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I was wondering, has there been any amateurs who have won prestigious international competitions?

Prestigious international competitions such as the Tchaikovsky Competition, Liszt, Queen Elizabeth, etc.

What I mean by amateurs I mean people who don't study at conservatories from such young age or is a pupil of a well-known pianist / teacher.

Last edited by Nitrovaleric; 05/29/20 09:01 AM.
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Not all of the big competition winners studied at conservatories. Perhaps teachers become known when their students start winning competitions.

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P.S. by studying at a conservatory I mean studying full-time. Most of the students at many conservatories just attend for a weekly lesson with a teacher who happens to be based there. The training is the same as private lessons.

Last edited by johnstaf; 05/29/20 09:25 AM.
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An amateur pianist is someone who does not perform F/T as a musician and makes a living from the performances. They'd enter into competitions every few years and practice on their spare time.

The profile of a Canadian Dr. Thomas Yu who works as a F/T dentist and won piano competitions as an amateur:

Periodontist wins world piano competition in memory of mom

Thomas Yu Bio

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Jon Nakamatsu won the Tchaikovsky as an amateur.


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Lucas Debargue, while not exactly an amateur, was more of an on/off musician in some periods of his life, also to a certain degree self-educated, abandoned piano, used to work in a supermarket, studied literature instead, then decided to go back at the keyboard and worked with a piano teacher when finally awarded 4th place at Tchaikovsky in 2015. In the competition he was infamous for using some very unorthodox fingerings such as running scales with only two fingers, etc which was to the horror of the jury. A very interesting character I would say. Check him out.

Last edited by CyberGene; 05/29/20 12:29 PM.

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Originally Posted by thepianoplayer416
An amateur pianist is someone who does not perform F/T as a musician and makes a living from the performances. They'd enter into competitions every few years and practice on their spare time.

The profile of a Canadian Dr. Thomas Yu who works as a F/T dentist and won piano competitions as an amateur:

Periodontist wins world piano competition in memory of mom

Thomas Yu Bio

Thomas Yu won the Van Cliburn Amateur competition—- by definition, all entrants are amateurs with a minimum age, and no maximum age requirement


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Originally Posted by BDB
Jon Nakamatsu won the Tchaikovsky as an amateur.

1997 Cliburn.

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Originally Posted by CyberGene
Lucas Debargue, while not exactly an amateur, was more of an on/off musician in some periods of his life, also to a certain degree self-educated, abandoned piano, used to work in a supermarket, studied literature instead, then decided to go back at the keyboard and worked with a piano teacher when finally awarded 4th place at Tchaikovsky in 2015. In the competition he was infamous for using some very unorthodox fingerings such as running scales with only two fingers, etc which was to the horror of the jury. A very interesting character I would say. Check him out.

He doesn't even particularly like the piano as an instrument, but likes some of the music written for it. Incidentally, his teacher in Paris, Rena Shereshevskaya, teaches last year's winner, Alexandre Kantorow. She's probably one of the world's most sought-after teachers now.

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Originally Posted by johnstaf
Originally Posted by CyberGene
Lucas Debargue, while not exactly an amateur, was more of an on/off musician in some periods of his life, also to a certain degree self-educated, abandoned piano, used to work in a supermarket, studied literature instead, then decided to go back at the keyboard and worked with a piano teacher when finally awarded 4th place at Tchaikovsky in 2015. In the competition he was infamous for using some very unorthodox fingerings such as running scales with only two fingers, etc which was to the horror of the jury. A very interesting character I would say. Check him out.

He doesn't even particularly like the piano as an instrument, but likes some of the music written for it. Incidentally, his teacher in Paris also teaches last year's winner Alexandre Kantorow. She's probably one of the world's most sought-after teachers now.
Quite a weirdo indeed 😁 I have all his releases in my Apple Music library. Wonderful playing, top-notch! Have you listened to his Gaspard de la nuit, it’s a live performance?

Last edited by CyberGene; 05/29/20 12:48 PM.

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Here’s an article about Lucas Debargue.

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Incredibly, he was self-taught until well into his teens, beginning with jazz. To quote my colleague Ismene Brown, in a Spectator blog post shared 3,700 times on Facebook, ‘he started playing a friend’s piano by ear, aged 11, and tinkered around until giving up at 17 and working in a Paris supermarket... Invited by his old home town to play in their local festival, he picked up the piano again and played so brilliantly that he was put in touch with a hot-house Russian piano coach in Paris. After four years, he was in the final of the Tchaikovsky competition, playing with an orchestra for the first time in his life.’

