Christopher Shih

Van Cliburn with Christopher Shih

Van Cliburn with Christopher Shih

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Christopher Shih was the winner of the 2011 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs in Fort Worth, Texas. After undergraduate studies at Harvard, Shih went on to study medicine at Johns Hopkins University. The Washington Post wrote, "If Shih is as gifted in medicine as he is in music, he has some serious career decisions to make,". Below is the transcript of our October 27, 2011 conversation with Dr. Christopher Shih.

EH: What is your musical background ?

Shih: I was born in the Chicago area, but we quickly moved to Washington D.C. when I was six. I studied with Suzanne Guy from age ten until the end of high school; she’s a very well-known pedagogical teacher in the Northern Virginia area. She was very successful with her students, and some have gone on to have good piano careers.

I do have some musicians in my family, but my parents were not musicians. They started me on the violin at age four, the piano at age five, like thousands of Asian kids out there (laughs). I also did my karate and whatever else kids do at that age.

I also studied with Natalya Antonova, who teaches at Eastman. She had just come over from Russia where she taught at the Moscow ‘Gnessin’ school. I also studied, during medical school time, with Robert McDonald, back in the 1990’s when he was at the Peabody Conservatory; now he’s one of the professors at Juilliard.

EH: Growing up, was the goal to become a pianist or a doctor ?

Shih: The goal was never actually a professional career in music (laughs). I always did it as a hobby on the side. Over the years, I would do these competitions, meet these incredible talents and be inspired to practice. But I never thought of it any other way. I was a lover of music and I simply loved playing the piano.

I continued on my trek to become a doctor, and never stopped playing. There was a time between 1997 and 2006 when I did stop playing. I had finished medical school and residency, started a family, joined a medical practice, and only after this did I return to the piano.

Many of my fellow amateur pianists seem to have a similar story. The amateur movement started in Paris, and it’s since taken off with the Cliburn. I think there are now about a dozen of these competitions around the world.

EH: I must ask the question on everyone’s mind: how did you manage to become proficient at the piano and your studies to such an extent ? Did you practice at all during medical school ?

Shih: Aside from the period that I mentioned, I have always practiced. I was never the eight-hours-a-day type, but you know, I never left it for very long either. Piano was always in my life and I pursued it with a lot of passion and intensity. Many of my musical colleagues, growing up, ended up going to music school and becoming professionals. I was fortunate to have good training and fundamentals, but I never wanted to do it as a career.

EH: You competed at the 1997 Van Cliburn competition. What are your thoughts on today’s music competitions ?

Shih: I am well aware of the controversy surrounding music competitions, the paradoxes that they put forth in trying to cultivate a sensitive artist, while weeding out many sensitive artists through the grueling process. They are not always successful in producing careers. I don’t know what to say about that, and I might just use the party-line, that sometimes they are a necessary evil to give people recognition.

One of the benefits of not being a professional musician is that I don’t have to struggle with these problems in the music world. I do it just for the music- perhaps naively - and that’s how it should be. But music students have to worry about the real problems of a career. People enter competitions with the expectation that if they do well, certain things will come with that.

I’ve done my fair share of competitions, and many of them not at the highest level. But I think that many people lose sight of the artistic goal because of these career issues.

Have I spotted people over the years? I’ve competed on a national level since I was young, and have met some phenomenal musicians. I’ve watched as they’ve become mature, refined and recognized artists. This is actually both fun and satisfying for me.

A few names that come to mind: Wendy Warner, a cellist and fantastic musician; Max Levinson, a phenomenal pianist I went to college with; Joel Hastings, someone I met at the 1997 Van Cliburn competition. I thought he was a phenomenal musician. Jon Nakamatsu, whom I also met in the ’97 competition, was later a judge for the amateur competition. He’s great as well.

EH: What advice would you give to those who have struggled with a career in music ?

Shih: This is difficult. I’ve always played piano simply because I enjoy it. My gut instinct is to say something that people might not like to hear. People talk about the rise of the amateur movement because it might possibly have relevance today.

