Exploring the exemplar | Sunday Observer
Anagi Gunasekara

Exploring the exemplar

Everyone loves a prodigy. They allow an excuse for most people to slack, citing god given talent as the reason why their colleagues do far better than them and this escapism lives in most of us. They love to see talent blossom from an early age, and like watching their progress as they grow into a star. However, as the skill ceiling rises and the stars get ever younger, most will wonder. Are these talented children born, or made?

Ruvini Gunasekara, young pianist Anagi’s mother believes in the latter. A respected musician and music teacher from an especially musically inclined family, Ruvini has experience in growing up with, being raised by and in turn raising, countless musical talents across several generations. She took the time to explain to us how her 15-year-old daughter Anagi, an exceptional young musician, became as good as she is.


Q: What made you realise her talent for the piano at an early age?

A: Anagi is blessed to come from a musical family. Her grandmother, Indranee Hapugalle, was a respected and well-known piano teacher. Over her 50-year career, Anagi’s “achcha” (grandmother) taught piano to and examined hundreds of children from all over the island. Anagi’s much-adored aunt, my sister Sujeeva Hapugalle, is a world-renowned pianist and Steinway Artist residing in San Francisco. As for me, I have been teaching the piano for the past 28 years.

With this kind of background, Anagi seems to have got a head-start on the piano - perhaps due to some musical genes she has inherited from her family line! This observation does not seem to be farfetched, because right from the moment she began playing the piano at the age of 4, Anagi connected to the instrument so well. It was such a natural connection.

Q: Since Anagi has been performing on stage since she was 6-years-old, it’s easy for anyone to say Anagi is a prodigy. Would you say that’s an accurate label for her? How much of her success could be attributed to either hard work or talent?

Anagi Gunasekara

A: This would not be an accurate label at all for Anagi! My general theory in the mastery of any type of skill is that one must possess a natural aptitude for the skill, and, along with that, put in into practise to gain mastery.

Take my sister Sujeeva for example, she did not become a concert pianist of world-renown overnight – only she knows the amount of hard work that she put in day in and day out, and for so many years, to reach her level of brilliance.

Having a natural aptitude, by itself, is not going to help anyone gain mastery over the piano. What is needed is unrelenting, constant, regular, practice. Many refer to Anagi’s talent-however, Anagi and I know that it is the constant practice and exposure to world class performances, that have helped Anagi to get where she is today along with the talent she has been blessed with. Let’s also not forget that she still has a long way to go. This is only the beginning - perhaps not even that.

I must say that Anagi’s love for music is infectious! She truly enjoys her music and got used to a regular practice schedule from young age. She had to work to a schedule, because, by the age of six, she also started formal violin lessons under the guidance of Ananda Dabare and soon after, began formal singing lessons under Naomie Gooneratne. Now, she is pursuing singing under the guidance ofPeshaliYapa. All these music teachers have made Anagi who she is today.

Q: How was Anagi’s initial response to learning the piano, and from what age did she start performing on stage?

A: Anagi began her formal lessons on the piano at the age of four, under my guidance. When I first started teaching her, I did not have a firm plan in my mind since I was just trying to assess if she was ready for the piano.

However, due to her musical genes, Anagi immediately took to the piano and was a fast learner. Her reading skills were pretty good; and due to this, she learned lots of fun pieces, thanks to the lovely music she and my son Harish received from my sister Sujeeva from San Francisco.

She was just four and a half years old when she first performed on stage at one of my student concerts at the Russian Centre. Even at that age, Anagi was a confident, serious and focused little performer. She also loved to sing with my other young students, at my student concerts!

Even today, she loves to perform on stage, and prefers this to sitting for music exams!

For all three musical subjects, she sat exams every year and was a regular prize winner in all. She could not have been a high achiever if she did not dedicate herself to a regular practice routine. Of course, thanks to her inherited talent, Anagi’s performances were always musically delivered. Many have commented on her lovely stage presence too.

Q: What is your involvement in her musical career?

A: I am deeply involved in her musical journey. My involvement was more when she was younger as she needed my guidance to help her manage all her musical activities. I got her to follow a practice schedule and would tell her what she could improve on during each practice session.

I enjoy accompanying her when she is playing the violin or singing - and this has helped to create a close musical bond between us. She also loves to inspire and encourage my younger students, and happily helps Peshali Yapa and me with our annual Musical Explorer’s camps for children. There is no age barrier between her and the young ones.

She is more than happy to run around with them and engage in the various camp activities - and also inspire them by talking about music to them and encouraging them to practise regularly!

I noticed a significant change in her commitment to music when she was preparing for the grade 8 piano exam.

