Qatar’s art scene is ever-evolving and growing, where it encompasses all forms of self-expression and is widely celebrated by the community. However, one of the artistic mediums, music, remains in dire need of attention and support. The number of Qataris leading in this field is quite limited, and the number of institutions that support music is even smaller. Hala Ismaeel Al-Emadi has set out to change this reality to highlight Qatari talent in this beautiful field. She has worked relentlessly to prove that Qataris can play music internationally. So, who is Hala Al-Emadi?
I am an ambitious musician. I am a person of many moods and emotions, and I feel like music is the best way I can express myself. Music has helped me find myself. However, I never thought that one day I would become a musician. It was something that just happened along the way. My love for music started when I was young. My family and I listened to all types of genres as we were growing up. Whenever I heard a piano piece playing, I would sit on the piano and pretend it was me playing the piece. As a kid, no one would push you to pursue such hobbies to take them more seriously, so I did not take any piano classes when I was younger. I studied engineering, and I worked in the field as well, but I studied music at the same time. I began playing the piano because my father wanted to have one in the house as a decorative piece, and I was curious enough to sit down and try to play any song I memorized through listening. To my surprise, I was able to play a few songs correctly on my first try! At that moment, my parents and I decided it was time for me to take some lessons.
What made you decide to make a career out of playing the piano?
In the beginning, I was only taking private lessons at home, trying to learn how to read the notes. While taking these classes, I fell in love with classical music, which motivated me to learn and understand music. So, I started studying for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM ) exam to improve myself technically. The exam is based in London, but they send over examiners to Doha on an annual basis. It consists of eight grades, and you get a diploma at the end. My father disapproved of my wish for dropping out of engineering to focus solely on piano. So, I was not able to pursue a bachelor’s degree in music. Moreover, the major does not exist in Qatar, and as a woman, I was not allowed to travel on my own to pursue the degree elsewhere. So, I resorted to studying music at my leisure as I was getting my engineering degree. This resulted in extending my time as an undergraduate student. Once I graduated from university and received my degree in engineering, I was placed at an intermediate level in piano. The level that I was in allowed me to perform to the public, so I started searching for places that would allow me to perform as the only Qatari woman trained in classical music. Someone who knows someone who plays at the orchestra had listened to me perform and asked me if I was serious about playing piano and if I wanted to take the next steps, I should talk to a lady named Sonia Parks. In 2016, I met Sonia Parks, and the moment I entered her house, I told her I want to become a professional pianist. She was very shocked and asked if it was even possible for me to do so. She was concerned about some of the hurdles I would have to face to become a professional pianist. For example, I have to improve my technical skills. Furthermore, she worried about society’s reaction to my choice to become a pianist. She even inquired if I could play the piano in public wearing my cultural attire (Abaya and Hijab). My answer was that first I have to know what would be the public’s reaction. When I started with Sonia back in 2016, that is when I began taking piano seriously as a profession.
What made you also decide to become a composer?
What made me look into being a composer was my love for film scores. I feel like my love for certain movies stems mainly from my love for music. Being a composer is an entirely different journey than being a pianist. However, they do cross paths. When you study classical music, and you are able to read music better, you can write music too. The first time I tried to compose, it felt like I simply wanted to write down my thoughts on a paper. I always have melodies playing in my head, so I try to record them on paper. I applied to compose music for some films but got rejected many times. My main accomplishment in the composing world so far was when I composed for the movie “Smicha” (which translates to fish in Arabic) by Amal Al Muftah, which won the Ajyal Made in Qatar award in 2017. It was the same piece I played at the United Nations, so this piece has a special place in my heart. However, recently I stopped composing because I want to focus on my classical music diploma to have a strong foundation to build my composing skills. Once I receive my diploma, I plan on continuing my education by pursuing a bachelor’s in composing music. What made me look into being a composer was my love for film scores. I feel like my love for certain movies stems mainly from my love for music. Being a composer is an entirely different journey than being a pianist. However, they do cross paths. When you study classical music, and you are able to read music better, you can write music too. The first time I tried to compose, it felt like I simply wanted to write down my thoughts on a paper. I always have melodies playing in my head, so I try to record them on paper. I applied to compose music for some films but got rejected many times. My main accomplishment in the composing world so far was when I composed for the movie “Smicha” (which translates to fish in Arabic) by Amal Al Muftah, which won the Ajyal Made in Qatar award in 2017. It was the same piece I played at the United Nations, so this piece has a special place in my heart. However, recently I stopped composing because I want to focus on my classical music diploma to have a strong foundation to build my composing skills. Once I receive my diploma, I plan on continuing my education by pursuing a bachelor’s in composing music.
Did you face any challenges in your journey?
