Getting To Know Clayton Stephenson, 2022 Gilmore Young Artist
January 17, 2023
Clayton Stephenson took some time out of a rare day of rest to talk with us about his flourishing concert career, and his pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in economics from Harvard and a master’s in piano performance from the New England Conservatory.
What are you working on musically right now?
Mozart’s 23rd, Beethoven’s Appassionata, and Scriabin’s Fourth Sonata (the latter two are on his Gilmore program Feb. 5). I’m also enjoying and learning more jazz pieces, including Art Tatum’s Tea for Two (also on the Feb. 5 program). It’s quite challenging to figure out the way Tatum plans those fast runs, but that’s a piece I have always wanted to play.
I like learning new stuff. You start to see connections between things you’ve learned before. I just played Rachmaninoff’s 2nd in October and after that some Tchaikovsky, and I immediately saw there were a lot of similar passages technically and harmonically, so I am seeing how everything is all connected.
Tell us about balancing school and performing
Right now, I’m at the New England Conservatory full time, so I’m completing the second semester of my master’s degree. Next semester I will be going back to Harvard, so I will be doing both economics and music. I’m performing every 6-8 weeks, so it’s definitely a balancing act.
Besides The Gilmore, where are you looking forward to performing this year?
I will be in Lansing in June (followed by a date at the Cheboygan Opera House up north) premiering a commissioned concerto, The Fourth Pedal, by Patrick Harlin, the composer in residence with the Lansing Symphony Orchestra.
I had him as a substitute instructor when my teacher was on sabbatical, and I asked him whether I should be listening only to classical music, and he said no. He told me ‘anything you listen to will add to your capabilities.’ So I listen to a lot of different genres — that’s one thing I pride myself on, trying to collect all the music I find appealing. And of course you like different music at different points of your life. I listen to hip hop, R&B, jazz, Chinese pop, even metal hard rock. It’s always interesting to hear different people’s ideas of how to express emotions.
Is there a highlight of the past year that has nothing to do with music?
I have taken up cooking a little bit, as I’ve had to live in NEC dorms but didn’t want to subscribe to the dining plan.
Have you learned something new in the past year about performing or preparing to perform?
I definitely learned so much in the last year, especially at the Cliburn Competition about what it’s like to perform multiple times in a short period of time. I would break it down to things I’ve learned about practicing and things I’ve learned about mental preparation.
A big challenge for me before is always how to prepare for a performance, and I’m curious about what other pianists do before they perform to play so well. I asked Professor Gerstein, (Kirill, 2010 Gilmore Artist) and he said ‘it’s different every time.’ So that made me feel better, and it really is different every time.
While Clayton Stephenson’s February 5 concert is sold out, you can still listen to the livestream through our website or by visiting our YouTube channel. You can also bring the kids or grandkids to his free Baby Grands performance at Battle Creek’s Willard Library on Saturday, Feb. 4 at 11 AM.