Parallels between the Classical Music and the Chess scene.

CM juniortay
Jan 22, 2015, 6:54 AM |

A good chess playing friend of mine, Dr Jeevarajah Nithiananthan is an accomplished pianist as well.  Hence, he has a very good idea of the Classical Music scene /circuit as he still does the occasional piano performance for schools and other functions. He also assesses candidates for Diploma examinations.

One conversation I had with him which I remember quite vividly was on the parallels between Chess and Classical music, with respect to the kinds of work one can do in both ‘industries’.

Training  - Both disciplines have personal coaches/tutors to help the student improve their skills. There are also chess and music schools/academies for group learning.

Titles/Awards – In Singapore, we tend to follow the British ABRSM system with respect to classical instrument grading, ranging from Grade 1 (elementary) to Grade 8 (highest level). Above Grade 8, there are teaching and performing diploma courses. For those intending to perform professionally as a career, there are  conservatories offering degree courses  as well as postgrad masters and doctoral studies. In chess, the most distinct title system is the USCF one where players are classified at levels such as Expert, Candidate Masters, National Masters and of course, internationally, we have Candidate Masters, FIDE masters, International Masters and Grandmasters. In Singapore, it is widely recognised that at Grade 8 level, one would be considered qualified enough to teach and charge good rates for students. Likewise in chess, the players with the more prestigious titles are likely to be able to charge a good premium for coaching. 

Tournaments  - Both disciplines have competitions held around the world. The classical music competitions however, require a very high level of qualification and participants are ‘whittled down’ round after round until a select few are chosen for the final round. The winners will tend to get cash prizes and sometimes, recording contracts with music companies. Chess competitions with cash prizes are far easier to enter though some events require a minimum rating floor (for example > ELO 2200) to take part in the main Open event. Most of the time, players can expect to play a minimum of 5 to 7 rounds.  

Training Partner – There are professional accompanists to back up the aspiring music performers  preparing for examinations or performances. They provide the supporting background music to the performer’s main melody and charge for both rehearsals and the main performance. The chess second or trainer either prepares specific lines  or plays training matches with the player. He/She also motivates/psyches the player to get him ready for competition.  

Holding  Masterclasses – Acclaimed classical musicians get invited to do master classes at music conservatories. The maestro usually instructs a single student and after the latter performs a piece, will give comments about the performance and either instructs, demonstrates or focuses on errors made. The student will take note of the feedback and play the piece again.  The chess master invited to hold a demonstration usually demonstrate a good professional game played by him against a top player or demonstrate certain chess themes. Usually, the master is requested by the participants to show and analyse his/her best game.  Seldom do masters show games against students to highlight weaknesses though. The chess master however, usually conducts simultaneous exhibitions, playing against a large number of players at the same time to promote the game as well as to let aspiring juniors or club players get a chance to play someone of a greater playing strength.

See below for a Dr Nithiananathan piano performance at Nanyang Primary School two years ago, done right after giving a chess lecture.

Also, do take a look at the following game where Dr Nithiananthan beat the then National Champion Lau Keng Boon. Particularly interesting was the fact that he didn't want to simply win but to wrap things up artistically with 2 bishops versus his opponent's 2 rooks! Perhaps this is due to his musical background where the essense is in the performance.