My advice is: don’t go into music. I really think one can always be a musician, but you don’t necessarily have to earn your living from playing music. That’s why I think the amateur movement has relevance. What we’re trying to show people is that you can play music at a very high level, that it can be artistically rewarding, but you can also do other things in your life. And that’s not impossible. It’s very difficult, and I definitely don’t come close to the true artists out there, but then again, neither do many professional musicians or people with advanced performance degrees.

It’s an unpleasant truth, but one doesn’t need to feel that doing music as a professional career is their only option. The statistics, the supply-and-demand for classical musicians is just not there. There are tens of thousands of music graduates every year for a couple hundred spots. I think, unfortunately, especially in classical music, that the effort and talent are not rewarded commensurately.

EH: Did you ever entertain the idea of becoming a touring concert pianist ?

Shih: I’ve entertained many ideas – being a kung-fu star, a rock star, etc. But I never realistically believed that I had a shot at being a touring pianist. I don’t think I could win a gold medal at one of the top piano competitions, and even if I could, it’s no guarantee of a career.

When you’re young, you might feel that this is a cop-out answer, not sacrificing your life. But as you get older, you might feel differently about sacrificing everything for music. You can serve and appreciate the music even if you have less time because of another career. I play maybe three or four concerts per year, and this is a very rewarding experience for me. I know many professional musicians who teach full-time, and they also play three or four concerts a year.

So no, not seriously have I considered a career as a touring pianist. I also get very nervous when I perform. I think what I’ve sort of carved out is just enough music saturation for me (laughs).

EH: Who are some of the great pianists, from the Golden Age of piano playing that you admire ?

Shih: Radu Lupu, Maurizio Pollini, Glenn Gould, Martha Argerich, Sviatoslav Richter, Dinu Lipatti. These are some of the names that come to mind. It’s hard for me to wax poetically, and everything’s going to sound cliché. But I love Gould for his Bach, Pollini for his cool, detached playing, Fleisher and his pre-injury recordings, etc. I think Fleisher’s recording of the Ravel Left-hand Piano Concerto is the definitive recording of that piece. Richter was also incredible at his best, and I really also like Murray Perahia.

EH: You had the opportunity to meet Van Cliburn. What were your impressions of him as a person, and what did he say to you ?

Shih: I actually met him at the ’97 competition as well! He actually struck me exactly the same in ’97 as he did most recently. He is an incredibly nice, warm, and unassuming person. Very generous and without a negative fiber in his body. I never felt that I really got to know him, but those are my impressions of him, on the surface.

EH: As this is the bicentennial of Franz Liszt's birth, what are your thoughts on this revered composer ?

Shih: I’ve played many of his works. I actually recently performed Totentanz with an orchestra. I like Liszt a lot; he’s kind of enigmatic and definitely two-sided – the showy and the profound. But I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Liszt.

This is probably sacrilege, but there is some Liszt that I don’t care for. Everyone loves the B minor Sonata, and I don’t know if I should say this, but I don’t love it. Maybe I have yet to grow and understand its mysteries, but I’ve always seen it as ‘a showy composer trying to be deep’. But Liszt was definitely innovative and he brought piano playing to another dimension. Some of his showy-pieces are really transcendental, like some of the etudes, and of course, Totentanz.

EH: Is there a composer you’ve always felt an utmost connection with ?

Shih: Bach and Brahms. I don’t normally just name favorites, but I think I definitely have an affinity for Bach’s music. I love the intellectual complexity, the counterpoint. I feel like I’ve always struggled with the lyrical and linear aspects of piano playing. I think I am more a vertical person. Bach was easier to conceptualize mentally and musically. I’ve always struggled with Chopin. He’s always been very difficult for me and I’ve never felt that I’ve played him convincingly.

My love for Brahms was something that developed in college. I love his music for its depth, its profundity, its large scale and scope. I also particularly love his chamber music.

EH: The Chopin Etudes: which ones have given you the most trouble ?

Shih: They’re all difficult! I think my weaknesses with Chopin have always been more lyrical than perhaps technical. Chopin always requires a singing line and the timing is especially critical. I feel like I’ve never gotten those quite right. Fortunately, I haven’t had tons of technical problems growing up. But making Chopin’s music sound like music has always been very difficult for me.

EH: What in your opinion, is the purpose of Art ?

