As the Cliburn competition closes on June 18, Artina McCain will have appeared on stage more than 100 times — more than all competitors, conductors and piano tuners combined.
As stage announcer and master of ceremonies for the entire 17-day competition in Fort Worth, McCain introduces the contestants, announces the repertoire and reminds patrons to silence their cell phones before the start of each concert. And, even though she only appears on stage for a few seconds at a time, she became one of the event’s brightest stars.
From the early days of competition at the Van Cliburn Concert Hall at TCU and now at Bass Hall, McCain has won audiences appreciation for his affable demeanor, precise pronunciations and, amusingly surprising, his elegant onstage wardrobe.
What the audience sees from the seats is authentic: Dr. Artina McCainherself, is an accomplished concert pianist, teacher, clinician, speaker and author, who is now having the time of her life doing one of the coolest jobs at the Cliburn.
“For me, being part of it is a real honor”, she says.
“A different journey”
Originally from Arlington, McCain took his first piano lessons in Grand Prairie, then moved to Orlando, Florida with his family and attended performing arts school. Dreams of a career as a concert pianist led her back to Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in piano performance in 2003.
“It was just a great environment. [The professors, including mentor Dr. Carol Leone] were so thoughtful and caring, and they were always like, ‘You can do it’ — and look, I’m here.
On paper, his resume seems simple: a master’s degree in music from the Cleveland Institute of Music in 2006, then a doctorate in musical arts from the University of Texas at Austin in 2011. In reality, it was anything but that.
In her twenties, McCain suffered an injury that took her away from the piano. “I couldn’t play for six years,” she says. “Physically, I wasn’t able to play because of the pain, for many reasons.”
Through an alternative practice called Muscle activation techniquesMcCain restored her body and practiced playing in new ways.
“If you have an injury, a lot of times it can end your career and prevent you from competing or playing,” she says. “After about six years without performing, I’ve had almost a decade of a very successful performing career.”
Because of her own experiences, McCain now advocates for musician wellness, often writing and presenting on the subject and even hosting an annual musician wellness forum in Austin.
“I now have a great career as a pianist,” she says, “but in a different direction.”
McCain currently lives in Memphis, Tennessee, where she is assistant professor of piano and coordinator of keyboard studies at the University of Memphis, as well as co-founder and director of the Memphis International Piano Festival and Competition.
Although she keeps a full teaching schedule, she also performs on big stages and regularly collaborates with one special musician in particular – her husband. Together, Artina and Martin McCain are The McCain Duo – she on the piano and he on the bass trombone. (“He also went to UT Austin – Come on, Longhorns!” she adds.)
She will fly from the Cliburn for a day “off” during the final, in fact, for a McCain Duo concert in Orlando. She will fly away for her duties as emcee the next day. “Just a little day trip,” she says. “A musician’s life, right?”
Substance, style and more substance
The Cliburns asked McCain to host the competition last fall after being impressed with a “Cliburn Kids” online presentation in which she participated, recalls artistic director Sandra Doan.
McCain took on the new challenge with enthusiasm, starting by learning the pronunciation of the contestants’ names and going through the repertoire. “I taught or performed about 70% of it,” she says, “so it’s not that foreign to me.”
His biggest challenge? Learn to pronounce the titles of French plays. ” I do not speak French. I had a French assistant backstage…she helps me with French pronunciations literally right before I go on stage,” she says.
But the one development McCain didn’t expect was that she would become a competition-style star. From colorful dresses and separates to a chic off-the-shoulder jumpsuit and even a pair of pink and black sequin pants that an Italian contestant coveted, her fashionable looks have become part of her ethos on stage.
“Now when I walk out in the lobby,” she says, “people comment on the day they loved, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God — the pressure.'”
A self-confessed shopaholic, she did some retail therapy in Fort Worth to mix new items with her own clothes with rented wardrobe pieces. The pressure is now on the glamor for the final round, she joked.
“I’m going to do a big crescendo until the end,” she teases.
At the end of the competition, McCain will return home to Memphis and see where life takes her next.
One of his passions is advocating for black and other underrepresented composers and musicians. She organizes such concerts for arts organisations, has won awards for her own solo recordings and six months ago published a book of African American folk song transcriptions for growing piano students.
“I think our musical communities can still benefit from diversity in so many ways — ethnic diversity, gender diversity — something I didn’t see so much of when I was younger and probably still does,” she says. “I’m really passionate about interpreting the works of these composers, letting people know what it is, and in this case writing a book for the little ones so that they can start knowing that there is a lot of great music and art that deserves to be heard at all stages.
McCain strives to be the same kind of role model and teacher for other young pianists she remembers fondly from her days at SMU. “I think mentorship is very important and people believe in you even when you don’t know what you can be,” she says.
Her own career has taught her to stay open to all opportunities, she says, even if it means learning French.
“I like to do a lot of things, so I like the way my career has taken shape where I can teach and perform and now emcee – another line on the resume.”