Playing from the heart
Al Thomas ’81 has had a love affair with the piano that has continued over the decades.
By Sarah Mulnick ’17
Most professional pianists start playing at a young age, drawn to the elegance of the instrument and the skill of the composers they admire. Although Al Thomas ’81 didn’t start playing the piano until his parents bought one for his 16th birthday, he didn’t let that stop him—he entered Elon a year later as a piano major.
For the Burlington, N.C., native, the love affair with the instrument has continued over the decades. “It was an immediate thing, once I discovered piano,” Thomas says. “It was like, ‘this is it, this is what I was looking for.’”
As a student, Thomas played with Emanons, the jazz ensemble on campus at the time under the direction of Jack White. The group was so active, it performed up to 30 concerts along the Eastern Seaboard each Winter Term he was at Elon. Thirty years later, Thomas still fondly remembers the time the group performed in a jazz festival in New York City on the Lincoln Center Plaza with thousands in the audience.
For Thomas, who also played trumpet in the marching band, music has always come easily, like being good at math or having a head for science. “It’s about the gift God has given you,” he says. “If you have a particular talent for something, then you’re going to enjoy it more if you nurture it.”
Thomas studied all of the different periods of music while at Elon, and, sitting in a coffee shop on campus decades after graduating, he can still easily describe various composers’ styles. It isn’t just classical music that he enjoys, he’s quick to say—he appreciates all styles. He has his favorites, though, from jazz players to concert pianists. One of his favorites is Maurice Ravel, a French composer who has influenced classical musicians as well as jazz pianists.
Thomas, who lives in Burlington and owns a successful real estate appraisal business, Thomas Appraisal Co., continues to play piano as frequently as possible, challenging himself to enter amateur competitions. He has competed in several competitions including the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs in 2007 and 2011, and the 2014 Chicago Amateur Piano Competition, where he was a semifinalist. He has also given recitals at Elon, including performances with his daughter, Katie Solars, who is a professional violinist in New York City.
He performs most of the music from memory rather than reading a music sheet because he says it allows him to express more freely and play from the heart. For each competition, he has to prepare at least an hour’s worth of music. The competitions are more than just a chance to play for Thomas since they also offer a chance to learn about the talents of other serious amateur pianists.
“There are so many people in the world with music degrees who studied seriously and that continue to develop their music even though they have other careers,” Thomas says. “These competitions give us a chance to have a goal and for our music to have legitimacy and to perform before a live audience.”