Comeback Performance | Beaufort County Now | Piano festival brings students, guest artists to campus

Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)
Publisher's Note: This post appears here courtesy of ECU News Services. The author of this post is Crystal Baity.

Michelle Cann of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia gives feedback to music major Jeremy Becker during the East Carolina Piano Festival. | Photos: Rhett Butler

    Performance is making a comeback at the East Carolina Piano Festival.

    The festival has returned to East Carolina University's School of Music for the first time since the pandemic canceled 2020's program.

    Talented young pianists age 12 to 26 — from middle school to doctoral students — are learning one-on-one and in small group settings from internationally acclaimed guest artists and ECU piano faculty members. Ticketed virtual concerts, available to the public via live stream, will be performed.

    "It's really special that we can do this with safety measures in place, and that it's possible this year," said Keiko Sekino, professor of piano and director of the festival.

Cann works with a student pianist at the East Carolina Piano Festival.
    On Tuesday, guest artist Michelle Cann, who is a piano faculty member at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, led a master class in Fletcher Recital Hall.

    For many students, this week marks the first time they are playing pieces and their first in-person performances in more than a year. "Most of us started when we were 9 or 10, with concerts, competitions and multiple opportunities to play throughout the year," Cann said. "We never, ever went this long without playing in front of a group of people."

    Getting back on stage for an audience after months of solitary rehearsals can be scary and uncomfortable, which Cann experienced recently at an in-person solo concert. "All the eyes are on you and the attention is on you," she said.

    The festival gives students a small, supportive environment to grow as musicians and performers, Cann said. "My role is to inspire them but also to be supportive and positive — now more than any other time in this new normal," she said.

    Of the 20 students, three are attending remotely. One of the master classes is being taught online by an instructor in Helsinki — a first for the festival, which started in 2018. "We can have guest artists from anywhere if master classes are online; they don't have to be in flying distance or driving distance. They can be from anywhere in the world," Sekino said.

    For students, learning from multiple acclaimed musicians in an eight-day span is an amazing opportunity. They also enjoy the sense of community, meeting other musicians and making new friends.

    "It's great to have so many different perspectives and people that you're learning from because normally you might have two teachers throughout the year," said Will Aarons, 19, of Raleigh, a rising freshman at Yale University. "It's really great to come away with so many new ideas, and also having gotten to perform the pieces, I feel like it will feel really different going back home, practicing and revisiting them with new inspiration and new options for what you want to express and go forward with the music."

    Anna Bray, 13, a rising ninth grader from Sterling, Virginia, is attending the festival for the second time. The program has provided a change of pace from her regular studio, where it's just her and her teacher.

    "Meeting people and musicians that are around my age, playing piano and loving it, is really meaningful for me. It definitely spurs me on, hearing new pieces, hearing new interpretations, and new ideas. Being able to have a lot of lessons, and getting fresh perspective on your pieces is really nice," Bray said. "I feel like it's more meaningful after being a year on Zoom. It's made me realize how important it is to play for people, just having an audience."

    While Aarons has played virtually and in a few in-person studio recitals during the past year, playing in Fletcher for an audience of student classmates and faculty members brings a different dynamic.

    "Anytime that you play on a concert grand, things just sound and feel really different, and reacting to the space, I think, can teach you a lot about the music," he said. "And I always feel like I learn or notice things about the pieces I'm playing that I hadn't before in a live performance, which is awesome."
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