Tom Donald, pianist & composer

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

When I think about this question, it reveals to me how different music is from anything else. If you look at any other profession, there is that moment where you want to head down that path for a variety of practical reasons. Music seems like something that chooses you rather than the other way around. I remember as a teenager when I would practice or play in ensembles or compose music for local groups, it felt like something I would be happy to do forever. Whilst at school, you learn about the cycle of a normal career, you work for 40 odd years and then retire. But as a musician, you are just entering a rabbit hole, you’ll never perfect the art of it, you’ll never know enough – it’s a constant exploration that you can’t just retire or walk away from. So in that sense, it’s something that just happened to me and I had to surrender. Perhaps that’s where the choice comes in, it’s not the easiest thing to surrender too and the music itself, as well as the life of an artist, brings about so many challenges in other areas, but I am a big believer in problem-solving and a bit foolishly optimistic, so perhaps that side of my personality gears me to this madness.

Inside the music itself, I’ve had so many sudden shifts. I formally studied composition and piano so I could choose whether I wanted to be a concert pianist or composer, my composition teacher introduced me to the likes of Keith Jarrett and then I changed my mind and wanted to become an improviser/jazz musician. Then I was that for a while, and then I was asked to write music for a few Arabic, Italian and British films, and then next thing I was a film composer using the piano primarily for these complex cultural exchanges.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Collaboration. It’s the greatest challenge yet at the same the greatest triumph. As artists, we all have our musical vision and ideas, but we become more powerful when we fuse our ideas with other artists on a different journey to ours. This will often lead to, dare I say, some compromises, change of directions, external influences out of our immediate control, but if an artist is willing to navigate these challenges and learn to listen to the journey of whom they are collaborating with, be it a film director or it might be a community cause, a song-writing collaboration, chamber music or cross-cultural collaboration the sum becomes greater than the parts.

By letting go of personal attachments and pre-conceived artistic notions some incredible creativity is there beyond these challenges. I’ve found writing film music a very specific challenge in this field. The director has a personal story you need to tell through your music, the music must not dictate the terms, I’ve had to deal with combining the piano with non-Western tunings and scales. There are endless technical details, so you need to have the vision and be prepared to tell your ego to “go take a hike”. But these challenges are also probably the things I’m also the proudest of, but in any intense collaboration, there are moments of frustration, but if it was like a fairy tale, it would be boring wouldn’t it?

One of the more recent challenges in collaboration I’ve had has been starting a refugee choir, The Citizens of the World Choir, with Becky Dell from the Becky Dell Academy, and Lord Roger Roberts, a peer in the House of Lords, as well as a team of some amazing community leaders. We were faced with arranging music from over 10 different countries with choir members who speak over 10 different languages, but I believe that the piano has the ability to cross cultural boundaries well outside the Western system it firmly belongs in, but it takes a lot of rethinking what the instrument is about and how to approach it. These challenges often involve experimentation that does not bear the fruit of its labour, but when you get it right, it is truly magical and as a choir we have now performed our unconventional set list across the country from Eisteddfods in Wales to the Globe Theatre and we even fused a Diwali folk song with a Christmas Carol. It’s amazing how universal a scale or a mode can be.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

In 2016 I gave an improvised piano concert at Conway Hall. I’ve given numerous similar concerts throughout my career, such as The Ealing Concert in 2006 which was released in 2010. The improvised piano concert is still a very unusual and rare format: beyond Keith Jarrett and a few others, I’m not very sure how many pianists out there attempt this genre. The Conway Hall concert is finally being released next year. Something magic happened that evening. We had a full house and it was in the middle of the London Jazz festival, so it was a surprise to me that there was so much interest in this concert when so many other things were going on in London. There was a lovely warmth and atmosphere in the room that I couldn’t describe. I’m happy it was recorded, because like improvised music often is, it only belongs to the moment. In that evening, I played with Arabic modes to Folk tunes and some sort of jazzy John Cage prepared piano adventures. My love for Schubert’s piano music also seemed to find its way into some of the improvisations. It seemed totally off the cuff, but it actually was an alignment of my whole life of exploring improvisation. The Conway Hall concert is due for release next year.

I’m also proud of the film soundtrack I composed for Koutaiba Al Janabi’s film Leaving Baghdad. It was a very intense and difficult story to score for, and there was some horrific footage of the Saddam Hussein regime used in this film. I never felt very well prepared to take on this journey, and had to rely entirely on my artistic instincts. In complete contrast to the Conway Hall concert, where I was in my own private artistic world with no compromises, Leaving Baghdad was a polar opposite, and I’m equally proud of both recordings, despite their differences.

