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World Championship Old-Time Piano contest this weekend in Peoria

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By Ted Lemen

President of the Old-Time Music Preservation Association

The 39th Annual World Championship Old-time Piano Playing Contest and Festival takes place over Memorial Day weekend in Peoria, with 26 piano players from 17 states and two foreign countries competing for more than $4,000 in cash prizes and trophies.

The defending champion in the Regular Division is Ethan Uslan of Charlotte, N.C., who also won the title in 2007. Daniel Souvigny of Hampshire, Ill. will defend the junior champion title for players 17 and under.

Russell Wilson, who plays piano at the White House with the Marine band, will play in the event for the fourth time, having finished in the top five in the Regular Division more than once. Jack Graham of London, England, will compete for the first time and Samuel Schalla of Tuebingen, Germany returns to compete for his third time.

Junior champion Souvigny, 12, will be in a grudge match with Morgan Siever of Carlyle, Ill., whom he defeated last year to become junior champ. Siever, the 2011 junior champion, returns this year in an effort to regain her title. 1990 champion Bill Edwards of Ashburn VA , a frequent competitor who consistently places in the top five, will return for his 19th contest.

The contest began as a fundraiser for the Monticello Railway Museum in Monticello, Ill., but moved to Decatur when it became a multiple-day event and needed to take place at a hotel with sufficient rooms for contestants and spectators. It has been in Peoria for 12 years, the last two at the Four Points by Sheraton.

The event has now grown to a five-day event with workshops, competitions, a sing-along stage show, two musical party rooms and a New Rag Contest for aspiring composers. There is also a luncheon cruise on the Spirit of Peoria riverboat, where a dozen piano players will pound on two pianos and play the calliope.

The Old-time Music Preservation Association Inc., an Illinois not-for-profit educational corporation, sponsors the events and brings in musical experts to judge the competitions. Its goal is the preservation and performance of popular music from the "Gay 90s" through 1929, featuring Ragtime, honky-tonk and Tin-Pan Alley music styles.

Actual competitions begin on Friday, May 24, with the New Rag Contest, in which piano players perform their own compositions not allowed in the Saturday and Sunday competitions because of the 1929 date cut-off. Eight of the 10 New Rag Contest slots are taken by composers from seven states.

Competitions run all day Saturday, May 25, and again Sunday afternoon, when the top 10 Regular Division players from Saturday are first trimmed to the final five before a last round to pick the champion. All five finalists get prize money and five junior competitors also get cash prizes.

Things get rolling on Thursday, May 23, with a "Tune-Ups" party at Peoria 's Sky Harbor Steakhouse, where anyone who wants to play gets a turn at the old upright in the dining room. A feast of chicken and ribs, au gratin potatoes and green beans awaits piano players and spectators alike, who celebrate with music at one of Peoria 's foremost live music venues. Host Daryl Klusendorf will welcome guests to this event for the fifth year.

On Friday, a dozen or more piano players flock to the riverboat for a two-hour luncheon cruise to play two pianos and the calliope on the top deck. The boat boards beginning at 10:30 and sails from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m., returning riders to dock in time to be at the hotel where check-in starts at 2 p.m.

Friday afternoon, the UNLV Ragtime Rebels marimba band provides a workshop on the marimba and xylophone under the direction of UNLV professor Timothy Jones, who is borrowing instruments from Illinois State University in Bloomington so the six members of the band don't have to bring them from Las Vegas .This will be the third appearance at the contest for this ensemble, which plays throughout the country for Ragtime festivals and in Las Vegas for a variety of student events.

The New Rag Contest begins at 7 p.m. on Friday, with the winner receiving a cash prize and a trophy. After this event, two musical party rooms open so everyone who wants to play gets a chance, whether contestants or not. One room has two pianos so that players can perform duets; the second, instrumental room has a single piano and anyone with a horn, fiddle or saxophone can join in and jam all night.

On Saturday, competitions begin early and every contestant in both divisions plays two tunes for the judges. The junior champ is crowned at the end of the competitions Saturday afternoon, with the top 10 Regular Division players moving on to the Sunday afternoon session. Saturday evening, the World's Greatest Sing-along Show takes place with the UNLV Ragtime Rebels as featured entertainment, and the party rooms open again immediately afterward for another evening of piano and instrumental performance.

Sunday morning, the Ragtime Rebels host a second hour-long workshop followed by the annual meeting of the Old-time Music Preservation Association, where directors and officers for the following year are elected.

During competitions Sunday afternoon, the top 10 from the Regular Division will play two more selections and the judges will narrow the field to the final five, who then play another round to determine the champion. By about 5 p.m., the champ is crowned and the party rooms open for another evening.

Two sponsored meals let spectators and contestants get together for food and music. The Dinner With The Champion is late Saturday afternoon following the competitions, when defending champ Ethan Uslan and banjo player Gene Martin of Bloomington team up for a Shakey's Pizza Parlor recreation, with all you can eat pizza and entertainment. On Monday morning the contest hosts the "Red, White and Blue Brunch", with patriotic and military-service tunes during an all-you-can-eat meal where spectators will compete for prizes in their best red, white and blue outfits.

The contest and six of its competitors are the subject of an award-winning, 90-minute documentary produced and directed by USC film school grad Michael Zimmer of California , who followed the players from music selection through their practice and competition. Six first-place awards from film festivals in Los Angeles , Minneapolis and St. Louis and elsewhere have been awarded, and DVDs of the film should be available at the contest for sale.

For complete information, contact Ted Lemen, Pres., Old-time Music Preservation Association, Inc. at hi_jeanx@yahoo.com or by phone at 815-922-3827.