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Amateur Pianists Compete in Van Cliburn Contest

Christopher Shih, a physician from Maryland, competes in the semi-final round of the sixth International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs hosted by the Van Cliburn Foundation in Fort Worth, Texas, May 28, 2011.
Christopher Shih, a physician from Maryland, competes in the semi-final round of the sixth International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs hosted by the Van Cliburn Foundation in Fort Worth, Texas, May 28, 2011.

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Bill Zeeble

Two doctors and a retired database programmer took top honors at the 6th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs in Fort Worth, Texas. The competition is hosted by the Van Cliburn Foundation, named after the American pianist who was a child prodigy. This is not the "big" Cliburn contest for young pianists hoping to launch international careers. These amateurs have jobs, but don't play or teach piano for a living. The competition celebrates the making of music as a vital part of daily life.

Christopher Shih's performance of Brahms's "Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel" likely sealed his win in this international contest for amateurs. He received standing ovations from the crowd of piano lovers gathered at Texas Christian University.  

Fourteen years ago, Shih journeyed here for the Cliburn competition for young pianists, but he didn't get far. He says he entered that one for the experience, taking a few weeks off from medical school.

Today, Shih is a gastroenterologist and this past week, he returned to Texas. And he won. 

"The goal is to come and to try to play as best as I possibly can, to try to do the music justice, to partake in the social experience with everyone here and the really talented colleagues," Shih explained.  "So of course the winning is nice, because it's an amateur competition, because we don't need it to put food on the table."

Clark Griffith came in second.  He says the contest offers the opportunity for high-level amateurs to play before a sizable audience.

"I was glad to spend time with this magnificent piano," said Griffith.  "The results are just lots of candy and gravy and fun."

Griffith placed third in 2007, the last time the Cliburn Foundation held this amateur event. This time, he also won for best Baroque era performance, playing several of Bach's Goldberg Variations.

For many of the seventy competitors, the contest is inspiring because their musical muscles had atrophied.

Blame the day job and responsibilities caring for families and children. But their love of piano persists.

Third-place winner Dr. Barry Coutinho is originally from India. He says the contest got him practicing piano again.  

"At this level, the highest thing I did was the BBC Young Musician of the Year and that was 30 years ago," recalled Coutinho.  "[I did] nothing at this level since then.  The thrill is so incredible, playing to an appreciative audience like this on an incredible piano, in an auditorium like this, it's worth it."  

That was the case even for those who did not reach the finals.

Jorge Zamora, from Mexico, made it to the semi-finals. He graduated from the prestigious Cleveland Institute of Music, returned to Mexico, but couldn't find a job in music.

With his other degree, in electronics, he found work in telecommunications. He says his mother encouraged him to stay with the piano and would be proud he's here.

"I get emotional because she died 20 years ago, especially because of her support on me making music, was really special. And my father too, who also died 5 years ago. So getting this far in this competition is very meaningful," said Zamora.

Zamora came to the competition from Mexico City with his wife. They're expecting their first child. He says he intends to keep music in the family.

Top prize winner Christopher Shih won $2,000 and $250 for best romantic performance.

He says he'll leave the piano for a while, to spend more time with his wife and 3 daughters.

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