Keys to the house: Host families form lasting bond with Hilton Head International Piano Competition contestants

jpaprocki@islandpacket.comMarch 4, 2012 

  • Round 1

    1:30 to 4:30 p.m. and 7 to 9:10 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, $12 daily ticket (Gold pass, $40 for all four rounds)

    Round 2

    10 a.m. to 1:05 p.m. and 2:30 to 5:35 p.m. Thursday and Friday, $12 daily ticket

    Round 3 (semi-finals)

    1:30 to 5:20 p.m. and 7:30 to 9:15 p.m. Saturday

    $25 general admission, $35 preferred

    Round 4 (finals)

    7 p.m. March 12

    $35, $50 and $65 (reserved)

    All rounds are held at First Presbyterian Church, 540 William Hilton Parkway.


    Master classes are 9-11:25 a.m. and 1:45-4:10 p.m. March 12 at All Saints Episcopal Church. A lecture and recital is from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. The events are free and open to the public.


    A buffet lunch is provided at 11:30 a.m. March 12 -- tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door. Tickets are available online at or at the symphony box office at 843-842-2055.


    The Hilton Head International Piano Competition held its first competition in 1996 and, since that date, has held a competition each year.

    For more information on this year's events and previous competitions, go to

Over the next week or so, 20 young pianists from around the world will compete in the Hilton Head International Piano Competition. Of course, they will need places to stay. So, host families are arranged. But in some cases, the stay isn't just confined to the short time spent on the island. It becomes the start of a lifelong relationship.

Behind every competitor is a host. The hosts don't take center stage, but they play a major role in making sure the contest goes smoothly and the competitors only have to worry about music. They provide housing, transportation, meals and, perhaps most importantly, a piano -- a grand piano to be exact, one that's been approved by a technician and tuned within a few weeks of competition.

Judy and Stewart Brown started hosting about a decade ago, thinking it would be a nice way to support the competition. But it became more than that.

They've kept in touch with most of the pianists they've hosted, following their emerging careers each step of the way.

They hosted the winner of the 2009 competition, Michail Lifits, who went on to win one of the most prestigious events in Europe, the Ferruccoi Busoni International Piano Competition.

They've visited him when he's played Carnegie Hall. Lifits has returned to visit him during his trips stateside. They call and Skype with him frequently.

"My son says he's heard so much about him he feels like (Michail) is his 'brother from another mother,'" she said with a chuckle. "But it's true. They really become part of your family."

Mike Kolody hosted Jin Hong Li and his father, Xiaojun Li, for 12 days last year.

But their relationship stretched back into the previous November after several conversations with Jin Hong and his English-speaking aunt. So, by the time they arrived, they already felt like old friends, he said.

Jin Hong spent his days practicing, up to six hours a day. In the evening, they'd go out to eat. They visited the beach as a respite from the rigors of competIn the end, Jin Hong took third place.

At breakfast during one of the final days, the Lis extended an invitation to the Kolodys to visit them in China.

Kolody, who spent time traveling overseas with General Motors, had been to China several times. But the hospitality was much different when he went in August.

He traveled to Shenyang by way of Beijing, the Li family accommodating him with discounts on hotels and accompanying him on tours of the surrounding area.

Jin Hong's aunt even connected him to an assistant mayor in the city of Tonghua, who loaned them a car, his driver and secretary to tour the city.

"There wasn't a day I wasn't busy," he said. "The hospitality was tremendous."

Kolody's glad for the experience overseas. But even if he didn't make the trip, just the fact that he helped one young man chase his dream made the host program worth it.

"From my perspective, it's all about helping young people," he said.

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