The Long, Hard Road to the Van Cliburn for Young Dallas Pianist Alex McDonald

The audience swelled with pride as Alex McDonald took his seat at the grand piano and lifted his long, slender fingers to the keys. Tall, blonde and clean-cut, 30-year old McDonald carries himself like the kind of man your mom wishes you'd marry. And that handsome face is a familiar one to the group of piano teachers gathered last Wednesday morning in the sanctuary of Park Cities Presbyterian Church to hear him perform at a meeting of the Dallas Music Teachers Association (DMTA). (Disclosure: I'm a member).

McDonald addressed the group with casual confidence before playing selections by Ravel and Liszt. The performance doubled as a sort of dress rehearsal for the pianist, who will play these pieces and many more in the coming weeks as a competitor in the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth.

See also: Van Cliburn: An Appreciation

Of the 30 finalists in this year's Van Cliburn competition, McDonald, a Dallas native, is one of only seven from the United States and the only Texan. Many of the teachers in the audience last Wednesday have watched Alex play the piano since he was in elementary school. Like a room full of musical mothers, grandmothers, aunts and uncles, each one claims a bit of ownership in his musical education.

Lois Nielson chose a seat in the front pew, directly below Alex and the massive Steinway grand on stage. At 90, she looks exactly like the piano teacher of your imagination: thin, wiry and wrinkled, but hardly frail. Mrs. Nielson was Alex's first piano teacher. From before he was five until he graduated from high school, Alex took weekly lessons in her home. His lesson time was 6 a.m., and Mrs. Nielson had high expectations of her students. She still does. Streams of potential prodigies still come to her weekly for lessons.

For McDonald, competing in the Van Cliburn competition is the fulfillment of a life-long dream. He had his first encounter with Van Cliburn when he was 10 years old. He spotted the legendary pianist being shuffled towards a waiting car after an outdoor concert. This was his chance, he thought. "I knew it was him," McDonald explained, "because he was a head taller than anyone else. He was a towering giant."

McDonald ran up to the iconic musician, but he stumbled over how to address him. "I think I went with something like 'Mr. Van Cliburn Sir'," he recalled with a laugh. "He patted me on the head and called me 'sonny'."

Eight years later, in 2001, McDonald was one of hundreds who applied to compete in the Van Cliburn competition. Fewer than 150 of those applicants were selected to get an audition and McDonald didn't make the cut to try out that time. He did, however, receive a note from the foundation complimenting his playing and encouraging him to try again.

But as is often the case, one's 20s can be a tumultuous decade. By his senior year of college, McDonald found himself dealing with a debilitating case of tendinitis in his left arm. He continued to pursue the piano, heading to Juilliard in New York, where he worked with a variety of doctors and specialists. In the end, he had to dramatically change his practice habits.

At first, as he recovered, McDonald was only allowed to practice for six minutes a day in three, two-minute segments. This was a massive mental shift for someone used to spending hours upon hours at the keyboard. He was allowed to add one minute to one of the segments each day until, over the course of a year, he got back up to three hours of daily practice.

When he finished his doctoral degree at Juilliard, McDonald says he felt depleted. And, he explained, "there's a psychological element to being injured." He also needed to rethink how he approached performance. He explained the journey: "When I was younger, playing piano was my identity. If I played well I felt good about myself, if I didn't play well I felt bad about myself. I needed to learn to be a whole person however the playing goes. Perhaps the bigger issue isn't whether I win, but a deeper spiritual battle."

And then he added, "Don't get me wrong, I want to win."

Last Wednesday, Alex's mother, Marcy, also a piano teacher and DMTA member, slipped into a back pew just before he began playing. While her fellow teachers watched and absorbed his performance, Marcy McDonald's pen scribbled across the page of a folded program, meticulously taking notes on his performance. Others might have viewed the DMTA meeting as a sort of celebratory send-off for one of their own, but with the competition just over a week away, there was still serious work to be done. A $50,000 prize and three years of career management -- the prize for the winner of the Van Cliburn -- is not something to take lightly.

Tonight, Alex will join his 29 Van Cliburn competitors for a draw-party to determine their performance order. The preliminaries begin Friday. Check back in with us here for updates on the competition and on Alex McDonald's Van Cliburn journey.

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