The life and times of Tom Donald, concert pianist, film composer and founder of the London Contemporary School of Piano
Interview: Jean-Paul Aubin-Parvu
Portrait: Orlando Gili
I was born in the tiny Australian town of Coonabarabran and grew up in Tamworth, the country music capital of the southern hemisphere—the Nashville of Australia if you will. My mum had inherited a battered piano from her childhood, because she was the only one who ever practised, and as a kid I’d sit at the piano on those hot summer days and whack on the keys, forming a connection with the instrument. I spent many hours on it, not particularly knowing what I was doing, but over time that slowly turned into music.
When I was around eight years old and taking piano lessons, I heard Elton John and decided that I wanted to write songs and play piano like that. Then, during my angsty teenage years, I got into Beethoven, Rachmaninov and Chopin, and by my early twenties I’d discovered jazz and improvisation—artists like Keith Jarrett and Herbie Hancock. Now I love music from all over the world—there’s just so much out there.
I managed to get a job playing piano in Tamworth’s only cocktail bar at the age of 15, the one requirement being that I had to be able to play Smoke Gets In Your Eyes. With the tips I made every weekend it was my first taste of being a professional musician. I thought, this is fun; I’m getting paid to practise. It was great being able to interact with the public at such a young age and I believe there’s far more value doing something like that, rather than taking piano exams. Having that opportunity to perform put me well ahead of my peers.
I studied piano and composition at the Newcastle Conservatorium in New South Wales and then moved to London. I decided to challenge myself and throw myself out of my comfort zone. I came here on that typical two-year visa thing, where the Aussies usually go home after 12 months because they can’t stand the weather. But London just drew me in and it’s very hard to see myself ever leaving.
The jazz scene
I did the jazz scene for a long time, playing in the bars, and also worked for a couple of music schools. I could really start to see a lot of things that I thought were wrong with music education—not just in this country but around the world—and got the urge to start my own piano school.
The London Contemporary School of Piano is based at the Blüthner Piano Centre. When we launched in 2010, I needed a place that would be able to supply me with world class musical instruments, because one of the most important things about learning piano is you need to be able to sit down with another musician and play together. Blüthner is a fantastic family-owned company from Germany and we’ve had a fantastic partnership over the years.
My role at the school involves looking for more effective ways to teach and learn piano. Most people give up when they reach about grade four. We have some real issues with the piano exam system. Most children are taught music in a very ineffective way. They are given a book containing nine songs; they choose three and practise them all year until it drives their parents and themselves to despair. And then they give up. That system doesn’t work.
We live in London, for goodness’ sake—it’s a city of musical innovation, but the education system doesn’t reflect that at all. Many of our adult clients gave up when they were kids, which is something they regret. They are coming back to learn piano with us, and the second time round it’s a joy rather than something they dread. Our system is really based on creativity
Adults often have a self-confidence issue. They think they failed at piano when they were a kid or that they’re just not good enough. And I love proving them wrong. I show them a bunch of simple scales that we can jam on. We play together, and they really let go. They start to express themselves without thinking about whether they played the right or wrong note. They just connect with the music. It’s very satisfying to see someone’s eyes spark up, like: “Oh my God! I just played something that sounded good.” That makes mine the best job in the world.
I teach students myself and also have a team of five absolutely extraordinary pianists, incredible people who help me realise this vision. We teach both children and adults, many of whom live locally, but we also have students from 25 countries travelling to London from abroad just to take our courses.
As a performer, I like to explore a very wide range of music. Improvisation is a huge part of my concerts and some critics have compared me to the American pianist Keith Jarrett. I do love to let the music develop into its own thing. I recently performed a show at the very top of the Shard. And now that we know it’s possible to get a Blüthner piano up there, we’re planning a series of concerts starting in November.
I am also a film composer. I don’t know how I’ve ended up in the genre of Middle Eastern films—perhaps it’s my attraction to music I’m not familiar with—but I’ve written music for quite a few including Leaving Baghdad and Tangled Up In Blue.
A mixed identity
I feel like I have a very mixed identity. I love going home to Australia—I need the vitamin D for a start—and when I’m catching up with family and friends I always wonder if this will be the trip that will tempt me to move back. But the minute I land at Heathrow, I think: “Oh it’s so great to be back here in London.” I think my family are a bit confused, because Australia’s a pretty good place and they can’t quite see the attraction of London. I think only Londoners can see it. It’s a bug we all get.
I love tennis. I don’t play it very well, but I’m trying to get better. Actually, since starting the piano school I’ve really been inspired by just how proficient my students become in a short amount of time. So, I decided that I needed to get off my backside and learn a few new skills, and recently took up dancing. I thought I had two left feet, but it turns out that if you open your mind you can learn anything. My latest challenge, which I’m nowhere near mastering, is learning Russian. My wife is Russian, so I need to learn the language because otherwise I might one day have children speaking Russian behind my back.