From the Blog: Alumni Spotlight
Nick Romeo continues his coverage on From the Top alumni in the Van Cliburn Competition. He managed to track down Alex McDonald at a party following the awards ceremony. Alex, 30, appeared on From the Top Show 9 when he was 17.
(Q) What was your experience like the Cliburn?
It’s definitely the most nerve-wracking thing I’ve ever done. Even when I was trying out pianos, these silent guys with cameras were shadowing me, so I felt pressure not to make a mistake. At one point I just couldn’t handle it, so I started playing Super Mario on my laptop. It was like From The Top times 30,000. I’m not a career competition pianist. I haven’t done this 50 million times, which was obvious because I always had to go to the bathroom again. I wasn’t used to all of the stress. There’s a competition circuit, and I’m not on it.
(Q) What do you think of competitions in general?
This was like the hunger games for piano, except no one is dead and my bowels were a lot emptier afterward. The Cliburn is very intense; there are more cameras here than anywhere else. I’m not substantially disappointed. I tell my students that juries mess up all the time, and now I have a great example of that. The more interesting you are, the more you will divide a jury. Just to be clear, I believe the winners are very deserving. But when you rank people, you give them a new name. It gives the impression of even spacing on a scale and the most dangerous thing in the world is for young pianists to internalize that ranking. A ranking is a label, a new name placed on you by experts. I’ve had students who win competitions, and it’s a horrible growth stunter.
(Q) You struggled with tendonitis in the past. How have you overcome your injury?
It took me six years to recover fully. I wondered about having to change career and maybe go into accounting. Everything I’ve learned about music has come from tendonitis. And many good things in my life have come from it. I met Rachel, my fiancé, at Juilliard. And I went to Juilliard to study with someone who could help with my technique. I had to release my identity as a pianist. If my primary identity is a pianist and I don’t play well, then I’m fighting for my life. If I am a child of God, my identity is not given or destroyed by external things. I’m bummed I didn’t advance beyond the first round, but I’m not destroyed. One drawback of our western culture of individualism is that we have to create our identities. If I think I matter not because of how I play but because of what God has done for me I may be temporarily enslaved by the competition, but God loves me, I’m okay. I shouldn’t try to change. Injury forced me to confront that. It’s humbling.
(Q) What do you remember about being on From The Top?
I remember joking with Chris. He is a funny guy. I was totally psyched to be on the radio, and I was starstruck by the experience. It was great to play for a national audience. These kinds of things bode well for the future of classical music. It is exactly what needs to happen to engage new audiences.
(Q) Did being on the show have a lasting impact on your career?
From the Top gave me a vision for how classical music can be made entertaining without compromising standards. Everyone knows From the Top, even non-musicians. It was fantastic exposure at a young age.
Nick Romeo continues his coverage on From the Top alumni in the Van Cliburn Competition. Sean Chen, 24, who appeared on Show 134 when he was 17, was one of six From the Top alumni to enter the competition with an impressive group of 30 international pianists. Sean was the only From the Top alum to advance to the finals.
At an award ceremony in Fort Worth, Texas last night, Sean Chen took third place in the Van Cliburn competition.
At the press conference following the awards ceremony, Sean said: “If you had asked me when I was a freshman at Juilliard if I ever would have medalled in the Cliburn I would have laughed and left. “
He said that the experience at the Cliburn has been one of the best and also one of the most stressful of his life. When asked how high this this moment ranks among his musical accomplishments, he stretched his hand high in the air and smiled.
He also said that he and gold medalist Vadym Kholodenko were thinking of celebrating with whiskey.
Nick Romeo’s most recent book is Driven: Six Incredible Musical Journeys. Read more at www.nickromeoauthor.com.
Nick Romeo continues his coverage on From the Top alumni in the Van Cliburn Competition. Eric Zuber, who appeared on Show 7 when he was 14, was one of six From the Top alumni to enter the preliminary round.
(Q): How have you enjoyed the Cliburn?
