Maryland Doctor Wins Van Cliburn Amateur Piano Competition

May 31, 2011

Christopher Shih, a 38-year-old gastroenterologist from Ellicott City, Md. says the only time he finds to practice the piano is at night, after he puts the kids to bed. But all that late-night practicing has paid off. Shih has won the sixth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs.

Shih beat 70 of the world's best non-professional pianists, including a lawyer from Hong Kong, a telecommunications manager from Mexico and, in the final round, a Formula 1 race car designer from the U.K. He takes home $2,000 in cash and a pair of custom Cliburn spurs. Shih also won the audience award and the award for the best performance of a work from the Romantic era, which earned him another $250.

After the awards ceremony, Shih said the week-long competition wasn't stressful. "The contestants are all people who came here because they love to play," he said. "My goal was to come, play as well as I could and enjoy the social experience." Surprisingly, Shih also said he planned to quit playing piano altogether for as long as 3 years.

The amateur competition is based in Fort Worth, Texas and held every 4 years. It is open to pianists age 35 and up who do not make a living by playing or teaching piano.

Shih is no stranger to amateur competitions. He's won top prizes in similar contests in Boston and Paris. He even once competed in the better-known, professional level Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Shih's preliminary and semifinal rounds over the past week included transcriptions of music by Bach, Wagner and Tchaikovsky. He clinched the prize Sunday with his final round performance of Brahms's Variations on a Theme by Handel (hear the complete performance below), which the Fort Worth Star-Telegram called "masterful."

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