Alma Deutscher: Homeschooled Music Prodigy

14-year-old Alma Deutscher is a gifted classical composer, violinist and pianist. She was born in February 2005 in Basingstoke, England. Her mother, Janie Steen, has a PhD in Old English poetry from Cambridge. Alma’s Israeli-born father, Guy Deutscher, is a mathematician with a PhD in linguistics from Cambridge. Both parents are amateur musicians – mom plays the piano and dad the flute – as it seems music runs in the family. Alma’s paternal grandmother was a pianist, and her maternal grandfather is an organist. But Alma quickly surpassed them all.

Early Years

In her first years of life, her mother encouraged Alma’s imagination, telling her stories (both classic fairy tales and improvised). Alma also was the subject of her father’s language experiments related to his professional research. Guy and Janie made sure never to teach her the sky was “blue,” for instance, in an effort to understand why ancient cultures never used this term for the sky. Her perceptions, especially calling the clear sky “white,” were reported by her father in his 2010 book, Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages.

Before she was 2, Alma was singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” with perfect pitch. She could read music before she could read words. Alma started playing the piano when she was 2 years old and the violin when she was 3. Alma recalls hearing a Strauss lullaby when she was 3 “and I asked my parents how music can be so beautiful.” When she was about 4, she started improvising simple melodies on the piano. At age 6, Alma completed her first piano sonata, and at 7 she composed a short opera called “The Sweeper of Dreams.” There followed various compositions for violin, piano, and chamber ensembles. At age 8, she appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres show. At age 9, Alma wrote a concerto for violin and orchestra.

Rise to Fame

Between the ages of 9-11, Alma composed a full-length opera, “Cinderella,” which has been performed in Israel, Austria, and most recently in the USA, to standing ovations and international critical acclaim. She cleverly tweaked the story to make Cinderella a composer and the prince a poet, while the evil stepsisters are pompous prima donnas. “I thought the prince having to ask whose foot would fit the slipper doesn’t make much sense,” she logically explained. “Lots of people might have the same size foot, but only one person could have written that melody.” The full version of the opera has been released on DVD with Sony Classical. 

 

At age 12, Alma completed her first piano concerto, which premiered in Austria to the jubilation of the public and the press. In 2017, she was the subject of an hour long BBC Documentary and a CBS 60 Minutes feature. Her first CD, “The Music of Alma Deutscher,” was released in November 2017. A children’s version of Alma’s opera was staged by the Vienna State Opera in 2018 and revived in October 2019. Her first piano solo album, “From My Book of Melodies,” will be released by Sony Classical on November 8, 2019. (Pre-order the CD on Amazon.com.)

In the Footsteps of Mozart

Although Alma lived in the English county of Surrey, “I grew up on the music of Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven and Haydn,” she told the New York Times. “Musically speaking, I think that Vienna’s always been my home.” The family decided last year to move there, so Alma could indulge in the wide range of musical opportunities the city offered. However, Alma plays down the inevitable comparisons to Mozart, who like her was just 11 years old when his first opera was performed. “There was only one Mozart and I prefer to be Alma than to be the second Mozart,” she said.

As a creative individual, Alma defies labels. Perhaps what most sets her apart is the intensity of her imagination. When she was younger, she made up her own world with its own language and she still daydreams about it today. She has written biographies of all the wonderful composers who live there (“named Antonin Yellowsink and Ashy and Shell and Flara”), created a magazine, “Paris Flash,” for the inhabitants, composed a national anthem, and she even dresses up as the characters.

A fan of Anne of Green Gables, she said “I read all of the books by L.M. Montgomery,” her favorite author. While Alma loves to read, bake cakes, and wear floral print dresses (“I never wear jeans,” she says), she also loves to climb trees, skip rope, and jump on the trampoline. Coming from a family with strong views on screens – not even having a television at home – Alma has little interest in social media, and she doesn’t have a cellphone. Alma prefers music in the classical-romantic tradition; modern music is “too loud” and not her thing, she told The Times of Israel.

Home Education

Alma is educated at home with her younger sister, Helen. According to Haaretz.com, although Alma was registered for school in England at the age of five and attended an orientation day, she reported feeling bored and upset. Alma told the BBC when she was ten: “I never want to go to school. I have to go outside and get fresh air, and read.” Two years later she told the Financial Times, “I think that I learn at home in one hour what it would take at school five hours to learn.” In 2010, Alma’s parents explained to The Times that they were led to choose home education by their belief that creativity requires both freedom and nurturing. To supplement her homeschool subjects of reading, history, science and math, Alma takes classes in ballet, ballroom dance, and theater. She and her sister are also learning German.

Alma’s father told The Times that his daughter doesn’t have regular instruction in formal composition; rather that “there are good-hearted experts who help her sporadically and there’s a lot of self-teaching.” In a 2014 episode of the Israel Educational Television program Intermezzo with Arik, Alma explained that she improvises melodies and harmonies in her head, sometimes unintentionally. She said it more colorfully in an interview with the Daily Telegraph in June 2016: “When I am in an improvising mood, melodies burst from my fingertips.” Obviously, that means she has a good ear for music.

Music Should be Beautiful

Upon receiving the European Culture Prize on October 20, 2019, Alma made a plea for melody and for harmony in the modern world: “Until now, I have always composed melodies and harmonies just as they pour out from my heart. But I have often been told: ‘as a modern composer, you’ll soon have to forget your melodies, and concentrate on dissonance, as befits our modern age.’ But maybe this award today means that a more tolerant age is dawning, when melody and beauty will once again be permitted. Perhaps this is a message that there is more to European Culture than just dissonance. Perhaps there is also a place in European Culture for harmony. And how beautiful it would be if this message could go out into the world from Vienna, from the city of music.”

New York Times correspondent Melissa Eddy described Alma’s most recent work as “a modern interpretation of a Viennese waltz that begins with the sounds of the bustling, honking chaos of a busy city street and gradually spins them out into a romantic waltz that ends with a playful melody based on the wail of a Viennese police siren.”

As a soloist on both violin and piano, Alma has performed all around the world: England, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Spain, Uruguay, Israel, Japan, China, Canada and the USA. In December 2019, Alma will make her debut in Carnegie Hall in New York, in a concert dedicated to her own compositions, where she will play her piano concerto and violin concerto on the same evening. She now has a team of advisers: PR manager, financier, and agent (Alma is the youngest ever British composer to be signed by an agent). But her dad said, “Alma is not actually pushed to do anything. In many senses, what we often try and do is the opposite, to hold her back.”

In the video below, Alma tells the story behind her new album, “From My Book of Melodies.”

Pre-order the CD “From My Book of Melodies” on Amazon!

Bonus Video: When Alma was 8, she composed music to one of her favorite Christmas poems, “The Night before Christmas.” Here she sings it as a duet with her sister Helen:

References:

https://www.almadeutscher.com
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alma_Deutscher
https://www.ft.com/content/01afb678-dc19-11e7-a039-c64b1c09b482
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/life/meet-prodigy-alma-deutscher-12-year-old-opera
https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/feb/05/alma-deutscher-10-music-world
https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/theatre-and-performance/article-teenage-composer-alma-deutscher-charts-an-ambitious-musical-course
https://www.timesofisrael.com/topic/alma-deutscher
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/14/world/europe/alma-deutscher-prodigy-mozart.html

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