It’s been a long time, but a very good experience. They’re very well organized. And my host family is taking very good care of me. I was awfully uptight in the recital rounds. Sometimes you make it, sometimes you don’t. It doesn’t say much about your caliber as an artist, it’s just one of those things. Unfortunately at a high level it’s very difficult to delineate what should make someone advance. It’s not like a tennis match with a clear objective goal and an obvious winner and loser.
(Q): Do you do a lot of competitions?
I’m almost 28, and between 21 and now I probably averaged 2 to 3 competitions a year. For someone like me who was not born into the music business it’s hard to get recognition without doing them. I don’t like them personally, I don’t know anyone who does. But I have had amazing experiences by doing competitions. I’ve traveled to Australia, Korea, and all around Israel. I wish it could have been for concerts instead of competitions, but that’s how life is.
(Q): What was your preparation like for this competition?
Unfortunately I didn’t have six months or a year to focus on the Cliburn. I had to learn repertoire really quickly. It basically takes every day all day, and knowing that it takes every day, that you don’t get nights or weekends, it puts a strain on you. It takes total dedication to be at the level you need to be so that you don’t embarrass yourself. It’s a laborious process and it can kind of lessen your inspiration. I left the hobby phase long ago, but I’d much prefer spending hours a day at the piano than crunching numbers or something.
(Q): What do you remember about being on From The Top?
I remember pretty much everything about it. It was a good experience; I was really happy to have done it. I played one of the same pieces that I played here: a Rachmaninov Prelude.
(Q): What are your plans for the future?
I’m getting a DMA at Peabody. I’ll be starting my second year of that in the fall. This past year I put off school for a year to compete. I definitely want to take a break from competing for a while. I need to rethink what I want to do. Getting money for concerts will be more difficult without big prizes, but I think I need to refresh myself. It’s been a really long and tough stretch for me. I think I deserve it.
Nick Romeo’s most recent book is Driven: Six Incredible Musical Journeys. Read more at www.nickromeoauthor.com.
Nick Romeo continues his coverage on From the Top alumni in the Van Cliburn Competition. Sean Chen, 24, who appeared on Show 134 when he was 17, has advanced to the finals and will perform on Friday night.
NEARING THE CLIBURN FINALS
by Nick Romeo
Sean Chen is now one of six finalists in the Cliburn. This weekend, he will perform two concerti with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and maestro Leonard Slatkin. On Friday night, he will play Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto. On Sunday night, he will play Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto. I found a moment to chat with Sean about his experience at the Cliburn and his memories of From The Top.
(Q): How are you enjoying your time at the Cliburn?
It’s been great overall. It’s also been a lot of work; it’s kind of stressful. Usually at competitions you hang out with the other competitors. You detox, have a beer, whatever. It’s more segregated here. Since we’re all staying with our host families we don’t really see each other so much. But I have a great host family. They’re wonderful people.
(Q): What is your routine like here?
Eat, practice, eat, practice, eat, practice.
(Q): Have you been happy with your performances so far?
I felt good, but in a couple months I will be hypercritical. It had been a while since I touched Petrushka. I was happy with the way it turned out. Learning the commissioned work was interesting as well. I always start out hating commissioned works, but then I really get to like them as I play them. This was very quirky and had a lot of energy
(Q): What are your thoughts on competitions?
I think most of us agree that they are a necessary evil. You can’t get this much exposure anywhere else. The most important thing is the concert engagements that come after a competition like the Cliburn. But to be judged constantly in your playing is not really good for creativity. It’s risky to be too creative in a competition. Everyone plays wonderfully at this level, so it’s often just a matter of taste. I had friends who played wonderfully and didn’t pass the first round.
(Q): What do you remember about being on From The Top?
It was a very good experience. I auditioned at Aspen, and it was reassuring that I could get in. A lot of Juilliard precollege kids were on it, so it was nice to know that I was at the same level even though I was in California. It was nice to meet Chris as well. I remember they did something about how messy my room was. I think they had a skit with Beethoven’s mom yelling at him for having a messy room. I applied to New England Conservatory and I remember they gave me extra money for being on From The Top. I ended up going to Juilliard, but it was nice.
(Q): What are your plans after Texas?
