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This Van Cliburn Program Connects Students With Renowned Pianists And Classical Music

Organizers of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition bring world-class pianists to Fort Worth not only to compete on stage but also to introduce classical music to local students through the Adopt-A-Competitor program.

Program popular among schools

Principal Sara Gillaspie has an assembly of fourth and fifth graders under control in Westcliff Elementary School's auditorium. It's a big day on the Fort Worth ISD campus. Van Cliburn competitor Sergey Belyavskiy’s here from Moscow. The giant handwritten banner outside greets him — not that any North Texas adult or 10 year old knows who he is. That’s left to Gillaspie.

“We have the distinct honor of welcoming one of the global elites –  pianists – that’s competing in the Van Cliburn competition,” Gillaspie says. 

Every four years, the Cliburn Foundation offers free, in-school performances by pianists during its international contest. Susan Robertson runs the program that’s always maxed out.

“The schools have to apply to participate,” Robertson says. “And then there’s more than 10 that want to participate, so 10 is the most that I can do.” 

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Muscovite Sergey Belyavskiy poses with Westcliff Elementary students after his piano performance. The school was one of 10 that adopted Cliburn pianists during the 15th Clliburn competition.

 Sharing 'the beauty of music' 

Many students have never heard classical music, so selections are short and popular. 

Classical music carries an undeserved stuffy image, Cliburn President and CEO Jacques Marquis says. He’s convinced people just need to hear it, and the younger ears, the better. 

“What we have been trying to do is be more accessible,” Marquis said on KERA TV’s CEO. “And I think it was Van’s vision as well. Van wanted support for exceptional young artists, but he wanted to share with everybody the music, the beauty of music.”

Competitors like 23-year-old Belyavskiy play in schools a day or two before their own contest starts. Maybe they love introducing youngsters to classical music, but something else motivates Belyavskiy.

“I agreed because I wanted to perform just before the competition,” he says. “Like to have kind of practice-of-performance before. And also that I can play the new piece because I can’t play officially before the competition, but here I can.”

So, Belyavskiy also plays the more complex five-minute work written specifically for this year’s Cliburn competition. Belyavskiy’s program lasts about half an hour total with some questions and answers. Most students listen politely — some unmoved by the music.

Not so for 10-year-old Keila Medrano or Naomi Cepeda, who’s 11.

“That was awesome! Like, I wish I could hear that every single day of my life,” Keila says.   

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Keila Medrano's one of the Westcliff students who heard Belyavskiy play.

“I loved it,” Naomi says. “I know he has passion for the piano. I’m just impressed by that.”

'It means something'

Seeking that kind of response, the Cliburn Foundation presents school performances like this even when there aren’t competitors in town. There are 275 programs planned for next year.

Robertson says they always take a grand piano, a professional musician and a host to explain what form is, or what a theme is, or to highlight a composer. And she usually attends.

“I sit in the back of these programs and I see all those faces. And their mouths are open. And it’s just flowing to them,” Robertson says, starting to choke up. “It’s...that’s why I do it: Because it means something.”

Robertson says taking great music to kids is just one part of the Cliburn’s mission.

The 15th Cliburn competition runs through Saturday.

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