“That was it. I went back to medical school, finished my fourth year, did my residency, got married and started a family,” Shih recalls. “It’s very difficult to make a career in music, and it’s not always rewarding.”

But after nine years of devoting his full attention to the field of gastroenterology (treating digestive disorders) and playing the piano only nominally, Shih once again felt the pull of the ebony and ivory keys and his desire to play them competitively.

While working full time as a doctor in Howard County, Shih began competing again in 2006, and that year brought home the top prize at the Washington International Piano Amateurs Competition.

The next year he went on to win the Boston International Piano Competition for Exceptional Amateurs, and in 2008 Shih faced his biggest artistic challenge since 1997: the Concours des Grands Amateurs de Piano, which, like the Van Cliburn competition, is known among musicians for its difficulty. Unsurprisingly, Shih tackled the challenge and won the competition.

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“The winning really isn’t the goal,” Shih says. “The goal is to play this music at the highest possible level that it can be played at.”

Shih, who has played the piano since he was 5, says he has a love-hate relationship with the art.

Balancing hours of practice with his family and professional life is exhausting, he says.

“When the competition is finally over, it’s more of a relief than anything else,” Shih says. “Ultimately what I like about it is being able to explore this body of incredible literature that exists and being able to learn it and practice it and to really get it into my blood.”

Shih’s wife, Maya, a violinist with the Peabody Preparatory Institute in Baltimore, says that even when her husband is preparing for a competition, he is able to strike a careful balance between family time and practice time.

“I don’t know exactly how he does it,” she says. “He squeezes every second out of every day.”