SINGAPORE - As a new student at the Peabody Conservatory in the mid-1980s, China-born violinist Qian Zhou pinched pennies and lived on 15 meals a week.
All that changed when she swept every major prize at the well-known Marguerite Long-Jacques Thibaud Competition in Paris in 1987, a feat unprecedented in the contest's 50-year history.
It launched her internationally as a soloist, a route which would lead to the now-American citizen becoming the founding head of strings at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory in Singapore.
Today, she judges similar life- changing musical contests around the world and is also the chair of Singapore's biggest-ever musical prize, the new triennial Singapore International Violin Competition for musicians aged 30 and below.
Hosted by the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music and supported by the National Arts Council of Singapore, the contest begins on Jan 10 and has attracted more than 30 award-winning violinists under the age of 30.
Contestants from countries such as China, Germany, Japan, Latvia, South Korea and the United States, among others, will battle for a top prize of US$50,000 (S$66,560) plus a recording contract with music label Naxos, awarded on Jan 21.
Of Qian's role in the competition, the conservatory's director Bernard Lanskey says she has been "pivotal in shaping the contest to be so quickly recognised as potentially world class".
He adds: "Her international credibility is such that she was able not only to draw together quickly such a distinctive jury, but also that she could garner interest from so many of the world's top teachers."
The nine-member star-studded jury, for example, includes South Korea's Nam Yun Kim, who has also judged prestigious violin competitions such as the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels and Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, plus Israeli violin doyen Shmuel Ashkenasi.
As the days count down to the first round of the competition, Qian, who turns 47 this year, barely moves from her office and command centre at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, working on Christmas Eve and holidays to ensure all goes smoothly.
Of the 35 shortlisted candidates, two are her former students - Singaporean violinists See Ian Ike and Loh Jun Hong. A third Singaporean, Phang Lijia, is also in the running.
As a member of the jury, Qian refuses to speculate on any of their chances, saying only: "I want this contest to discover the deserving. Deserving means talent level and musicianship."
She shares her memories of competing.