Donegal pianist finds his own style in a competitive world

James O'Malley of Glenties has performed at the Patrick MacGill Summer School and Arts Week these past three years

Carolyn Farrar


Carolyn Farrar


Donegal pianist finds his own style in a competitive world

James O'Malley. Photo: JMAC Photography

A Glenties pianist is developing his own style as a performer while making sure the door is open to the younger musicians who come after.

James O’Malley of Glenties, 27, would be known to audiences at the Patrick MacGill Summer School and Arts Week, where this year he and Carrick pianist Evan McGarrigle performed during the intensive week of discussion and debate. James has worked at the summer school for more than 10 years and performed there the past three.

“The opportunity to perform there is terrific,” James said. He loves pushing the arts side of things during the politics and policy-driven week.

The MacGill programme has included tributes to playwright Brian Friel and poet Seamus Heaney, “but I think it’s also good to have a bit of music in the week - it gives an extra element to the school,” James said.

“It’s like an oasis in the middle of the week,” he said. “There are really intense political debates going on, which are amazing in their own right, and as performers we are hoping that people are able to sit back and lose themselves in the music.”

On July 23rd, after this year’s summer school ended, James and Glenties piano teacher Ann McDwyer also organised their annual charity concert featuring young local pianists. The MacGill school hires a world-class piano for the week from Limavady Pianos, and the young players use this in the concert.

“It gives kids a chance to perform,” James said. He said the concert is “as much to make money for charity as to show students this is what performing music is about, and giving them a platform”.

James said it was very different for a pianist to play an instrument of that quality. “When the tool is in front of you to bring your music to the next level, it makes it special for you as well,” he said.

James first started taking piano lessons with Ann McDwyer in Glenties when he was 10 years old. He acknowledged that was rather late for a professional musician to begin, but that was the first opportunity he had because of the demand locally for piano lessons at the time.

“When I started off on the piano I guess I just fell in love with it a bit,” he said. He played bass guitar and keyboards with the local band Guilty of Rhythm, “but I was always very much a piano kid,” he said.

He continued the standard progression through Royal Irish Academy grades, finishing grade eight when he was 17. After sitting his Leaving Certificate at Glenties Comprehensive School, he entered NUI Maynooth.
“For pianists who have learned classical piano it’s really a terrific place to go,” he said. “When I joined the college there, that's really when my progression in piano became exponential.”

He said, “You learn in colleges like that to treat it as more of a profession, and when you make that decision for yourself to take things more seriously, naturally enough you begin to push yourself as well.”

James earned a first-class honours bachelor’s degree in music and mathematics from Maynooth was awarded a scholarship for the first-class honours master’s in performance and musicology that he also earned there. For the past few years he has been a senior tutor in their department of mathematics and statistics.

He was always honest with the maths department - “I like maths but I love music” - though he has found links between the fields: In his master’s research he found significant overlap between music theory and group theory in mathematics. He would love to investigate how group theory can be used to analyse how composers bring together disparate elements to create a new whole.

“Analysing that is often easier said than done,” James said. “There are often a lot of things happening in a piece of music that we don’t even know.”

With all that, he still pursues a busy teaching and performing career in what is an extremely competitive world.

“With a pianist it’s you - you’re the soloist and you’re competing with all these other people,” he said. James said pianists must discover what makes them stand out, and said his experience at Maynooth taught him to put more of himself into his performances, to put his own stamp on the music he plays.

“It sounds like a bit of a cliche, but everyone has their own personality and I think everyone has their own personality when it comes to music,” James said. “You have to decide for yourself what that is and who you are as a musician, and project that all the time.”

Playing at that level requires weeks and months of preparation for public performances. James has more time to devote to piano during the summer when he gets back to Donegal with his parents, Bernie and Seamus, and his two brothers. He dedicates himself to a major work each summer: This year it was Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, which he performed at MacGill; last year it was Beethoven’s sonatas.

When pianists play solo, “you’re putting an awful lot of your own personality out there, your own dreams and thoughts, and you run the risk of people saying, ‘Oh no, that’s crap,’” he said.

“You need to be a wee bit brave,” he said.

He enjoys playing for people who do not usually listen to classical music. Many times people have come up to him after a performance to say they hadn’t been looking forward to the experience but they really enjoyed it.

“To hear that you’ve converted someone is a terrific thing,” James said.

Of maths and music

Most of James’ musical training took place at Maynooth under Dr Antonio Cascelli and Fionnuala Moynihan. As an undergraduate was awarded the Dr Lennon, Pamela Manley memorial and Denvir prizes from the maths department.
Last year he was one of 36 third-level teachers selected out of 800 for a Teaching Hero Award from the National Forum for Teaching and Learning.