Thomas Yu: Periodontist By Day, Pianist By Night

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Tomas Yu is the unanimous winner of the 2016 Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition, for which he took home the gold medal as well as Press and Audience Awards. He has captured numerous top prizes in other amateur piano competitions, played in such prestigious venues as Carnegie Hall and the Berlin Philharmonie, and collaborated with such esteemed ensembles as the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Orchestra of Wales. In addition to all this, he is a full-time periodontist with a private practice in Calgary.

This month, we followed up with Yu to talk about how life has changed since his 2016 victory at what is considered the pinnacle of amateur piano competitions.

“Life hasn’t changed all that much,” he said. “There are more performing opportunities, which I am of course thankful for, but I am still the same person I always have been. Winning the competition represents for me more than anything else, the culmination of all the hard work that I’ve put in through the years.”

He adds: “There is one change since 2016, but it’s more due to life events rather than winning the competition. Before the Cliburn, I had all the time after work to practice, but now, I am the father of two young kids. My wife was pregnant with our first child at the time of the Cliburn. As a result, I really have had to improve my time management and effectiveness. Now, I really cherish the time I do get to prac- tice, which is usually after my kids’ bedtimes.”

The Shaping of a Musician

Yu began piano at age four and credits Bonnie Nicholson in Saskatoon as his formative mentor. When it came time to go to university, Yu enrolled in dental school but the piano bug would not go away. So, when it came time to do a residency, Yu chose Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital in order to be close to his next great mentor, Marc Durand.

Durand is the forefather of numerous Canadian musical greats who are now top performers and professors around the world. Through six years of private lessons in Toronto and two years at the Banff Centre, Durand left an indelible mark on Yu’s approach to music and beyond.

“Marc taught me in steps what it means to play music, from a physical to a mental to a spiritual level. He was not just my piano teacher but also a life men- tor. Even now, I constantly ask myself, ‘What would Marc do?’

“When I play, I focus on the instinctual animal part of you that your brain and intellect can never keep up with. To cite an analogy that Marc would always use, you can teach a dog all these tricks, but when it gets excited and wants to bark, it barks. Similarly, you can prepare the music with your brain, but when it comes time to play, you need to focus on that lower energy that makes you want to bark.”

Next Steps

Yu just gave a performance of Saint-Saëns’s Fifth Piano Concerto with the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra this past February. His next engagement was to be in Fort Worth, Texas as part of the 2020 Cliburn Competition festivities – unfortunately cancelled, amid much else, by coronavirus precautions.

Beyond concerts, Yu is working on creating a masterclass festival for amateur pianists.

“Masterclasses were so instrumental to my growth as a musician, and there currently is a gap for it among amateur musicians. I am working on filling that gap in Calgary, but there is so much to juggle in my life. Hopefully a program or festival will be available in two years.”

As for even further in the future?

I would like to get my kids to play the piano, as they are showing some promise for that. As for me, I don’t think I will be doing any more competitions. My next life goal is to record. I think making a recording is the one missing piece of my experience that I would like to discover. I’ll still be performing live though. The stage, I’ve realized, will always be a very vital part of my life.”

Cliburn Competition

Taking place once every four years – in normal times – the Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition is among the most prestigious competitions for amateur pianists. Whereas professional competitions tend to have a maximum age limit, this competition, established in 1999, has a minimum age limit of 35. Anyone who does not perform, teach, or compose piano music for as a primary professional pursuit or for financial benefit qualifies as an “amateur.”

This year, a total of 205 non-professional pianists, age 35 to 78, representing 32 countries, submitted applications. Of the 48 selected as competitors, the average competitor age is 49. There were 14 from the business/management sector, 13 from IT/software, seven from medicine, five from accounting/finance, four from law, two from academia, and one realtor, one translator and one playwright.

Rather than cancel the event outright, the Cliburn has postponed it to the spring of 2022. (There will be a regular edition of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2021.)

Details will be announced at a later date. Competitors and festival participants accepted for this year’s event will be given first right of refusal to take part in the 2022 Amateur Competition. www.cliburn.org.

This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: Francais (French)

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About Author

Carol Xiong is ever-interested in connecting disparate cultures and human experiences. She holds a Bachelor of Music with honours in piano performance and music theory from the Eastman School of Music, as well as an ARCT with first class honours with distinction, in piano performance. She is currently pursuing her master's degree in piano interpretation at the Université de Montréal. You may find out more about her here: www.carolxiong.com

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