Backstage mom lends hand at Cliburn competition

Saturday, June 9, 2001

— Stanislav Ioudenitch, one of six finalists in the 11th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, occasionally slips his hands into his jacket pockets for a few seconds during performances.

It's a curious gesture, and it's caused no end of speculation among audience members. What's going on? Nerves? Good luck charm? Handkerchief?

"It's to warm the hands," explained the 29-year-old Uzbekistan native who hopes his hands will take him all the way to the gold medal when the internationally famous piano contest ends Sunday night.

"The important thing is to keep them warm and dry."

Ioudenitch is perhaps understandably concerned about his hands: Four years ago, just before Cliburn semifinals, he severely scalded his left hand while brewing tea.

But every young pianist's future is at his or her fingertips.

"Absolutely, hands are how you make the music," said Louise Canafax, the official Cliburn backstage mother. A musician herself � viola � Canafax supplies contestants with everything from hot towels, lotion and Band-Aids to fruit juice, chocolate bars and hugs.

Some performers here seem sometimes surprisingly casual about their hands. "I am amazed some do not take better care," she said. "They lift heavy piano benches."

A few performers deliberately ignore their hands.

"Paranoia about the hands is psychologically more dangerous than doing nothing," said Andrew Russo, who was eliminated after the preliminary rounds. "If you're concerned about your hands all the time, something is likely to happen to them."

But most competitors give their hands what, for anyone else, might be considered fetish-like attention.

Finalist Oleksiy Koltakov practices with his fingers wrapped in tape. "We have to remember to remove it," said Canafax.

Canafax anticipates from the earliest stage of the competition what each competitor will need.

"Some of the contestants have cold hands," she said. "I try to learn which have a 'cold' nature and which have a 'warm' nature when they first come in to choose their pianos. We shake hands and I watch to see how they react."

Usually, she said, pianists tell her their needs. Ioudenitch brought a hair dryer � not for his hair but for his fingers. "During the semifinals, he would come offstage and call for his hair dryer," Canafax said.

Canafax keeps an arsenal of hand-care weapons at the ready: Gloves, Band-Aids, nail clippers, emery boards, hand-warmers, baby powder, a heating pad.

"I try these little Hot Hands, they call them. They're some kind of little chemical packet, if you shake them they become warm."

Then there is the crockpot.

During a discussion of the cold hand problem, she said, one of the stagehands remembered an old crockpot backstage. Now it stands ready during performances, filled with hot moist towels like the airlines hand out to passengers.

"They're from Harrigan's in Fort Worth," Canafax said. "They gave us 200 of their dinner napkins. We roll these up and make little tubes out of them."