A new competition to give young black pianists the chance to shine

CINCINNATI — Awadagin Pratt believes his “great breakthrough” came in 1992 when he won the Naumburg International Piano Competition — one of the most prestigious competitions of its kind in the world for young pianists. At just 26, he became the first African-American instrumentalist to win the award.

What do you want to know

  • Awadagin Pratt created the Nina Simone piano competition to showcase the talents of young black performers
  • Celebrated pianist Pratt wants the competition to help provide support and resources for young artists
  • Pratt is also a professor at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music
  • Applications for the 2023 competition will be due in December

The competition helped launch the careers of some of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, such as Jorge Bolet, Abbey Simon, Kun-Woo Paik and André-Michel Schub.

Pianist and teacher Awadagin Pratt. (Provided)

It also helped elevate Pratt’s.

Since then, Pratt has given numerous recitals across the United States, including at Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, Orchestra Hall in Chicago, and the NJ Performing Arts Center.

He even reached the international circuit, performing in some of the world’s greatest opera houses – Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Poland, Israel, Colombia and South Africa. He made four tours in Japan.

But none of these recitals or concerts would have happened without the hours of practice and the endless support of his music-loving parents, and later the faculty and staff of Johns Hopkins University’s Peabody Institute, a famous Baltimore Conservatory, Maryland.

Now 56 and the father of a young son, Pratt devotes much of his attention to mentoring the next generation of pianists to ensure they have the mentorship and support he enjoyed growing up.

Pratt launched the Nina Simone Piano Competition. The biennial competition will give young Black American pianists, ages 10 to 35, a chance to shine on a major stage in front of a distinguished audience of potential mentors, fellow musicians and concert presenters.

Winners in each age group will also return home with cash prizes and performance opportunities, including acceptance into Pratt’s Art of the Piano showcase.

The competition will start next year.

“I realized I had this really great support system growing up, but a lot of young pianists don’t,” said Pratt, who is also a piano teacher at the University’s College-Conservatory of Music. of Cincinnati (CCM). “We decided to step in and provide a platform for these young African American pianists to get both the exposure and the mentorship they deserve.”

“Classic” support from the cradle and beyond

Born in Pittsburgh, Pratt is the son of Dr. TAE C “Ted” Pratt and Mildred, both college professors.

Pratt said his father listened to classical music “almost all the time” when he was growing up, so it was inevitable that he and his sister, Menah, would follow in their musical footsteps.

Menah is an accomplished pianist and violinist in her own right, although she has decided to pursue an academic career. She is Vice President of Strategic Affairs and Vice President of Inclusion and Diversity at Virginia Tech.

At age 6, Pratt began studying piano. Three years later, after moving to Normal, Illinois with his family, he also learned the violin.

Based on his career choice, it’s fair to say that it stuck with him.

“The sense of music came later for me. But when I was a kid, I was always interested in music and playing music, Pratt said. “No kid really enjoys training per se, but for me, I never wanted to stop playing.”

Awadagin Pratt, creator of the Nina Simone Piano Competition, has performed on some of the biggest stages in the country.  (Supplied: University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music)

Awadagin Pratt, creator of the Nina Simone Piano Competition, has performed on some of the biggest stages in the country. (Supplied: University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music)

Pratt entered the University of Illinois at age 16. He then enrolled at the famed Peabody Institute, where he became the first student in the school’s history to receive degrees in three areas of performance – piano, violin and conducting.

While Pratt was a student at Peabody, the dean and assistant dean were black women, which he says was important to him and many other black students at the school at the time.

“There was this feeling of camaraderie, that you weren’t the only one,” Pratt said. He noted that it made him feel “supported and seen” by the administration. It was important to him at a few different times in his upbringing.

“I was a double major, the only double major, and I needed to practice in the practice rooms more than the others. And so I got permission from the dean to have 24-hour access to school at some point, instead of having to leave at 2 a.m. like all the other students,” Pratt added.

This advice was also essential for him in trying to figure out what he wanted to do with life.

“What I’ve seen over the years are these really great young pianists who have been stifled in their growth, in a way, by not having had the support or the opportunity that they should have had” , did he declare.

Pratt believes it’s not just about learning to play the instrument or read music. It’s about developing an approach to life — whether it’s learning about a contest or opportunity or being introduced to someone who could change the course of your life, Pratt said.

