• The hopes of Afghanistan's piano prodigy

The hopes of Afghanistan's piano prodigy

31 March 2016

by Elham Fanoos

As he trains to be a world-class pianist, teenager Elham Fanoos shares his inspiring story with us

Tell us about your journey so far as a young Afghan musician.

I was born in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1997. At the age of five, I started playing the tabla. My father, a well-known Afghan classical singer, and I would perform together. My family loved music.

In grade 7, I enrolled at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM). I left a very boring school with long hours, strict teachers and no music lessons. I felt great relief being at ANIM. I’m currently studying towards a Bachelors degree in Music Performance at Hunter College in the US. In 2015 I was admitted to the school with a full scholarship.

Why did you choose the piano when you had other instruments as options?

The piano sparked my interest because it is an international instrument. It meant that I could communicate my music to the world. I remember clearly that as soon as I touched the keys of the piano and heard its sound, I fell in love. Music is important to me because I can express my feelings through it. There are a lot of people who want to be doctors or engineers in Afghanistan but I want to be a concert pianist playing for my country and the world.

Has learning to play the piano been difficult?

I started playing piano at the age of 12. At first, I found it really difficult but I persevered. I remember that while practicing, I would often lose track of time. I would not pay attention to when I would finish because I would be so absorbed in trying to get the skills and notes.  I gradually learned that the piano has a world of its own.

Tell us about your experience at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music.

ANIM used to be a general arts school but the founder/director Dr. Ahmad Naser Sarmast rebuilt it into a music institute. Dr. Sarmast is the only person in Afghanistan with a PhD in music history. He introduced his students to both Afghan and western classical music and gave them a lot of opportunities and all kinds of instruments. He sent us on an international tour in 2013 as the Afghan National Youth Orchestra. We travelled to the US and we played at Carnegie Hall. He’s planning another tour with the girls’ ensemble in 2017.

There are many students at the institute with a wide range of musical talents, both girls and boys. Some students are really good with percussion and others are talented in playing traditional Afghan instruments like the rubab and tabla.  There were a few other pianists who were good and are improving even more.

Did you face any difficulties while learning piano in Afghanistan?

Many people in different countries have lots of opportunities; they have pianos in their homes, they have teachers, schools, and they have a very relaxed situation. Above all, they don’t have war in their country.  Growing up and learning the piano, I didn’t have most of those opportunities.

This is why I work so hard and practice to become a world-class pianist. Of course, it’s difficult but I am really pleased that when I play for my teachers abroad they are very impressed.

What are your favourite memories of the institute?

ANIM did not have a piano instructor during my first year.  In order to learn, I played and practiced on my own. After a year, Dr. Sarmast hired piano teachers from abroad. My favourite came from Italy. Adriana Mascoli had been a teacher for thirty-five years. She always tried to ensure that I was interested and excited about the piano. She was very patient. I remember that when students played something wrong 20 times, she would happily correct them 20 times. The moments I spent with her were some of my favourite at ANIM.

How does Afghanistan influence your music?

I am inspired by Afghan music and use some of it in my composition and I also try to write it in western classical notation. I use some musical scales and taste from Afghan music and fit it into western classical notation. I have five compositions – one of them is very Afghan but in western classical notation, the others are very western.

Do western audiences like your Afghan music?

I have learned that music is not limited to being just Afghan or being just western. It very often can be mixed. I do believe that Afghan music is very special. When I add some Afghan music taste into my western classical music through notation or composition, people really like it.   I think the scales Afghan musicians use in their songs are sometimes different and they have a really special tense. But music is always music, it doesn’t matter which kind it is; if you just play it and express it in a good way, everyone will like it.

 How is it being in another country and playing piano?

Here in the US, when people listen to me play, they see a part of Afghanistan that is unseen. They ask a lot of questions. I think seeing an Afghan pianist has a lot of impact on people who do not know the country. Dr. Sarmast says he’s really proud of me and wants me to become a concert pianist continuing to represent Afghanistan, which I would be very happy to do and work towards.

What can music do for Afghanistan?

Music is deeply rooted in Afghan culture.  Music makes people feel relaxed and more mindful. Like other art forms, painting, drama, music calms the mind. I believe that music can be a force for good if used positively. Avicenna, a significant thinker of the Islamic enlightenment and one of the forefathers of modern medicine, suggested that music has the ability to heal people. In general it’s hard to imagine a world without music, art and culture.

I believe that Afghan musicians have a lot of beauty to share with the world. Afghanistan has strong talent and can add to the richness of global music and art. Afghans can make Afghanistan and the world a better and more peaceful place. 

My dream is to inspire and support younger generations everywhere, not just in Afghanistan. I want to have my own school teaching young musicians. I want to show the positive face of Afghanistan to the world.

Do you have any advice for young people?

My advice for young Afghans is to follow their dreams. Sometimes they need to say no to the expectations of others. They should do what they love, and love what they do.

My advice to Afghan musicians is to open up to the world. 


Elham has two performance videos on Youtube - an original composition and Chopin's Etude Op. 10 No. 3


This blog was published in Dari by the Saday-e Mardom (The Voice of People) weekly newspaper. Read the copy in our Resources section.