insisted after seeing her son’s natural ability. The Millers lived in Delta, 90 miles away from Peery-Fox’s home in Provo, yet for years he made that trek once a week for his lessons.
“He had a real natural facility around the keyboard. In other words, his fingers just worked,” Peery-Fox recalled about first meeting Miller. “He had a natural position — something you have to work hard in other students to get that same position. I could sense he had a really musical ear, because he was composing things. Those are all signs of a real gift in the student.
“I don’t think there’s been a single roadblock for Conlan,” she continued. “He gets it, and takes it to the highest level. I’m not saying that Conlan is perfect and never played without mistakes, but he understands it. It makes complete sense to him. And he’s curious. He’s not just a little robot. When you start explaining something to him, he has questions and he’ll challenge your ideas with his ideas.”
Conlan really started coming into his own a few years ago, once he was able to get beyond worrying about the notes on the page. Getting to that point, where he could really just feel the music and understand it on a deeper emotional level, helped him get to where he is now. There’s really no telling how he’ll fare in the Bachauer competition — both he and Peery-Fox said any of the 37 contestants has a fair shot at first place. Peery-Fox has coached other Bachauer contestants, though, and said Miller has just as much a shot as her previous students did.
“He’s a really upright and honest and good man,” she said. “And I think that authenticity and that trueness and goodness, that pureness, shows in his playing. There’s nothing artificial or put on or made up. He just does what comes from his heart.”