Two Siblings, One Spotlight

September 06, 2011
By Rebecca Webber – Psychology Today


Gil debuted as a solo violinist with Jerusalem Symphony at the age of 10 and is considered one of the most virtuosic classical musicians currently performing.

Orli, hailed as one of today’s most gifted pianists, travels around the world appearing with major orchestras, just like her brother. The two have given recitals together approximately 100 times.

“When Gil was about 14 and I was 10, we used to come home from school and play great card games. We would play for hours and hours on end. We were in New York City at that time and it was often just the two of us after school. We would both have a cup of soup and creamed spinach for a snack. When we got older and more sophisticated, we’d order sushi and not tell our parents.” —Orli

When Gil, Orli, and brother Shai were very young, their parents would celebrate the end of a long week in graduate school not by going out to dinner, but by buying a record—mostly classical music, with a little Beatles and John Denver mixed in. “We listened to them all the time,” says Orli. “When you’re playing music, the whole house hears it,” adds Gil. “It does seem to be infectious.”

Both parents became scientists, but music was their avocation. “Mom played piano and Dad, the violin,” says Orli. “They gave us a huge enthusiasm for it.” Shai started piano lessons when he was 5.

Gil, who is two years younger than Shai and five years older than Orli, says “I remember being jealous, and wanting to be different.” So he set his sights on the violin. “I loved the way it looked, the strings, the mechanism. I thought it was a great toy,” he recalls. His mother was reluctant—”She thought a kid learning the violin sounded like fingernails on a chalkboard,” he says—but she ultimately gave in. The family was living in Israel then, where music had a high cultural value. It was thought to instill discipline and spur intellectual development in children. “I wanted to play both,” says Orli, whose earliest memories are of Gil’s violin getting closed up in a case she wasn’t allowed to touch, and of Shai’s piano, which was kept in the study. “When he wasn’t on it, I could go up and play. I think that’s why I chose the piano,” she says.

When it came to making music, all three children shared a singular focus, practicing for long hours every day. They say they were mimicking the hard-working example of their parents, who both left for work every morning around 7 a.m. and returned home every night at 6:30 p.m. “There was a diligence that was very inspiring,” says Gil.

“Our parents never really pushed us to practice, but they never suggested we go outside and play instead,” says Orli. She and Gil often procrastinated on their assigned lessons, instead reading through sonatas together for fun. “He was older and had better technique,” says Orli, “but because we were learning the pieces together, it was leveling.”

A few years after the family moved to New York, Shai put his piano studies aside to focus on academics—he realized he hated performing. But Gil and Orli played on. It had become clear that Gil was exceptionally talented on the violin and his teachers were grooming him for a professional career. “Our dad got more involved in guiding him,” says Orli. Meanwhile, at age 7, she became the youngest person ever accepted into Juilliard’s precollege division at that time (most students enter around age 14). “My mom sat in on all my lessons and took notes,” says Orli. She never felt rivalrous with Gil: “We were in separate parts of the musical world. Nobody made any comparisons and so I didn’t either.”

Still, their parents gently questioned their offspring’s musical aspirations. “Even in my 20s, my mom would come to a concert and then say, ‘Are you sure this is what you want to be doing with your life?'” says Gil. Because the answer was unequivocally “yes,” they supported his dreams. Today, Gil and Orli both perform internationally as soloists, garnering stellar reviews and the highest awards (including a Grammy), while Shai heads the laboratory of developmental genetics at The Rockefeller University in New York.

“Being a classical musician is really on the fringe of society,” says Gil. “Orli and I share the experience of going through life like that.” They have to leave their own families behind to travel for concerts. Sometimes, they perform together, which their parents never wanted them to do until they had established themselves as soloists. “I think my dad didn’t want us to become some sort of circus act,” says Orli.

Gil says, “Making music with someone is a bonding experience. You have to be in tune with them on a split-second level.” It’s also the most time he gets to spend with Orli, who in his mind “is still a 4-year-old.” Shai recently joined an amateur orchestra. “It’s been very inspiring for me,” says Gil, “because he does it for fun.”

All the Shahams credit their success to the influence and support of their parents coupled with their own dedication to their careers. “I’m in the 10,000 hour camp,” says Gil. “I think anyone can learn an instrument and make great music with a lot of work and effort. Those are the values we had in our house.” Still, the interest in and talent for music they seemingly inherited from their parents surely helped propel them through those grueling hours of training.

Naturally, Gil’s and Orli’s kids are already taking music lessons. Says Orli: “Even at 18 months, my son would stop to listen to an orchestra. I see the passion in them and I don’t want to deny it.”