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Art&Seek Q&A: Cliburn Backstage Mother Louise Canafax

by Stephen Becker 4 Jun 2009 7:01 AM

If it has happened at the Cliburn Competition, Louise Canafax has seen it. The Fort Worth resident has been apart of all 13 competitions, from playing the viola in the orchestra to her most prominent role – the backstage mother.


For coverage of the Cliburn Competition finals, visit the Art&Seek blog.

If it has happened at the Cliburn Competition, Louise Canafax has seen it. The Fort Worth resident has been apart of all 13 competitions, from playing the viola in the orchestra to her most prominent role – the backstage mother. She’s the last person the competitors interact with before hitting the stage, and she takes it upon herself to make sure that they receive the best care they can in those moments before the biggest recitals of their lives. “We’re there to assist them how they need us,” she says. “And they set the stage, I don’t. Talkative, silent, whatever.” During an interview inside Bass Hall a few days before the preliminary round began, Canafax pulled back the curtain (literally) on what it means to be the backstage mother as part of this week’s Art&Seek Q&A:

Art&Seek: So how did you get involved with the Cliburn Competition in the first place?

Louise Canafax: You’d have to go back to the first competition, because I actually was in the orchestra for the first competition. … There was a little lady who absolutely was just the best backstage mother. She’d been a friend of mine for many years. Her name was Ettie Maud Smith. She had mentioned to me a year or so before the next Cliburn that she needed help backstage. It was really exhausting and she was getting up in years. So she said, “Louise, will you help me?” And I said, “Of course.” Well, about a year before the competition, she called me. I was actually playing with the New Hampshire Music Festival, and she called me up there and said, “Now, Louise, remember, you said that you would help me backstage.” I said, “Fine, but Ettie Maud, you need to tell me what to do.” And I could see her face over the telephone. She said, “Louise, you know exactly what it feels like to walk out onstage, so I don’t have to train you.” So that was a good introduction.

A&S: When the recitals are going on and you are backstage, what are your responsibilities?

L.C.: To make the competitor as comfortable as possible. I have a television screen backstage, and I watch them constantly. Last competition, just as soon as we started, this beautiful young lady broke a strap. She came off stage and said, “It broke!” Well, that’s where all my supplies come into process. We fixed her strap, and she went out and played very, very well. But what if there was nobody backstage to help her?

A&S: You have a table full of supplies back there. What sort of things do you always have on hand?

L.C.: The list is quite extensive. As far as medical supplies, we have everything from band aids to – well, anything they would need on a moments notice. And we’ve learned that sometimes here at Bass Hall, other people need help. One of the piano technicians got a big splinter in his hand. So, he came to mother, and we got it out.

A&S: Have there been competitors over the years that you’ve kept in touch with?

L.C.: Absolutely so. And that’s one of the beauties of knowing these little geniuses – I get to hear them play other places as well as here in Fort Worth. When they come to town, sometimes we get together. I love keeping up with them, and they’re so nice to me, without exception. Well, maybe a few exceptions. No, they’re all nice to me. But some of them we have to calm down a little bit.

A&S.: So do you have any tried and true methods for calming nerves?

L.C.: No – not tried and true. There’s not a formula for anything. We have to be ready for anything that happens. It’s just a matter of making sure that they are comfortable – whether they are giving me their wallets, their coats. Some of them have a routine, and I try to write down what their routine is, so that if they want to sit and roll up their gloves and do it a certain way, I’m aware of that. But I take my cues from them.

A&S: Do you ever recall having a competitor that said they were so nervous that they didn’t want to perform?

L.C.: Oh yes, we’ve had that, too! Years ago, we had one who wanted to leave the stage, and she didn’t want to come back. But at that point we called her host family and Richard Rodzinski, and I love what he did. And that was, he said, “If you don’t finish your program, you will always regret it.” And she went out and played beautifully. But she was just so nervous – she didn’t think she could do it.

The Art&Seek Q&A is a weekly discussion with a person involved in the arts in North Texas. Check back next Thursday for another installment.

  • nmlhats

    Loved this Q & A, and no matter how many times I’ve seen Louise featured in a story over the years, reading about her experiences and duties always makes me smile. Each interview brings out a new detail. Louise is a wonderful example of the extra, and dare I say, loving, care that the Cliburn provides its competitors, with the host families being the other. These are the kinds of things that set it apart from other competitions, in addition to the caliber of performers and jury members. The Cliburn is lucky to have her, and I wonder who she’ll get to help backstage when she herself “gets on in years”. That person will have some HUGE shoes to fill!!

    I would love to do it but I want to claim that I’m not old enough for the job (even though I AM old enough to be their mother).

    • Ho

      Dear Mother,

      Can you lend Nobu Tsujii a pair of dark sunglasses before he comes on stage? If Evgeni Bozhanov can do an imitation of Jim Carrey in “Liar Liar” and “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective”, we need Tsujii to give him a run for the money. This is a competition, remember ūüôā

      Also, can you get Ray Charles to Bass Hall and see what he thinks about Tsujii.