Harvard graduation is next on the itinerary for a 2022 Cliburn finalist. What then?
By Scott Nishimura
Clayton Stephenson — a finalist in the Sixteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2022 and a competitor in the 2015 inaugural Cliburn Junior for teens — today is completing a dual-degree program at Harvard University and the New England Conservatory. Having already earned his master’s in piano performance at the conservatory, which he finished early to prep for the Cliburn, Stephenson is graduating in May with a bachelor’s from Harvard, majoring in economics. Stephenson, now 24, grew up in the New York borough of Brooklyn and started piano lessons at 7. He was accepted into the Juilliard Music Advancement Program for underprivileged children the next year and advanced to the school’s Pre-College at 10, with help from a teacher who gave him numerous extra lessons without charge. He remained there through high school. Stephenson practiced on a synthesizer at home until he found an upright that an elementary school discarded on the street. He practiced on that for six years, until the Lang Lang International Music Foundation gave him a new piano at 17. What’s next? Stephenson, who was in Fort Worth in mid-April to perform at a private dinner for Bass Hall’s 25th Anniversary, sat down for a Q&A with 360West.
360West: Tell us how you found music. Or did music find you?
Stephenson: The story I like to tell is my mom — she was a single mom — was trying to find a babysitter. She was looking at babysitter prices, and she saw that a babysitter was $25 or $20 an hour. And the piano teacher at this school was $5 more. So, for an extra $5, she said why not. The first teacher I had there let me start by playing pieces I loved. For me, even playing “The Happy Farmer” or Mary Had a Little Lamb was enough. I developed a love for the music before I really could play it. From there, it’s not only your passion that allows you to kind of grow, but it’s also your resources in your environment. Fortunately, I am lucky to live in New York, which has so many social and community programs which allow people like me who don’t have much money to embark on this career, which requires tons of money.
360West: What do you want to do next?
Stephenson: I’m not very sure yet. I obviously know I want music to be involved. From there, the decision for me is what kind of impact I want to make with my music or what message I want to spread. One of the things that has had a very big impact on me is just the value of other peoples’ help in making what I want to do possible. And so, I feel in debt to those community programs that helped me along the way. So I would like to do something similar with my music to give the joy of learning music or listening to music to people who don’t really have that opportunity.
360West: Do you see a connection between economics and music?
Stephenson: For me, it’s interesting that music is this ethereal thing and we try to search for perfection in it, but these musicians and composers were also living in a real material world. They were struggling to make a living. How did they react to it? They had to create pieces to survive. History is very important to understanding the lives of these people we’re playing and understanding the events in that period which made them create the pieces they created. One of my mentors told me something I will always remember. Science and technology and politics are always at the forefront of society. Arts always lags behind the current times, because it is a reaction to what’s happened.