15 Dec 2023

Shan Liu: From YouTube tutorials to concert recitals

From Three to Seven, 4:00 pm on 15 December 2023
Shan Liu, winner of the 2023 Lewis Eady National Junior Piano Competition

Shan Liu, winner of the 2023 Lewis Eady National Junior Piano Competition Photo: Adrian Malloch Photography

Shan Liu doesn't really care how he does at competitions.

"My teacher Stephen [De Pledge], he always says concerts and competitions are just for practising... I just give it my best try."

Liu's 'best try' made him the youngest ever winner of this year's Lewis Eady National Junior Piano Competition, at the ripe old age of 13.

Speaking with RNZ Concert host Bryan Crump, Liu credits his father and uncle with his love of classical music.

His father, who plays the violin, also had a "really old crusty upright piano" in the house which he tinkled on from time to time when Liu was a baby.

The sounds intrigued the infant Liu who began to tinkle the ivories himself.

He would also listen in to his father and uncle playing classical music on old vinyl recordings.

"When we went to uncle's house, he would always have music on in the background... and I would like to touch the vinyl, and he said that would break them. I didn't know how. It had some sort of special connection with me."

When Liu began playing J S Bach by ear on the piano, his father thought it was time to start some DIY lessons. At first, that involved picking up playing tips online.

"Those [online] tutorials, you'd see just the hands. So we'd copy every single finger on the video."

Still not able to read music, the 8-year-old Liu entered the Lewis Eady Junior Contest (an annual competition, for children from 4-12 years old) in 2018, just "for fun". His father showed him how the notes in the musical scores related to the fingering of the piano keys, "and I would straight off copy that, so I really didn't need music at that point".

But his parents realised, following success in the contest and his increasingly obvious potential, that he did need a piano teacher. 

John Eady helped find Liu find one: Stephen De Pledge.

"When I first started going to lessons with Stephen [in 2019], my main problem was sight reading and reading music."

It wasn't a problem for long. Here's Shan Liu in action, playing at the 2020 Lewis Eady National Junior Piano Competition.

In the 2023 Lewis Eady competition, one of Liu's feature works in his recital was Scriabin's Piano Sonata No 4, which has plenty of notes on each page.

"I started learning the piece at the start of the year, just for fun. I think all the harmonious melodies and stuff are really interesting and weird, which I really love."

At first Liu found it hard. At the age of 13, his hands are still on the small side (for a pianist) and some of the fingering is asking a lot of a 13 year old. But "progressively, I just fell in love with the piece".

Liu will be hoping his hands continue to grow, because next year he's taking on the Second Piano Concerto by the super-mitt-sized Rachmaninov with the Manukau Symphony Orchestra.

He's already performed Grieg's Piano Concerto with them, but the Rachmaninov is another step up.

However, what really impresses a lot of the music lovers who have heard and seen Liu play is not his technical ability – which is already pretty advanced – but his instinctive musicality, something far more precious and rare.

"A lot of people when they look back at video recordings of my concerts, I use a lot of facial expressions. Some people might love it, some people might not necessarily, but it's quite natural for me to just move around the piano."

Are those facial expressions are a sign of Liu responding to the music as he plays it?

"Basically yes... I really don't plan out how I want to shape the music, it's just how I feel I want to shape the music, depending on the mood of the day."

Pianist Shan Liu (2023)

Pianist Shan Liu Photo: Supplied

There's an audible exhalation of air when Crump asks Liu if he's set on becoming a professional pianist.

"I think there's still a long way to go and I don't want to set high standards like I want to pursue music as a career, because it's really hard to become a full-time professional pianist... but music is my passion so I'd aim towards pursuing music for as long as I can."

His family want him to study medicine or engineering.

"Classic Asian parenting," he laughs, but they also support him pursuing music as well.

"I'll decide when I'm older."

In the meantime, there are two big concerts coming up in 2024. There's the Rachmaninov with the Manukau Symphony Orchestra, and Khachaturian's Piano Concerto with the NZSO National Youth Orchestra, which is what he's studying at the moment "and just getting the notes under my fingers for now".

We think music is already well and truly under Liu's skin.


Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus: Piano Sonata No 14 in C minor K457 (1), excerpt - Shan Liu (piano) (RNZ 2023)

Scriabin, Alexander: Piano Sonata No 4 in F# minor Op 30 - Shan Liu (piano) (RNZ 2023)