top of page

Adam Summer School Alumni Spotlight: James Donaldson

Updated: Feb 12

The Adam Summer School for Chamber Music, a prestigious event for young string and piano players, is about to turn 30! Taking place in Nelson each February, the Adam Summer School brings together up to 30 talented young musicians and organizes them into brand-new chamber ensembles for eight days of intensive training.

To celebrate the 30th School taking place this February, we're going back to the very beginning - The Class of 1995! We sat down with James Donaldson, an alumni from the very first Adam Summer School for Chamber Music (then called the Nelson Chamber Music School) to see what he's up to now.


James Donaldson stands against a dark background holding a cello. Alumni Spotlight: Class 1995.
Alumni Spotlight: Class of 1995. James Donaldson, Director of The Nelson Centre of Musical Arts.

James Donaldson

Years Attended: 1995

Instrument: Cello

James Donaldson is a cellist and alumni from the first ever Adam Summer School. He has spent the past few decades performing and in the classroom teaching our next generation of music-makers. In a stunning full-circle moment, James is currently the Director of the Nelson Centre of Musical Arts, the home of the Adam Summer School.

1. Describe your Summer School experience in three words.

Set my course.

2. How did you find out about the Summer School and what motivated you to apply?

I was in my third year at Canterbury University, hungry for an opportunity to make music, learn and gain experience. I was determined to make a career in music, but it’s fair to say I had no idea what I was getting myself into. 

The experience grounded me as a young musician, it helped me understand the reality … the enormity of the task I chose for myself, but it also served as a springboard into a world of collaborative music-making that has brought me constant joy and fulfilment in the years since. I signed up because it sounded exciting, I left with my future in mind.

A Flyer from the Very First Summer School.

"I signed up because it sounded exciting, I left with my future in mind."

3. What’s the most memorable moment from your time at the Adam Summer School?

Thirty years later the memories are still so vivid, and the things I learned in that week are still valid for me today. It is impossible to highlight only one memory. Over the years I’ve been inspired most often by the NZSQ’s passion and unshakeable belief in the power of collaborative music-making and music education. Together with Michael Houstoun the teaching team provided practical advice, much-needed encouragement and deep motivation in perfect balance. 

It was the journey that stuck with me, not the destination.

4. Have you kept in touch with any of the other students you met at the Summer School?

So many of us went on to achieve remarkable things, some in the public eye and others at the coalface. I can’t think of any who aren’t still making music in some capacity, but it’s worth noting that the skills you learn as a musician are absolutely transferable to other jobs and careers. Music teaches you to think, to visualise, plan for and achieve challenging goals, and to motivate and unify a team behind a vision. That’s a recipe for success in any profession. 

There’s definitely a network formed from the Adam Summer School I’ve relied on from time to time as I’ve moved through the professional arts world as a performer, an educator and an administrator. It’s been especially exciting to see students I remember from my classroom who have gone on to launch their own careers through the Summer School in recent years.

James Donaldson Conducting
Music teaches you to think, to visualise, plan for and achieve challenging goals, and to motivate and unify a team behind a vision. That’s a recipe for success in any profession. 

5. What repertoire did you play at your Finale Concerts?

The Schumann Piano Quintet! I don’t think we quite made it to the last movement, but we definitely took a look. We were originally programmed to play the Schubert ‘2 cellos’ quintet, but at the last minute one member couldn’t make it. There was no such thing as IMSLP in those days, and the Uni library was closed - and I was certainly not a capable sight-reader. Talk about a baptism of fire! I recall Michael Houstoun setting his expectation at the time: “Every time you play, add an extra note.”

6. Are there any pieces of advice you received at the Summer School that you still think about to this day?

Many, including:

  • Rolf modelling irrepressible excitement on discovering a clever key change.

  • The quartet sharing for perhaps the first time the expressive freedom possible when you free the violins and viola in a string quartet from the tyranny of chairs!

  • How simple a complex piece becomes when you look at it through the lens of a scale.

  • How important the smallest physical gesture - voluntary or involuntary - can be in communicating intent.

  • The physicality of playing a stringed instrument, the importance of knowing and looking after your body when you’re playing long hours.

  • The value of physical routines (‘rituals’) in  promoting success in high-performance activities.

  • The value of facilitation - having the right resources (quality studios, expert advice, a supportive and collegial workplace etc) is invaluable when you’re reaching for the stars.

7. Do you have any advice for current and future Adam Summer School Students?

Don’t hesitate. No matter the challenge, the support will be there to get you to the finish line. Remember everything, this experience will stay with you, and you’ll be amazed how much of this experience will prove valuable in your life outside music.

8. What have you been up to since Adam Summer School?

I’ve spent a lifetime making music in one way or another. From my early attempts at a career playing in string quartets for weddings and parties, learning the profession over 8 years in a tenured role with Christchurch Symphony, 20 years in the classroom and now 6 years running a treasured and iconic musical institution in one of the most artsy cities in New Zealand.

9. And what's next?

I am actively working towards bringing my life full-circle, and I’m lucky enough to be in a job that is allowing me to do that. Playing music really is food for my soul, and I’m loving making that my priority at the moment wherever I can.


Celebrate the 30th Adam Summer School by attending a Finale Concert on Sunday 18th February 2024. These concerts are your chance to see the next generation of music-makers in action.

Date: Sunday 18th February 2024

Time: 3pm & 7pm

Location: Nelson Centre of Musical Arts, 48 Nile Street, Nelson

Tickets: $5 - $25, book at

55 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page