Where does a pianist go when he needs a hug, or she loses the heel on her shoe? At the Van Cliburn competition, everybody knows the answer: they look for the “Mom” backstage.
For the past five competitions, the Cliburn’s backstage mother was Louise Canafax, an elegant musician and teacher who had been involved with the competition since the beginning (when she played viola in the orchestra). “If you went to a competitors’ party with Louise, she was a rock star,” says Pat Lorimer, former volunteer coordinator with the Cliburn. “She was so beloved. They would rush off the stage straight to her—it was such an interesting bond.”
But Louise Canafax passed away in March after a short illness. Cliburn veterans flocked to her funeral at First Methodist in Fort Worth—among them many musicians and Cliburn competitors she’d kept in touch with over the years. And her job is being passed along to her longtime assistant Kathie Cummins.
“It was such a shock when she was diagnosed with cancer last fall,” Cummins says. “And it will be very sad and strange not to have Louise here. She was my fourth, fifth and sixth grade teacher in the 1950s at Westcliff Elementary in Fort Worth. It was her first teaching job, and Fax, her husband then, liked me too, so I sort of became their kid forever.” Just as Louise herself was recruited by one of the first backstage mothers, Ettie Maud Smith, Cummins got a call from Louise, who was looking for a sidekick to help her during the 2001 competition.
What does the backstage mother do? Cummins, and Louise’s longtime friend Jan Green, gave us a list of items she had at the ready: juices, hot water for tea, fruit and cookies, safety pins, needles and thread, soft linen or paper napkins, combs and brushes, aspirin, bandages, and gloves—white gloves for the stage hands moving the pianos, and thick, soft gloves for a pianist’s cold hands.
“And a heating pad, always,” says Cummins. “You’d be surprised how often competitors would pick it up and warm their hands for a few moments.”
But Canafax didn’t just pass out cookies and juice. She was, says Pat Lorimer, “that calm hand in those tense moments.” It was part of her job to know what the pianists (she called them “little geniuses” in a 2009 interview) needed in those last moments before they walked onstage: a few words, or silence; a pat on the hand, or just a smile. “Louise had a marvelous, nurturing personality,” says Cummins. “Somehow, she could let the competitors know that if they wanted to talk, they’d talk—but she’d leave them alone, too, if that was what they needed.” She was a musician herself, and knew what it was like to walk out into the spotlight.
Canafax’s most famous sewing job (of many) came in the final round of the 2001 competition, when one of the straps of Olga Kern’s legendary "red dress” came off just before her performance began.
“Louise and I both jumped to fix it,” remembered Cummins, “but Louise sewed it on, and she must have sewed it on pretty well, because it stayed put—and Olga Kern tied for the gold.”
Another of this backstage team’s duties is to help the competitors choose a piano for the competition.
“Louise would have a timer, and I had a tape measure,” says Cummins. “She would explain they had three minutes to play the three pianos and to pick one. My role was to measure the bench height. She was super friendly, but if they kept playing after that timer went off, she’d very gently let them know it was time to choose.”
Will Cummins change anything about Louise’s routine backstage? Not likely, she says. But there may be a style adjustment.
“Louise and I had a good time,” she says with a laugh. “We used to joke that she was the backstage mother, and I was the backstage ‘mutha’.” But the soothing, I’m-here-for-you mother role is one she’s excited to fill. Like Canafax, Cummins has a music background and has sung with choirs and Fort Worth’s choral ensemble Scola Cantorum of Texas. And like Louise, she’s relying for help on a younger friend with a music background—Maria Harmon, who will be Cummins’ assistant for the competition.
Louise’s friend (and running buddy) Green says Canafax “would have kept on doing it” forever, if she could. “Meeting and nurturing those pianists was a high point of her life.” Watching Louise backstage calming down a nervous competitor, or rejoicing after a fine performance, says Lorimer, was like watching “a ballet.” The Cliburn backstage mother will be there for this year’s competitors, ready and waiting—but Louise Canafax will be sorely missed.
◊ Jan Farrington is a writer and editor based in Fort Worth. Look for her to contribute many features during our coverage of the Fourteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.