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World Championship Old-Time Piano Contest returns to Oxford

The World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival will bring ragtime to the big-time this weekend, with new events and contest entries.

The festivities will begin this Thursday, May 24 and end on Sunday, May 27. This year’s event will feature the addition of a senior competition division, a silent movie luncheon and a church service at Oxford-University United Methodist Church with performances by contestants.

Ian Hominick, artistic director for the contest and a music professor at Ole Miss, said the contest and festival is a way to preserve the music of the past in order to understand how it influences the music of today.

“It’s important, I think, to always reflect back on where music came from,” Hominick said. “There’s sort of a mix of Sousa marching band music, American spirituals, blues, traditional jazz. These forms all kind of came together and formed the musical styles that we’re used to today, from modern jazz, right into bebop and hip-hop.”

The contest focuses almost exclusively on pieces composed before 1939, but Hominick said that doesn’t mean it’s boring. For contestants, showmanship is key – they don attire similar to that of a barbershop quartet and lean on ragtime’s Vaudeville beginnings, and at times, work up a sweat while playing the uptempo tunes.

There are five separate portions of the contest itself: New Rag, which features original compositions, a spontaneous duet contest, the junior competition for those age 17 and under, the regular division for adults between the ages of 18 to 60 and the senior competition, for those 60 and older.

From there, the field will be narrowed for the semifinals and finals on Sunday afternoon. Events throughout the weekend will be held across town, in such locations as the Powerhouse and Nutt Auditorium on the Ole Miss campus. The Chancellor’s House hotel will also get in on the action, and is bringing two grand pianos into its ballroom specifically for the contest.

Contestants travel to Oxford from across the country and the world, hailing from California, Chicago, New York and Texas, as well as the United Kingdom and France.

William McNally, the defending 2016 and 2017 regular division champion, is no stranger to the competition. Mcnally said he firmly believes all people should experience ragtime at least once in their lives, to help them better understand the way it influences music today.

“It’s storytelling. I really think everyone has a right to experience the music that founded the American flavor,” McNally said. To me, it’s also kind of setting the record straight. The key to it is, it’s notated. It’s not an improvised form, or loose and free like the Blues.”

Hominick estimated about 40 people will be competing for the top prize, which, for the regular division champ, is a check for $1,500 and a free hotel the following year. In the senior division, contestants will be vying for a $200 cash prize and a waiver for the next year’s entry fee. The Junior division winner will be awarded a $500 cash prize. All champions will receive either a trophy or a gold medallion for their accomplishments as well.

McNally said he’s looking forward to returning to Oxford not only to defend his title, but to enjoy fellowship with the other musicians in attendance.

“If there’s an interest, people will find each other. But then, interests aren’t mutually exclusive,” McNally said. “Mostly, it’s all the time in between. It’s the minutes during the breaks in the contest when everyone floods the hallways and checks out everyone’s CDs and just hangs out and talks. We learn about why ragtime is important to these people.”

McNally said he wants people who are considering attending the event to do so, because everyone “has a right to experience ragtime,” a style of music that has influenced American tunes for nearly a century. He also added that, if he makes it to the finals this weekend, he’ll be playing only the tenth waltz in competition history – and the first not composed by the father of ragtime himself, Scott Joplin.

Those planning to attend the 2018 Old-Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival can purchase tickets at the door or on the contest website. Tickets for separate events range from $10 to $20, and there are weekend passes available as well.

Those planning to attend with a group of 10 or more will receive half-price tickets. Children 12 and under will also be admitted for half the price.

For more information on event scheduling and ticketing, visit http://oldtimepianocontest.com.