I’m still at Yale, doing an A.D. I have one more year. I probably want a doctorate some day as well.
Nick Romeo’s most recent book is Driven: Six Incredible Musical Journeys. Read more at www.nickromeoauthor.com.
Nick Romeo continues his coverage for us on From the Top alums in the Van Cliburn Competition. 24-year-old pianist Steven Lin, who appeared on Show 157 when he was 17, was one of six From the Top alumni to enter the preliminary round.
LIFE AFTER (BUT STILL DURING) THE CLIBURN
by Nick Romeo
After not advancing beyond the first round of the Cliburn, Steven Lin has stayed in Fort Worth and relaxed with his host family. He shot skeet with a shotgun at a local shooting range, swam at his host family’s pool, and played with their dogs. He has also been reflecting on some basic questions about art, music, and his own life. In particular, he has been thinking about how to balance the often conflicting demands of musicmaking and self-promotion. “I admire people who have this naïve, pure love of music and don’t worry about finances. Music and business are totally opposite things. You’re not going to have room in your brain for music if you always worry about business,” he said.
Dangers lie at either of two extremes. Pursuing the practical tasks of networking and marketing can limit musical growth, while neglecting these tasks might limit career growth. “I see people grow artistically but not become very famous and I see people who worry a lot about making connections get more famous but not grow deeper as artists.”
During his years at Juilliard, Lin heard many teachers talk about the importance of being creative and innovative in order to attract new audiences. He knew they were making valid points; the market for classical music has shifted and contracted, and many of the most successful musicians have created unique media platforms to reach new audiences. Still, he felt that sometimes this success comes at a cost. “At least for me, I don’t grow artistically unless I ignore some of the business stuff. Art is about finding inspiration, and as you get older, often this happens away from the piano. If you’re constantly sitting at your computer or on the phone, you don’t get better. It happens randomly, just going through life, walking through a park you see something and maybe think about a phrase and find something interesting you want to try out.”
When Lin thinks of some of the great pianists of the 20th century, like Horowitz and Rubinstein, he sees support for his theory. ”All they did was think about music. They didn’t have to spend their time on all the other stuff.” Of course there were other pianists who were similarly unconcerned with the practicalities of a career who did not achieve the singular artistry of Horowitz or Rubinstein. And it’s at least conceivable that some wonderful pianists today are also quite focused on the details of their careers. But Lin has identified a powerful tension that every young artist must confront.
Lin sometimes has trouble balancing art and business. He does have a realistic streak, and he wants his career to advance. Lately, however, he has felt the pull of a purely musical realm. ”It is about what you want from your life. You have to ask yourself why are you doing music. If you want a big house and a lot of material comfort, you will have to work harder at the career side of things. Many musicians, they just want meals and a simple place to sleep.” He did four competitions in the past year. He found them stressful, but enjoyed the chance to perform. He also thinks there are some cases that are simply impossible to decide. If Horowitz and Rubinstein both played, how could you choose the winner? Still, competitions are performance opportunities, and they can help launch careers.
In the fall, he will begin an Artist’s Diploma at Curtis. As for now, he feels like he needs a break. “I need to focus on my own searching. I need to keep searching for deeper things.”
From the Top is very proud to have six alumni competing in the Van Cliburn Competition in Fort Worth, Texas, one of whom, Sean Chen, has advanced to the semi-finals round. Nick Romeo, the author of “Driven: Six Incredible Musical Journeys,” is covering the competition and got a chance to speak with competitor Lindsay Garritson, who appeared on From the Top Show 19 when she was just 12 years old.
Lindsay Garritson at the Cliburn
by Nick Romeo
Lindsay Garritson is one of six From the Top alumni in the prestigious Cliburn competition this year. Although she did not advance beyond the preliminary round of 30, she found the competition a very positive experience. We caught up by phone after she flew back to New Haven, where she works as an accompanist for the string department at the Yale School of Music.
Q: What was the best part of your experience at the Cliburn?
