Catching Up with Alex McDonald After the Cliburn

Nick Romeo continues his coverage on From the Top alumni in the Van Cliburn Competition. He managed to track down  Alex McDonald at a party following the awards ceremony. Alex, 30, appeared on From the Top Show 9 when he was 17.

Alex McDonald (Photo: The Cliburn/Ralph Lauer)

Alex McDonald
(Photo: The Cliburn/Ralph Lauer)

(Q) What was your experience like the Cliburn?

It’s definitely the most nerve-wracking thing I’ve ever done. Even when I was trying out pianos, these silent guys with cameras were shadowing me, so I felt pressure not to make a mistake. At one point I just couldn’t handle it, so I started playing Super Mario on my laptop. It was like From The Top times 30,000. I’m not a career competition pianist. I haven’t done this 50 million times, which was obvious because I always had to go to the bathroom again. I wasn’t used to all of the stress. There’s a competition circuit, and I’m not on it.

(Q) What do you think of competitions in general?

This was like the hunger games for piano, except no one is dead and my bowels were a lot emptier afterward. The Cliburn is very intense; there are more cameras here than anywhere else. I’m not substantially disappointed. I tell my students that juries mess up all the time, and now I have a great example of that. The more interesting you are, the more you will divide a jury. Just to be clear, I believe the winners are very deserving. But when you rank people, you give them a new name. It gives the impression of even spacing on a scale and the most dangerous thing in the world is for young pianists to internalize that ranking. A ranking is a label, a new name placed on you by experts. I’ve had students who win competitions, and it’s a horrible growth stunter.

(Q) You struggled with tendonitis in the past.  How have you overcome your injury?

It took me six years to recover fully. I wondered about having to change career and maybe go into accounting. Everything I’ve learned about music has come from tendonitis. And many good things in my life have come from it. I met Rachel, my fiancé, at Juilliard. And I went to Juilliard to study with someone who could help with my technique. I had to release my identity as a pianist. If my primary identity is a pianist and I don’t play well, then I’m fighting for my life.  If I am a child of God, my identity is not given or destroyed by external things. I’m bummed I didn’t advance beyond the first round, but I’m not destroyed. One drawback of our western culture of individualism is that we have to create our identities. If I think I matter not because of how I play but because of what God has done for me I may be temporarily enslaved by the competition, but God loves me, I’m okay. I shouldn’t try to change. Injury forced me to confront that. It’s humbling.

(Q) What do you remember about being on From The Top?

I remember joking with Chris. He is a funny guy. I was totally psyched to be on the radio, and I was starstruck by the experience. It was great to play for a national audience.  These kinds of things bode well for the future of classical music. It is exactly what needs to happen to engage new audiences.

(Q) Did being on the show have a lasting impact on your career?

From the Top gave me a vision for how classical music can be made entertaining without compromising standards. Everyone knows From the Top, even non-musicians. It was fantastic exposure at a young age.

Alum Sean Chen Takes Third in Van Cliburn Competition

Nick Romeo continues his coverage on From the Top alumni in the Van Cliburn Competition. Sean Chen, 24, who appeared on Show 134 when he was 17, was one of six From the Top alumni to enter the competition with an impressive group of 30 international pianists. Sean was the only From the Top alum to advance to the finals. 

Sean Chen celebrates his Crystal Award with his Cliburn host family.

Sean Chen celebrates his Crystal Award with his Cliburn host family.

At an award ceremony in Fort Worth, Texas last night, Sean Chen took third place in the Van Cliburn competition.

At the press conference following the awards ceremony, Sean said: “If you had asked me when I was a freshman at Juilliard if I ever would have medalled in the Cliburn I would have laughed and left. ”

He said that the experience at the Cliburn has been one of the best and also one of the most stressful of his life. When asked how high this this moment ranks among his musical accomplishments, he stretched his hand high in the air and smiled.

He also said that he and gold medalist Vadym Kholodenko were thinking of celebrating with whiskey.

Nick Romeo’s most recent book is Driven: Six Incredible Musical Journeys. Read more at

Eric Zuber and the Cliburn

Nick Romeo continues his coverage on From the Top alumni in the Van Cliburn Competition. Eric Zuber, who appeared on Show 7  when he was 14, was one of six From the Top alumni to enter the preliminary round. 

