Grand Valley clarinet student places first in the nation at prestigious competition for musicians

Andrei Mazanko
Andrei Mazanko
Image Credit: Courtesy photo

The clarinet had provided a tool of sorts for Andrei Mazanko to express himself, from the emotions he felt while performing to the uncertainties he felt as a student traveling from Russia to study in the U.S.

"I think the most important thing for me is that music is a universal language," said Mazanko, a music performance major. "When I first came to the U.S. I wasn't sure what I should do with music and where it was going to take me. I found that music just connects people from different backgrounds and countries. It unites everyone."

If Mazanko wasn't sure where his music was going to take him when he first arrived from Russia, he has a much better sense now. He has established himself as one of the top woodwind students in the U.S. after winning the national level of the Young Artist competition for the Music Teachers National Association.

The competition is a rigorous, three-tier contest that features high-level performers and is one of the most prestigious such events in the nation, said Arthur Campbell, professor of music and the faculty member who worked with Mazanko. Musicians compete at the state, regional and national levels.

Winning the state level alone is a feat, Campbell said, especially given Michigan's reputation for producing strong saxophone players. Through the years, Grand Valley has had a number of students win at the first two levels of the competition, but Mazanko is the first Laker to win the national tier.

Another impressive factor for Mazanko's win: He is an undergraduate. Most students who win this tier are well into graduate school or have already finished graduate studies, Campbell said.

Mazanko said he chose three distinctive pieces -- classical, impressionist and contemporary -- to demonstrate his playing ability. He also was accompanied on piano by Sharon Yi-Hsuan Wu, who just graduated from Grand Valley with a degree in piano performance, Campbell said. Watch some of their work here.

In working with Mazanko and other students competing, Campbell said he emphasizes a "pedagogical approach" that is as much about learning to compete -- and thus grow -- as it is winning the contest.

"I like to try to encourage the students to realize the arts, and the performing arts in particular, have enough flexibility to allow each person to find their voice," Campbell said. "When you perform at the highest possible level, you can find your voice along the way."

Mazanko has found success already in playing the clarinet because of his abilities in several facets of performing, Campbell said.

"He's a very natural musician," Campbell said. "He really identifies with and feels the music. He has a deep personal connection to it. Where he really sets himself apart is that the physicality of playing the clarinet comes easily to him."

As a child, Mazanko was recruited to play the clarinet. He was quickly hooked.

"I was so amazed by the sound of clarinet and how flexible it is," Mazanko said. "It is quiet and soft, and also really loud. After that I just found the clarinet very magical."

Before long, Mazanko started hearing that his playing was particularly moving for listeners. His clarinet studies brought him to the Interlochen Arts Academy, and then Grand Valley.

He practiced up to six hours a day for the competition and said what he has learned as a student, especially in preparing for this contest, inspires him to want to teach at some point. But he also dreams of performing solos in a musical setting -- such as with an accompanist or orchestra -- because of the way the clarinet allows him to express himself.

"For me, it's about the idea you want to represent," he said.