“The preparation for any big competition really pushes you to refine your playing and expand your repertoire. At the Cliburn, just knowing that I would be playing for a huge international audience motivated me to be at the highest level possible. I really gave it my all. The best moments were when I was in the moment, performing, and I felt that connection and sense of communication with the audience. And I loved all the people I met. My host family was very generous and welcoming. I’m so glad I was part of it.”
Q: What was your preparation like?
“I found out at the end of February that I would be competing. My job as an accompanist is very demanding; I’m responsible for quite a bit of repertoire. So before May, I was probably practicing 4 to 5 hours a day for the competition. After May, it was more like 8 to 10 hours. You can’t show up prepared for just the preliminary. If you’re prepared for all the rounds, it’s about four hours of music that has to be at a concert level.”
Q: What do you think of competitions in general?
“I did five competitions in the past year. They are very helpful but they also have drawbacks. They give you exposure, lead to connections and concerts, and help you build a career. I feel like I’ve become such a better pianist through all the preparation. It can be frustrating when you have jury members with students in the competition. Even if the voting process accounts for this, it makes you wonder. To be as fair as possible, no jurors should have students in the competition. The other jurors know when a juror has students. I find it hard to believe that there’s no influence. It’s really hard to just have a career these days, and even winning a huge competition doesn’t guarantee a lasting career. A very small percentage of concert pianists have a full-time career. So competitions can be great to kickstart a career, but they might not sustain one.”
Q: You appeared on From the Top when you were 12. What do you remember from that experience?
“Being on From The Top was an amazing experience. I had never played on the radio before. I loved it. It was definitely a high point growing up. Playing at a high level for a national audience was a big thing for me. It paved the way for playing for wider audiences.”
Q: What are you looking forward to in the next few months?
“I’m going to the Steans institute at Ravinia outside Chicago this summer for five weeks. I will focus on chamber music.”
Q: What do you like to do when you’re not making music?
“I love swimming and being outdoors. I’m also big reader. I like history in particular. I just read a book called Americans in Paris about Americans living during the occupation in Paris.”
Six years after appearing on From the Top, 22-year-old alum Eliodoro Vallecillo is paying it forward in his hometown of Salinas, California. Through his own after-school music program and traditional Mexican band, he hopes to develop new audiences for Mexican music and offer new opportunities for kids in Salinas.
Eliodoro wowed audiences on both From the Top’s radio and television programs with his performance of Mozart’s Concert No. 3 in E-flat on French horn. But it was his story about how his passion for music helped him to escape gang violence in his hometown and grieve the loss of his brother that audiences most remember.
For Eliodoro, his From the Top experience was influential in other ways. As a recipient of From the Top’s Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Award, he was able to purchase a new French horn, which he used as a music major at California State University at Long Beach. He also counts From the Top’s Arts Leadership Orientation Workshop as a moment of inspiration for him.
“I remember some classes at From the Top on how to be involved in our community and that always stood in the back of my mind. It was always a dream to give back. Music is something that’s very powerful. I’m glad that From the Top encourages that, because a lot of these kids need it. I’m grateful that they made me see that!”
Music – both traditional Mexican and classical – was a large part of Eliodoro’s upbringing but unfortunately there weren’t many opportunities in his community for music instruction. “My brother and I went through a music program where we learned to play our instruments, after that there was nothing else in Salinas,” he says.
Eliodoro was inspired to create a way for kids in his hometown to continue their musical passions. He developed an after-school music program, Escuela de Musica Regional Mexicana, that introduces kids ages 7 to 17 to Mexican music. Jesse G. Sanchez Elementary School is the program’s main site, hosting over 100 students, while a secondary site at Salinas Public Library hosts just over 80 students. Students in the program focus on traditional Mexican music, such as the accordion, guitar, drums, bass guitar, tuba, trumpet, and bajo sexto, a traditional 12-stringed bass guitar.
“I would love the students to come back, teach, and stay involved.” He said, “It caught me off guard that all the students were very enthused, along with the parents, because it’s something that’s culturally relevant.”
Along with Escuela de Musica Regional Mexicana, Eliodoro’s band, Proyecto X, is also expanding audiences for Mexican music. He and his band members are all from Salinas, but have different musical backgrounds, which has helped to create the flavorful musical style of Proyecto X. Eliodoro performs accordion in the band, which has been featured on Spanish radio across the U.S. According to Eliodoro, “Radio stations have fallen in love with us,” and it is easy to see why.