Yes, I faced many challenges, and to this day, I still experience them. One of the first challenges I faced was my fear of being accepted by society as a woman wearing the Abaya (traditional cultural garment) and Shayla (hijab) and publicly performing music for both religious and cultural reasons. My father himself, who is currently very supportive of my choices, was hesitant at the beginning. He would ask me questions like “what would so and so say or think” regarding my ambition to become a pianist. I wanted to break the stereotype. I wanted to show everyone how elegant the piano is as an instrument and that being a pianist is an art, just like being a painter or a filmmaker. Other challenges I faced at the beginning were the lack of resources, more specifically, the lack of educational resources. I resorted to buying books online and scavenging for any resource that can help me develop my musical skills. There were also no job opportunities. However, after winning the 2017 competition, many doors opened up for me, but I had to make sure people knew me so I had to drag myself to so many places to perform. Sometimes, people did not want to pay me, while some offered me a keyboard to play instead of a piano, and some even asked me to bring my own piano to perform! But because of my love for the piano, I was able to remain patient and persevere.
Could you tell us about your performance at the United Nations?
Thanks to Sonia Parks and her network, we were able to get in touch with Her Excellency Sheikha Alya bint Ahmed bin Saif Al Thani, and that is how it started! I first heard about the UN performance, which happened in October of the same year. It was also not confirmed whether I would be performing there at the time. As a musician, one needs to practice a piece at least six months before an event. Sheikha Alya suggested that I play a solo as an opening, and I felt an insane amount of pressure at the idea of playing solo at the United Nations! I decided to play the music I composed for “Smicha”, and of course, I added a few more pages of notes to make it a complete piece. I was set on playing my own music to let the world know me as a pianist and a composer.
There are two times in my life when I worked my hardest: during the 2017 competition and when I performed at the United Nations. During the competition, I used to set my alarm at 3:00 AM to practice the piece and go back to sleep. I ended up doing the same routine leading up to my UN performance. As a pianist, you need to have good muscle memory, which only comes with continuous and rigorous practice. So I practiced as much as I could on my own, and I tried to find public venues to practice as well to help prepare myself mentally for a big crowd. It was nerve-wracking, but it helped me gain experience.
Can you tell us more about the 2017 competition you won?
It all goes back to Sonia Parks again. She encouraged me to enter the competition and told me, “you either win or quit”. There were different categories for prizes at the competition, and I entered the eighteen and above categories. I was competing with artists who played various instruments because it was not a piano-only competition. This competition pushed me to the next level because I was practicing a great deal to do my best.
Is there a moment in your career that stands out to you?
I went through clinical depression before winning the competition, and I went through another depressive episode before the UN performance. I think going through depression made me realize how much I appreciate music in my life. I believe that music saved me. It reminded me of who I am and what I aspire to be.
What was it like trying to balance between your work and your musical career?
It was very hectic. I used to work 8-10 hours at the metro station. We had to be on-site most of the time, and then I would go back home to practice the piano for a minimum of four hours. Consequently, I had to sacrifice my social life. At that time, I had just graduated and started working as an engineer. So I could not simply quit to focus on music. I had to support myself financially to pay for my music lessons. After establishing myself as a pianist and composer, I was finally able to quit my job and focus solely on music, and it was the best decision I have ever made.
Have you noticed a change in how society views you as a pianist?
I actually never expected people to accept me as a pianist. However, after I came back from the United Nations, I received so much positive feedback from people of different generations, and it really caught me by surprise. I came to realize that it is entirely normal for a society to criticize new concepts or ideas, as they are often misunderstood. When I first started playing the piano, it was very different. It almost feels like a different world now. I think our generation is much more comfortable choosing their own career path.
Can you describe a moment of failure that you have experienced?
Although I have the skills, I practice all the time, and I have developed the muscle memory that allows me to play a musical piece so smoothly, there are still some technical skills that I did not have at certain points in my career. We had to perform at the Kempinski with moving artists every month to get used to playing in front of an audience. I wanted to challenge myself and chose to perform a highly technical piece, Invention No.13 by Johann Sebastian Bach. The piece is around two minutes long, and as I was performing it, I did not play one single correct note! From the beginning to the end, I played the song with confidence and kept going because as a musician; you are taught never to stop as it will lead to immediate disqualification. When I finished playing, I stood up and bowed, and the crowd, to my amazement, clapped for me. After that, I could not get near my piano because I kept wondering what the crowd must have thought of my performance. They must have thought I was crazy! To this day, I have not been able to play this piece in front of people, but I practice it all the time because I would love to get a second chance to play in front of the same crowd and prove that I can do it. Another low moment I went through, and still go through, is getting rejected. This is something that occurs in any field of work. I got rejected by many filmmakers, but I was able to work with Amal Al Muftah on “Smicha”. In that case, I was the one who reached out to Amal and offered to compose, because at that time, I was looking for opportunities to establish my name as a composer. It is either you get rejected, or you do not try to apply yourself at all. Rejection happens; it is simply part of the process.
What is your advice for women in Qatar?
I think everyone should try to learn how to play a musical instrument; it can be a great way to express yourself. And for the musicians, keep practicing.
- Interview written by Al Jawhara AL Thani.
- Interview was edited to improve readability and flow.