[Main visual] Nadia Dandachi
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Nadia Dandachi

Pianist, Educator, Physician

“Music is my safe haven”

Nadia Dandachi on the transformative power of piano

Pianist Nadia Dandachi is empowering women through education online

For Nadia Dandachi, empowerment lies in harnessing potential. As a full-time paediatrician and part-time pianist, the 29-year-old’s own potential may be multifaceted—but whether it’s through medicine or music education, Dandachi’s belief in the potential of others is resounding.

To some, Nadia Dandachi’s story might sound sensationalist: At just three years old, she transposed a tune sung by her babysitter onto a toy keyboard; at six she began taking piano lessons; and at 14, she won first place at the first international piano competition she ever entered. But while a natural talent and inclination towards music has undoubtedly played a role in her success, Dandachi’s pursuit of piano was about much more than that. “Music was really a safe haven for me,” she explains. “It was the biggest blessing in my life, because it was always there for me. I could always go down to my piano, have a moment with myself, and either drift into my thoughts, or lose myself in what I was playing.”

[Photo] Nadia Dandachi

Born and raised in Saudi Arabia, Dandachi faced cultural and social barriers to traditional musical education, but at home, even her earliest memories are filled with it. “My father was an audiophile,” she explains, “and music was always playing loudly.” It was he who first introduced her to classical music (most memorably Beethoven and Mozart), and both of her parents, having studied for years in France, listened to French pop music often. “Because of that, I was absolutely not cool at school,” she laughs. “ Nobody else was listening to French music.”

It was at parties in middle school that Dandachi first discovered US Hip Hop and R&B. “There were all these American songs I had never heard of before,” she remembers. “And everyone would be singing them in unison—I was the nerd that had no clue what was happening.” That quickly changed. Coming of age as the internet did, Dandachi deployed YouTube in the process of her musical discovery, transfixed by the seemingly infinite and encyclopaedic knowledge of genres she was suddenly exposed to. “I became a huge Metallica fan,” she tells me. “I guess I was a teenager—so there was that angst—but I got into a lot of rock and heavy metal.” The internet’s role in democratising music is a well-documented (and debated) discussion, but for Dandachi, it truly opened up access to a back-catalogue of international music that was not readily available to her elsewhere.

Like other bedroom musicians across the globe, Dandachi was downloading sheet music for free online, and learning how to play it on her Yamaha piano. “It was my first piano,” she adds, “and I’ve been in love with Yamaha instruments ever since. They never miss.” In doing so, she gained access to a whole world of music that transcended any language barrier. “That’s when YouTube covers really started to become really a thing,” she remembers. “People could suddenly play the piano or guitar parts of their favourite songs.” It was the era responsible for birthing stars like Ed Sheeran, Shawn Mendes, and Justin Bieber (made famous by his rendition of Chris Brown’s ‘With You’). But as Dandachi became engrossed in the search for unique renditions of popular music, she also became aware of a glaring lack of representation. “I noticed that I never found any Arab musicians—it was always somebody in the US or in the UK or in Europe. I never saw people like me playing covers.” So in 2010, at the age of 16, Dandachi launched her own YouTube channel.

It’s serendipitous, although entirely understandable, that the platform responsible for broadening Dandachi’s own musical horizons has also been the one through which she’s imparted musical knowledge to others. What started as an innocuous outlet for sharing her piano progress with friends and family has slowly become a form of community-building and a tool for democratising music education. After posting her own piano covers of songs like Sting’s ‘Desert Rose’, featuring Algerian singer Cheb Mami, Dandachi started receiving positive feedback. “Almost all of it was like ‘oh my god, I can't believe there's a woman in Saudi playing the piano—that's so cool.’ That only got me excited to do more of it.” From there, Dandachi began conceiving of and uploading her own tutorials for others to follow along with at home. “I just thought, ‘this is knowledge that I have and that I'm happy to share.’”