Learn more about Escuela de Musica Regional Mexicana on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WAiubWk-8hM&feature=youtu.be
Learn more about Proyecto X on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/GRUPOPROYECTOX
or on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/GRUPOPROYECTOX?feature=watch
It is with excitement that we report that six From the Top alumni have been named among 30 competitors in the Van Cliburn Competition, May 24 – June 9 in Fort Worth, Texas, one of the world’s most prestigious piano competitions.
The Van Cliburn Competition was founded in 1962 to recognize the great pianist Van Cliburn, who passed away in February 2013. In its 50-year history, the Cliburn has identified and ushered a host of exceptional artists to international prominence, including From the Top host Christopher O’Riley.
Meet the From the Top Van Cliburn competitors who represent six of eight U.S. contenders:
We’ll be reporting from the competition once it begins. So stay tuned as we follow these alumni.
From the Top wishes to extend warmest congratulations to all of the young performers, including ten From the Top alumni, who were chosen to be part of the National Youth Orchestra this summer! Each summer, Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute brings together 120 of the nation’s top young classical musicians to tour some of the world’s musical capitals as musical ambassadors. These young performers were accepted into this prestigious orchestra after a challenging and comprehensive audition process. Led by James Ross, the associate director of The Julliard School’s conducting program and director of orchestral activities at the University of Maryland, the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America will tour from July 11 to July 22, 2013, performing in Washington D.C., then Moscow and Saint Petersburg, and finally, London. Congratulations and best of luck to our remarkable alumni!
Erika Gray (Show 262, Greensburg, Pennsylvania)
Annie Wu (Show 263, Davis, California)
Annika Jenkins (Show 234, Virginia Beach, Virginia)
Demi Fang (Show 239, Ocean City, New Jersey)
Sean Byrne (Show 252, Chattanooga, Tennessee)
Elizabeth Sperry (Show 240, Boston, Massachusetts)
Tanner Jackson (Show 214, Iowa City, Iowa)
In 2007, when composer Stephen Feigenbaum appeared on From the Top Show 152 at the age of 18, his piece “Serenade for Strings” was performed by a string quintet made up of local students. Later, the piece was was recorded by the Cincinnati Pops for the From the Top CD release “From the Top at the Pops!” He is now the talented composer of the well-received musical Independents and his newest musical, The Abyss, opens tonight.
Since being on the show, Stephen majored in music at Yale University and he is currently pursuing his master’s degree at the Yale School of Music. He has received a multitude of awards, which include the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award, winner of the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble competition, and, most recently, winner of the Albany Symphony Orchestra’s “Composer to Center Stage” young artist competition. Aside appearing on From the Top, Stephen has also performed on The Martha Stewart Show and NBC’s The Sing-Off.
Last summer, the original musical Independents, with music penned by Stephen, premiered at the New York Fringe Festival and received the coveted honor of Best Overall Production. The musical follows a group of teenage slackers living on a Revolutionary War-era tall ship in a coming of age story about friendship, late-night sing-alongs, and Revolutionary War-era fashion. The musical received rave reviews: read more about it on The Huffington Post and The New York Times, or get the story straight from the creative team on their Kickstarter page.
Stephen has built upon the idea of musical storytelling in his musical, The Abyss. Stephen says: “What I was really interested in was how something like a Beethoven symphony was able, about 200 years ago, to reach a massive amount of people, and I was really interested in finding a model that would allow this kind of music, which people are still writing today and which is really important to me, to reach people in this kind of visceral way that matches other kinds of entertainment that are popular today.” Stephen, along with his partner and director, Charlie Polinger, has integrated classical music into a theatrical presentation that explores a 21st century imagining of the end of the world with an ensemble of musicians, dancers, and actors. Set in an abandoned storefront, the team uses the space to assist in provoking their audience’s imagination, inviting them to participate in the theatrical experience.
