Ellicott City doctor finds keys to success as Van Cliburn amateur piano champ

In the living room of his Ellicott City home, Christopher Shih sits with his legs curled beneath him on a beige leather love seat. Relaxed in a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, he speaks humbly of his accomplishments as an amateur pianist.

In the kitchen Shih's two eldest daughters, Nina and Elena, sing and play, and upstairs his youngest daughter, Sonia, sleeps.


"During the six months prior to the competition, I essentially have no time," Shih says, and then stops mid-thought after hearing a roar of laughter from one of his daughters.

"Girls, what does the clock say?" he asks.


"It's 8:18," 9-year-old Nina reports eagerly, wanting to delay bedtime.

"Okay, you have until 8:30," Shih says, and then, without missing a beat, he continues talking about his recent preparations for one of the world's most competitive amateur piano competitions: "It could be midnight, it could be one in the morning before I go to bed."

Balancing the two conversations, one with a reporter and another with his children, comes to Shih with an ease that is the mark of an accomplished and effectual multitasker.

Over the past year, Shih has masterfully juggled his roles as husband, father, gastroenterologist and pianist.

But like everything Shih does, the Harvard University and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine graduate has taken his amateur piano playing to an unmatched level, practicing on average two hours a day and winning four amateur piano competitions in the past five years.

Most recently, Shih traveled to Fort Worth, Texas, in May and took first place in the sixth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs, referred to by many as the Olympics of amateur piano.

Shih also has repeatedly soloed with the National Symphony Orchestra and has performed at the Aspen Music Festival and the Banff Chamber Music Festival in Calgary, Alberta.

"I guess he doesn't sleep," surmises Van Cliburn juror Shields "Buddy" Bray, who said that the ease of Shih's piano playing surpasses that of many formally trained pianists. Bray said Shih outshone other contestants early in the competition.


"He just sits down and plays. The most difficult pieces in his repertoire look easy for him; it's a very honest representation," Bray said of Shih's May performance, which included a rendition of Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Handel, which won him the final prize, and music by Tchaikovsky, Bach and Wagner. "For somebody to get up and play like that is amazing. I don't know when he practices, but as a gastroenterologist, I would not think that all of his time is his really his own, and he has three kids besides."

Critics agree. The Washington Post has called Shih's piano playing "fluent, gracious, miraculously light, and a joy to the ear," and the New York Times has described Shih as "an intelligent and thoughtful musician."

Shih says that while he's always had an appreciation for music, he has never trained professionally.

"I've always just done it on the side," Shih says of his piano playing. "However, I've always done it very seriously."

In 1997, Shih took a year off from medical school between his third and fourth years and competed in the 10th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

The competition, Shih says, is intended for career musicians who have trained at many of the world's top conservatories, and entering it as an amateur was a risky move.


"It was my one last chance before my internship and residence to see where I could take this," he says.

Though Shih made it into the final 30 contestants — a feat for an amateur — he did not place.

"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.


"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."