Composer Donna Dyson and her remarkable personal journey
FROM behind a side-swept bob of blonde hair, snazzy black-rimmed glasses and a flashing smile, music composer Donna Dyson is in her realm. Before her, a group of aspiring student choristers from Toowoomba's The Glennie School assemble to rehearse a repertoire they've spent the past year working on. Primed and poised for their July singing debut at the prestigious Summa Cum Laude International Youth Music Festival in Vienna, Austria, they are set to deliver what they hope will be the best choral performances of their young lives. And cheering them on from the sidelines will be Donna, one of their ardent supporters, who has composed a rousing anthem for the occasion, titled Spirit of Australia. The piece, co-written with 2006 Australian Idol winner Damien Leith, will feature on the chamber choir's Europe tour. To think of Donna as a kind of performing arts emissary wouldn't be too far off the mark. She is also blind. Donna's good friend and mentor, singer songwriter Rick Price, describes her as "…a very talented and diverse Australian songwriter and choral composer". Rick says once you make a connection with her, "it's a very infectious energy that comes up". Donna's natural affinity with music, poetry and dance started when she was a young girl. Around the age of six and seven she was besotted with words - although ballet was actually her first love. She would have chosen it as her lifetime path if not for her father's sound advice around the importance of having something to "fall back on". As it turned out, she was compliant and her dad's wisdom and universal guidance proved right. The world of academia became hers to chassé around. In her words, it "pushed her". Teaching, university lecturing, education consulting, literary and literacy board appointments, writing books and leading an active role on a strategic learning state advisory team for the Queensland Museum all made for a rewarding professional life. Then, as the vagaries of life so often determine, an event happened that would signify a tumultuous epoch in Donna's personal story. It was 2012 when her life changed. Irreversibly. Without warning, she lost her sight. While she doesn't linger on the reasons why, she assures that, in her darkness, she found her light. "Within the re-purposing time of my life, I had an amazing team with Vision Australia and they encouraged me to just keep up the things I could still do," she says. "So I went over to my guitar and picked it up and realised there was absolutely nothing stopping me from still enjoying music and creating music - except for the fact that scoring would now be very difficult. "But I have enough people in the industry and friends who are able to be my arms and feet in some of the parts that I can no longer do. "That's how I started doing what I'm doing now. I may have lost my sight, but I gained my vision." Nominated by Vision Australia to be a Federal fellowship recipient, Donna had the opportunity to study an area of particular interest to her. She chose music. It was the beginning of a new career that would win her accolades and industry awards. But, most of all, it gave her a renewed sense of her place in the world. Collaborations with well-known artists would follow, resulting in the creation of a prolific catalogue for choirs and individuals. "I won a song at the Brisbane Sings competition when it first began and, since then, I've been a composer in residence for Brisbane Sings, which is an incredible privilege," Donna enthuses. "This past award season, I was also named Songwriter of Australia, along with my co-writer Damien Leith. "In three years, it's been an incredible whirlwind of re-establishing a career." As rendition of Spirit of Australia was ready to play out live in the music room, Donna reveals her grandmother had been one of the school's very early students. "I have a book of Lord Tennyson's poetry which was her academic prize in the early 1900s," she says. "So it was an incredible gift to return to a school where her footprints were laid. Spirit of Australia was written specifically for this choir, originally. I had the brief of these young people going over (to Vienna) and I was thinking about them being an ambassador and telling the story of our country. "I found great inspiration at the time because of some consultancy work I was doing up north. "Within a space of about six days I had many flights and was crossing a lot of country. But, because I'm legally blind, my memory of looking out the plane window is something that I've lost. I say my memory but I've lost my sight to now see that. "I had this lovely fellow sitting beside me on the plane and I asked him to take photos of the landscape as we were passing. "After the flight, I took out my pen and, on the back of a napkin on the plane, I wrote Spirit of Australia from the collected pictures on my phone that he had gathered for me. "So the song was pretty much complete. "I needed the bridge to work a little more effectively than I was hearing, so I flew down to Sydney to meet with Damien and we workshopped it and moulded it until we could make sure that the part fitted perfectly." Brisbane Sings musical director and Queensland Orchestra cellist Craig Allister Young added some finishing touches to the arrangement for which Donna is very grateful. "It's been an incredible gift to be able to walk in today and to hear it. I was in tears. It was wonderful," she says. We could all learn from Donna when she chimes that it's all about, "Doing the best with what you've got". While losing her sight is still "chronically painful", Donna says the transition has miraculously proven to be a "brilliant synthesis of who I am". "The reality is, I finally get to close off the shutters to all the distractions to really focus on what beats my heart." And with that special moment on an international stage edging closer, one song will surely beat the loudest for Donna Dyson in what could be her best heart performance yet.