x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Young piano prodigy has future at fingertips

Eleven-year-old Emirati girl is through to finals of first Gulf International Chopin Competition.

Sarah al Kaabi can learn even complex music just by listening to it.
Sarah al Kaabi can learn even complex music just by listening to it.

ABU DHABI // Like most children her age, Sarah al Kaabi loves playing computer games and listening to pop music. But when asked what her favourite hobby is, she replies: "Playing the piano." When asked how she relaxes, she answers: "Playing the piano." When she wakes up in the morning, the first thing she does is pray. After that, she plays the piano.

Last night Sarah, 11, was named as one of the winners of the UAE heat of the first Gulf International Chopin Competition. Later this month, she will be among those who represent the country at the final rounds of the competition in Kuwait. To get there, she had to perform two pieces Mozart's Sonata No 16 in C Major and Beethoven's Für Elise for seven judges. She was one of 12 children in her age group, three of whom were Emirati.

"My fingers are always moving," she said. "When I am bored, I am playing the piano, I hear the music in my head, my fingers play on the desk, on my books." Sarah comes from a family of seven children, all of whom play at least one instrument. Her mother, Kafia, said she had never needed to be strict with any of her children about practising. She and her husband had always tried to give their children as many opportunities and experiences as possible, said Mrs al Kaabi.

"It's about exposure to real life, giving them choices for their future, in education, in their hobbies," she said. "We treat Sarah like an adult. Last year she came with me on a UAE business delegation to Malaysia. It's about opening their eyes so they have the confidence to make decisions themselves." Even though she learnt the piano as a child, Mrs al Kaabi did not tell her daughter about that until she had reached a certain level, allowing Sarah to develop her own passion for playing.

"I don't need to pressure her to play," said Mrs al Kaabi. "She is always practising. It can't all be school work. This gives her some balance in her life. "There is always someone playing an instrument in the house." Sarah's father, Khaled, an engineer, does not play an instrument, but "he loves to hear them play and he encourages them in everything they do", Mrs al Kaabi said. Sarah sees the piano not as a discipline but as an outlet, her source of escape.

"Me and my brother always fight over who will play," she said. "We had a fight over who could play Beethoven better." And the result? "I won." She began learning the piano at seven. She learns most music by ear, picking up complex pieces without seeing them written out. "She doesn't need to read music," said Mrs al Kaabi. Sarah finds traditional piano instruction, through scales and arpeggios, "boring".

It is her 10 hours or more of practice each week that has taken her to this level. She has been to several classical concerts in the city and says she is inspired by the musicians on stage, hoping one day to be in their shoes. She is no stranger to performing in public. In November, she played with the Emirates Youth Orchestra in a concert for Unicef, the children's charity, at the General Women's Union. On National Day she played for the Ministry of Culture in Dubai.

Her teacher, Martin Hrsel, who teaches her twice a week at the Ministry of Culture, said Sarah was one of the country's young musical talents, the "future of the country". "She has no problem playing in public. She hears the music of the whole orchestra, not just her own. She is very confident and is making excellent progress," he said. Sarah's mother is passionate about music. She campaigns for music to have a greater emphasis in the emirates.

"There is so much emphasis on knowledge, not music," she said. "For football, you have a proper academy system like at Al Jazira. The young boys study and practice there, but for music there's nothing like this. "We need to focus on the future, on taking our young talents to the international stage, which just isn't being done at the moment." @Email:mswan@thenational.ae