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  • Jessica Lee

What You Can Learn from Watching Other Pianists Perform Live

Poster of The Leeds International Piano Competition

Delight in the playfulness of Mozart and the wittiness of Haydn, indulge in the romance of Rachmaninov and Chopin…or simply be wowed by the virtuosity of Liszt. The first round of the Leeds International Piano Competition was truly a performance not to be missed.

The Leeds International Piano Competition

Since its creation in 1963 by the legendary Dame Fanny Waterman, the Leeds International Piano Competition has helped many concert pianists start off their professional careers, including Andras Schiff, Mitsuko Uchida and Murray Perahia. There are four rounds in the competition, with the second to fourth rounds being held in the city of Leeds in the United Kingdom. The third round also features a chamber music round and the finals include a concerto round that is played with the Hallé Orchestra, which has been based in Manchester since 1858.

The first round of the competition was held at the Universität der Künste Berlin, the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music in Singapore and the DiMenna Center for Classical Music in New York. Around 200 pianists auditioned to enter the Leeds International Piano Competition, of which 68 were selected to participate in the first round of the competition. Among the 68 selected pianists, 11 played at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music Concert Hall.

The competition featured a diverse range of participants from various nationalities and schools, including pianists from internationally renowned music schools such as the Julliard School of Music, Royal Academy of Music, Royal College of Music and Guildhall School of Music and Drama. In the Singapore round alone, the competitors came from China, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore…and one even came all the way from Ukraine.

What Can Be Learnt from the Competition

At an international competition such as the Leeds Piano Competition, the repertoire of pieces being performed and the standard of playing are both very high. With the vast range of repertoire being performed at international competitions, one can increase his own musical awareness and gain a greater appreciation for different genres of music. Attending music competitions are thus, a platform for widening one’s own repertoire of pieces and enhancing stylistic awareness of different types of music.

The Leeds International Piano Competition highlighted the importance of musicality when we play the piano. Just like how the X-factor determines who wins in the American Idol, musicality is what sets apart an outstanding pianist from someone who merely types or hammers away at the piano. This can be seen from Ukraine pianist Kseniia Vokhmianina’s attention to details and nuances in the tone she produced on the piano, which gave her playing poise and elegance. Her rendition of Scarlatti’s Sonata in D minor, K.213 stood out due to the care she took in shaping the melody and creating contrasts in her dynamics each time the theme came back. Her effective characterisation of pieces was evident from her playing of Scarlatti’s Sonata in A major, K.39, where she managed to bring out the lively and perky character of the piece. Finally, Kseniia Vokhmianina’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Moments Musicaux Op.16 No.4, 5 and 6 demonstrated her versatility in switching between pieces of vastly contrasting moods. The torrential Presto in E minor (Op.16, No.4) is a major exercise in endurance and resembles Chopin’s Etude Op.10, No.12 in its relentless left-hand runs. This was followed by the barcarolle-like Adagio sostenuto in D flat major (Op.16, No.5), before the stormy and agitated Maestoso in C major (Op.16, No.6). In particular, the Adagio sostenuto in D flat major with its melody being in chordal texture, revealed Kseniia Vokhmianina’s ability to bring out the voicing over frequent suspended tones, as well as Rachmaninov’s musical lyricism. On the other hand, the Presto in E minor and Maestoso in C major brought out her technical prowess, with both pieces being written in the style of an etude.

Another pianist who demonstrated the importance of musicality was Malaysian pianist Hao Zi Yoh, whose performance of Haydn’s Sonata in D major, Hob XVI: 37 stood out with her light touch and nuanced shaping of the melody. These, together with the ornaments that were played light and delicately, allowed her to bring out the wit that characterises Haydn’s sonatas. Additionally, Hao Zi Yoh’s attention to changes in harmonic colour and contrasts in her dynamics throughout the three movements of the Haydn sonata made her performance even more memorable. Similarly, her rendition of Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 was handled with great musicality, encapsulating Chopin’s beautiful musical lyricism through the tone she produced on the piano, as well as through her carefully crafted shaping of the melody. Similar to Kseniia Vokhmianina’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Moments Musicaux, the Chopin Ballade No. 4 allowed Hao Zi Yoh to showcase both the expressive and technical strengths in her playing, with the ballade being very rich in emotion and prone to sudden switches in mood. In her last piece, Albeniz’s ‘Triana’ from Iberia, Book II, she managed to evoke the ambience of a flamenco by giving appropriate stresses to the accents on weak beats and bringing out the metrical displacements, effectively portraying the lilting, dance-like feel of the piece.

The competition has also been an eye-opener in showcasing what the piano is capable of. Rather than just a simple solo instrument, the piano seemed to take on the role of an orchestra at times, especially when it came to works from the Classical era by the likes of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. Classical piano sonatas have become much more imaginative than just scalic runs, they are also about imitating the sounds of orchestra instruments, be it strings, woodwinds or brasses. This was brought out by Taiwanese pianist Wei-Ting Hsieh in her performance of Mozart’s Sonata K.576, where one can almost imagine an orchestra playing together at tutti and even individual instruments playing at certain parts, including the violins, horns and upper woodwind instruments.

Through observing how seasoned performers execute challenging passages in the music or parts that might seem virtuosic, we can gradually learn to mimic and apply their techniques to our own playing, thereby improving our skills over time. In the Leeds International Piano Competition, Korean pianist Hee Jun Han’s performance of Liszt’s Rhapsody Espagnole S.254 demonstrated her strong technical mastery over the piano. The opening of the piece alone showcased her ability to create a dramatic atmosphere through rich and powerful chords, as well as through an aggressive growling in the lower register of the piano when the left-hand tremolo comes in. The Rhapsody Espagnole also revealed her skill at playing swift and light leggiero passages through nimble and supple movements, as well as by gliding her fingers over the keys when it came to broken chordal or arpeggio figurations. This allowed her to produce a delicate and light touch in the leggiero passages of the piece, creating a nice flowing effect as well as a bell-like ringing sound in the upper register. Hee Jun Han’s technical bravura shone through her playing, where she executed cadenza passages, wide leaps, majestic chords, pounding octaves, chromatic passages doubled in thirds and many other virtuosic feats, all whilst building towards an explosive climax.

Other commendable and solid performances exemplifying technical bravura during the competition include Rhythmie Wong’s performance of Ravel’s La Valse, Taek Gi Lee’s rendition of Liszt’s Aprés une lecture du Dante and Jinhyung Park’s performance of Liszt’s Tarantella, S.162.

For the finale, Singaporean pianist Clarence Lee demonstrated a host of technical skills with his rendition of Liszt’s Etudes d’ execution transcendante S.139, Wilde Jagd. Aggressive and furious, the Wild Jagd showcased Clarence Lee’s brilliant technical skills, where he executed alternating runs, large leaps, powerful chords and consecutive octaves. Throughout his performance, he also displayed the energy and air of a performer, where the audience could sense his excitement in playing the Wild Jagd from the first to the last note of the piece. As the last competitor to play for the evening, Clarence Lee did Singapore proud by ending with a bang and concluding the first round of the Leeds International Piano Competition with his spectacular performance.

With so much that can be learnt from watching the first round of the Leeds International Piano Competition alone, who can wait for the next upcoming opportunity to watch another pianist perform live!


Jessica Lee has obtained her Licentiate and Fellowship diplomas in piano performance from the Trinity College of London. As a music-lover, she frequently attends music concerts. A multi-instrumentalist, she also plays the flute and electone. She currently teaches piano privately as well as at a music studio.

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