Composer, Pianist, Educator

Dr David Önaç

MA(Cantab), MPhil, MMus, LRSM, PhD

Chronological Outline

Early interest in piano, composition and jazz & gospel

David began formal piano lessons aged 4 in the Caribbean, but also began improvising from an early age, and was fascinated by the rich harmonies played by Bahamian gospel keyboardists. These three areas of musical interest have remained central to him ever since.

After moving to the UK, his high school compositions showed these interests – you can hear David aged 16-17 playing the piano in his pieces The Butterfly (2000, solo piano, BBC Young Composer of the Year runner up), and Waves (2002, violin, trombone and piano, Purcell Rooms, Music for Youth National Festival).

Cambridge: undergrad and MPhil

2002 – 2006

From 2002-2005 David completed his undergraduate degree in music at Homerton College, Cambridge.

He studied piano with Aaron Shorr in his final year (his final recital included Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No.5), but also played keyboard in a student jazz quintet in his spare time.  Academically he focused increasingly on composition, and stayed at Cambridge to complete the one-year MPhil in Composition in (2005-6 tutored by Robin Holloway).

Four Etudes (2005, solo piano) were written during his MPhil, premiered by Simon Smith at Kettle’s Yard Cambridge, and premiered in Europe (Brussels) by Peter Donohoe.  They show David’s continued interests in piano, composition and jazz, and were inspired by Chopin, Debussy and Ligeti’s piano études, the annual Bahamian Junkanoo festival, and David’s own free improvisations.

Manchester: MMus and PhD

2007 – 2012

David pursued composition further in Manchester, starting with an MMus in Composition (2006-7 tutored by Adam Gorb) at the RNCM.  Here, he took opportunities to write pieces for various ensembles such as Sound (2007, for brass band), and further explored his budding interest in string quartets.  This had begun in Cambridge with a pastiche quartet in the style of J Brahms (2005), then developed into quartets heavily influenced by Shostakovich such as String Quartet no.3 (2007), and In memory of Timothy Sharpe (2007, commemorating a friend and fellow RNCM student).

David then completed his academic studies with a PhD in Composition (2007-12 tutored by Camden Reeves) at the University of Manchester. Here, his methods of composition changed significantly, resulting in a much more integrated approach, a more assured technique and the composition of larger and more coherent structures. His final three PhD pieces ‘From Different Places’ (2009, large orchestra)‘Ayla’ (2010, violin and piano)and ‘Newton’s Cradle’ (2011, piano concerto) were awarded the 2012 PRS Composition Prize, and two of these also featured David as solo pianist.

Simultaneously, David pursued his jazz & gospel interests as Musical Director and keyboardist of the University of Manchester’s award-winning Harmony Gospel Choir, also compiling the medleys and arrangements sung by the choir in the BBC Songs of Praise Gospel Choir of the Year televised finals, and for their triple win at University Gospel Choir of the Year.

Birmingham & Sheffield

2013 – 2020
As a Teaching Fellow in Music at the University of Birmingham (2013-17), David devised, taught and administered modules at all levels of the curriculum in Composition and related disciplines (eg Tonal Harmony & Counterpoint, History & Analysis, and Orchestration).  At the Head of Department’s request, he also designed a brand new module “Introduction to Jazz Styles” in response to student interest, which included performance and analysis options with bespoke assessment criteria. David was also commissioned by Simon Halsey to write “Nöel” (2016, SATB and organ) for the University of Birmingham’s annual Carol Service, which sets J R R Tolkien’s recently rediscovered poem of the same name.  This setting was granted generous permission from The Tolkien Estate, who also generously funded a separate recording of the piece for their archives (Selwyn College Choir, Sarah MacDonald).  
 

While at Birmingham, David simultaneously maintained his jazz & gospel activities in Manchester, continuing as MD of Harmony Gospel Choir, and becoming MD for Manchester-based gospel collective Voices Beyond. This included co-writing original songs and arrangements such as this jazz and neo-soul reworking of the well-known carol God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (2016). 

This emphasis on choral works continued in Sheffield, where David was appointed Director of Choral Worship at All Saints Ecclesall from 2018-2020. In addition to weekly administration and direction of choral music, David also oversaw important updates of various resources, including digitising the repertoire used on regular Sundays which ensured it could be accessed during COVID lockdowns. David also arranged and conducted all the music for significant festival days in the church calendar, such as the 70-strong choir and orchestra for the Christmas Candlelight service.

Back to Manchester

2021 – Present
Since mid-2020, David has been based in Manchester full-time, dividing his time between teaching, composition and performance.  
Teaching includes: 
  • at tertiary level, Composition and related disciplines (eg Tonality) at the University of Manchester; 
  • at secondary level, Composition and Jazz at the Junior RNCM as well as peripatetic ‘classical’ piano at St Bede’s College; 
  • at all levels, private tuition in composition, piano and theory.  Please see the dedicated Teaching page for more information.  
Composition is primarily on a commission basis (feel free to Contact David with an outline of your project): 
  • recently, David was specially commissioned by the ABRSM to write a new piece for their 2023-24 Grade 5 piano exam syllabus entitled “A Distant Star in the Stillness” (2022), and also arranged two of the pieces for the piano Initial Grade and Grade 3; 
  • he has subsequently been working on several other ABRSM commissions which will be released soon;
  • David also writes to commemorate significant and special life events, such as “Beauty of the Bride” (2020), which David played as his wife walked down the aisle.  This piece will become part of a larger collection soon.
Performance:
  • David has performed a significant proportion of his own compositions, which you can hear on his Soundcloud page.  
  • Please see the dedicated Jazz & Gospel page for performances in these styles.