Tatum Roberston Introduces Kids to Opera

“…being an arts leader means teaching some of what you have learned as an arts student, so that the passion for learning about the arts is ignited and to show that education in the arts has a reason to continue.”

After appearing on our now-famous Boston blizzard taping this past February, soprano and Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Tatum Robertson, 17, shared her passion for opera with kids in her hometown of New Orleans, LA. Read about her experience below:

Why did you choose this project?

For my outreach project I decided to teach solfege, and to show how the lyrics to opera are very similar to the lyrics of many popular songs. I presented my outreach project to the kids of Camp Impact, which is my church’s summer camp…because I wanted to introduce opera and aspects of classical music to children who never had the opportunity to learn about this.

What did you include in your presentation?

I presented my project in two 10-minute segments. The first segment, I introduced myself as Slide5a classical vocalist, and that I would be teaching them solfege. I taught them that solfege is used to help musicians sight read and that sight-reading helps musicians to be able to pick up any piece of music and play it rather quickly. Next, I went through the solfege syllables with them as they repeated after me. Then I showed them the hand signs that corresponded with the solfege syllables. To finish off the first segment we sung a  “D “major scale together.


For the second segment of the presentation, I talked to the older children of the group. I began that segment of my presentation by asking them what type of music they listened to, and what the music they listened to was about. They gave responses like gospel, R & B, Hip-Hop, and Pop.

I explained to them that I would be showing them a favorite Italian opera song called “Libiamo” from an opera called La Traviata. After showing them a video of Anna Netreko singing “Libiamo” I showed them the English translation to “Libiamo”. I then explained to the children that classical music talks about all the same things as the music they listen to – that opera has love songs and party songs.  And since some of them mentioned they liked Rihanna I told them that “Libiamo” is a party song like the party songs Rihanna makes. Lastly, I told them that now they can enjoy opera the way they enjoy their favorite music, and that all they have to do is look up the translation of the opera song they want to listen to

as they watch or listen to the song. To close the presentation, I asked if any of them had questions, and they asked to see a video of me singing. I showed them a video, but they wanted more and asked me to sing “in person”. Before I sang, “Give me Jesus,” I told them that there are songs about Jesus in classical music as well.

What impact do you think this had on the students? Tatum

After I finished my presentation the kids all returned to their classes separated by age. I was happy to hear the children excitedly departing trying to sing opera. As the parents started to come in to pick up the children many of the children kept pointing at me saying “Mommy she taught us opera today!” Also, the next day one of the teachers at the camp was teaching the children a gospel song, and the kids asked her if she could teach them opera. I was very pleased with the children’s responses and reception to my presentation as I got them excited to learn more about classical music -opera in particular.

What did you learn from this experience?

Through my presentation, I learned that children are extremely impressionable and that when you enthusiastically present something to them, they respond with enthusiasm. I also learned that if you relate something children enjoy to the information you are teaching, the children are more likely to pay attention and be captivated.

What does being an arts leader mean to you?

The children’s response to my presentation really showed me what it means to be an arts leader. They showed me that being an arts leader means sharing what you do with others in the community, and displaying what has inspired you to do what you do because the community cares and is excited by exposure and opportunities. Lastly, they showed me that being an arts leader means teaching some of what you have learned as an arts student, so that the passion for learning about the arts is ignited and to show that education in the arts has a reason to continue.

Infusing New Vibrancy into the Oldies: Introducing Conrad Tao


Conrad Tao
Photo by Lauren Farmer

by Jingxuan Zhang

Jack of all trades, yet master of all, 19-year-old From the Top alumnus Conrad Tao – pianist, violinist, and composer – can be pithily summed up as a thinker. “Thinker” is not the most titillating of words; however, it fits Conrad perfectly because he uses his artistry in the humblest way to do the biggest things. On the contrary, “intellectual” is too pompous for someone so plainspoken, and “visionary” too grandiose.  One can get a quick taste of what Conrad ruminates about by visiting the website for the UNPLAY Festival, a three-night event he organized using his Avery Fisher Career Grant and Gilmore Young Artist Award. In the WHY page, readers are assaulted by the question “What space does the musician occupy today?” Yeah, that is what he “thinks” about, dire problems faced by classical music.

It takes some real guts to ask that question, since it is such a sore spot in the classical music community. Attendance to classical concerts is becoming increasingly scarce, while Justin Bieber fills up sports stadiums to the brim with prepubescent youngsters without breaking a sweat. Conrad is fighting against the decline of classical music through his unique and thought-provoking concert programming. He said, “A concert is something more than just having a good time. I want to engage the audience and challenge them to change their thinking.” That statement underlies Conrad’s vision of a more passionately involved audience who reacts to the social commentary music can provide.