Eric Zuber, 28 Photo: The Cliburn/Ralph Lauer

Eric Zuber, 28
Photo: The Cliburn/Ralph Lauer

(Q): How have you enjoyed the Cliburn?

It’s been a long time, but a very good experience. They’re very well organized. And my host family is taking very good care of me. I was awfully uptight in the recital rounds. Sometimes you make it, sometimes you don’t. It doesn’t say much about your caliber as an artist, it’s just one of those things. Unfortunately at a high level it’s very difficult to delineate what should make someone advance. It’s not like a tennis match with a clear objective goal and an obvious winner and loser.

(Q): Do you do a lot of competitions?

I’m almost 28, and between 21 and now I probably averaged 2 to 3 competitions a year. For someone like me who was not born into the music business it’s hard to get recognition without doing them. I don’t like them personally, I don’t know anyone who does. But I have had amazing experiences by doing competitions. I’ve traveled to Australia, Korea, and all around Israel. I wish it could have been for concerts instead of competitions, but that’s how life is.

(Q): What was your preparation like for this competition?

Unfortunately I didn’t have six months or a year to focus on the Cliburn. I had to learn repertoire really quickly. It basically takes every day all day, and knowing that it takes every day, that you don’t get nights or weekends, it puts a strain on you. It takes total dedication to be at the level you need to be so that you don’t embarrass yourself. It’s a laborious process and it can kind of lessen your inspiration. I left the hobby phase long ago, but I’d much prefer spending hours a day at the piano than crunching numbers or something.

(Q): What do you remember about being on From The Top?

I remember pretty much everything about it. It was a good experience; I was really happy to have done it. I played one of the same pieces that I played here: a Rachmaninov Prelude.

(Q): What are your plans for the future?

I’m getting a DMA at Peabody. I’ll be starting my second year of that in the fall. This past year I put off school for a year to compete. I definitely want to take a break from competing for a while. I need to rethink what I want to do. Getting money for concerts will be more difficult without big prizes, but I think I need to refresh myself. It’s been a really long and tough stretch for me. I think I deserve it.

Nick Romeo’s most recent book is Driven: Six Incredible Musical Journeys. Read more at

Alum Sean Chen Advances to the Cliburn Finals

Nick Romeo continues his coverage on From the Top alumni in the Van Cliburn Competition. Sean Chen, 24, who appeared on Show 134 when he was 17, has advanced to the finals and will perform on Friday night.

by Nick Romeo

Sean Chen, 24, with the Brentano Quartet Photo: The Cliburn/Ralph Lauer

Sean Chen, 24, with the Brentano Quartet
Photo: The Cliburn/Ralph Lauer

Sean Chen is now one of six finalists in the Cliburn.  This weekend, he will perform two concerti with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and maestro Leonard Slatkin.  On Friday night, he will play Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto. On Sunday night, he will play Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto.   I found a moment to chat with Sean about his experience at the Cliburn and his memories of From The Top.


(Q): How are you enjoying your time at the Cliburn?

It’s been great overall. It’s also been a lot of work; it’s kind of stressful.  Usually at competitions you hang out with the other competitors. You detox, have a beer, whatever. It’s more segregated here.  Since we’re all staying with our host families we don’t really see each other so much. But I have a great host family. They’re wonderful people.


(Q): What is your routine like here?

Eat, practice, eat, practice, eat, practice.


(Q): Have you been happy with your performances so far?

I felt good, but in a couple months I will be hypercritical.  It had been a while since I touched Petrushka.  I was happy with the way it turned out.  Learning the commissioned work was interesting as well. I always start out hating commissioned works, but then I really get to like them as I play them. This was very quirky and had a lot of energy


(Q): What are your thoughts on competitions?

I think most of us agree that they are a necessary evil. You can’t get this much exposure anywhere else. The most important thing is the concert engagements that come after a competition like the Cliburn.  But to be judged constantly in your playing is not really good for creativity. It’s risky to be too creative in a competition. Everyone plays wonderfully at this level, so it’s often just a matter of taste. I had friends who played wonderfully and didn’t pass the first round.