Shih: I’ve actually struggled with this question for a long time. Why do we do what we do? I took a Beethoven course in college, and read the book by Maynard Solomon. I actually wrote about it in my Cliburn essay. Solomon writes something along the lines of, ‘No matter which field we’re in, we look towards the future, towards an unobtainable dream of harmony and perfection. That Art and Science give us intimations and hopes for a better life. That great works of Art stand to counter acts of violence. That the dream of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, for example, stands in counterpoise to the Auschwitz’s and Vietnams of our time.’ I like the way that Solomon proposes a purpose for Art. It inspires us, and gives us a reason to live. In the face of all the terrible things that people are capable of, Art offers us hope.

EH: What is the purpose of the performer, then ?

Shih: I think it’s a mistake for the performer to be front-and-center. I think the performer is the vessel, and shouldn’t be putting himself or herself above the music. It’s not that I believe in boring performances, but I think performances should be designed to do the music justice and to convey the meanings of the composer.

Vladimir Horowitz is a pianist I have mixed feelings for. He was a phenomenal musician. And music is very subjective – there is no right or wrong. But he was very unusual in some of his interpretations. He was great with some of the Russian masters and in some miniature pieces, but maybe not so in the Germanic composers. My wife loves him, though (laughs).

EH: Is there a particular medium of art beyond music that draws your attention ?

Shih: I’ve always enjoyed poetry. I am not an expert on this subject, but I thoroughly enjoy T.S. Eliot. There is just something about the content of the language that strikes me. Most other art forms haven’t had such a visceral reaction as music has had on me.

Isaac Stern said something to the effect of, ‘You should only go into music if you absolutely can’t live without it, if you would die without it.’I never felt so strongly about art, to be honest. But I feel that way towards my family, my wife, my kids. To me, I could not live without them. But with different forms of art, I can’t say I feel that strongly about them. If I had to save my family’s life by giving up playing the piano, I wouldn’t hesitate for a single second.

EH: Ideally, what kind of a role would Art play in society ?

Shih: I didn’t become a professional musician so I wouldn’t have to grapple with difficult questions like these (laughs).

Art definitely has a role. Classical music definitely has a role. I’m not sure what those roles are. But everything in the world now, its structure and socio-economic conditions, are very different from what they were a hundred years ago. I don’t know what the future of classical music is. And I don’t feel that an amateur musician can necessarily speak about it. We all - even those who don’t have the training - have the capacity for appreciating art in one way or another. It doesn’t have to be classical music. As long as people try to have some kind of artistic enrichment in their lives, I think it will benefit them in the long run.

Having said that, I know people with little or no appreciation for the arts, who happen to love academics or sports. And they’re perfectly normal happy people. Sometimes I think we all like to inflate the importance of what we do.

EH: What are some of your upcoming musical projects ?

Shih: After the Cliburn competition, I seem to have told much of the press that I was going to take another long sabbatical from playing the piano. I don’t quite remember saying that (laughs).I think that was a bit of hyperbole. I was tired!

I would actually like to take a break from solo performance. I prefer chamber music and other types of collaborative music. These are less daunting. I feel nervous as hell on stage, and being with other people takes this away a bit.

There’s a chamber music series held in Columbia, Maryland, called the Candlelight Concert Series, which is a very reputable series that features the most top-notch chamber ensembles in the world. They’ve invited me to perform the Schumann Quintet with the Pacifica Quartet next April. They’re a phenomenal group, and they tour all over the world, and I’m just very excited to be able to perform with them.

EH: Do you feel that you’ve realized your potential in music ?

Shih: No, never. I don’t think any conscientious musician could ever say that. I remember reading something that William Kapell said. He was talking about one of the late Schubert sonatas, and expressed, ‘It would take me two lifetimes to produce the sound that was meant for this work,’ - and I totally feel the same way! I mean, I am almost universally disappointed every time I perform. I can never listen to my own recordings because I am so discouraged. The goal, the aesthetic of trying to produce the sound that the composers wanted is an unachievable goal. I’d like to think that I’m going to spend my entire life getting closer to that goal, but I don’t realistically think that it will ever happen. I guess one has to learn to enjoy the journey rather than the destination.

EH: Chris, thank you for taking the time today.

Shih: Thank you!