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Pianist Overcomes Odds To Compete In Van Cliburn Competition

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PLANO (CBSDFW.COM) - Alex McDonald of Plano is still recovering from competing in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition earlier this month. McDonald, who holds a PhD from Julliard, admits that experience was exhausting but, exhilarating as well — starting with the phone call to let him know that he’d been invited to compete.

“I knew right away when they called that it was good news,” says McDonald with a subtle chuckle. “Nobody calls to tell you that you didn’t get in.”

Although McDonald wasn’t one of the 12 semifinalists, the opportunity to compete in what he calls “the Olympics” of classical music was “huge.”

“A lot of people helped me get there… my parents, my teachers, friends, my fiancé. It takes so much support to help someone really accomplish anything. And all of us are the product of a lot of help, as well as hard work.”

That’s especially true for McDonald, whose appearance at the international competition took far more than hard work and talent. It took tenacity.

As a freshman in college at the New England Conservatory in Boston, he developed tendonitis. “It was a sharp, shooting pain to the left arm,” recalls McDonald, who also says that he still remembers the exact chord he struck when he first experienced the pain.

“I was practicing about 8 hours a day at that point. Didn’t take too many days off—maybe Christmas and my birthday—so I was very driven, giving it everything I had.” The painful repetitive stress injury could have ended his career. But, more than that, McDonald admits that his music had also become his identity and how he found self-worth.

“When I got injured, there was a big hole inside. And I had to take that hole and find joy elsewhere. And for me, the place where I found it was knowing that God and friends don’t love me for how well I play.”

Still, McDonald had a decision to make. After some 25,000 hours logged at the piano, could he just walk away? Ultimately, the answer was ‘no’. But, he had to start over and re-learn his technique. “It was sort of like re-learning how to walk.”

McDonald, now 30, was barely beyond the toddler years when his mother, a piano teacher, began lessons.

“You had to have a little stool, for your feet, so you wouldn’t fall off the bench,” recalls McDonald. He was just shy of his fifth birthday. But, ultimately McDonald says his Mom decided it was best for their relationship if she handed him off to someone else. That someone else, he says, was Lois Nelson, who he still calls a “wonderful lady” who taught him for 13 years.

“We used to do piano lessons at 6:30 in the morning, if you can imagine that. So, I would be up at 5, and then get your lesson done before school.”

He was about ten, he says, when he won a competition that allowed him to perform with the orchestra at Southern Methodist University. “I’ll never forget that experience, that was probably when I got hooked.”

For a man of such immense talent, McDonald is also fun and humble about his gift. He had this to say to those who might complain that they just don’t “get” classical music.

“First of all, I would apologize to them for the attitude of superiority that we sometimes take regarding our art,” says McDonald. “The key to understanding classical music is to understand the language these composers are using. If I can tell my listener a little bit about what they’re listening to and how the composer is communicating, they almost always get something very enriching for themselves out of it.”

McDonald also believes that music was meant to be a community experience, so he will be sharing his talent at a couple of free concerts. He’ll appear at SMU’s Caruth Auditorium at 7:15 on July 18 and again for a free appearance in September.

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