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Classical composer and pianist Nathan Shirley was born in 1981 on the celebrated birthday of Sergei Prokofiev.


At the age of 21, Shirley composed Music for Strings and Marimba, a winner in the Andrzej Panufnik International Composer’s Competition in Poland. His piece Locorum Musica for flute and string orchestra was chosen in the First International Garden Music Competition in Krakow; he later served on that competition’s jury. His chamber work In the Distance received 1st place in the Orpheus Music Composition Competition in Australia, and his piano piece Cultus was awarded in the Renee Fisher Composer Awards in the USA. His composition Annabel Lee was performed and recorded by the London Schubert Players, selected for their Invitation to Composers project sponsored by the European Commission Culture Program. And his composition Flesh and Bone, composed for marimba and timpani, was selected in the IronWorks Percussion Composition Competition in California.


Shirley is an active musician as well as composer, having performed his original music on both coasts of the US, in Europe, and live on public radio. Shirley’s concerts are often opened with an improvisation, in homage to the great composer-pianists of centuries past. He also enjoys performing for silent films, playing original music created on the spot.

Growing up

Shirley improvised and experimented naturally at the piano when very young, eventually taking lessons around age 10 from Pam Keen Patterson and in high school from Irena Hramenkova. In adolescence he discovered classical recordings (in Walmart’s discount CD bin) and spent countless hours listening, composing, practicing, and improvising at the piano. Russian/Soviet music heavily influenced his style in both composition and piano performance. As a teenager he studied composition with Olga Harris, the last student of Khachaturian. At age 17 he received a composition scholarship and right after leaving school won his first international composition award, traveling to Europe for its premiere.

Nathan Shirley as baby playing piano square grand
Nathan Shirley as a baby at the piano.


Shirley’s influences are very broad; from the interwoven counterpoint of Bach and the rhythmically driven harmonies of Vivaldi; to the exquisite lyricism of Chopin and Tchaikovsky; to the wild ferocity of Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and beyond. His cross-cultural style reflects a strong interest in international folk music; including the evocative timbres of Balinese gamelan and East Asian music; beautifully dark Silk Road and Romani melodies; complex layered African rhythms; highly expressive and ornamented music of Persia; intense, passionate music of Latin America; and much more.

Music for Children

Shirley has composed about 200 works for children, and has taught piano, including improvisation and composition to many students. In Western North Carolina he has worked with hundreds of public school children, introducing them to classical and world music instruments, leading them in group percussion performance, teaching the science of sound, and exposing them to classical masterpieces through active listening. He developed a method of group music education using inexpensive “Pipe Bells” which he designed to teach young children to read music. He also created the program crescendo! which teaches elementary students piano through group classes in public schools. Working with children has influenced his composition style, helping him develop an instinct for accessible and engaging music. In addition, Shirley wrote the 7-book piano method series, Piano Revealed.

Current Work and Offerings

Shirley has written for independent film, animation, theater, and ballet, but composing for the concert hall is his primary passion. He began accepting commissions for new music in 2005, and has since written for musicians around the world.

A former president of the Asheville Piano Forum, Nathan Shirley lives in the North Carolina mountains with his wife and kids. He works as a freelance composer and performs his compositions in the now rare composer-pianist tradition of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and so many others. His sheet music is published through Orpheus MusicScoreVivo, SuperScore, Marsyas Music, and more can be found at CDs, DVDs, and downloads are available as well.

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