Five years ago, Anna Gramza, then Anna Biegel, entered the Miss Montana International Pageant, hoping she could ace the talent portion of the competition with her piano skills.
Only after entering the competition did she learn that this particular pageant didn’t even have a talent event, “but it was fun, so I kept doing it,” she said. She ended up winning, and reigned as Miss Montana International during 2012-2013.
She was a little more deliberate this year, when she decided to enter the American Protégé International Piano and Strings Competition, sending in a recording of her live performance of Franz Liszt’s “Liebesträume,” Nocturne No. 3. This time, in a competition that drew musicians from 20 countries, Gramza won an honorable mention and an invitation to play in the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall in New York City on June 24.
Jen Bretz, Gramza’s private piano teacher for the past two years, said it was “a pretty big accomplishment. … When you enter these types of competition you never think you’re going to get selected.”
Gramza will vouch for that. When she was notified that she’d won a slot at Carnegie Hall, she said, “I was completely shocked.”
To help her overcome the jitters she’s already feeling, and to raise money to cover some of the costs of her trip to New York, Gramza is planning a practice recital at 7 p.m. on May 1o at Cisel Hall on the Montana State University Billings campus.
She said she will play the Liszt piece as well as several other selections and will be joined by a few other musician friends. She said she’ll ask a “small fee” for tickets, but she hasn’t set a price yet.
Gramza, 31, is a native of Billings who was home-schooled and then studied at MSU Billings for seven years before earning a bachelor’s degree in piano performance. After graduating, she said, she took a break from playing piano for a while.
“I got married and hiked a lot,” she said. “There was one summer I hiked 300 miles.” She also did some caving and rock climbing. Then she got back into playing, studying under Sandi Rabas, whom she called a great, encouraging teacher, before beginning her studies under Bretz two years ago.
Bretz, who has a Ph.D. from the University of Colorado at Boulder, has been an associate professor of music at Rocky Mountain College for 10 years. When Gramza started taking private lessons from her, Bretz said, “she wasn’t ready to take part in such a competition,” referring to the Protege contest.
“As it turns out,” Bretz said, “Anna is a very capable pianist and a really excellent student” who is willing to work hard. And with all her other interests, Bretz said, “she still found the time to put in amazing work on the piano.”
Bretz said she chose the Liszt piece because she was enchanted with it from the first time she heard it, especially “the soft beauty of the melody line.” She said it’s known as a difficult piece, and it’s taken a lot of work to make her performance competition-ready.
The piece is just five minutes long, she said, but “I would practice it four to six hours a day, once I sat down and really did it.” During the months she’s been working on it, she would meet with Bretz for about an hour every couple of weeks to sharpen her skills.
The whole experience has made her a better teacher herself, Gramza said. She currently has about 30 students, with an average age of about 12.
Having invested so many hours working on one composition, she said, “There are times when I can’t stand it. But then there are times I still love it, like the first time I heard it.”
Asked why she entered the Protege competition, Bretz said one consideration was that it will help her when she applies to graduate school for piano performance, which she hopes to do soon. But there’s another, simpler reason.
“Just the dream of playing,” she said. “Everyone wants to play at Carnegie Hall.”