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Old-Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival Finds a New Home in Oxford

Photo from Facebook.com / World Championship Old Time Piano
Photo from Facebook.com / World Championship Old Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival

There is a sense of timelessness in Oxford, Mississippi. From the Rowan Oak estate to the picturesque Square, this town has continued to be a hub for amazing artists, writers, and musicians.

Next weekend Oxford will, for the first time, be the host of a festival that is as close to time travel as we can get without Doc Brown and a DeLorean. For the last 42 years in Peoria, Illinois, the Old-Time piano playing contest and festival has been the Superbowl for the most talented and creative rag time piano players the world has to offer, but late last year Ole Miss music professor Dr. Ian Hominick learned that the prestigious contest was looking for a new home.

Four Arrows. Photo from Facebook.com / Old Time Piano Contest and Festival
Four Arrows. Photo from Facebook.com / World Championship Old Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival

“I knew they were looking for a new place, so I jumped at the opportunity,” said Hominick. “I mean it took a lot of leg work, fundraising, grant writing, and figuring out the logistics, but it’s worth it.”

After shopping around the local venues, the director of the festival (Faye Ballard) decided to hold the competition in the music building on campus. With plenty of pianos to go around and top of the line sound quality, it was a no-brainer. The festivities start on Thursday, May 26 at Proud Larry’s and will go through Monday morning. The five-day event will be packed to the brim with activities and contests, as well as special performances with entertainers from all walks of life who have one thing in common, a passion for pre Jazz era piano.

One of the favorites for the contest is three-time junior champion Daniel Souvigny, a fifteen-year-old piano prodigy who Director Ballard has seen grow into an elite status as a musician in record time. “Daniel has been my student and friend for several years,” said Ballard, who began competing in the Old-Time piano playing contest when she was just twelve years old. “It was very obvious from the beginning that there was something special in Daniel that needed to be nurtured. His work ethic is amazing and he takes to piano like a fish to water.”

Daniel Souvigny.  Photo from danielsouvigny.com.
Daniel Souvigny.
Photo from danielsouvigny.com.

This will Daniel’s first time competing in the senior competition, which involves not just playing incredibly difficult songs at dizzying speeds, but also arranging the music himself. The contestants will be judged on highly specialized skills like finger dexterity, note accuracy and keyboard coverage, as well as showmanship, originality and period appropriate costume.

“Honestly, I am a bit nervous,” said Souvigny. “I don’t know for sure how the judges will react to a newcomer competing who is fifteen plus years younger than everyone else. I have a tendency to put more modern jazz into my ragtime arrangements, but it all connects back to the classics that I love.”

Souvigny will not be the only unorthodox player at the competition though, Ballard claims that this year’s dark horse will come in the form of a long standing crowd favorite: A Lakota entertainer named Four Arrows. Four arrows will be travelling all the way from Punta Purula, Mexico to compete, and he will bring something special to the stage.

“He doesn’t read music.” Ballard said, “But he has a way of being able to arrange the songs by feel. He takes a standard tune and makes it his own, he is an excellent arranger.”

Visit Oxford has more information about the World Championship Old Time Piano Contest and Festival.
Visit Oxford has more information about the World Championship Old Time Piano Contest and Festival. Photo by Nathan Loe.

In addition to the traditional championship, this year will include a freestyle piano solo contest dubbed the “cutting contest” this contest will be judged entirely by the audience, and up to 20 pianists are allowed to participate. All of the contests as well as a guided double decker tour, a luncheon, a silent movie accompanied by last year’s champion Adam Swanson and a guest concert by blues multi-instrumentalist “Blind Boy” Paxton are available to purchase at the door or online at oldtimepiano.org.


Nathan Loe can be reached at nbloe@go.olemiss.edu.

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