Gifted Abu Dhabi teenager wins place at Berklee College of Music

Xu Diwen was inspired to pursue career as composer by hit Hollywood musical La La Land

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A gifted Abu Dhabi teenager is aiming to score international success after earning a prestigious place at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Xu Diwen, a year 13 pupil at Brighton College Abu Dhabi, has his sights set on a career as a film composer after being inspired by a Hollywood hit.

Mr Xu, now 18, took up the piano when he was six years old and has since taught himself to play the flute, clarinet, trumpet, trombone and guitar.

He also learnt the violin during the Covid-19 pandemic, before mastering the viola.

His remarkable musical journey began when he got his hands on a neglected piano, left at his family home by a former occupant.

“I was six years old and was interested in playing the piano that was in my home that no one was really playing," said Mr Xu, who will begin his studies in the US in September.

"My father agreed that I could get piano lessons and ever since then, I decided dive down deeper into the realm of music.

“I’m the first pianist in my family but because of my influence, my brother decided to pick up the piano as well.”

In the past 12 years, the precocious talent has received musical training at school and outside of school.

He was a semi-finalist in the Young Musician of the Gulf Competition 2023 and in the Abu Dhabi Young Musician of the Year 2023.

The pupil passed his diploma exam after learning for more than 10 years and received distinction results on his piano and violin performances.

A dream come true

Mr Xu, who has lived in the UAE his whole life, hopes to work as a film composer.

“I guess playing the piano started off as a hobby and later on I discovered more about writing music for film," he said.

“I was intrigued by a film called La La Land in which I found [the] music really moving and enchanting. I decided that I wanted to write something similar to that. That was when I decided to pursue a career in music.

“Berklee College of Music was my dream.

“Getting into Berklee was one of the most exciting things in my life. I want to study film music and to start off my journey to become a successful film composer."

Depending on whether you want to study for a double major, the degree course usually lasts four years.

Mr Xu said the application process was straightforward and easier compared to most other schools.

He said he was excited about being surrounded by a group of like-minded people at the college in the north-eastern US state of Massachusetts.

"I'll be able to thrive as a musician and just going to study in the US might help me explore more areas of my life that I've probably never explored before," the Chinese pupil said.

He wanted to write effective music for a full orchestra. He found a cupboard full of instruments at school and decided to start learning how to play a number of them.

"I only understand the basics of the instruments. However, it's these basics that help me to understand and it's really helpful when it came to writing my own pieces of music," he said.

"I think starting from La La Land I started to discover more about music that's outside of my comfort range.

"I'm a classically trained musician, however, the music and art and is very much infused with jazz and pop music. Fusion is an area of music that I would really like to develop more and as I believe that since music is always changing, there always needs to be new ways to explore music in a refreshing way.

Hitting a high note

Hannah Kelly, head of senior music at Brighton College Abu Dhabi, said Mr Xu was one of the best young musicians she has came across in her career as a teacher.

"Not just in performing but composition and music theory ... basically everything that you can think of as a musician. It's been a pleasure to teach him on that journey," she said.

"If you play him a piece of classical music, he'll be able to name what the piece is. He is able to analyse."

"I got him to be my assistant musical director for our school production last year, and all of that combined, I think, has really channelled into his composition."

Updated: January 22, 2024, 10:30 AM