A Kickstarter page for The Abyss launched on December 7th, 2012 and they reached their funding goal on December 31st, 2012. From the Top congratulates Stephen and the cast and crew of The Abyss for their hard work and creative innovation.
The Abyss premiers on March 28th and will run until March 31st at 278 Park Street in downtown New Haven, Connecticut. Tickets are free on a first-come first-served basis. For more information, visit http://www.abysstheshow.com or http://www.stephenfeigenbaum.com.
“I imagine these experiences will be invaluable to my future, where I will continue to provide music for those who are willing to accept it.”
Ever since he was young, composer, pianist, and From the Top Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Award recipient Franz Zhao (Show 257) has seen the inspiring effect that music can have on others. He used that inspiration to create his own organization the Youth Music Society of San Francisco. Franz recruited musical friends and colleagues to join him in sharing classical music with audiences who otherwise have limited access to musical performances. The majority of their performances have been at retirement homes, and the residents have been truly grateful for their visits.
Franz shares more about Youth Music Society below…
I am proud of my ability to lead and my overall willingness to help, whether it be organizing concerts for the elderly, or more contained matters, such as volunteering at summer camps. Several years ago, I took these ideas and founded a small, non-profit organization called the Youth Music Society of San Francisco. This organization consists of myself along with a several of my friends and classmates. Our aim is to bring concerts to those who cannot access them by normal means – this typically leads us to senior centers and senior homes, where we play music for the elderly. We typically put on concerts several times a year, usually occurring during our school breaks.
Therefore, there are usually one or two holiday concerts during our winter break, another during spring break, and few more during the summer. We have also organized a few benefit concerts, including one to help support the San Francisco Boys’ Chorus 2011 Russia Tour – the money we raised help pay for choristers’ travel needs.
Ever since I was young, I would periodically play at my grandparents’ senior apartment for their holiday parties, most often during the Lunar New Year celebration. After each performance, I would have many tearful elders come up to thank me. Using this inspiration, I have continued the tradition over the past several years. Playing music for these elders with my organization has deepened and ignited a passion in playing for them. The happiness of these seniors matters most to me, and through these concerts I am able to share my passion and joy with them.
Involving myself with these activities has allowed me to see the world with a brighter perspective. In this sense, playing music at senior centers and senior homes has helped me understand how much our elders appreciate music. I imagine these experiences will be invaluable to my future, where I will continue to provide music for those who are willing to accept it.
Nicholas King is a Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Award recipient who appeared on Show 177 in New Albany, Ohio, and the experience was life-changing. He says, “From the Top and the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation showed me the importance of supporting young musicians. Without the scholarship from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation I wouldn’t have been able to attend school. The performance on NPR allowed me a great performance opportunity, as well as chance to meet other talented musicians.”
After appearing on the show, Nicholas attended the Glenn Gould School at the renowned Royal Conservatory of Music where he received his performance diploma, along with the title of being the first freshman to ever win their Concerto Competition. Nicholas also received a standing ovation for his concert performance at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in July of 2010. Now, Nicholas is helping guide young performers along the same musical path with his own non-profit organization, Art of Giving Back.
In their own words, the volunteer artists at Art of Giving Back “share their time and talents to teach and mentor young musicians. We help them to develop their own talents and leadership skills which will last a lifetime.” Nicholas organized the program so that graduate level musicians could help instruct young aspiring performers to advance professionally. The program’s team of professional volunteers guides young artists in applying to professional music programs, setting up performances, and improving their skills.
The program offers free workshops that focus on practicing, performing, and applying to music schools. Nicholas explains that the workshops are “interactive and informative – we share our experiences with the class and answer any questions that they might have.” Art of Giving Back offers master classes to music middle and high schools. Nicholas and his fellow instructors also connect with young musicians through The Young Artist Forum online, where musicians can give and receive feedback to each other.
When we spoke with Nicholas about the future of the organization, he expressed his hope for it’s growth, saying “I would like this to become a world-wide organization. I believe that we offer a much needed service to musicians everywhere. No musician should feel like they’re alone.”
To learn more about Nicholas and Art of Giving Back, visit their website at http://www.artofgivingback.org