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Hitting the Right Notes



Mona Huff, director of the Hilton Head International Piano Competition for the past nine years, describes the young pianists who compete in the annual event as “drop-dead amazing.”

“I don’t play my piano for weeks after they leave, because I can’t bear the thought that I’m trying to play what they so effortlessly do,” she said recently.

Huff is moving at top speed this month, when 20 pianists from around the world — selected from a pool of 227 applicants from 31 countries — will arrive on Hilton Head Island to compete in the 23rd Hilton Head International Piano Competition, sponsored by the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra. Ages 18 to 30, they represent some of the best musicians in the world.

“There is a lot at stake,” she said.

The level of talent and dedication among the musicians convinced Huff, who moved to the Lowcountry in 2006 from New York, to devote herself to the event. Now one of the most highly regarded competitions in the United States, it’s the only international piano competition in the Southeast operating at this level of prestige.

Mona Huff02Huff describes herself as “your typical person who took piano lessons as a kid.” So how did the former high school math teacher and director of educational technology get involved in the competition?

Her neighbor asked her if she would volunteer, and Huff agreed to help. Her energetic nature and love of music led her to become deeply involved with the competition. Three years later, she became its director.

“It is amazing, and when you think that when we started in 1996, we had 16 competitors, one judge, and one day of competition,” she said.

Before coming to the Lowcountry, Huff sang in the prestigious Cecilia Chorus of New York, formerly known as the St. Cecilia Chorus. The nonprofit choir of about 175 singers specializes in masterworks and new classical pieces by up-and-coming composers.

When Huff and her husband, Joe, moved to the Lowcountry, she wasn’t sure she would find a musical outlet. The couple immediately loved their new home in Bluffton’s Rose Hill neighborhood, but Huff was clear with her husband: “If I can’t find somewhere to sing, we’re not staying.” Luckily, she did.

Huff now sings with the Hilton Head Symphony Chorus and the Hilton Head Chorale Society and is past-president of that group.

“Singing is my mental health. When I was growing up, there was always music in my household,” she said. “My mother studied at the Manhattan School of Music and my dad had a natural ear. We would always play games like ‘guess the composer.’”

In addition to her musical endeavors, Huff also spends time volunteering. She helps her husband with Meals on Wheels when she can, and also cooks and entertains for charitable causes.

“I don’t know how to say no,” Huff said. “My friends say, ‘Please sit on your hands when you go to meetings.’”

Huff says the hard work she puts in at the piano competition is worth it: “I just feel so very grateful that I have this job. I stay in touch with the competitors for years. Our focus is twofold: We want to provide opportunities for young pianists to perform and we want to give to the community the joy of this magnificent piano music.”