(Q): What do you remember about being on From The Top?

It was a very good experience.  I auditioned at Aspen, and it was reassuring that I could get in. A lot of Juilliard precollege kids were on it, so it was nice to know that I was at the same level even though I was in California. It was nice to meet Chris as well. I remember they did something about how messy my room was. I think they had a skit with Beethoven’s mom yelling at him for having a messy room. I applied to New England Conservatory and I remember they gave me extra money for being on From The Top. I ended up going to Juilliard, but it was nice.


(Q): What are your plans after Texas?

I’m still at Yale, doing an A.D. I have one more year. I probably want a doctorate some day as well.

Nick Romeo’s most recent book is Driven: Six Incredible Musical Journeys. Read more at

Steven Lin: Life After (But Still During) The Cliburn

Nick Romeo continues his coverage for us on From the Top alums in the Van Cliburn Competition. 24-year-old pianist Steven Lin, who appeared on Show 157 when he was 17, was one of six From the Top alumni to enter the preliminary round.

by Nick Romeo

Steven Lin, 24 Photo: The Cliburn/Ralph Lauer

Steven Lin, 24
Photo: The Cliburn/Ralph Lauer

After not advancing beyond the first round of the Cliburn, Steven Lin has stayed in Fort Worth and relaxed with his host family. He shot skeet with a shotgun at a local shooting range, swam at his host family’s pool, and played with their dogs.  He has also been reflecting on some basic questions about art, music, and his own life. In particular, he has been thinking about how to balance the often conflicting demands of musicmaking and self-promotion. “I admire people who have this naïve, pure love of music and don’t worry about finances. Music and business are totally opposite things. You’re not going to have room in your brain for music if you always worry about business,” he said.

Dangers lie at either of two extremes.  Pursuing the practical tasks of networking and marketing can limit musical growth, while neglecting these tasks might limit career growth. “I see people grow artistically but not become very famous and I see people who worry a lot about making connections get more famous but not grow deeper as artists.”

During his years at Juilliard, Lin heard many teachers talk about the importance of being creative and innovative in order to attract new audiences.  He knew they were making valid points; the market for classical music has shifted and contracted, and many of the most successful musicians have created unique media platforms to reach new audiences. Still, he felt that sometimes this success comes at a cost. “At least for me, I don’t grow artistically unless I ignore some of the business stuff. Art is about finding inspiration, and as you get older, often this happens away from the piano. If you’re constantly sitting at your computer or on the phone, you don’t get better. It happens randomly, just going through life, walking through a park you see something and maybe think about a phrase and find something interesting you want to try out.”

When Lin thinks of some of the great pianists of the 20th century, like Horowitz and Rubinstein, he sees support for his theory.  “All they did was think about music. They didn’t have to spend their time on all the other stuff.”  Of course there were other pianists who were similarly unconcerned with the practicalities of a career who did not achieve the singular artistry of Horowitz or Rubinstein. And it’s at least conceivable that some wonderful pianists today are also quite focused on the details of their careers.  But Lin has  identified a powerful tension that every young artist must confront.

Lin sometimes has trouble balancing art and business. He does have a realistic streak, and he wants his career to advance.  Lately, however, he has felt the pull of a purely musical realm.  “It is about what you want from your life. You have to ask yourself why are you doing music. If you want a big house and a lot of material comfort, you will have to work harder at the career side of things. Many musicians, they just want meals and a simple place to sleep.” He did four competitions in the past year. He found them stressful, but enjoyed the chance to perform.  He also thinks there are some cases that are simply impossible to decide. If Horowitz and Rubinstein both played, how could you choose the winner? Still, competitions are performance opportunities, and they can help launch careers.

In the fall, he will begin an Artist’s Diploma at Curtis. As for now, he feels like he needs a break. “I need to focus on my own searching. I need to keep searching for deeper things.”

