Pianist Shuan Hern Lee is used to winning awards. Before he was 3 years old, he had already won a local competition for composition — a piano piece called “Ghost op. 3.”
Lee started studying piano when he was 2 ½ years old and has participated in many national and international music competitions. He won the 2019 Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition, and now the 19-year-old from Perth, Australia is hoping to compete in Texas again this summer.
His father introduced him to classical music early in life and always made a point of singing and playing for him. This made Lee appreciate classical piano and inspired his love of Bach, Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Beethoven, he said.
Chuckling, he recalled another early competition. “It was just me playing ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ in a local contest … We still have tapes and all that.”
He swiftly progressed to more challenging pieces and was performing Beethoven at 4. A video of Lee at the time shows him being helped to reach the piano pedals and standing barely taller than the instrument itself.
At 7, he became a semifinalist of Australia’s “Got Talent” after winning over the judges with his performance of “Flight of the Bumblebee.” He performed at Carnegie Hall that same year.
Lee said the staff and organizers of the Cliburn are supportive and encouraging — something he considers rare in the world of classical music competitions.
“I find the Cliburn is just really special in the way that the people approach it,” he said. “They’re all so nice and … they’re always happy to encourage you and they’ll always be there for you. It’s just like a big family.”
He added that encouragement plays an important role in drawing younger audiences to classical music.
“We need more communities like that in the world, that’s for sure,” he said.
Despite the magnitude of being one of only 72 pianists chosen for an audition, Lee hasn’t thought much about what it would be like to actually win the Cliburn.
“It would mean the whole world to me, I think, because I see this competition as one of the very top handful of competitions that will make you accomplish your dreams and that kind of thing,” he said.
Instead of thinking about a possible win, Lee just plans to do his best, he said. That philosophy is in-keeping with how he said he approaches every performance.
As a child, Lee said he enjoyed performing because it felt good to receive applause, thinking the enthusiasm he’d received indicated how well he’d played. Now that he’s maturing as a musician, he said he is developing a healthier mindset — that his talent is not measured by others’ approval, but rather by his own artistic growth. He said competitions are an opportunity to foster that growth by powering through some “healthy pressure” and motivating himself to improve.
If you go…
Location: PepsiCo Recital Hall at TCU
Admittance: The screening auditions are free and open to the public ages 10 and up; no tickets are required.
Arrive early: There will be no late seating.
Schedule: Performances will take place March 6-8 and March 10-12. You can find the full schedule here.
“Improving from every different performance and having the very last performance as my best one is what’s important,” he said.
Having completed his audition, Lee must now wait until March 17 to find out if he’s made it through to the next round. Results will be announced to the public March 30.
Erin Ratigan is a freelance journalist and writer specializing in narrative news features. She has contributed to KERA News, Fort Worth Weekly and The Metro Report, and has received multiple regional and state-level journalism awards. You can find her on Twitter: @erinratigan.