Classical pianist Catharine Dornin was one of five finalists in the solo piano division of the 2012 American Prize national music competition. Dornin, 66, has taught thousands of students at St. Paul’s School and Concord Community Music School in Concord, N.H.
‘I’m a very good sight reader, but I really have to play the piece a long time and go over and over it. Hundreds of hours go into preparing a concert from memory.’
Q. Did you decide to play piano or did your parents force you?
A. I started studying in Louisville, Ky., when I was 6. I had a lovely bedroom close to the neighbor across the way from us. They had a little boy who was a few years older than I was, and he was taking piano lessons. I remember hearing him play the “Blue Danube Waltz” over and over, but I liked it a lot, and I decided I wanted to study.
Q. So this little boy inspired you?
A. Yes, that’s the real truth.
Q. How many hours a day do you practice?
A. I try to practice at least two or three hours. In order to raise all those children [she and her husband, Chris Dornin, have five grown children] and send them to college, I had to teach a tremendous number of hours — not that I didn’t enjoy it.
Q. What did competing in the American Prize competition involve?
A. It’s a new competition. The chief judge is David Katz. He started this competition and got a lot of college professors to judge recordings. They’re trying to really support the American classical musicians. So many of us are just out there struggling without much recognition. This might have been a response to “American Idol” and those kinds of shows for popular musicians.
Q. Have you entered a lot of competitions?
A. These last two years are among my first competition efforts. I saw this American Prize, and I thought, well, what the heck, you never know.
Q. Do you play only classical music?
A. I will teach my kids a little bit of jazz or rock. I can play it, obviously, but it’s just not my forte.
Q. What do you like about the genre?
A. It’s the most profound and beautiful music, and it represents some of the finest composers that we’ve ever produced in the entire world, such as Beethoven or Chopin or Liszt. I like the romantic composers a lot from the 19th century.
Q. What’s the most challenging piece you’ve played?
A. A very difficult piece I did for my Carnegie Hall debut in 1990 called “Variations on Balkan Themes, Op. 60” by Amy Beach. All my work when I perform is from memory, and that’s a very challenging thing to do.
Q. How do you memorize pieces?
A. I have to really work at it. Some people are lucky, and they have more of a photographic memory. I’m more visual. I’m a very good sight reader, but I really have to play the piece a long time and go over and over it. Hundreds of hours go into preparing a concert from memory.
Q. Does your constant playing annoy your family at all?
A. I practice at the music school, but when the kids were growing up, I’m sure I practiced an awful lot. It was very difficult overseeing their home life and their homework, and then trying to work in all this practicing and teaching. Sometimes I look back, and it makes me tired just thinking about it.
Q. What was your Carnegie Hall experience like?
A. It was one of the most difficult concerts I ever prepared for. I went down about four days early, and I practiced every single moment I could for those four days. Before I went out on stage I was so scared. I was starting to cry, but my mother just said, “Go out and do the best you can.” It turned out to be one of the best concerts I ever gave.