Tom Doran, Professor of Music Emeritus, Passes Away

December 10, 2021

Tom Doran in the 1990s, Albion College.

Albion College piano professor Tom Doran in the 1990s.

By Jake Weber

During his 37 years at Albion College, from 1963 to 2000, Tom Doran earned a reputation as an exacting and challenging professor, who described his own music history course as “fiendish”—for himself to teach as well as for the students to learn.

As a result, Doran, who died December 6 at the age of 86, claimed to never teach the same course twice, revising the syllabus each time he taught it.

“I still have my notes from Music History with Tom; I used them to study for my doctoral comprehensives,” says Dr. Clayton Parr, ’75, director of choral activities at Albion. “Now, it’s my turn to teach music history and I refer to these notes regularly. It’s one way his legacy lives on.”

Doran’s expectations of his piano students—regardless of their abilities and aspirations—were equally high. At the time of Doran’s retirement, Zach Kleinsasser, ’01, described Doran’s skill.

“His ability to listen to a student’s playing, criticize the hell out of it without sounding angry, and then to coax a completely different—and much better—version of the same piece out of the student has been, in my experience, unparalleled,” says Kleinsasser, who was a history major and studied piano for personal enjoyment. Nonetheless, “Dr. Doran taught me to be meticulous, demanding of myself and uncompromising. But he also taught me how to be forgiving and how to criticize with kindness. And he helped me understand that living in my comfort zone is like a ship sailing in a harbor: safe, but that is not what it was made for.”

‘Superior Knowledge’

Doran also taught Music Appreciation, Introduction to Opera, Introduction to Orchestral Literature, and the Honors Program Fine Arts seminar. He relished the opportunity these courses provided for sparking a love of music among non-musicians, so much so that he listed these courses first on his CV under teaching experience.

His enthusiasm—and encyclopedic knowledge—also extended to mentoring colleagues.

“Musically we were kindred spirits, and I learned an enormous amount from his vastly superior knowledge,” explains Colin Jagger, who says his three years (1996-99) directing the College’s orchestra was his first “real” job. Jagger returned to his native Great Britain in 1999, but notes that his family and Doran met regularly over the past 20 years, maintaining the friendship that began with opera in Chicago, gourmet dinners cooked in Doran’s home, and their shared work in the Music Department.

“He did first-year theory while I did second, and I found it both a joy and an education to talk over the theory course with him. Tom absolutely loved teaching, and as a relatively new teacher it was impossible for me not to get swept up by that,” Jagger reflects. “Many was the hour we spent in Charlie’s or Cascarelli’s discussing the curriculum. Not to mention a great many other things.”

Doran was fluent in French, with spoken German that occasionally made Austrians think he was a native. This proficiency enabled him to translate some 1,400 pages of piano pedagogy texts from German to English, materials that he incorporated into his work with students. Doran’s language skills also helped him in his regular travels to Europe, where he attended competitions and master classes, continually exploring and acquiring additional teaching techniques.

“I remember him demonstrating to me how to make the melody of a piece prevalent, and if repeating a phrase, to make it sound different than it did the first time,” says Marsha Green Whitehouse, ’70, who spent many years as a private piano teacher. “It’s something I did with my students, especially the older ones who were performing more difficult selections.”

Similarly, voice professor Dr. Maureen Balke notes that some of her most vivid memories were of Doran the teacher.

“Tom once famously said to a music history student who was not working up to the level he expected, ‘I’ll flunk you, but with a tear in my eye,’” she shares. “And I remember sitting on the Goodrich tower stairs, listening one night to another of Tom’s students practicing some Schubert—and being amazed at the artistry that Tom had inspired.”

Staying Connected

Closer to home, Doran adjudicated piano competitions throughout the Midwest, and gave many lectures and lecture demonstrations.

And while Doran gave up public performances several years before retiring, “His playing had great authority and artistic integrity at all times,” asserts Dr. David Abbott, current department chair and piano professor. Abbott heard him play only through recordings but enjoyed a long friendship with Doran, who maintained an involved relationship with the department.

Abbott recalls that Doran attended many of Abbott’s piano class recitals. Along with Jean Taffs (widow of music professor Tony Taffs), Doran also underwrote the repair and restoration of several of the department’s grand pianos, including the concert Steinway. Doran was also a supporter of the Albion College Piano Competition, a unique event offering a juried performance experience for young beginner and intermediate musicians.

“We had many conversations about music and the piano,” says Abbott. “Tom’s thoughts always represented a high artistic standard, and his great knowledge of music literature, including symphonic and especially opera, was very impressive. He will be dearly missed.”