It's as much a celebration as a competition when 18 young musicians take to the Raye Freedman stage today for the Ronisch Auckland Secondary Schools Piano Competition.

Each offers a 20-minute bracket of three to four pieces, ranging from Bach to Jelly Roll Morton, and adjudicator Richard Mapp will choose six for Sunday's finals.

The competition began in 2008 when Bryan Sayer, a name synonymous with top-class pianism in the city, got together with Warren Sly of Sly's Pianos and Glenn Easley of Global Piano Services.

"We felt that Auckland secondary schools were supporting everything but the piano, from choirs with their Big Sing, to chamber ensembles which had Chamber Music New Zealand's annual contest," Sayer says. "There was nothing to encourage the many pianists in the various schools scattered across the city."


For decades, Sayer was Head of Piano Studies at the University of Auckland's School of Music and many of our leading pianists have benefited from working with him. He's still an active and sought-after teacher on the North Shore and, these days, finds all his own pupils, and many of the Ronisch hopefuls, are mainland Chinese.

"Their parents tell me the kind of things that Kiwi parents would have said decades ago," he sighs. "They believe that a musical education, particularly on the piano, gives young people the skills they need for life."

He recalls one pupil who applied for a job outside of the musical sector and was asked by a prospective employer whether she had studied fugues. When she told him Sayer had been particularly rigorous in this area, she was immediately hired with the words, "If you can sort out fugues, you can sort out anything."

High standards are ensured this weekend by insisting all Ronisch competitors hold Grade VIII qualifications and Sayer is happy that the competition insists on one piece from the Baroque or Classical period.

"These works demand a combination of musical concepts based on style and pianistic skills of the finest kind, including pedaling," he explains. "The pedal can hide and disguise so much in later music but not here and, throughout the world, it's the classical sonata that sorts out of the men from the boys."

And the women from the girls, one might suggest, with the two genders fairly well balanced this weekend.

Jason Bae, the first winner, in 2008, is now an established soloist and Steinway artist. Sylvia Jiang, who took top prize in 2010, was offered places in four top American universities before choosing Juilliard. Delvan Lin, who triumphed in 2012, at 13, was "a little firecracker of a lad who only entered for experience", Sayer says.

Lin has since developed into a piano man with attitude. In August, with Bach Musica NZ, he followed a sharply cut Mozart concerto with a stunning virtuoso demolition of the composer's Rondo alla turca.


What: Ronisch Auckland Secondary Schools Piano Competition
Where and when: Raye Freedman Arts Centre, today from 10am with finals concert Sunday 7.30pm