RIYADH (AFP) – Saudi businessman Ahmed Abdullah watches intently as his seven-year-old daughter Yasmine practices keyboard scales at a music school in Riyadh, an opportunity he could only dream of growing up.
Previously, those who could afford it hired music teachers to come to their homes, while the rest struggled to find lessons at all.
But as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman seeks to expand entertainment options for citizens, music has become a bigger part of everyday life, and music schools are springing up in major cities.
At least five such schools have opened in recent years in the capital, Riyadh, and Jeddah, the kingdom’s second largest city on the Red Sea coast, catering to an enthusiastic clientele of children and some adults.
Yasmine’s class at the Yamaha Music Center meets every Saturday for half an hour, with her Egyptian teacher leading the students through keyboard exercises under a sign that reads “Music for All.”
The session is bittersweet for her father, Abdullah, who is blown away by his daughter’s enthusiasm, even if it reminds him of “things I couldn’t achieve when I was growing up.”
Music was a feature of the dramatic social reforms instituted by Prince Mohammed, who became the first heir to the throne five years ago.
For decades, the country was decidedly off the beaten path of most touring artists, but in recent years some of the world’s biggest stars, including Justin Bieber and K-pop juggernaut BTS, have performed in the kingdom.
There’s no question that many young, entertainment-hungry Saudis are grateful for the shows.
Last December, more than 700,000 revelers flocked to the MDLBeast Soundstorm music festival in Riyadh, officials said, for four days of performances including a set from French superstar DJ David Guetta.
Daily life has also become more melodic, with restaurants and cafes staging live acts or blasting recordings over loudspeakers – some even during prayer time when they should have closed in the past.
Several Saudis, who are now trying to develop their own musical skills, have called the transformation a boon to their mental health.
Wejdan Hajji, a 28-year-old employee at a company that sells medical supplies, said she once made an effort to teach herself guitar by watching YouTube videos and lamented that “if I made a mistake, nobody was there was correcting me”.
Now she pays 940 SAR (approx. 250 USD) every month for lessons with a Ukrainian teacher at the Yamaha Music Centre.
“I didn’t know anything, but now I’ve learned the basics,” she said.
“The hour-long session clears my head… My personality has changed and I’m calmer.”
Such benefits could soon extend to many more young Saudis.
In 2020, the kingdom set up a “Music Authority” under its Ministry of Culture, which licenses music schools and supports young talent pursuing a career in the music industry.
According to an official record, around 100 private schools across the country have included a music component in their curricula this school year.
In May, the agency launched a “music culture program” to develop the skills of public school students as well.
As these initiatives take off, the specialized music schools continue to do brisk business. One afternoon at the House of Music school in northern Riyadh, a teacher was supervising five toddlers as they swayed to the sound of lullabies blaring from a loudspeaker.
The school opened in 2019 and has 300 students of all ages who come to class in rooms decorated with posters from the likes of Bob Marley and Lebanese singer Fairuz.
“Our services have been well received so far,” said the school’s Venezuelan director, Cesar Mora, adding that the school has a second stream in the works.
“There’s a growing music-loving community and a growing market.”
Walid Mahmoud, a 37-year-old Sudanese resident of Riyadh, came to the school so his young daughters could take lessons on the oud, a stringed instrument popular in the region.
Shortly thereafter, he signed himself up for classes. “Saudi Arabia has changed a lot,” he said, laughing as his daughters, ages five and three, watched.