05/31/2013 12:42 pm ET Updated Jul 31, 2013

The Ethnography of Second Chances: 2nd Recitals at the Cliburn

By the time this article posts the 12 semi-finalists for the Fourteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition will have been announced. I've already had countless discussions with camera crew, ushers and audience members who all agree that while they have their favorites, they wouldn't wish the job of the jury on their worst enemy. But though many saw this new second round of preliminary recitals as a helpful weeding out process, I saw it as a chance to learn more about the competitors, their motivations and their modus operandi. In turn, it showed me something as well about how we as society look at the rare opportunity of a second chance.

In competition's past, competitors might have flown half way around the world to have their fate in the world-famous, potentially career-launching event rest on one desperate bid. What Van Cliburn himself feared was that they would play under the strain of imagining their whole life's work, their whole skipped childhood would rest on 45 minutes of music. He hated the thought of their musical abilities being boiled down to such a miniscule representation of their immeasurable talent. So it's fitting that in the year of his much mourned passing, in an era where we at the Cliburn are trying hard to wrap this festival in the cloak of his presence and great legacy, that the competition would once again add a second preliminary recital to the mix. The instant notable result? In the first round of recitals, the troubling stench of desperation that use to permeate the prelims has evaporated. We've watched the young pianists take to the stage with more confidence, seemingly ready to own the moment, eager to relax instead of force their way into Bass Hall as well as the hearts of the audience members. But oh, what a spell the second round of recitals has cast!

It's true, in only a few measures you can tell a good bit about a pianist's playing, same goes for in an interview. You can tell if the person will be a good fit for the job in their introductory statements. But you don't fully know them as a person or as a music maker. The second recitals at the Cliburn told us so much about how these musical humans process second chances. There were several ways in which they each handled the moment:

1. The Confidently Consistent
Reviews be damned (and they should), they strode on stage as before, sometimes in the exact same clothes, sometimes playing similar repertoire, showing similar sides of themselves with no overemphasis on anything new. They were completely assured in their first impressions and looked to reinforce that exact image of themselves the second time around. They didn't see this new recital as a second chance, but rather as reveling in another day at the office.

2. The Something to Prove Posture
This time around things were going to be different. If they hadn't impressed on the first go round, they were going to show us now for sure. You could see it in the overly bold way they bounded on stage, the set in stone jaw or the wider than usual grin. Their playing had a new layer of ferocity and determination. This performance had a feeling of laying all cards on the table, hearts unabashedly on sleeves, no holds barred. Missed notes were made up for in sheer power or intensity.

3. The Next Level Crowd Pleasers
These players were well aware of the spell they cast on the audience the first time around when they were just getting to know them. Knowing they had them in the palms of their hands, they would up the ante and play puppeteer this time around; intentionally whipping them into a fury by playing on their desires and meeting their expectations. This time they'd play faster, louder or softer than what had initially impressed. They'd linger in silences, drive accelerandos over steep cliffs, pull back ritardandos to screeching stops. Standing ovations would be fuller, longer and more raucous this time around if they had anything to say about it.

It was a fascinating study in how they each grabbed the bull; each methodology having its pros and cons. By being too consistently the same, had they missed the opportunity to show growth or grab the hearts of a new audience? By running in with a chip on their shoulder, did they risk bowling people over, completely missing the opportunity to be invited in warmly instead? Did catering to the frenzy create a demand that would now put them in the box of rainmaker and never allow them to explore new more delicate territory? Truth is, in many ways they all showed remnants of each method. In fact, most of it didn't seem like strategy at all, just our very human reaction to pressure, to admiration, to rejection and to the confrontation of a new beginning.

Kudos to all 30. No matter what the results, tomorrow remains a second chance for all of them. I look forward to watching each of their careers blossom into even more than it is today. In the end, that's what second chances are all about.