A generous soul

An interview with Betsy DiFelice

Volume 120, No. 11December, 2020

Janet Axelrod


Betsy DiFelice (photo by Blaga Ditrow)

I’m pleased to interview pianist, educator and 802 member Betsy DiFelice for Allegro. Betsy recently made a powerful connection on behalf of Local 802: one of her students is the head of a family foundation that just made a substantial gift to the Local 802 Musicians’ Emergency Relief Fund.

This conversation below brings together two of my strongest directives: to give more awareness to the power of the teaching profession, and the desire to help fellow musicians during the pandemic. As you will see, those projects came together in a way that I hadn’t envisioned.

Betsy DiFelice has been a longtime colleague, friend and fellow subway commuter — and even piano teacher to our son. I have known first-hand about her sensitive and empathic connection to her students and her dedication to their learning. She has been a Local 802 member since her first year in New York, when she played with the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein on their 1979 tour of the U.S., Japan and Korea. She was an auxiliary pianist for the NY Phil for 31 years. She is also the pianist of the Little Orchestra Society and performs regularly with the American Symphony Orchestra and New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, among others. She has been a sub at “The Lion King” since it opened in 1997. She was on the faculty and served as coordinator of the piano program at Princeton University for 35 years. In addition, she has been a visiting educator at Smith College, Bard College and the Eastman School of Music.

Janet Axelrod: Betsy, we all want to help each other through this pandemic, but you found a very potent path to that goal! The Local 802 Musicians’ Emergency Relief Fund just received a gift from the DJ McManus Foundation. Will you tell us a little about how it came to fruition?

Betsy DiFelice: Deborah McManus started lessons with me seven years ago. She is an exceptional person who is passionate about music and theatre and books, and we have a personal as well as intellectual and musical affinity. She is a founder of the SoHarmoniums, a wonderful women’s chorus who perform at least two concerts a year, usually at Merkin Hall.

Janet Axelrod: How did the subject of charitable giving come up?

Betsy DiFelice: I had connected with Deborah just to see how she was doing, since she is not taking lessons during the pandemic. We lamented the loss of Broadway shows and concerts and I shared with her my deep concern about all the affected population — the singers, actors, dancers, musicians, stage crew, stage managers, and everyone who works behind the scenes in a show. I spoke ardently about my musician colleagues, who have all worked so very hard to be the very best, and finally attained the jobs that are so scarce and precious in our industry, and who were suddenly cut off from this work, not to mention the camaraderie and support we feel making music together. These are people with families to support and rent or mortgages and other responsibilities. I must have sounded rather distressed, because Deborah quickly asked how she might be able to help. I told her about the Local 802 Musicians’ Emergency Relief Fund. Sometime later she called me to say that her foundation had awarded them a gift. I was so touched by her generosity and empathy.

Janet Axelrod: What music are you listening to these days?

Betsy DiFelice: I have found it hard to listen to the music I should be playing right now…orchestral and chamber works. It makes me sad. I am more likely to sit down and sight read music I have never played before, as well as plenty of Bach. I listen to things I don’t get to play often, like the art songs recorded by Jan DeGaetani and Gilbert Kalish, my mentor. And I must be missing travel a lot, because the music I repeatedly put on when I need to mentally escape — which is often these days — is Chris Komer’s “Travlin’ Music” and Tori Drake’s “ Spanish Gold.”

Janet Axelrod: Incredible, Betsy. On behalf of Local 802 we want to thank you and Deborah McManus for your dedication to our members and for championing the health of our Local 802 Musicians’ Emergency Relief Fund.

You can donate to or apply for assistance from the Local 802 Musicians’ Emergency Relief Fund at Donations to the fund are also accepted at