Maryland Doctor Wins Van Cliburn Amateur Piano Competition : Deceptive Cadence Pianists the world over made the trip to Fort Worth — a lawyer from Hong Kong, a dentist from Italy and a Formula 1 race car designer from the U.K. Hear Maryland gastroenterologist Christopher Shih's winning performance of music by Brahms.
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Maryland Doctor Wins Van Cliburn Amateur Piano Competition

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Maryland Doctor Wins Van Cliburn Amateur Piano Competition

Maryland Doctor Wins Van Cliburn Amateur Piano Competition

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RACHEL MARTIN, host: Christopher Shih, what were you doing in the 1970s and 1980s? I mean, I imagine you were playing a lot of piano.

Dr. CHRISTOPHER SHIH: Well, I started playing piano when I was 5. I was born in 1972. So yeah, '70s and '80s was a lot of violin and piano practice.


MARTIN: And that practice paid off.


MARTIN: Christopher Shih never became a professional concert pianist, though. He got his medical degree and became a gastroenterologist. But he kept entering competitions. And last Sunday, he won the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs.


MARTIN: This is an excerpt from Christopher Shih's award-winning performance of "Variations on a Theme of Handel," by Johannes Brahms. And what did Christopher Shih do after he won the grand prize? Well, he went to Disneyworld, of course.

SHIH: It kind of turned out that way. Obviously, we planned the trip well before I knew the results of the competition. It turned out to be kind of a nice, Super Bowl moment.


MARTIN: You got to say, when the reporters came up to you: Where are you going?

SHIH: Yeah, well, that's - on Facebook, I posted: Well, thank you for all of the nice comments. And now, I'm going to Disneyworld.


MARTIN: When you were a kid, obviously, you spent an awful lot of time practicing the piano. Did you think at that point that you could become a professional?

Well, it obviously crossed my mind. But I have to say I never seriously considered a professional career in music because from a very young age, I was very practical, and I knew how difficult it was, you know, no matter how good you are. And the truth is, I've always liked science and medicine, so it was never a difficult choice to decide to become a doctor.

Are there things you do as a ritual before you perform in something like this?

SHIH: I don't have anything particularly weird that I do. A lot of us eat bananas before we play. I don't know if you've heard that.

MARTIN: I have not.

SHIH: But athletes do that, too.

MARTIN: Well, potassium.

SHIH: Yeah, the potassium. And supposedly, it calms the nerves. And I don't mind sharing this: I suffer from terrible stage fright. And so I take 40 milligrams of Propranolol about an hour before I perform.

MARTIN: And that just calms you down?

SHIH: It helps. Yeah.

MARTIN: Can I ask you a little bit about that?

SHIH: Sure.

MARTIN: When it comes to you, when you start to be seized by this stage fright, how does it manifest? What happens?

SHIH: Well, in its best possible form, it kind of sharpens your senses and keeps your concentration going. In the worst possible form, it's debilitating, and it kind of freezes up both your mind and your fingers. And I have experienced that before in performance, which is why I'm deathly afraid of going in without some kind of help.

MARTIN: After you finished your final-round performance in this competition, with that Brahms piece, can you walk me through what was going through your mind right when you finished?

SHIH: That last chord, I thought: Oh, thank goodness there were no major disasters.


MARTIN: Thank goodness it's over.

SHIH: Thank goodness it's over.

MARTIN: And when they called your name, said: Christopher Shih, you have won first place. Were you surprised then?

SHIH: Yeah. I was very thankful that the jury was appreciative of my performance. But you know, this may sound cliche, but especially in an amateur competition, the winning isn't really the goal but rather to perform these works at a high level, and to enjoy the social experience with all these other, wonderful people.

MARTIN: Christopher Shih, thank you so much again. And congratulations.

SHIH: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: And before I let you go, since you came all this way, could I persuade you to play something for us?

SHIH: Oh, I suppose so.


MARTIN: What are you going to play?

SHIH: I'm going to do the first piece that I played in the preliminary round of the competition. It's a transcription of Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," by the British pianist Myra Hess.


MARTIN: Christopher Shih is a gastroenterologist from Ellicott City, Maryland. And last weekend, he won the Van Cliburn Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs.

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