Technique and perseverance: How to succeed at Saudi music conservatory Bait Al Oud Riyadh

Nehad El Sayed is the conservatory's first director and offers tips for students interested in the school

Bait Al Oud Riyadh joins schools in Abu Dhabi, Baghdad and Algiers. Photo: DCT Abu Dhabi
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More than 1,000 people have applied for the soon to be opened Bait Al Oud Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, according to the conservatory’s director.

Speaking to The National before his Saturday performance at Arabic Music Days, a concert series produced by Abu Dhabi Festival in the German capital Berlin, the Egyptian-Swiss composer and oud artist Nehad El Sayed says the response to the conservatory’s arrival – announced last year – has been overwhelming.

He says applicants will be chosen either through an interview process or official invitation before classes begin in October. A new purpose-built venue for the school is currently being built in Diriyah and is due for completion in 2024.

Students will specialise in their chosen stringed instruments, such as the oud, qanun and the saz (also known as the baglama), and are expected to take up to three classes a week.

While student capacity has not yet been determined, El Sayed predicts Bait Al Oud Riyadh will follow the model of other international sister schools – including in Algiers, Cairo, Khartoum, Baghdad and Abu Dhabi – of having up to 40 people enrolled for each instrument.

Bait Al Oud Riyadh director Nehad El Sayed performing at Arabic Music Days in Berlin. Photo: Peter AdamikO

He also reveals that he took a one-year sabbatical from his instructor role at City of Basel Music Academy in Switzerland for the new gig in Saudi Arabia.

“I became immediately excited and confident that it will work because the oud plays an important role in Saudi culture and music from that region,” El Sayed says.

“You can already see this now with the number of applications already and I feel we will begin the classes with a big waiting list of future students.”

Another reason he took the post is because it came at the request of Bait Al Oud founder Naseer Shamma.

The pioneering Iraqi composer and artistic director of Arabic Music Days was El Sayed’s teacher at the original Bait Al Oud in Cairo over two decades ago.

The latter recalled the relationship as being both inspiring and intense as a lot was riding on their mutual success.

El Sayed being the first ever graduate of the school in 2001, and his subsequent success as a recording and touring artist, vindicated Shamma’s decision to open a conservatory dedicated to the oud and associated instruments.

“Before you would only learn the oud and qanoon, for instance, as part of a broader music course,” he recalled. “With Bait Al Oud it was purely dedicated to these instruments.

“That was something really new at the time that perhaps people didn’t really appreciate at first.”

Iraqi composer and oud player Naseer Shamma is the founder of Bait Al Oud. AP

Another aspect challenging convention was Bait Al Oud’s course structure.

In addition to the three 45-minute classes during the week, it is up to the student or their teacher to decide when they are ready to take the performance exam for graduation.

For El Sayed – who entered the school already an accomplished musician – it took two years.

“I came as a student and before long I became an instructor. I got to a stage where I was confident enough to tell Mr Shamma that I was ready to graduate,” he says.

“I told him to give me a month away from the school to really study intensely every day and when I come back I will be ready to take the exam.

“And, believe me, I was prepared because I was studying at home nearly 17 hours a day because I really wanted to succeed.”

Instructors will be looking for some of that same passion and commitment when Bait Al Oud Riyadh opens.

El Sayed shares Shamma’s hope that the school will bear graduates who will become future instructors at the school, but ultimately be more in tune with themselves.

“One thing that Mr Shamma told us is that if you are practising and playing amazingly but your heart and spirit is empty, then the music will not sound true,” he says.

“He taught us the importance of listening intently and opening our minds to look at the world and be critical. These are qualities that will help us as musicians and as human beings as well.”

Updated: September 17, 2023, 2:09 PM