October's themed month explores the world of international competitions through the eyes of some finalists of top competitions around the world. We continue our competition tips series with Seong-Jin Cho, winner of the International Chopin Piano Competition 2015, winner of the International Fryderyk Chopin Competition for Young Pianists in 2008, 3rd Prize of the Tchaikovsky Competition in 2011 and 3rd prize of the Arthur Rubinstein Competition in 2014.

Seong-Jin Cho © Fryderyk Chopin Institute | Bartek Sadowski
Seong-Jin Cho
© Fryderyk Chopin Institute | Bartek Sadowski

Did taking part in competitions boost your career? How?

Yes for sure. It was a huge boost. Despite having many recitals and concerts with famous orchestras before I became the laureate of Chopin competition in 2015, there has been a dramatic increase in great offers for concertos, recitals and many renowned music festivals after that event – around four times the number of offers from 20 to 80 times per year. Especially, I won a recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon after winning the competition. This is truly amazing. 

When is the right time to enter a competition? Are there some important factors to consider when choosing the right competition to enter?

Really difficult to answer. I could not say what the exact time is or how to choose the perfect time. But I want to say that it cannot be made or decided in just one day. Based on your experiences, understanding and passion for great composers’ music and your technical achievement in various repertoire from your youth, all these should be integrated for choosing the right competition. For me, the repertoire that I’ve played from the elimination rounds to the final of the Chopin competition were all pieces that I had been playing for a long time from my childhood, not newly learnt.

What are the ingredients of a good program?

Not only for competitions, but also for recital programs, I think it should have some stories of delivering powerful messages which can move the hearts of audiences. The messages could be your own experience, your renditions, and passion for pursuing that music. 

Are competitions a good thing? Do you struggle with competition nerves? How do you manage them?

No, I could not say it is a good thing. People said that I am very calm and brave whenever I play the piano on stage. But every round that I played at the competition was absolutely nerve-racking. You could even see my hands and legs were shaking when I started my nocturne in the first round. I just wanted to focus on my own music and rendition. I try and avoid hearing other competitors' performances. I just don’t want to scatter my attention.

Have you had any competition nightmares?

Definitely. The problem is, I still have those nightmares on a bad day. One of them is a sudden notice for a change of competition repertoire just 1-2 days before the competition day. In dreams, I am definitely embarrassed and had no idea how to memorize those pieces in one day.