Tips to Rise to the Top in Music Competitions from 2017 Van Cliburn Winner Yekwon Sunwoo

By Galilee Abdullah |

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Yekwon Sunwoo, Gold Medalist at the 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition (Photo: Jeremy Enlow / Cliburn)

One of the top prizes every pianist wants to take home is the gold medal at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, held every 4 years in Fort Worth, Texas. The competition was first held in 1962 and is named in honor of Van Cliburn, who won the 1958 International Tchaikovsky Competition.

This year’s gold medalist is 28-year-old pianist Yekwon Sunwoo, the first South Korean to win the competition. Born in Anyang, South Korea, Mr. Sunwoo began learning piano at age 8. He made his recital and orchestral debuts in 2004 in Seoul before moving to the United States to earn his bachelor’s degree at the Curtis Institute of Music and then a master’s at the Juilliard School.

He first learned about the Van Cliburn Competition after watching a documentary about it when he arrived in the United Sates as a teenager. “I was really fascinated by it, and Van Cliburn has been one of my favorites. So since then, I've always wanted to participate in the competition.”

“It has such a great reputation as competition and it guarantees that an aspiring concert pianist can really start their career,” he added.  “I actually participated in the last Cliburn competition in 2013, but I was the first alternate. I was kind of lazy and I wasn't really focused on preparing, so there was not much motivation. I didn't want to have regrets. So I decided to do it this year, and it worked out well.”

If you are looking for tips to help you prepare for a music competition, read Yekwon Sunwoo’s tips below.

Treat the competition like a concert

“I try to think of the competition more like a concert when preparing. I try to be very sincere to the composer and try to bring out all the true emotions, not playing to dazzle or just for the effect of musical expression. I just try to be sincere about what I'm feeling and what I think is true, as I would in a concert.”

Get by with a little help from your friends

“When I was preparing I had wonderful friends around. Last year I moved to Munich, Germany, and now I have many friends in the city. We all have this same kind of respect for composers and the same approach of how to treat music and how we prepare and express music in concert settings. They inspired me a lot to be more true to my own voice and to also stay focused on the music itself, and not just on the competition.”

Shut out the noise

“I try not to speak too many people when I do a competition. I think my mom was a little upset by this. But she now understands and I'm really thankful for that. And she knows that I don't like to talk or to have anyone message me at all. I try not to communicate with that many people. It’s kind of so that I could be really, really concentrated on the music and that's all.”

Stay healthy

“I had a cold towards the end of the competition. I arrived a few days before so I wasn't actually feeling worn out. At one point – it was like two days before the finals – I put on like extra blankets and extra clothes so that I could sweat out the cold and try to be in the best condition possible.”

“The last two days I couldn't practice even though I wanted to, but I knew that if I forced myself to practice, things could get even worse and also that will affect the performance in a negative way.”