Nick Romeo’s most recent book is Driven: Six Incredible Musical Journeys. Read more at

From the Cliburn: Catching up with Lindsay Garritson

From the Top is very proud to have six alumni competing in the Van Cliburn Competition in Fort Worth, Texas, one of whom, Sean Chen, has advanced to the semi-finals round.  Nick Romeo, the author of “Driven: Six Incredible Musical Journeys,” is covering the competition and got a chance to speak with competitor Lindsay Garritson, who appeared on From the Top Show 19 when she was just 12 years old.

Lindsay Garritson at the Cliburn
by Nick Romeo

Lindsay Garritson competes at the Cliburn

Lindsay Garritson competes at the Cliburn. Photo: The Cliburn/Ralph Lauer

Lindsay Garritson is one of six From the Top alumni in the prestigious Cliburn competition this year. Although she did not advance beyond the preliminary round of 30, she found the competition a very positive experience. We caught up by phone after she flew back to New Haven, where she works as an accompanist for the string department at the Yale School of Music.

Q: What was the best part of your experience at the Cliburn?

“The preparation for any big competition really pushes you to refine your playing and expand your repertoire. At the Cliburn, just knowing that I would be playing for a huge international audience motivated me to be at the highest level possible. I really gave it my all. The best moments were when I was in the moment, performing, and I felt that connection and sense of communication with the audience. And I loved all the people I met. My host family was very generous and welcoming. I’m so glad I was part of it.”

Q: What was your preparation like?

“I found out at the end of February that I would be competing. My job as an accompanist is very demanding; I’m responsible for quite a bit of repertoire. So before May, I was probably practicing 4 to 5 hours a day for the competition. After May, it was more like 8 to 10 hours.  You can’t show up prepared for just the preliminary. If you’re prepared for all the rounds, it’s about four hours of music that has to be at a concert level.”

Q: What do you think of competitions in general?

“I did five competitions in the past year. They are very helpful but they also have drawbacks. They give you exposure, lead to connections and concerts, and help you build a career. I feel like I’ve become such a better pianist through all the preparation. It can be frustrating when you have jury members with students in the competition. Even if the voting process accounts for this, it makes you wonder. To be as fair as possible, no jurors should have students in the competition. The other jurors know when a juror has students. I find it hard to believe that there’s no influence.  It’s really hard to just have a career these days, and even winning a huge competition doesn’t guarantee a lasting career. A very small percentage of concert pianists have a full-time career. So competitions can be great to kickstart a career, but they might not sustain one.”

Q: You appeared on From the Top when you were 12. What do you remember from that experience?

“Being on From The Top was an amazing experience. I had never played on the radio before. I loved it. It was definitely a high point growing up. Playing at a high level for a national audience was a big thing for me. It paved the way for playing for wider audiences.”

Q: What are you looking forward to in the next few months?

“I’m going to the Steans institute at Ravinia outside Chicago this summer for five weeks. I will focus on chamber music.”

Q: What do you like to do when you’re not making music?

“I love swimming and being outdoors. I’m also big reader. I like history in particular. I just read a book called Americans in Paris about Americans living during the occupation in Paris.”

Six Alumni to Compete in Van Cliburn Competition

It is with excitement that we report that six From the Top alumni have been named among  30 competitors in the Van Cliburn Competition, May 24 – June 9 in Fort Worth, Texas, one of the world’s most prestigious piano competitions.

vcipc_companncmntThe Van Cliburn Competition was founded in 1962 to recognize the great pianist Van Cliburn, who passed away in February 2013. In its 50-year history, the Cliburn has identified and ushered a host of exceptional artists to international prominence, including From the Top host Christopher O’Riley.

Meet the From the Top Van Cliburn competitors who represent six of eight U.S. contenders:

Sean Chen, Age 24, From the Top Show 134
Van Cliburn Profile

Sara Daneshpour, Age 26, From the Top Show 15
Van Cliburn Profile

Lindsay Garritson, Age 25, From the Top Show 19
Van Cliburn Profile

Steven Lin, Age 24, From the Top Show 157
Van Cliburn Profile

Alex McDonald, Age 30, From the Top Show 9
Van Cliburn Profile

Eric Zuber, Age 28, From the Top Show 7
Van Cliburn Profile

We’ll be reporting from the competition once it begins. So stay tuned as we follow these alumni.

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