From the film Leaving Baghdad – Tom Donald and Kurdish Vocalist, Nawroz Oramari 

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

If you had asked me that question even 5 years ago, I would say I’m best suited to contemporary jazz of the ECM brand. I like the delicate touch of so-called “European Jazz” and I have two jazz trio albums from 2014 and 2016 that received warm reviews in that niche. Both albums are available for streaming on Spotify/Apple/Bandcamp

In recent years I have become more interested in creating new arrangements and transforming simple pieces. I like to study the repertoire that I can develop outside the jazz idiom. I love working with folk music from all over the world and transforming it into a complex polyphonic piano journey and I’ve been told by many of my colleagues that this is what I do best, though for me it’s just something I love doing. At the moment, anything regarding polyphony and arranging music is two things I can spend doing weeks on end. Ironically, in my classical playing this draws me closer to composers of a polyphonic nature rather than that of an improvisatory nature, composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Brahms all the way through to Shostakovich are a big influence but I still love the lofty wandering nature of Schubert’s piano music which seems to find its way into many completely unrelated genres of my music. All of these influences tend to influence my repertoire choices across all of my collaborations.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

Music can be a lonely thing, so I love to draw inspiration from others outside the music world, whether it’s from sports, science, business, the wider arts, winemakers, literature, whatever it is, there are so many universal parallels, and that interests me much more than taking a partisan approach to music. There is an art to anything, not just music, and I think it’s crucial to see the parallels and break down the barriers. I think more than anything else, stories are what provide me with the most inspiration, real stories of real people’s lives, and overcoming challenges and struggles. This provides me with so many golden nuggets. Recently I was moved by reading some of my Grandfather’s accounts of the Second World War, which led to a composition, Honour of the Season:

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I think about my audience first. Improvisation is a challenging genre and for that reason, it can come across as non-inclusive from the audience’s perspective. This for a long time hasn’t sat well with me. In my latest concerts, including my concert at the Top of the Shard back in February before the first lockdown, I prepared by developing some broader themes to empower my audience with a few “anchors” of reference. Rather than taking the modernist jazz approach of just raw improvisation, which by the way, is something I love and is very hard to let go of. I chose a famous Arabic piece to reflect the origins of this very international building in London. I made an arrangement of “Streets of London” obviously a very famous song about London, in an apt location, but using improvisation I used the figured bass in the song to incorporate Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”. I improvised very heavily on Coldplay’s “Clocks” because the tune is a blank canvas, but still the opening chords are so recognizable, that the audience can identify with what is “Londonesque” (is there such a word?) about the song before I let it drift to wherever it wants to as an improvisation. With its repeated bass notes, it’s very easy to turn it into a Schubert like impromptu. On the jazz side, choosing pieces that people recognize such as “Waterloo Sunset” or Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t she lovely” whilst both pieces are not native to the “jazz repertoire” lend themselves to being a jazz standard because they are excellent pop tunes.

These approaches have enabled the audience to feel more included in the improvisation journeys I am having on the stage, and it’s so important to me that they are part of the experience rather than just passive listeners because I’m always very self-conscious of the fact that improvisation can come across as self-indulgent or just a bunch of players on the stage enjoying themselves more than the audience. These aspects have recently strongly encouraged my repertoire choices. I also enjoy improvising on classical repertoire. Improvisation was such a big part of classical music from the Baroque through to the Romantic period, in recent years Improvisation in classical music has slowly been replaced by the supremacy of the written score. After all, Chopin and co needed to get paid to publish their beautiful scores, but prior to romanticism where the composer was transformed into a hero and the pianist into an interpreter, improvisation itself was commonplace in Western music. Vivaldi once complained to his publishers about how poor at improvisation keyboard players were, implying he would have much preferred to publish his unfigured bass lines.

I often choose preludes from the Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier or figured bass lines to improvise on or a few Chopin waltzes and that often goes down well with audiences. I think Chopin would have made a phenomenal jazz pianist if he were alive today and you can see it in his writing.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I actually love performing in non-concert venues – outdoor performances are the most fun. Providing a beautiful piano is there and the weather elements are not intrusive. I once performed on the beach at a film festival in Sicily on a hot summer’s night, I did the same thing for the Dubai film festival back in 2011. When I was 18, I gave a piano recital of some of the Rachmaninov Preludes and my 1st piano sonata back in Australia, in a Bull Yard! Yes, you heard that right. It was actually a very posh event, we brought in a beautiful Beale grand piano (which is a unique Australian build of piano that can handle our harsh weather events) and an audience of Sydney concert-goers visited the tiny village of Nundle to attend the concert. Some of the best chefs in the country were brought in to prepare the hospitality for the event. It was such an incredible opportunity for me as a young performer at the time. I think that planted the seeds for me getting ideas to perform in different types of venues. Though I still love traditional concert halls, but there is a whole other unexplored world out there. I also love playing in churches and cathedrals, and they have brought some of the best work out of me.

Tom Donald Ealing Concert: Recorded at St Mary’s Church, West London 2006. Released 2010

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

I think this could apply to any genre of music, but it’s so vital to give your audience a real authentic experience. Music of whatever shape or size, should not pretend to be something it’s not. Otherwise, you just get something that looks false. Audiences don’t need to love every moment of every genre of music, whatever it is, they just want to enjoy something that is real, authentic and that takes them somewhere. I think also it’s an opportune time to look at the word “classical”, it’s such an umbrella term. Young discerning listeners of music, talk so much about sub-genres, different cultural infusions, and categories, and sub-movements, and classical music, is in a sense responsible for Western music up until the globalism of the 20th century. The difference between a Monteverdi Opera and a Rachmaninov concerto is just as varying as the difference between a Rachmaninov concerto and a Beatles song.