His goals were brilliantly articulated on the final night of his festival, themed Hi/r/stories. In his own words, Hi/r/stories “questions how history allows classical music to exert its power. Why is there currently a narrow conception of what classical music is for, among not only audiences, but also musicians and presenters?” His question is right on point. Classical music thrived in the 18th century, with giants like Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven all patronized by emperors and dukes. These powerful men had nothing to do other than wage war, walk in elegant gardens, and be dedicatees for historic compositions. But look at the modern industrialized society: On any Friday evening, in addition to that concert at Lincoln Center, one can go clubbing, see a Yankees game, watch Game of Thrones, or do homework (God forbid). Maybe the poor guy is too tired after eight hours of work to care!

Conrad is rethinking music’s role as a passive form of entertainment. Music has to evolve with society by being attuned to the fickle tastes of the modern audience, and he’s had those ideas since he was 10, on his appearance on From the Top’s 107th show in Tuscaloosa, Alabama: “I remember saying, ‘It’s 2004. We have cellphones and computers already, so we need some new music to go with that.’ I played my own composition on that show, and the support I got from the audience, in addition to From the Top doing such effective outreach, really inspired me to forge my own path and reach a wider audience.” He has come a long way since then. For UNPLAY, he compiled a very compelling narrative which heavily features the works of living composers, with guest artists who specialize in electronic and experimental music. In the program one can easily see the socially relevant compositions just by titles such as “Private Time,” “Violence,” “Endurance Test,” and “… like kites with no strings.

The first day of UNPLAY also ushered in Conrad’s debut album Voyages with EMI, which features works by Monk, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, and Tao himself. This album is a microcosm of his journey as a musician, and he hopes listeners can derive their own journeys by listening. The inspiration for this album conforms to his unique perspective as an artist: “The process of travel is oftentimes seen as linear, from A to B. For me, it is not about the beginning and the end, but the space in between; the process itself is meaningful.” At only 19, Conrad has only started his “voyage,” but it has already been riddled with milestones. With a bar so high, it is time for him to “think” about what he can possibly accomplish next.

To check out selections from his festival and debut CD, visit http://www.youtube.com/conradtao. For more information on Voyages, visit http://www.smarturl.it/ConradTaoVoyages.

From the Top Alum Nathan Chan Spreads the Gospel of Music

Nathan Chan, 19

 by Jingxuan Zhang, From the Top Alumni Correspondent

Talking with Nathan Chan is a jarring reminder that I can still have hope in humanity – all I hear about is love, acceptance, and community. And String Theory, a five-cello student ensemble Nathan founded in the autumn of 2011, is the fruit of that passion. An undergraduate studying in the prestigious joint program between Columbia University and The Juilliard School, 19-year-old Nathan Chan made his appearance on From the Top on Show 207 in Stanford, California in 2009. There are very few classical musicians willing to venture into the world of popular music, but in an age which has witnessed classical music’s losing steam to the mainstream, Nathan decided to reach a wider audience with String Theory’s innovative arrangements of hits such as “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Viva la Vida.”

Because String Theory performs works newly arranged by members of the group, the pieces do not find their final form from the start. Thus, all rehearsals demand creativity, flexibility, and teamwork, or as Nathan puts it, “verbal rearrangement.” To ensure the quality of music, they carefully engage with it by polishing the texture and refining musical layers during the run through, working and editing along the way. And the group’s commitment to the caliber of output is just a microcosm of its mission to engage more people and share their passion for music. Nathan says, “Playing [in String Theory] has taught me to be an open thinker in terms of being a musician. I’m beginning to understand what modern audiences are looking for and enhance classical music with that knowledge.”

Nathan embraces what are now perceived as different categories of music, transcending the boundaries between classical and popular: “We make it so that all kinds of music are accessible to as many people as possible, so that music becomes less exclusive, and more community-oriented.” And isn’t the exclusivity of classical music why popular music is, well, popular? Behind the formidable fence of concert halls and suited attires, the younger generation has been estranged from centuries of tradition. Nathan is actively trying to break down barriers and invite the modern audience into his world of music without losing musical integrity. On his YouTube page, one can see Bach cello suites juxtaposed to Coldplay or The Swan neighboring Libertango. This diversity allows the audiences who enjoy mainstream to expose themselves to classical and vice versa. For Nathan, his YouTube channel’s contents are not merely video recordings, but continuations of live performances, for they continue to give music and spread joy to those who want it, anytime. As he phrases it, “Social media is a key way to reaching out to as many people as possible.”

He has learned a lot in this journey, which in a way started with his appearance on From the Top: “What impressed me most is how From the Top emphasized that music is really a community, and one has to foster it.” And foster he has. Quickly becoming one of the most popular student ensembles at Columbia University, String Theory established itself as one of the best and most popular ensembles on campus, being invited to collaborate with various campus organizations and student composers. Nathan Chan and String Theory surely have earned their name as “Columbia University’s Premiere Cello Ensemble.”

For more information on Nathan, visit nathanchancello.com. Listen to his musical journey at youtube.com/nathanchancello. And finally, follow him at twitter.com/nathanchancello.

Update: Nathan recently performed on behalf of From the Top at two events in Aspen: an event hosted by From the Top radio sponsor U.S. Trust, Bank of America Private Wealth Management at the Aspen Ideas Festival; and a From the Top soiree in conjunction with a radio taping at the Aspen Music Festival and School.

