2010 - Berlin International Amateur Piano Competition

Berlin Philharmonie's Großer Saal(2500 seat) for Round 4

The Berlin International Amateur Piano Competition is one of the world's biggest and most prestigious competition for amateur pianists. There are a total of 4 rounds, in which the last is a concerto round performed with an orchestra.

On Oct 9 , 2010 I performed at Berlin Philharmonie's Kammermusiksaal (1500 seat) the Liszt Sonata in B Minor for Round 3 of the competition. Next day I performed Liszt's Totentanz at the Großer Saal (2500 seat) for Round 4! This was where Andras Schiff had just performed an all Bach recital a few nights before; where pianists like Martha Argerich, Jorge Bolet, Evgeny Kissin also made their mark here!

RESULTS 1st Price: Jun Fujimoto 2nd Price: Ricker Choi 3rd Price: Loic Lafontaine

REPERTOIRE Here is my repretoire for this competition: Round 1: Liszt - Mephisto Waltz Round 2: Liszt (Wagner) - Liebestod; Scriabin - Sonata #5 Round 3: Liszt - Sonata in B Minor Round 4: Liszt - Totentanz

THE COMPETITION When the list of competitors biographies were published on the web site, to be frank, I was intimated. Randomly reading though the list I found 3 past 1st prize winners of the Paris International Competition for Outstanding Piano Amateurs, a winner of the Gina Bachauer Piano Competition for Amateurs, and a pianist who had given concerts in Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center! I had to stop reading the bios or else I was sure I would just drop out! But the stress was definitely worth it! The possibility of performing in such prestigious concert hall was just too hard to refuse.

Berlin Philharmonie's Großer Saal(2500 seat) for Round 4

PREPARATION This is the third time I participated in an international amateur piano competition. Based on the last two experiences, I realized that I tended to over prepare. The stress of having to maintain such a big program for week after week, waiting for the day of the competition that seemed to never come was just daunting. Therefore, I took a new approach this time: I scheduled a 10-day vacation in Turkey two weeks before the competition to get away from the music! When I was back from Turkey, I spent 6 days practicing intensively - about 4 to 5 hours a day. I felt much more relaxed throughout this competition than before.


Hochschule für Musik: We were assigned with 2 to 4 hours practicing time daily at the beautifully located Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler Berlin. Most of the rooms had grand pianos to practice on.

Hochschule für Musik

Warm-up Room: I have the warm up room all to myself 1 - 2 hours before my performance. It has a 9-foot Steinway grand, private washroom that I can shower, and a couch which I can sleep!

PERSONAL COACH I was so lucky to have Robert Judge - a friend from Toronto - who came with me. Being a amateur pianist himself, he was interested in knowing more about these piano competitions. I initially tried to talk him out of this as I was afraid I might feel additional pressure, but he insisted! Robert listened while I tried out pianos for rounds 3 and 4. He gave me valuable insights regarding my piano sound from audiences perspective. It was often hard to judge from the piano how it might sound from afar. He also sat with me through all the concerto rehearsals (not only mine, but all 6 finalists rehearsals!) and we discussed in great details the sound quality of different piano textures in that hall and what I could do to make my piece sound appropriate for the hall. I must thank him immensely for his coachings!

Berlin Philharmonie's Großer Saal(2500 seat) for Round 4

Berline Philharmonie's Kammermusiksaal (1500 seat) for Round 3


conductor Stanley Dodds

Stanley Dodds the conductor was so easy to work with. When we met, we went over the score in details and discussed tempi of each variations, and the rubato I planned to do. I had quite a few of unconventional ideas on rubato in Totentanz. The conductor jokingly gave me a nickname Rubato Ricker. Everyone in the orchestra laughed! He was very open minded and we tried out all my ideas. There was only 1 spot that worked very well when I rehearsed with 2nd piano playing the orchestral parts, but with real orchestra just did not work. Initially I had problems with entrances. Reason was when I rehearsed with my accompanist, we often just nod our head to indicate the half beat right before entrance so it was like just a quiet breath and we were into it. I was just not used to watching the baton - often I would enter when it was still in mid air, instead of when it hit the bottom of the swing. In a few spots (like the opening) Stanley actually conducted a full beat of silence BEFORE my entrance. Again something that I was not used to.