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‘I’m not satisfied with the results of the competition,’ said Boris Berezovsky. ‘Our beloved Frenchman Lucas Debargue who deserved as a minimum a bronze, in my opinion even silver, was shifted to the fourth. Surprisingly, it was the decision of non-Russian jury members.’ To which British juror Peter Donohoe, writing on Norman Lebrecht’s blog, replied that ‘[censored] happens’ when you ‘apply democracy to something so subjective, abstract and variable as a music competition’.

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But what really shocked the jury, I suspect, was Debargue’s fingering. I’ve never seen anything like it. Scales played with only the thumb and index finger and his pinkie sticking up as daintily as Hyacinth Bucket’s. One piano teacher reportedly walked out in protest at this ‘amateur’ technique.

Last edited by CyberGene; 05/29/20 01:02 PM.

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Originally Posted by BDB
Jon Nakamatsu won the Tchaikovsky as an amateur.

Nakamatsu was not really an amateur. He started the piano at 6. He just went away to do something else until he won Van Cliburn. As far as i know since 97 he is a full time pianist.

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Originally Posted by CyberGene
Quite a weirdo indeed 😁 I have all his releases in my Apple Music library. Wonderful playing, top-notch! Have you listened to his Gaspard de la nuit, it’s a live performance?

I have indeed! The one from the Tchaikovsky is stunning. I've heard another one from an American performance.

He's amazing. Simple as that.

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It is very difficult for amateurs to win major competitions since the age limit is quite young and they are biased towards launching new careers of young artists. I know of a few people that studied seriously when younger, but now have professional tech or medical careers and are "amateurs" that I think would be on the same level of a Cliburn or Thiakovsky competitor. But since they are older than 30 (a common age limit) they can no longer enter.

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There is nothing weird about Debargue except for his somewhat late start studying classical music seriously. I think the article posted in this thread is one of those typical articles that sensationalize things in an attempt to make the article more "interesting".

In fact, checking his bio online, Debargue started taking piano lessons at 11, quit at age 15, and then resumed taking lessons again at 20. He was not largely self taught. He must have already been quite a good pianist by the time he resumed lessons at 20 to be taken on as a pupil by his teacher.

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Debargue graduated from the École Normale de Musique de Paris "Alfred Cortot", a leading conservatoire located in Paris in 2016. IOW he had top conservatory training. What is true is that in terms of total years studying classical piano he probably had less years than most of the other competitors in the Tchaikovsky Competition. Most of them probably started at an earlier age and had no break in their study.

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How does one define "amateur" in a young pianist?

Most were still studying when they won big - like Grigory Sokolov, who won the Tchaikovsky at 16.......and he wasn't taken seriously by most concert promoters after that win either.


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Here’s an online bio of Debargue:

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Born: October 23, 1990 - Paris, France

The French pianist, Lucas Debargue, was born in a non-musical family. In 1999 he settled in Compiègne, about 90km north of Paris and began his initial piano studies at the local music school at the age of 11. At 15 he ceased piano studies having found no musical mentor to help him share his passion with others and having become frustrated at playing solely for himself. He began to work, successfully for his Baccalaureate at a local college and joined a rock band. At 17 he relocated to the capital to study for a degree in Arts and Literature at Paris Diderot University and, remarkably, ceased playing the piano altogether for three years.

In 2010 Lucas Debargue was asked to play at the Fête de la Musique festival in Compiègne, and this marked his return to the keyboard. Shortly after he was put in touch with his current mentor and guide, the celebrated Russian professor Rena Shereshevskaya, who is based at both the Rueil-Malmaison Conservatory and the École Normale de Musique de Paris ‘Alfred Cortot’. Seeing in Debargue a future as a great interpreter, Professor Shereshevskaya admitted him into her class at the Cortot School to prepare him for grand international competitions. It was at the age of 20 when Debargue started formal piano training.

Only four years later he entered the Tchaikovsky Competition in 2015

If the part about him playing scales with two fingers is correct, this certainly means he had a very deeply internalized bad habit that’s not coming from a teacher, yet has been maintained for many years before he could finally start in the conservatory and with Shereshevskaya, 4 years before the competition. If one can’t eliminate this habit in 4 years with a top-class professor, then to me this is a good indication of long years of self-study (or neglect from school teachers who hadn’t seem to bother at all).

Of course, the part about two finger scales might be sensational too, I agree the article sounds like a lot of journalistic BS sensationalism.

Last edited by CyberGene; 05/29/20 04:37 PM.

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I think it's virtually certain that the two finger scales is BS like much of the article. By the time he started at the Cortot School he almost certainly played at a very advanced level to get accepted and be taught by a big teacher. I don't think it's possible to play advanced pieces using two finger scales. It's certainly not possible to play at the level required to graduate from that school and to successfully play in the Tchaik Competition using two fingers of scalar passages.


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