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The Cliburn Jr. competition's high stress gets relief because it's also like summer piano camp

 Young woman standing on stage near a piano facing a small group of teens and some adults in seats
Bill Zeeble
Xuanyan Jessie Gong, a 16 year-old pianist from China, practices her stagecraft exercise in front of fellow Cliburn Junior competitors, participants, and Cliburn CEO Jacques Marquis.

We know the Cliburn features plenty of piano playing. But not all of it is competitive. In a performance hall on SMU’s campus, 16-year-old William Ge played a Haydn sonata This is a master class. William is being critiqued by Stanislav Ioudenitch, a 2001 Cliburn gold medalist and college music professor.

Masterclasses are revered - and sometimes feared, depending on how a player handles nerves. Ioudenitch spends more than half an hour with William, questioning the pianist’s fingering, pedal use, volume, and phrasing. At times it seems every single note is questioned. One section's too loud, another too quiet, too fast or too slow.

William plays a phrase too quietly, Ioudenitch said.

“I understand the intention of doing it,” said the professor, “but it’s not appropriate. Be careful of your pedal.”

The young pianist turned his neck to relieve tension. After the class, William said he welcomed Ioudenitch’s critiques.

“He’s exceptionally inspiring,” said William, “My general takeaway was to be humble to the music. I think that was a very large cornerstone of Professor Ioudenitch’s teachings today – which was respecting the score without losing your own personal integrity.”

Ioudenitch said he's careful to be picky about the performance while respecting the performer.

“We have a very limited amount of time in the master class, yes? But if they catch something for the future. then I did my job,” said Ioudenitch. “It's very important not to offend the person. It's very important to keep their confidence somehow. So you have to know your red line. You cannot embarrass them.”

Embarrassing these teen pianists - in a lighthearted way - is exactly Jacques Marquis's intention. The Cliburn CEO is leading several dozen teens through a class called Stage Craft.

He's teaching kids how to approach the piano once they’ve been introduced at a performance, and before they play. Marquis has them all applaud as 16-year-old festival participant, Akilan Sankaran, from the U.S., approaches the piano from backstage.

“Hi everybody. Thank you so much for being here and for your support of classical music. We wouldn’t really be able to…”

Marquis curtly stopped the pianist’s onstage speech.

“Who are you?” he asked. Akilan never introduced himself.

The room laughed. Akilan laughed.

“Go back,” said a smiling Marquis and Akilan does. This time, he remembers his name.

Next up is 16-year-old Jessie Gong. Marquis again led the applause, as the audience played its role.

“Hi. My name is Jessie Gong and I'm 16 from China. Thank you so much for coming. Thank you so much for, um, . .”

Stumbling over her less-than-prepared introduction, she and the audience laughed.

“Can I try that again?

”“Yes,” said Marquis. And so she does.

Almost all the kids make mistakes. Almost all of them laugh at each other and themselves. Jessie liked these sessions because she’s learning. She has already been eliminated from the competition. But she hopes piano playing will be her career.

“When I got the result, I was very upset,” Jessie said. “But after like a day or two, I was like, just keep going with my studies and go on with the next goal. But also I love all these events. There are still performances and masterclasses that I can attend, and I love performing.”

Jessie said she's made friends, hung out with great pianists her own age…and she’s only 16. She'll continue her education at Juilliard pre-college, and like the others, improve at piano, stagecraft, branding, public speaking, academics, and everything else teens do. In this case, exceptional teens.

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Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.