The greatest career achievements aren’t what you might think

Obviously, winning the Naumburg contest was a big deal for Pratt. He said my first time playing with the New York Philharmonic was a big deal, and so was my Carnegie Hall debut,” he said.

He performed three times at the White House. Two of those invitations came during the Clinton administration.

In November 2009, Pratt was one of four artists selected for a classical music event hosted by first lady Michelle Obama. The one-day event included workshops for students as well as a concert for guests, including President Barack Obama.

“I consider each of these occasions incredible honors,” he said. If you ask Pratt’s peers, especially those outside of the music industry, they’re very jealous of his appearance on Sesame Street.

“Some of them think that was my defining moment. And I’m not going to take that away from anybody,” he said with a laugh. It’s a show he watched with his son, Ayrton, now 8, whom he is raising with his wife, Jill Meyer Pratt, in their North Avondale home.

But while his resume may be star-studded, Pratt said at this point in his career it’s not about ticking boxes on professional milestones or individual accolades. It’s about continuing to “try to contribute”.

One of the things that drives him forward? He makes a difference to people, both on and off stage.

“I think it’s that feeling when it’s communicated to how you make a difference to people, you know? A measure of gratitude that is shown after a performance by someone or a student,” Pratt said. “It helps to keep things in perspective.”

The Pratt Foundation aims to provide opportunities for young musicians in need

In the spring of 1997, Pratt, his mother and sister launched the Pratt Music Foundation in honor of his late father.

The non-profit organization works to promote classical music education among young people in McLean County, Illinois, particularly in the towns of Bloomington and Normal. They do this through a scholarship program, which provides individual music lessons, piano or string instruments, to talented and motivated students who have financial need.

The program is open to students in second year through high school. This year alone, they have benefited 37 students.

“The purpose of the foundation is not to find the next Mozart or anything – although some of these children continue to study music at a high level. It’s really about making sure that those who want to study music, who want instruction, can access it,” Pratt said.

Nina Simone Piano Competition

While teaching piano to his students, Pratt also strives to give young black artists a platform for their artistic voices to be heard.

Pratt came up with the idea for the Nina Simone Piano Competition while researching a grant program sponsored by the Sphinx organization. It is a social justice organization with a strong focus on classical music that aims to transform lives and communities through the power of diversity in the arts.

The idea initiated by Pratt was to hold a tiered competition for top pianists at different age levels.

  • Junior division: 10-13 years old

  • Senior division: 14-17 years old

  • Young Artists Division: 18-35 years old

The goal is to give young artists a highly visible platform to showcase their skills, gain experience and meet influencers along the way.

In the fall of 2021, Pratt was one of three recipients of a $100,000 grant from Sphinx. In addition to funding the competition, it plans to use some of the prize money to commission new works from a diverse set of composers.

Pratt named the competition after American singer, songwriter and musician Nina Simone, who was also a prominent civil rights activist. She trained as a classical pianist at the Juilliard School in New York.

“That’s really why we started this contest: to make sure that graduating or older students can have a platform where people can say, ‘Oh wow, look at this incredibly talented and gifted kid,'” said he declared.

The competition will take place in Pratt’s Art of the Piano Festival, which is affiliated with CCM. The competition will be divided into junior, senior and young artist categories.

For younger kids, it’s about giving kids a chance to see “up the hill,” meaning they know what’s ahead or what their future might be, Pratt said.

He gave the example of tennis phenom Carlos Alcaraz who grew up idolizing superstar Rafael Nadal. The 18-year-old has just become the third-youngest player to break into the top-20 in the bracket, overtaking Nadal in the process.

“They see this person, they’re like, ‘oh, you know, I could do that too.’ Every age group can look up and see someone who looks like them, doing exactly what they’re trying to do, having been exactly where they are,” Pratt said. “They know people like they can go to great places if they have the talent and the training to get there.”

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra also plans to help with the competition. Winners will have the chance to perform with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in the fall of 2023 as part of their season.

Applications will be accepted from December.

“I still love playing and I’m thrilled to be back on the road. But this project, I think, can be really special and be a great platform for some amazing young talent,” Pratt said.

Corina C. Butler