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Little did music professor Caryl Conger know when she was earning her master’s degree that she would later become sought after by lower brass players around the world as a piano accompanist. Around 1980 when she was finishing her graduate degree at the University of Kentucky, she was asked by her professor Skip Gray to perform with him in a concert for tuba and piano. “No one wanted to do it, so he asked me. I had no idea what we would play and that intrigued me. There’s nothing I love more than starting a new piece of music,” says Conger. After that one concert, Gray introduced her to many internationally known lower brass players with whom she eventually played and became friends. “It has been great fun. I tell my students that it’s important to keep their minds open about musical experiences. One day I said yes to something that was unknown to me. If I would have said no, I would have to check off 10 to 15 great friends of mine and hundreds of wonderful musical experiences,” says Conger, who is the only member of the International Tuba and Euphonium Association who is not a tuba or euphonium player or doesn’t make those instruments.

Caryl CongerIn addition to being a sought-after musician, Conger organizes and directs the RU Bartók-Kabalevsky-Prokofiev Piano Competition and Festival that brings close to 100 elite pianists from across the globe to Southwest Virginia. Professor emeritus of music Kathryn Obenshain first organized the festival in 1980 and after she retired, Conger continued the tradition. She puts in a few hours a week throughout the summer, but come March it’s almost like another job. “From March to May I put in about 12 to 15 hours a week on such things as writing financial reports, mailing certificates to winners and updating the competition’s brochure.

“For 362 days a year, I wonder why I do it. But that one weekend, something so exciting happens. When it all comes together, 100 pianists from 26 states and nine foreign countries come together with so much enthusiasm. They practice for a year to get ready for this competition,” says Conger.

About 20 judges from our local area judge the preliminary competition. Internationally renowned pianist Gyorgy Sandor judges the finalists and conducts a master class. He always makes sure the festival is on his calendar. “He’s cancelled things in other parts of the world to be here. I was amazed when he told me he turned down teaching a master class in Barcelona to be here at Radford,” says Conger. Students also get involved in the festival. They help Conger in many ways during the festival including chaperoning non-English-speaking contestants to the dining hall.

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