By this time, I had reduced my involvement in her practice sessions, and I noticed that there was a certain maturity that was developing in her playing as there was a deeper personal connection between her and the music she was learning. At the age of 13, Anagi sat grade 8 piano and scored the highest marks, and at the age of 14, she was the prize winner at ATCL.

Q: Could you let us know more about the people who have supported her on her musical journey?

A: Firstly, my husband Yukthi Gunasekera has supported me in guiding Anagi with her music. He is always a proud dad when he sees his “little” daughter perform on stage! I am thankful that my mother was able to witness Anagi’s love for music when she was alive.

Even when she was sick, my mother would always smile whenever Harish and Anagi played music to her. She was their biggest fan! My sister Sujeeva has played a huge role in Anagi’s musical journey from the start. Sujeeva is Anagi’s ultimate role model and deepest source of musical inspiration.

I would like to express my deepest gratitude to Anagi’s music teachers: Ananda Dabare for violin, and Naomie Gooneratne and Peshali Yapa for singing.

I would also like to recognise the support she has always got from school.

Anagi is truly blessed to be a student at Ladies’ College. Just like in the case of my sister and me before her, Anagi too has been supported, encouraged and inspired in all her musical endeavours by her schoolteachers and administrators.

Musically, Anagi is very active in school and is now a member of the Senior English Choir and the schools’ Western and Eastern orchestras. She loves sharing her love, passion and talent for music with other children in the school.

Q: Were there any issues that came up in her career? What sacrifices had to be made by both of you? Have you ever got any negative feedback from her about this?

A: We are lucky that Anagi has not faced any major issues. I think this is because Anagi is a happy, caring and peaceful child herself - and she enjoys collaborating with other young musicians. Moreover, she is adept at keeping out of “politics” and dramas!

To keep up with her music and studies in particular, Anagi had to sacrifice social outings, at times. She is also not active on social media. She often tells me that she feels a bit lost when her friends talk about happenings on social media!

However, this is a choice Anagi has made herself - and despite not being very active socially, she is still a happy child and loves her friends.

Q: There are many stories of children who have grown resentful of their past investment in a certain path, do you have any worries about Anagi’s turning out that way?

A: Definitely not! I believe this happens mostly when parents force their children to do certain things. Anagi enjoys all her musical activities and loves to connect musically with other musicians.

Even to pursue a music education and career overseas in the future will be her decision – and not that of her parents. I will respect whatever decision she makes career-wise, as she is also keen on her studies. Anagi wishes to pursue a double degree in music and another subject, which she will decide during her Advanced Level studies.

Q: Does she have any other interests besides piano? How does she spend her time outside of piano?

A: Anagi also plays the violin and enjoys singing. Playing in orchestras and singing in choirs give her immense joy. She is also creative and loves to make beautiful hand-made cards out of re-cycled material! She also loves to read!

Besides the time she spends on her academic pursuits, Anagi also plays netball at school and plays badminton at home.

Q: Could you mention major highlights in her musical journey?

A: Anagi’s biggest musical achievement was being selected to perform at Suntory Hall in Tokyo at the Child Aid International Concert, which was scheduled for early May 2020. Performing at Suntory Hall, one of Japan’s finest concert halls, would have been a dream and an unforgettable experience for Anagi.

Unfortunately, the concert got cancelled due to Covid-19. However, Anagi received a consolation prize: she got to perform “virtually” at the concert, when the organisersheld the concert online on May 9.

Anagi was thrilled to perform at the virtual concert which raised funds to buy digital devices for underprivileged children to attend online classes during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Anagi was also selected twice to perform at “The Young Musicians at the Wendt” concert series presented by the Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund. Apart from performing on the piano, Anagi got the invaluable opportunity to collaborate with other young musicians at these concerts.

Q: What advice would you have for parents who have recognised a similar spark in their children?

A: My suggestion is don’t live your dreams through your children. Let the children decide if they have a passion for the subject! I have never told Anagi that she needs to be a concert pianist or become a music teacher like me.

I think one of the reasons why she has been successful is because it is her decision to pursue a subject that she loves and is passionate about – she is not doing this to please her parents. I would tell parents not to talk constantly about their personal achievements and not to compare their time with the present times! To do so would be unfair by their children.

Times are different now! Let the children decide what they would like to pursue in life. You may advise them, but don’t force any decisions on them. Also, be ready to lend them the needed emotional support too.

Sometimes, they can get pretty overwhelmed with all that they want or have to deliver. Encourage your children to share their passion and love for the subject with others and discourage them from developing a myopic competitive streak.

As far as Anagi is concerned, I constantly encourage her to use her musical talents to build bridges to connect, help and inspire others.