Pianist Tries Cliburn After Glass. Not That Glass.

The Van Cliburn Foundation's Fifth annual International Competition for Outstanding Amateurs is underway this week. NPR's John Ydstie talks to one of the semifinalists, 46-year-old Greg Fisher, a former child prodigy who has worked at his family's glass and mirror installation company in Edmond, Okla., for the past 30 years.

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(Soundbite of "Rachmaninoff Prelude")

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

Some of the world's most gifted musicians are gathered in Forth Worth, Texas, for the Fifth Annual Van Cliburn Foundation's International Competition for Outstanding Amateurs. The only requirements, besides talent, are that competitors must be over 35 and not make their living performing or teaching music.

(Soundbite of music)

YDSTIE: We're listening to Greg Fisher, one of this year's semi-finalists. He joins us from radio station KTCU in Forth Worth. Welcome to the program.

Mr. GREG FISHER (Pianist): Thank you very much for having me.

YDSTIE: First of all, congratulations on making the semi-finals, which end this afternoon. I actually understand you changed your music program right before you went on stage in Tuesday night's round of the competition. Why did you do that? That would seem to be very nerve-wracking.

Mr. FISHER: It was very nerve-wracking. I thought, well, there's a couple of pieces that are very old, very familiar to me that I feel a lot more comfortable about playing than what was originally programmed.

YDSTIE: And what did you decide to play?

Mr. FISHER: Well, I started with a little piece from "Kreisleriana". That's Robert Schumann, and the "Sehr Langsam", which is number six and then continue with Rachmaninoff "Prelude", which we opened with here, and that was the "Opus 32 Number 12 in G Sharp Minor". And then finally, I played the piece I played when I was 12 years old, which was the concerterian(ph) toccata.

(Soundbite of music)

YDSTIE: You know, I understand when you were introduced on Tuesday night, the announcer said that yours was a story of miracles and that you're a walking, talking example of how music can heal. Can you tell us about that? Tell us a little of your life story.

Mr. FISHER: Well, it definitely healed me or, at least, helped me stay in the right direction. Back in - about '94, I was a bit of an abuser of a controlled dangerous substance, which eventually within about a year, everything I had dear to me, including a Steinway piano was lost to it in paying the bills.

YDSTIE: You had to steal for your habit?

Mr. FISHER: I did. So it actually landed me up to a little bit of stint in a rehab of sorts.

YDSTIE: I understand you actually ended up in prison.

Mr. FISHER: Oh, yes. I was locked up for 20 months, and then I came out and decided, well, I'd go back to our family business, which is a glass shop, and I needed something more to stay out of trouble. I wanted something that would hopefully appeal to my heart as well because I think that life is partly doing something that you love to do.

And my ex-piano teacher persuaded me to go back into music, and at least, start taking lessons, start playing again. And I realized that a lot of the life that I led before my downfall was because I had given up that part of me. I wasn't playing. I wasn't listening. I wasn't doing anything. And so I thought I'd start back on piano, and that is what keeps my sanity. That what keeps my motivation, and now it keeps my heart fulfilled.

(Soundbite of music)

YDSTIE: Greg, what do you think about or experience when you're at the piano in this competitions?

Mr. FISHER: Richard Rosenwig(ph), the executive director, kind of told me I should tone down. And one of my serious problems is that I don't get up on stage enough, and I had so much inside of me bottled up and needs to come out in my music. And a lot of times, I just go overboard because I want to share all this free-falling emotion from barbarianism, like the concerterian toccata to almost insanity with the Schumann "Sehr Langsam" from "Kreisleriana". I just want to share it all.

(Soundbite of music)

YDSTIE: Reading your bio, it sounds like you were a piano prodigy. You started lessons when you were eight. By the time you were 11, you'd won a full scholarship to the Wisconsin College Conservatory. Did you assume you'd play professionally?

Mr. FISHER: My teacher in Wisconsin assumed that. Unfortunately, some family problems occurred and we actually moved to Oklahoma when I was 14 years old. And she asked me if I could stay with her and live in her house and get ready to go Julliard - either Julliard or Peabody. And my parents decided that that probably wasn't in the cards for me. They wanted, you know, family to stay with family, so we all moved to Oklahoma.

YDSTIE: That's a difficult choice leaving your family member with a mentor or bringing them along.

Mr. FISHER: My mother still kind of regrets the decision, in same respect loves her decision.

YDSTIE: In fact, now, by day, you work at your family's glass instillation business in Edmond, Oklahoma.

Mr. FISHER: That is correct. Yes.

YDSTIE: How long have you been doing that?

Mr. FISHER: Since we opened the shop, since I was 17 years old. So we're, like, 33 years old.

YDSTIE: I would think that it might be a hazardous job for pianist.

Mr. FISHER: Our glass man that doesn't get cut daily either didn't show up for work or show up for work and then do a darn thing.

YDSTIE: So your hands have bandages on them, huh?

Mr. FISHER: Right now, I'm kind of nursing injury, which is at the very tip of my thumb, so it hurts like a dickens(ph) just to play the piano right now, but I've got to practice.

YDSTIE: Yeah, I guess you do.

Mr. FISHER: You work through the pain.

YDSTIE: Do you get blood on your keys?

Mr. FISHER: Actually, I do. Yeah, I was worried about in a preliminary because I didn't think I'd open up the cut, but just before going up on stage, I was playing the (unintelligible), very masculine we would say, and it kind of open up the cut, and that was in a warm up room.

I had 15 minutes to go on stage, and I was worried that they would have to clean off the keys when I was done, but it didn't bleed too much, just a little bit. In fact, you know, I want to be taken seriously, and being a blue collar, it's hard to get taken seriously in a white-collar world. So part of me tries to keep that almost a hush-hush deal. So I don't like to tell…

YDSTIE: That's interesting.

Mr. FISHER: …that I'm kind of cut all the time and…

YDSTIE: Are you unusual in that way in this crowd?

Mr. FISHER: I think I'm pretty - yeah, I'm pretty unusual.

YDSTIE: This is actually your fifth appearance at the Van Cliburn competition and you were also a semi-finalist in 1999.

Mr. FISHER: The first competition where I met my wife, yes.

YDSTIE: She's a performer too?

Mr. FISHER: Yes, absolutely. She's been here four times. I asked her - we were married less than a year after we did that first competition. And every time we came here for three consecutive times, she kept beating me. She'd go to semi-finals, and I'd stayed back in the preliminaries and get lost.

So I thought this time, I asked her very nicely and politely, Mill(ph), would you please stay home and not compete against me, so I have at least a little bit of a chance to go to the next round? And she agreed to be much (unintelligible) earlier this time.

YDSTIE: Well, that was very nice of her. Do you think that you or other amateurs enjoy making music more because it's not the way you earn your living?

Mr. FISHER: I think we're released from trying to prove something because we're really successful in our own lives, whatever that means to the person. So the music is more for music's sake, for the communication sake. It's not to prove that I'm a great pianist or that I deserve a recording contract or any of that. We're not in that for that. We're in just to share some of the most beautiful music ever written for the piano.

(Soundbite of music)

YDSTIE: Greg Fisher, thanks very much and good luck to you.

Mr. FISHER: Thank you very much.

YDSTIE: Greg Fisher will perform at today's semi-finals in the Van Cliburn Foundation's International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs. The finals are Sunday afternoon and the winners will be announced Sunday evening.

(Soundbite of music)

YDSTIE: This is Greg Fisher's performance of the "Sehr Langsam" movement of Robert Schumann's "Kreisleriana".

This is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm John Ydstie.

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