Clayton Stephenson’s journey as a musician was filled with allergy scares, asthma attacks, a secondhand piano and many sacrifices from his single mother, Ping Stephenson. 

Clayton, a 23-year-old from New York City, is one of 12 musicians competing in the semifinals of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition

He never considered music until his mother, in an effort to control her son’s high energy, enrolled him in piano lessons when he was 7 years old, he said. Clayton described himself as a “rowdy” child who would constantly run around causing trouble at school. At the time, a babysitter would cost $25 per hour, and a piano teacher would cost $30 per hour.

“For an extra $5, you’re getting someone to [basically] babysit while also teaching a skill,” Clayton said, explaining his mother’s reasoning. 

Finding something low-risk to consume Clayton’s energy and hold his attention was a necessary task for his mother Ping, who said he also faced many “life-threatening” health challenges. Growing up, Clayton had severe asthma and was allergic to “basically everything,” including milk, eggs, wheat, shellfish, seafood in general, nuts, soy, strawberries and almost every type of pollen. 

Because of the many health risks, Ping said she gave up her job as a certified public accountant and became a part-time bookkeeper so she could work from home and monitor Clayton’s diet and environment. Hence the piano lessons.

“It was very painful, it was not an easy departure because I loved my career,” Ping said. “But in a way, now I see that what I sacrificed (is being) paid back by Clayton.”  

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Clayton’s early lessons were held in a “dilapidated Chinatown piano school in a basement somewhere,” Clayton recalled with a chuckle. A year later, he was accepted into the Juilliard Music Advancement Program, which was for underprivileged kids in the tri-state area. 

Being able to step inside one of the top music conservatories in the world for piano lessons every Saturday was an eye-opening experience, Clayton said. He remembered watching students not much older than him play hour-long recitals in the Juilliard Pre-College Program. He’d go every day from 1 to 4 p.m. to watch and learn from them, which he said inspired him to pursue higher levels of music.

Aside from the Juilliard Music Advancement Program, Clayton said he benefited from many other community programs such as the Lang Lang Foundation, Morningside Music Bridge and The Boys Club of New York.  

He feels privileged having been able to participate in those programs because he didn’t have a typical childhood with two parents who could afford expensive piano lessons or buy him a piano to practice on. 

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Clayton’s piano lessons started on a little synthesizer. While he was taking lessons in the underground basement, he found an old piano that an elementary school had thrown away in its dumpster. He and Ping brought the piano home, and it became his practice instrument until the Lang Lang Foundation donated him a piano at age 17. 

Despite the humble upbringing, Clayton said he’s grateful for the sacrifices his mother made for his health and his music passion. When he took the stage during the Cliburn’s preliminary and quarterfinal rounds, he felt proud knowing that his mother saw his performances. 

“She basically sacrificed her entire career for me, so I feel like I’m doing this not only for me but also for us,” Clayton said. “That’s why I try my hardest.” 

Cecilia Lenzen is a freelance reporter with the Fort Worth Report. Contact her via Twitter or email. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Cecilia Lenzen

Cecilia Lenzen is a senior at UT-Arlington, where she is studying journalism. She spent three years working at the student newspaper, The Shorthorn, and her reporting has also appeared in the Dallas Morning...