LISTENING In the past I always thought playing with orchestra would be overwhelmingly loud and disorienting. Turned out most of the time the orchestra sounded just right from where I was at the piano, despite I am very close to the musicians. In some passages, I could barely hear any sound from the orchestra. It was initially uncomfortable. While rehearsing with 2nd piano playing the orchestral parts, the articulation was generally very clear. But with orchestra, often I found it hard to hear when the strings and the brass actually started a note. I was unsure if I should follow the conductor, or follow what I heard. As mentioned above, there were areas when I could not even hear the orchestra. I asked Stanley how I could handle this. He told me to just play with extremely steady rhythm and the orchestra would be in synch with me. I simply had to trust myself.

TO FILL A 2500 SEAT HALL I had 2 full hours of backstage time with a 9 foot steinway all to myself to warm up. In order to produce a huge sound to fill the 2500 seat hall, I practised with closed piano lid (not even the small lid was opened), and I practised sections that require BIG sound. I tried to achieve a rich sound despite the piano was all closed up. I realized that I had to use a lot more arm and body weights. When I go on stage, I intentionally set the piano bench a little higher so I could really lean forward into the keys. And it worked! The opening chords was just dramatically thundering, and I needed to use so little effort as I just rely on my body weight. This way of playing would make a harsh and noisy sound in someones living rooms 6 foot 3 piano. But here in a big hall with a 9 foot powerful grand, I must not be afraid of using a lot of power. In the slow middle section, I noticed that to really make the melody sing in such a big hall, I had to project the top note quite a bit. Even for the passage written in pp (very soft), I needed to project all top melodies (as much as in the mezzo forte or even forte range). TO LOUD TO BE HEARD There are parts which the orchestra was so loud and nothing from the piano could be heard. Listening to recordings and to the other pianists rehearsals, I realized I could just fake as if I were using lots of power, but was making just very little sound from the piano to save energy.

ROUND 3 - LISZT's SONATA IN B MINOR In this round, I performed the Liszts Sonata in B minor in the 1,500 seat Kammermusiksaal. It had amazing acoustics. In contrasts to the 2,500 seat big hall, here I just needed to barely touch the piano and the sound was so rich already. I could not use too much power or risk creating a harsh noise. I had only 10 min to try the piano, which was very inadequate for a 30 min piece. I noticed that for some of the softer sound, the best way was to use soft pedal and project the melody richly. Hence the middle spiritual section I used a lot more soft pedal than I normally did. My main problem was with the loud passages how loud could I be without sounding harsh!! Luckily I had Robert Judge to be my ear during trying out time. He told me how much sound I could afford, and when too loud was too much. With this piano and hall, I had to hold back or else risk being noisy. During the actual performance, I had quite a bit problems with soft trills. I FORGOT to try out these soft trills during my 10 min trial run. Normally I play soft trills with a special method I made up myself.. low wrist, with tip of finger nail of my 2 and4 fingers. It worked wonders in round one in Liszt Mephisto Waltz ending! But here. the piano key turned out a little heavier, and so when I got to the soft trills, it was not even as it did not hit bottom of the keys!!! So I had to compensate by playing trills in a regular manner i.e. using the meat of my finger with higher wrist. of course this was a little disrupting to the flow as I had to adjust real time.

one of the jury member: pianist Idil Biret

EPILOGUE In 2 years time, I hope to participate the competition again! I have already came up with a tentative program! Round 1: Mendelssohn's Variations Serieuse Round 2: Ravel La Valse + a Rachmaninoff's Etude Tableux Round 3: Chopin's 1st Ballade + Brahm's Op 118 Round 4: Rachmaninoff Rhapsodie on a Theme by Paganni I am already looking forward to the next one!

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