[Photo] Nadia Dandachi

During Dandachi’s own musical upbringing, female representation had been an all but folkloric concept: Aside from her two piano teachers, she lacked any idols. “I really didn’t have any real female role models,” she laments. To this day, the prospect of gender equality in the music industry remains aspirational. 78% of the world's most popular artists are men*1, and it will take approximately 90 years*2 to reach a 50/50 ratio between male and female producers. For Black women, and women of colour, those numbers are even more discouraging, and the obstacles that hinder them are systemic. “It's a highly male dominated industry,” Dandachi affirms, “and it does feel uncomfortable being the only woman in the room.” But for Dandachi, visibility is paramount to shifting the course of music as a more equitable creative outlet—and if her own online presence can play a small part in that, she’s honoured. “The more there are women there, the more other female musicians will see this as a space for them,” she says. “I want to empower young girls to be more confident, and to put themselves out there.”

Over the course of the decade since her channel’s launch, Dandachi has amassed 57.4k subscribers on YouTube, many of whom are other Arab and Saudi women, and has aimed to cultivate a space that’s “free of judgement” for other female musicians to share and discuss their progress and creativity. “I wanted to be able to guide them to a place where they could maybe learn and explore their musical talents,” she explains. Creating easy-to-follow piano lessons and tutorials in Arabic, Dandachi does away with the often-intimidating vernacular that can easily alienate people from traditional Western musical education. “It can feel like something that's like foreign and complex,” she explains. “And I just wanted to completely simplify that. I didn't want the language to be a barrier.”

But rather than train the next concert pianist or produce the next Mozart, above all Dandachi wants to be able to impart the feeling of freedom that music has given her onto others. During the course of her life, music, she explains, has been a kind of therapy, as she’s grappled with her sense of belonging—it’s acted as a safe haven through bullying at school, through navigating her identity, and through her move to Berlin to pursue her medical career four years ago. “I was always able to release my energy, my emotions, and frustrations in music,” she explains. “And I love that—I honestly recommend it to anyone. When you play music, you’re really doing it for yourself. It’s time that you're spending with yourself and taking care of your emotions.”

[Photo] Nadia Dandachi

And through her work as a general physician, Dandachi has broadened her understanding of the cognitive benefits of music—knowledge that has only deepened her respect for its practice. “Clinical studies show that when kids learn music, they do so much better in school,” she explains. “They have better grades in maths and science, it helps with memory. A lot of patients with dementia will forget speech—they wouldn't be able to answer a question. But if you play their favourite song from their childhood, they'll remember the lyrics, or they'll be able to play the piano. It's just so incredible. It shows you how powerful it is.”

Through both her relationships to music—the irrevocably instinctive and personal on one hand; and professional on the other—Dandachi has earned a deep understanding and appreciation of the full and multifaceted potential of music. Viewing music not only as a creative outlet but seeing the incontrovertible impact it has on both mental and physical health and in the development of children, it has become all the more heart-breaking for Dandachi to see women doubting themselves. “Women have more of a tendency to judge themselves—to ask ‘am I good enough?’, but one message I really try to send across is to keep doing what you love without expecting anything in return,” she says. “Do it for the joy and happiness it brings to your heart. I think if you're passionate about anything, that's all that matters. You will see the fruit of it later on.”

With imposter syndrome continuing to plague female musicians, Dandachi wants to instil as much confidence as possible in the next generation—particularly in women of colour and women in Saudi Arabia who face even more financial, educational and cultural barriers to entering music. “Don’t let fear be another one,” she says. “There have been so many times I could have stopped just because of people's opinions of me—because of being afraid. I always believe that if you do something you love, and it's positive and you're putting it out there, you will always benefit from that—if not right away, then always eventually. I really hope to see more and more women facing their fears, coming to studios, and pursuing what they love without judgement.”

*1 Statistics from ‘Men make the music: Study reveals that women’s voices are missing from popular charts’

*2 Statistics from ‘Inclusion in the Recording Studio? Gender and Race/Ethnicity of Artists, Songwriters & Producers across 800 Popular Songs from 2012-2019’

Author: Harriet Shepherd

Harriet Shepherd is a writer and editor focussing on music and culture. Her work has been featured in W Magazine, Vogue, i-D, Dazed, The Face, Resident Advisor, 032c and more. She is also the Editorial Director of bi-annual Berlin-based print magazine, INDIE.

View Dr. Nadia's Journey