2 of 30
A series of conversations with the Cliburn competitors
Born: North Dallas
Early start: McDonald was born and raised in North Texas and gave his orchestral debut at age 11. He earned a bachelor's degree from the New England Conservatory of Music, and master's and doctoral degrees from The Juilliard School. He now teaches piano at Texas Woman's University, as well as private lessons.
Turning point: In college, two bouts of tendonitis in both arms nearly ended McDonald's piano career, forcing him to relearn basic techniques. When he thought he could no longer play, McDonald considered following in his father's footsteps and becoming an accountant. "It was upsetting. As a performer, your entire identity is wrapped up into your work," he says.
Big news: The same week McDonald learned he would compete in the Cliburn, he got engaged to his girlfriend, Rachel, a violist he met through Juilliard Christian Fellowship. The two tentatively plan to wed in August 2014.
In his free time: McDonald enjoys reading Calvin and Hobbes comics, geology books and novels.
Taste in music: Favorites include jazz musician Miles Davis and rock band Switchfoot. "Also, Lady Gaga is a guilty pleasure," he says.
On the Cliburn competition: "I looked at myself in the mirror a year ago and said, 'OK, you're going to be 30. You need to do this now. It's time.' " McDonald also says he wanted to show his students he could relate to their performance struggles and nerves.
On Van Cliburn: McDonald met Cliburn, his idol, when he was 8 years old at an outdoor concert. "I was nervous about what to call him," he recalls. "I went with Mr. Van Cliburn sir."
Why he plays: McDonald says he wants to pass down an appreciation for classical music. "When I see a husband getting dragged by his wife to a concert, I want to turn him into a music lover. After the performance, I want him to think, 'Well, I wanted to be watching the OU-Texas game, but I actually enjoyed myself here.' "
-- Sarah Bahari