Westminster Student Premieres New Work at Damien Dixon Scholarship Master Class on February 25

Olivia Coackley

Every two years Westminster Choir College hosts The Damien Dixon Memorial Scholarship Master Class with Professor Ingrid Clarfield in February to raise funds for a scholarship that is awarded to an undergraduate pianist at Westminster. The scholarship was created in memory of pianist Damien Dixon, who died in 2005 after a long struggle with cancer. Dixon asked that the scholarship be awarded to a pianist “for whom the piano is more than just a major, a pianist who plays with imagination and personality and uses the piano to stir up the emotions of the listener."

During his life, Dixon was heavily involved on Westminster’s campus, having long studied piano with Professor Ingrid Clarfield, and by accompanying many Westminster students. Dixon was also a highly accomplished pianist in his own right. To this day, he remains the only pianist from New Jersey to win the Music Teachers National Association Baldwin Piano Competition, which he won at age 15.

Last fall, Professor Clarfield reached out to current Westminster senior piano and composition major John Franek to commission a new piece in memory of Dixon, to be premiered at the annual master class. For Franek, the opportunity to write such a piece was “an absolute honor and pleasure.” Franek was a recipient of the Damien Dixon Memorial Scholarship last spring, and says he knew the general story of Dixon’s life, but not in great detail. After receiving the commission, he was eager to learn more about Dixon’s life and character.

Franek was able to gain this knowledge through reading Dixon’s extensive online blogs, as well as through conversations with his family. Dixon’s writing in particular helped Franek begin to understand his persona. Franek describes him as being “such a loving individual, and so funny too.” He notes how Dixon would refer to his cancer treatments as “chemo cocktails,” and his reference to the singers he accompanied as his “divas.” This insight was critical to Franek, who says, “It’s my job in this commission to integrate as much of Damien as I can.”

Franek’s composition is Piano Sonata No. 2 “Conquest,” after the title of Dixon’s final blog, which he titled D’s Conquest. The sonata’s movement titles all come from Dixon’s writing as well. Franek chose these snippets of writing to create a kind of found poetry, a style of poetry that extracts prewritten text and arranges it in a new way. Franek describes the title of the first movement, “And here I am,” as being a very genuine and sincere statement appearing in an otherwise lighthearted blog post. Franek sees this statement as representing a core element of Dixon’s character: that he was consistently there for others.

In this composition as a whole, Franek tries to capture the essence of Damien Dixon from start to finish: his “simultaneity of playfulness, wisdom, and intelligence.” He hopes to convey in the sonata Dixon’s hopeful joy, appearing first in the beginning, and then returning in the final movement, when Franek will likely choose to quote one of Dixon’s own compositions. This will allow Franek to integrate, quite literally, a piece of Dixon into the composition.

The 2018 Damien Dixon Memorial Scholarship Master Class will take place on February 25 at 2 p.m. in Bristol Chapel on the Westminster Choir College campus. The master class will include students working with Professor Ingrid Clarfield and John Franek performing the premiere of the first movement of his Piano Sonata No. 2 “Conquest.”  To reserve a seat, call 609-896-5340 or order online at