Yeah, My Cousin Totally Won the Van Cliburn

I started piano lessons at age five, and began competing in classical competitions by age seven. At eight, my playing partner Linh and I won the Missouri Music Teachers Association state title in duet, and even though I went on to perform and compete in classical piano until 9th grade, that early win was basically the highlight of my competitive piano career.

That's my cousin with Van Cliburn. (Photo by Van Cliburn Foundation)

Even then, I’d already heard the stories about my cousin Chris Shih, who lived in Maryland and was a piano prodigy. As I was growing up and fussing around with Chopin nocturnes, he was being backed by the National Symphony Orchestra and studying to be a doctor at the same time.

When I was 15, I met him for the first time in Fort Worth, where my mom took me to see him play in the preliminary round of the Van Cliburn International Piano competition. He was amazing. He represented the US in the prestigious professional contest even though he was really concentrating on wrapping up med school. Despite reviews calling his opening round performance “flawless,” he didn’t advance, possibly because the judges knew he wasn’t aiming to be a professional pianist.

Thank goodness the Van Cliburn Foundation created a similar quadrennial competition for amateurs above the age of 35, officially called the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs. This year, Chris was finally old enough to enter, and lo and behold, HE WON the whole darn thiing. (For context, I recommend a compelling documentary about the 2007 contest, featuring some of the same finalists who Chris beat out last week.)

He totally MURDERED some Brahms for his final round performance. Thankfully my fantastic employer, NPR, posted Chris’ entire 30-minute performance of the Variations on a Theme from Handel (by Brahms, confusing, I know). NPR also interviewed Chris for Weekend All Things Considered, in which he talks about drug use and music all in one segment. Listen to both.

So it’s quite a treat to be part of the extended Shih family, with all the overachievers and all. I get a lot of questions about tiger moms ever since that became a meme, and I’m proud that all the success stories in the family were products of pretty progressive, hands-off parenting. Cheers to Chris and the anti-tiger parents out there.

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