Cliburn’s ‘backstage mom’ tends to pianists’ every need

06/04/2013 6:49 AM

11/12/2014 2:48 PM

It’s Tuesday night, and backstage in Bass Hall, American pianist Lindsay Garritson is feeling a chill just minutes before walking onto stage for her second preliminary solo recital of the Cliburn Competition.

Kathie Cummins, the “backstage mother,” quickly comes to the rescue, offering Garritson a heating pad with which to warm her hands and a blanket to drape around her exposed shoulders.

“I’ve been sitting on it, so it’s already warmed up,” Cummins tells her.

Garritson requests to sit behind one of the backstage concert grands and mimic a passage or two from her upcoming performance, and Cummins immediately guides her to one of the pianos. Because Garritson’s curtain time is fast approaching, Cummins hovers politely nearby, ready to prompt Garritson to plant herself at the stage entrance.

When Cummins indicates it’s time, Garritson gives up the blanket shawl, places her hands in the hand-warmer for one last toasty touch-up, takes a last swig of water provided by Cummins, and then — after a final encouraging pat on the arm from the backstage mom — the pianist walks onto the stage.

Cummins’ last invisible touch is to start the first bit of clapping, immediately inducing the audience to begin their applause.

When Garritson comes off stage at the end of her performance, she grabs a quick celebratory chocolate from Cummins’ table before gliding back to the practice area.

Providing a volunteer “mom” to help relax, guide and tend to the competitors behind the stage is a long trandition of the Cliburn competition.

Cummins, who celebrated her 69th birthday during the preliminary round, is working her first Cliburn as the chief backstage mother, but the territory is not at all unfamiliar. The Fort Worth native had previously been an assistant backstage mother on every Cliburn (including the amateur competitions) since 2001 — all as the right-hand woman to Louise Canafax, a long-serving, beloved backstage mom who passed away this year.

Cummins had known Canafax practically her whole life, as Canafax was her fourth-grade teacher at Westcliff Elementary School.

“It was Louise who first taught me how to draw the notes on the treble clef and write our own words to songs,” she says.

After Canafax’ death earlier this year, Cummins volunteered to become the chief backstage mother for the impending competition.

“Kathie was not only familiar with the way that Louise did everything backstage but Kathie’s personality is such that she never met a stranger,” says Carla Thompson, chairman of the Cliburn Foundation. “She is so friendly and, also as a musician herself, she understands so well what goes on. She understands the players’ need for privacy, or for a warm hand and heart.”

Having majored in general music studies at Colorado College in 1962, Cummins has taught elementary school music, sung in the Fort Worth Opera Chorus and in the well-respected chorus Schola Cantorum.

Her duties as backstage mom started even before the first notes of the competition were struck. She learned all the pianists’ faces and names (including pronunciations) when they arrived at Bass Hall to pick the pianos on which they would play two weeks ago. Since then, she has establishd a different rapport with each of them.

“I can’t tell you how much I’m enjoying myself,” Cummins says. “It’s because I realize there is only one person who gets to do what I’m doing, to be in such a neat position backstage — I so treasure this.”

Keeping things running

Backstage at the Cliburn is an eco-system unto itself, invisible to even the front-row audience members. In this highly controlled environment, the backstage mother is ultimately responsible for a military-like coordination of performer and stage.

This includes the punctual movement of the player from dressing room to backstage; from backstage to stage; from stage to backstage; and from backstage back to dressing room. All of it must work like a Swiss timepiece — while not intruding on the player’s need for pre-performance calm and order.

“Louise treated all the competitors as if they were her children,” Cummins says. “I don’t consider them my children. Instead, I consider it my backstage mother’s job to make the competitors feel totally relaxed. My goal is to make life as easy for them before they have to take that stage. Back here, they have to feel they are the most important person on earth.”

Seated on a swivel chair only feet from the Hall’s stage right entrance, the backstage mother’s domain is dominated by the eight-foot-long supply table, stocked by Cummins and her chief assistant, Maria Harman, to be, essentially, a portable Walgreens available to the players.

Its inventory includes Tylenol, Aleve, Miralax, Band-Aids, Mucinex, Cepacol lozenges, an ace-bandage, hydrogen peroxide, dental floss, deodorant, eye drops, rubbing alcohol, cotton balls, a sewing kit for wardrobe malfunctions, a lint-remover, combs, a nail clipper and a highly efficient eye-glass repair kit.

Another basket contains such snacks as bananas, oranges, grapes, tea, peanuts, Ritz crackers and miniature Milky Ways, Three Musketeers, and Hershey’s chocolates.

Given the often Arctic-chill backstage, Cummins reports that the favorite pre-performance item for the players is the heating pad.

“Everybody just loves that heating pad,” she says. “It’s the greatest.”

As for the pre- and post-performance noshes, she reports that most competitors reach for a handful of red grapes or a piece of chocolate.

Adressing pianists’ needs

A few days into the competition, Cummins and Harman have their routine down pat. At 10 minutes before a performer is set to go on, Harman goes off to bring the next player from his or her practice room backstage.

During the 60-recital preliminary round, in many cases there were just five minutes between performances, so often the competitors would greet each other as they entered and left the backstge area.

Once the contestant arrives to Cummins’ area, she subtly assesses what his or her needs are. By this time, Cummins has already catalogued the players’ backstage tendencies so she knows who will want to chat and who will not. She knows the pacers from the ones who fidget in one place.

“You can kind of tell who wants to pace by themselves and who wants some kind of chit-chat,” Cummins says. “I’ve found it is better to let them set the pace. I tend to love to talk, and I don’t want to do that at the wrong time.”

Before Vadym Kholodenko approaches Cummins’ area, she brushes up on his bio. Kholodenko begins to drift to the darker corners of back stage, pacing back and forth, with hands clasped behind his back.

“I don’t want to bug him in any way,” Cummins whispers. “I will make as little conversation with him as possible because he’s clearly a pacer.”

Cummins also asks the performers before they go on whether they will be coming off stage between pieces so that she can be ready with more water and another fresh towel to dab away perspiration.

“The guys are usually dripping with sweat when they come off,” she says. “The ladies, as you know, never sweat. They just glow.”

Once the performer is done, Cummins is the first to greet him or her — again with her trusty water and towel, and occasionally with a little supportive quip — “Oh, I think they liked you” is a popular one.

On the day Cummins celebrated her birthday, numerous competitors wished her a happy birthday, but one in particular, Ukrainian Oleksandr Poliykov, went the extra mile and hand-delivered his own personal bouquet of a half-dozen roses to Cummins.

“That was so nice of him to do that,” she says. “But I must say that I am very aware of showing no partiality towards any one of the competitors. I want to treat them all the same because I want them all to know that I’m rooting equally for each of them to do their best.”

And on that note of equanimity, Cummins, hearing a performer’s final crescendo of his last piece, rises to her feet, grabs the water and the towel, and takes her customary place in the wings.

From there, this backstage mom waits to greet yet another of her Cliburn kids.

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