But I Don’t Like to Write!

By Jingxuan Zhang

Since this is my first blog post upon the esteemed pages of the Green Room Blog, I thought it fitting to write about, well, writing. I hated it. There you go, the end… except not really: That was just a hook. I learned that particular technique in an SAT class, in addition to discovering my love for writing – who said love cannot be cultivated?


Jingxuan Zhang
Show 199: El Paso, Texas

To know Jing the writer, it is of utmost importance to know Jing the musician. My parents asked what instrument I wanted to play when I was five with the accordion in mind, in order to speed along the development of my intellect. To their financial despair, I stubbornly insisted on one of the two instruments I knew, “Piano!” So buy one they did, and thus started the lessons. I have come a long way from my first teacher in China who slapped my hand every time she found its position distasteful to my current professor at Juilliard. But no one wants to hear about such steadfast love. Where’s the Hollywood drama? In my case, maybe Bollywood would be more appropriate.

Compared to my deep obsession with music, my relationship with writing was like a lukewarm arranged marriage. It all started in ninth grade, when the SATs loomed overhead for all students diligent, Asian, or otherwise. For a Chinese student like me, one can safely assume that the parents would meddle copiously in the SATs. As a burgeoning pianist who studied with a much sought-after professor at Jacobs School of Music in Indiana University’s precollege program, I did not even consider an academic career path. That was particularly difficult when fantastic visions of performing in Carnegie Hall thrashing about like Lang Lang played through one’s thoughts like a film reel. My parents, though, were more realistic, for they knew that the combination of skill and serendipity necessary for breakthrough is too risky without a backup, which defaulted to academics excellence. Do not think for one single moment that I was a slouch in high school. To list all my accomplishments would be impossibly futile; however, a quick synopsis is manageable: I graduated sixteenth in a class of over a thousand students, a record that can almost guarantee placement in any college I wanted when combined with the slew of honors under my belt as a musician.

My dear parents just wanted to secure my place at the top, so when they heard from an acquaintance at the end of ninth grade that a certain Dr. Zhang who taught a weekly SAT class helped his daughter get into Duke University, they suffered through oceans of fire and various other hardships to get me signed up. I was not too pleased with the arrangement, since the weekend classes took precious time away from the keyboard. Furthermore, this awkward ménage a trois I caught myself in between music and writing was not exactly morally upright.

As expected, Dr. Zhang loved me. I was almost legendary in the Asian community, with my accolades disseminated like wildfire among parents as the paragon of excellence. But that did not stop him from abhorring my writing. I still remember his utter condemnation, “This is childish.” I could not say I was particularly distraught, as I did not care much about writing, but that he found in me some imperfection irked me to no end. Dr. Zhang was no fool. He knew I did not care about writing; however, he also knew my weakness: music. Under his guidance, I insidiously began to realize the parallels between the arts of writing and music. The correlation was so blatant that it shamed me to not have noticed earlier. Words and sentences are like the notes and phrases of music. The theme of an essay is like the harmonies that holds the music together. Finally, the same meticulous attention to detail a writer must practice, all the while without losing sight of the “whole picture,” ignited my love for this art.

I was exposed to From the Top when I played on Show 199 in El Paso, Texas, as a Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist the summer after ninth grade. Ironically, fate has brought things full circle. Having discovered this show and writing concurrently, with love and hate respectively, I am now honored to unite them as the new Summer Contributor to the Green Room. Ultimately, I have derived an important life lesson from this journey: a relationship with both music and writing is not necessarily a ménage a trois.

Catching Up with Alex McDonald After the Cliburn

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.

Alex McDonald (Photo: The Cliburn/Ralph Lauer)

Alex McDonald
(Photo: The Cliburn/Ralph Lauer)

(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.

Alum Sean Chen Takes Third in Van Cliburn Competition

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. 

Sean Chen celebrates his Crystal Award with his Cliburn host family.

Sean Chen celebrates his Crystal Award with his Cliburn host family.

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.

Eric Zuber and the Cliburn

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. 

Eric Zuber, 28 Photo: The Cliburn/Ralph Lauer

Eric Zuber, 28
Photo: The Cliburn/Ralph Lauer

(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.

Alum Sean Chen Advances to the Cliburn Finals

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.

by Nick Romeo

Sean Chen, 24, with the Brentano Quartet Photo: The Cliburn/Ralph Lauer

Sean Chen, 24, with the Brentano Quartet
Photo: The Cliburn/Ralph Lauer

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.

Steven Lin: Life After (But Still During) The Cliburn

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.

by Nick Romeo

Steven Lin, 24 Photo: The Cliburn/Ralph Lauer

Steven Lin, 24
Photo: The Cliburn/Ralph Lauer

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.”

Nick Romeo’s most recent book is Driven: Six Incredible Musical Journeys. Read more at www.nickromeoauthor.com.

From the Cliburn: Catching up with Lindsay Garritson

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 competes at the Cliburn

Lindsay Garritson competes at the Cliburn. Photo: The Cliburn/Ralph Lauer

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.”


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