February’s Camac Voice has been recorded by none other than the winner of November’s Cité des Arts competition: Maureen Thiébaut. It is the opening of the Sonata K208 by Scarlatti.
Maureen Thiébaut began the harp in 1996. In 2005, she joined the Conservatoire à Rayonnement Régional de Paris (CRR), where she studied with Ghislaine Petit-Volta until 2009. Having received her Diplôme d'Etudes Musicales (DEM) with a "très bien" credit, she entered Isabelle Moretti's class at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Paris (CNSMDP). A propos - the CRR is one of the harp world’s best-kept secrets. Its first undergraduate degree - the DEM that Maureen took - qualifies you to then take the entrance audition for the undergraduate course at the CNSMDP. This can be very handy to remember if you cannot immediately apply to the CNSM because you do not speak French, and / or haven’t done solfège: you have to pass exams in both before you may proceed to the harp audition. The results speak for themselves: of the seven candidates to make the CNSM audition’s final in 2010, five with Ghislaine’s students from the CRR. Harpblog has covered this subject before, in “Studying in...Paris”.
Back to Maureen: as well as winning first prize and the Louise Charpentier prize in the Cité des Arts of Paris competition in November 2011, Maureen also won third prize and the "coup de coeur" prize at the Martine Géliot International Competition in 2008. She is principal harpist with the Manifesto Orchestra, and has also worked with the Paris Opera (2011), the Orchestre des Siècles (2010), and the Orchestre Prométhée (2008). She performs regular solo recitals, and teaches at the Animathèque MJC in Sceaux.
The number of harp competitions has exploded in recent years, meaning that harp students prepare and focus on them more than ever before. As sponsors, we also attend more competitions than ever before, and - more than ever before - one notices the difference between candidates who have approached a competition wisely, and those who haven’t. But what is this “wisely”? Perceptively, Maureen points out that doing a competition is not like filling out a form, either correctly or incorrectly: “I would never presume to lecture harpists on how exactly to win a competition, because each person prepares in their own way, and has his own reasons for doing a competition.”
Despite the variety in individual competition preparation and reasons for doing it, nonetheless it is clear that you must prepare carefully, and you do have to have reasons. Fact: if you aren’t ready, you’ll not win a serious competition. Even if nobody else as good as you turns up, I’ve never met a harp jury that forgives insufficient preparation, and prizes can be and are withheld all the time. In an article by Adrienne Bridgewater in the January / February 2010 edition of Harp Column Magazine, her entire interviewed panel of competition winners emphasise their preparation: “Our panel said they began anywhere from as soon as the repertoire list was published to seven months before the competition. ‘At the last minute’ was not an answer we heard from the group.” Sam Karlinski, who writes a detailed and helpful blog about competition preparation, offers a year’s timeline in the same article. For the biggest competitions, the repertoire lists usually come out two years in advance, and there is a reason why they do.
If you cannot devote yourself to nothing but the competition in the two years running up to it, you can still approach the programme strategically. “I began immediately with Conte Fantastique, which I felt to be by far the most difficult work on the programme”, Maureen explains. “Beginning it so early allowed me to perform it on numerous occasions, in exams and concerts, and to gain experience with it. The previous year had been very hectic for me, with a lot of lessons, exams, and work at the Paris Opera. As a result, I couldn’t devote myself entirely to the competition until July, five months before. I then practised for about four hours a day, increasing the time as the date grew closer.”As well as preparation, Maureen stresses the importance of knowing why you are doing the competition. “As far as I’m concerned, the greatest lesson I retained from this preparation (one I am far from applying elsewhere as it is so difficult!) is that, paradoxically, the preparation of a competition requires great neutrality. You must not judge yourself during this period, not say “oh goodness, I’m so behind” or “I will never manage to learn this piece”, or even “great, that’ll play itself” (for all that positive thinking can be helpful!). For me, the two great questions to ask yourself are, during preparation, “why am I doing this competition”? and, one week before, “am I ready?”. If you have positive answers to both these questions, you should be able to walk onto the competition stage in a good frame of mind.
The rest of the time, you have to work, to be happy to be playing beautiful music, and to profit from this special time with your instrument. I have happy memories of the preparation, during which I learnt and discovered so much! This first prize is also thanks to the quality of the teaching I have at the CNSMDP, through the harp lessons from Isabelle Moretti and Geneviève Letang, and also the chamber music and musicianship classes. Also, when you prepare a competition, you spend a lot of time alone with your instrument. I came to know more about my desires in life, my strengths and weaknesses, which crystallised themselves through my intense tête à tête with my instrument. A competition is not only about steeling yourself for the fateful moment, although of course you need to get yourself in shape to cope with the stress on the day. Like everyone else, I had difficult times, where I felt discouraged, questioned and doubted myself. But the work is also full of beautiful things: tenderness, joy, even the love that goes into playing music.”
Maureen playing Caplet's 'Conte Fantastique' with the Quatuor Michalakakos, in the final of the Cité des Arts competition. Photo: Jean-Marc Volta
As part of her prize, Maureen will be playing a series of recitals in European countries, including Germany, Italy and Wales. Keep an eye on the Harpblog calendar for the details. I leave you with her recording of Fauré’s Impromptu, the compulsory work in the Cité des Arts competition first round, as well as the complete Scarlatti sonata.