There is a saying in the marketing world, “if you talk to everyone you talk to no-one”, and this is true of classical music. If I’m attending a Mahler symphony at a Proms concert, I will see an audience of both young and old of Mahler fans, I can strike up a nerdy random chat about Mahler with a stranger in the audience (or their partner, if they’ve been dragged along) I wouldn’t be able to do as easily at a Haydn/Mozart Proms concert. There are so many internal genres inside the classical umbrella, and if I had an extra life available to me, I would be very interested in finding the style of classical music that let’s say Punk music fanatics would love. Or heavy metalheads love, or techno heads. I saw a wonderful performance of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians at the Royal Festival Hall last year where my friend Siwan Rhys was one of the pianists in the ensemble, and there were many non-classical fans in the audience. I was taken aback as to how the concert had a real rock festival feel to it in terms of the audience and I’m always most fascinated by music that crosses boundaries for the audience. The most exciting thing about classical music is that there is something inside that treasure box for everyone. My main concern is the industry doesn’t explore that treasure box enough and tries to copy popular culture too much, which can just look gimmicky.

Finally, and most importantly, Education is the key. I believe passionately in the power of education, perhaps it runs in my family as both of my parents had a career in the education sector. I am the principal and founder of the London Contemporary School of Piano and I lead an amazing team of fantastic pianists in London’s music from Siwan Rhys, Alberto L Ferro & Jack Marshall who all share my passion and vision for piano education. I see first-hand the impact of what music education does. The devil however is in the detail, I think we need to give children the right tools for finding their own way in music. If we simply shove genres of music down their throat and give them no sovereignty of their musical choices, they will not be interested in music, let alone classical music. I believe if we give children tools such as polyphony, chords, harmony, dissonance, sudden key changes, the exciting and modular foundations of Western music, rather than linear ones, the likelihood of them building a serious relationship with classical music is much higher rather than just throwing lots of graded repertoire their way.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

There are too many to mention. When I was just 14, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra visited the country town I grew up in. In those days, before YouTube, you only accessed symphonic classical music through CD purchases, which is limited to a teenager’s budget. They played Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. I was just blown away and was speechless. Now living in London as an adult, I’ve started to take these opportunities of being able to see an amazing orchestra most months of the year almost for granted, that is until lockdown….

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Authenticity combined with the ability to connect different people and ideas together. By the way, any form of success involves changing your mind on a regular basis as you grow and develop, so this answer is only temporary!

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

I’m slightly reluctant to give out advice because there is no magic formula and I don’t want to contribute to the endless bad advice that’s out there. The best pieces of advice come from those who know more than you do and here are the four best pieces of advice I’ve ever received that have served me well over many years.

1. Be yourself, it’s actually your greatest asset, and rather than looking up to your idols, look into them, their behaviours, their characteristics which is the science behind their success, this is more important than just trying to compare and imitate them. Imitating your favourite artists will eventually lead you to a dead end.

2. On a practical level, learn some marketing and copywriting skills along the way. It’s not a dirty word, after all, if you were to have a birthday party you would send an invitation to your friends and tell them when/where. Who’s going to show up to your music career? You have to find a fan base. Without them, you have no framework to build a career and many artists confuse social media with real marketing skills.

3. Don’t be scared to scramble some eggs, if your work gets a reaction it is better than no reaction at all. You’ll never make everyone happy.

4. Be careful who you take advice from! A simple but highly effective universal formula is to take advice from someone far ahead of yourself. If you want to be healthier, take advice from someone who is very healthy, if you want to be happier take advice from someone who is much happier, the same applies to your career, music and anything else. We often take advice from the wrong people!

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Having my own recording studio that represents my vision of making music would be an ultimate dream for me. I’m impatient, so hopefully, I can accomplish this in a couple of years.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Spending time with my wife and my 11-month-old daughter.

What is your most treasured possession?

My Blüthner Model 6 piano

What is your present state of mind?

Reflective and analytical

Born in the remote Australian town of Coonabarabran, Tom Donald grew up in the North East Australian town of Tamworth, which is known as the country music capital of Australia. Tom’s country Australian roots have led him to an unlikely career as an composer who speaks a rare international language.

Since age 16, Tom has led numerous touring bands, and produced a variety of albums in collaboration with American jazz vocalists to film directors. He has also sustained a prolific solo career as a pianist. Shortly after arriving in London 2004, he performed at Abbey Road studios performing improvisations on music by Lennon and McCartney.

Tom is passionate music educator and is the author of the “Harmony Method”. This is a revolutionary approach to teaching classical, jazz and popular harmony on piano.

In 2011, he established the London Contemporary School of Piano, with the backing of many early adopters of his piano teaching methods. The school has now taught over 500 students from over 20 different countries. The LCSP has fast become an influential force in piano education world wide.

The London Contemporary School of Piano is in partnership with Blüthner pianos, famous for it’s world-class hand made pianos.

Read more

Tom Donald’s Official Discography 

Tom Donald on Spotify

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