Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

The keys to success: 12-year-old Abu Dhabi girl wins Young Musicians of the Gulf competition

We meet Anna Graham, a pupil at The British School Al Khubairat and piano prodigy crowned the best young musician in the region.
Anna Graham, 12 years old, recent winner of the Young Musicians of the Gulf competition. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National
Anna Graham, 12 years old, recent winner of the Young Musicians of the Gulf competition. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National

“Hypnotic”, “beautifully atmospheric” and “a joy to listen to” are just some of the compliments showered on pianist Anna Graham for her performances – and all this at only 12 years old.

Anna, who lives in Abu Dhabi, earned the words of praise from official adjudicators at Young Musicians of the Gulf competition, at which she won top prize in Bahrain last month.

Anna is the first pupil from The British School Al Khubairat to take home the Winning Soloist award in the contest’s 17-year history. She was presented with the trophy by Simon Martin, the British ambassador in Bahrain.

Modest Anna is lost for words when asked to explain her triumph over the dozens of other young musicians who travelled from across the region for the competition.

“It feels good – I was really shocked because all the competitors were really good and the standard was really high,” she says. “I don’t know why I stood out.”

The annual competition, hosted at St Christopher’s School, Bahrain, is organised by British Schools in the Middle East. This year, there were 62 entrants, ranging in age from 8 to 18, from Kuwait, Doha, Bahrain and the UAE.

In the final round, Anna was up against another pianist, two violinists, a soprano and a brass ensemble. Her closest challenger was also from the Emirates: 17-year-old violinist Isabel Snaas, of Dubai College, was named runner-up.

It was Anna’s second stab at the competition after failing to even get past the first round last year.

“This year I was more prepared,” she says.

“We are really, really proud,” says her mum, Rachel. “She works really hard but we were still surprised. She’s quite quiet and shy, but when she sits at the piano, she transforms.”

The family, who moved to Abu Dhabi from Bahrain seven years ago and live in Bain Al Jessrain, celebrated Anna’s victory with a meal at Noodle House.

Simon Bowler, head of creative and performing arts at Anna’s school, credits her newfound confidence with a recent role in a school production of the Gilbert and Sullivan musical The Pirates of Penzance.

“Her performance skills have come on such a long way since last year,” he says “We all looked at her when she played and said: ‘She’s got something.’

“In the final, everyone played brilliantly – but clearly the judges saw what we did.”

The contest was judged by guest musicians from the UK: Penny Stirling, Christopher Griksaitis and John Thwaites.

Anna won through four rounds, performing a variety of pieces, including Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp minor.

She rates the Polish master as her favourite composer, alongside Mozart and Debussy – but she also finds time to listen to pop music, including The Vamps and David Guetta.

Anna normally practises for up to four hours a day. Yet she says she was not fond of the piano at first– instead she wanted to follow in the footsteps of her older brother, Daniel, 14.

“In the beginning, I didn’t really want to play the piano,” she says. “I wanted to play the violin like my brother. But piano grew on me.”

Neither Rachel nor dad Les, an engineer, are musicians.

“I try my best to support her,” says Rachel. “As a parent, that means I’m there to drive her around and make sure she gets there on time and keep her organised. We all love to listen to her practise, especially when she plays Chopin.”

Anna is the middle of their three children and Rachel says the subject of which instrument 7-year-old Ben should be encouraged to start on is a “source of debate” in the household.

The Young Musicians of the Gulf Competition offers a unique opportunity for students in the region to compete against their peers, says Bowler.

“Western musical culture is something we’ve imported to the region,” he says.

“Without the competition, there’s very little else to encourage young students, unlike Europe or the US, and it offers a massive incentive for pupils to learn.

“The competition really offers something unique for the ­region.”