Photo shows Kuwaiti pianist Sarah Maitham Malallah playing the piano at the Lina Bakir for Music and Art Consultancies Academy.—Photos by Yasser Al-Zayyat

By Sahar Moussa

Sarah Maitham Malallah is the youngest Kuwaiti pianist to win major competitions outside Kuwait. The six-year-old girl won four competitions from Sept 2020 till Feb 2021. Sarah won first place in the following three countries, Azerbaijan at the Karabakh International Culture & Art Contest in 2020, in Kazakhstan at the II International Music Festival “Astana Stars” in 2020, in Poland and Germany at the Star Bridge International Contest in February 2021 in the under-6 category (baby) and she won second place in Turkey at the Russian lll International Competition – Ca Ave Musica.

Her talent and enthusiasm caught the attention of her piano teacher Lina Bakir. Bakir is a Kuwaiti pianist who graduated from Queens University in the US. Her love for children and music encouraged her to open the Lina Bakir for Music and Art Consultancies Academy, where Sarah studied hard to win international competitions.

Sarah’s success has brought honor to Kuwait and hope to children her age in this pandemic. The academy’s high standards proved to be pioneering for graduate children of all ages and nationalities. Kuwait Times met Sarah and Bakir at the academy to discuss the importance of classical music in Kuwait. Some excerpts.

Photo shows Kuwaiti pianist Sarah Maitham Malallah playing the piano and Kuwaiti pianist teacher Lina Bakir posing at the Lina Bakir for Music and Art Consultancies Academy.

Kuwait Times: Sarah, at what age did you start taking piano lessons?
Sarah Malallah: I started taking piano classes at the age of five.

KT: Who encouraged you to play the piano?
Sarah: My parents noticed that I was musically-inclined. I love to sing and enjoy music.

KT: Why did you choose to play the piano?
Sarah: Because it is a soft and elegant instrument.

KT: What do you want to be when you grow up?
Sarah: I want to be an influential musician.

KT: Were you scared when you entered the competitions?
Sarah: No, I was not; I gave all my effort so people could enjoy what I was playing.

KT: Did you know you were going to win?
Sarah: I did not, but I practiced hard. When I heard the news I was surprised, and I felt so proud of myself.

KT: Who is your favorite composer?
Sarah: I really like Bach.

KT: Do you want to learn to play another instrument?
Sarah: No, because I already fell in love with one (piano).

KT: Did learning the piano affect your grades in school?
Sarah: I am good at school, and piano made me even better.

KT: How do you feel knowing that you are the youngest Kuwaiti to win in international competitions?
Sarah: I am very happy and honored.

A group photo shows Kuwaiti pianist Sarah Maitham Malallah (fourth left), Kuwaiti pianist teacher Lina Bakir (Second left) and other students posing at the Lina Bakir for Music and Art Consultancies Academy.

Kuwait Times: Lina, how old were you when you started playing the piano? Where did you learn it?
Lina Bakir: I started playing the piano in Kuwait at the age of five.

KT: How long have you been teaching the piano? What inspired you? Do you play any another instruments? Who is your favorite musician/composer?
Bakir: I have been teaching the piano for the past 37 years in Kuwait. I always wanted to teach the piano and have my own school. I always knew from when I was only 10 years old that I wanted to teach and reach out. I love being on big stages, produce shows and perform. My voice is my second instrument and my favorite composers are Rachmaninoff and Bach.

KT: In your opinion, what do you think makes a good pianist?
Bakir: First and foremost, you must have the passion and love for the piano. Secondly, dedication, seriousness and good work ethics. In addition, of course practice, practice and practice.

KT: When and why did you open your academy? Starting from which age can children start taking classes?
Bakir: The academy opened five years ago after the encouragement of my family and friends. This encouragement came from my teaching and concert production. I always loved to see kids achieve, not only locally but also internationally. We start teaching the piano for students at the age of three, and for sure we do take grownups aged 30 to 50 if they have the passion to learn. There is no age limit to learn music. After all, music is art, love, life and a stress reliever.

KT: What differentiates your academy from others?
Bakir: We do not just teach notes; we want to build the appreciation and enjoyment of classical music in the young Kuwaiti generation. We build respect, character and independence. We build strong foundations by utilizing my personal methodology. Once it is mastered, we move them to more challenging classical pieces. I am a big believer that teaching in a fun and engaging manner keeps young Kuwaitis connected, and at the same time we want to instill the discipline of learning that comes along with it to master the piano.

KT: How do piano classes benefit kids in general?
Bakir: Playing the piano increases focus and attention. It makes them excel in school and improves intelligence. Besides, it is a fun activity – it enhances children’s reasoning skills. It puts them above their peers and is a stress reliever.

KT: What roadblocks did you face when starting out?
Bakir: There were no specialized piano teachers in Kuwait and it was difficult to get a work permit for our teachers because the government considers them as regular music teachers. The second roadblock was that it was difficult to hire specialized piano teachers, because Kuwait is not known to appreciate classical music.

KT: How do you get piano students to become competitors?
Bakir: When we start teaching them, we observe particular students who stand out more than others. Those students who have passion, dedication and excellent work ethics will be put on an advanced program to be prepared to compete in competitions.

KT: How did you know that Sarah has the talent to compete?
Bakir: When I started teaching her the piano, I knew there was something unique about her. She always came prepared to her classes. Moreover, her focus and discipline showed me her potential to become a competitor.

KT: What do you think about the music industry in Kuwait? Is it getting adequate support? If not, why?
Bakir: Concerning classical music, it is still very immature here, even though there are Kuwaiti clients who truly enjoy and appreciate classical music. That is why we focus on enhancing and advancing this industry at our academy by educating the younger Kuwaiti generation. The government’s support is not adequate for classical music, because it does not believe that classical music is important for the advancement of the younger Kuwaiti generation.

KT: How can we encourage children to play music? What does Kuwait need in order to reach a global stage?
Bakir: The media should play a bigger role in promoting the importance of classical music to young generations. Also by promoting the success of young Kuwaiti children who have achieved local and international success.

There are instant steps and measures that the Kuwaiti government needs to take action on Ð first to establish scholarship programs for Kuwaitis to study classical music overseas. Second, give financial support for Kuwaitis to compete in international competitions. Furthermore, a teacher must hold a masterÕs degree in classical music and be specialized in a specific instrument.

KT: What advice would you give to children or someone who wants to start playing the piano?
Bakir: Definitely go for it Ð it is the most beautiful gift. Also, patience, patience, patience. Magic happens only to those who wait and see how their hard work pays off at the end. Music is easy to learn but takes a lifetime to master.

Students that won international awards:
1) Rawan Behbehani was the first student to win a competition. It was in Nice, France at the Concours International De Piano Cote D’ Azur in 2017. Her first win was at the age of eight, when she took second place.

2) Dalal Esmaeel (second place), Jana Al-Kazemi (third place) and Kadi Dashti (certificate) won at the Polish Embassy Competition in Kuwait.

3) Dalal Esmaeel won two competitions in Kazakhstan at the II International Music Festival “Astana Stars” in 2020 and in Azerbaijan at the Karabakh – International Culture & Art Contest in 2020, where she won first prize in both competitions.

4) Roqayah Talal Dashti in Poland and Germany at Star Bridge International Contest in February 2021 won second place in the junior category (10-12 years old).

5) Noora Tin won an honorable award at the 2021 American Music Talent Competition for extraordinary and inspiring performances.