The Ayoub Sisters - Striking a Major Chord

They are bold, smart, funny and so talented. The Scottish – Egyptian multi-instrumentalist sisters Sarah and Laura Ayoub are being heralded as the new sound and faces of the classical and crossover worlds. Discovered by Mark Ronson, the girls were invited by Classic FM to make their Royal Albert Hall debut at Classic FM Live. They will be featured on the first cover of Coptopia Magazine - due out end of April with the full interview.

Maged Fahmy
Maged Fahmy
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Sarah and Laura Ayoub are classically trained, multi-instrumentalists who cross the boundaries between classical and contemporary music. Maged Fahmy caught up with them for a couple of hours on a warm Tuesday morning for a cup of coffee and a chat.


So, how did it all start for you?
[Sarah] When I was 7 years old, I hijacked one of mother’s piano lessons which she had just started. I became fascinated with the instrument and its sounds.

[Laura] Being three years younger than Sarah, I ended up copying what she was doing (as the young ones always do!) The rest as they say, is history.

Aged 7 and 4? Classical music doesn’t seem to be a thing that would attract the ears of a child….
It totally did.  We were taken to concerts when we were that age, and younger even. We would sit through the entire two-hour performance by an orchestra, or a choir, or both! We wouldn’t cry or get bored, we would be completely engaged.

I don’t think that’s unusual. This stereotype of ‘don’t give young people anything too complex’ isn’t true. In actual fact, it’s the total opposite; give them something that will stimulate them. It totally did for us”.

When you started playing the keyboard, did you get hooked on that or did you quickly wander into new pastures?

The keyboard and piano stuck until now, we’ve been playing ever since. However, the interest and intrigue of playing a musical instrument in itself spread like wildfire.

Sarah took to the violin next, and then I quickly copied (again!), she then changed to the Cello a couple of years later, then she bought a trumpet, I bought a guitar and got singing lessons.  We basically went around most of the instruments.

But since we performed our first piece from start to finish on the piano, we were hooked from then on.
When did this love for music start impacting your life?
We both ended up going to a specialist music school, in which we still did our other subjects (biology and chemistry and all sorts), but we had an intensified music education and around that time it became apparent that there was something unique going on, more than just a hobby.

Do you remember the first piece you learned?
[Sarah] For me, I remember pinnacle pieces – the hardest one, or the first time I played a solo or played in a competition. There were several pinnacle moments, but not a specific piece.

[Laura] It was on the violin for me. The first piece I actually heard and requested sheet music for was Ashokan Farewell, which was written by an American Folk composer [Jay Ungar]. For some reason I really enjoyed it when I heard it on ClassicFM , aged about 7 or 8. I asked for the music and got it for my birthday – I still have the sheet with ‘Happy Birthday Laura’ written on it. We ended up re-writing it for Violin and Cello, and it’s now the last piece on our album.

Did your love for Classical music impact you with school or friends?
At the music school we went to, there was a department of about 50 kids within the massive public-school environment. So, we did have a community of like-minded students that were the ‘Music Geeks’ (as we were often labelled!). We were the ones who had music lessons before school, at lunch, afterschool, so it was very intense.

Other students would look at us thinking, “These are the guys who cut the queue at lunch to get to their sessions on time!”. People looked at us like we were ‘special’ or ‘unusual’. But we still did everything like teenagers, still go to parties, had a very normal teenage upbringing, we were very integrated.
Many times, we don’t do something because we feel it doesn’t ‘conform’. Have you ever felt that way?
Not at all. We were in a ‘normal’ school for two years, and I felt very proud walking in with a Cello or a Trumpet. Everyone would look at me, I didn’t feel ashamed or embarrassed.

The school was very encouraging, if you were in a competition, and you end up in the newspaper, they’d put it outside the assembly hall.

At the recent Global Awards ceremony, your mom joined you. Was your career part of her own agenda?
I don’t think there was ever an agenda, like ‘this is my dream projected on my children’, or ‘I want them to become stars’. I don’t think it was ever like that.

She genuinely has a love for music, and for classical music in particular, she doesn’t come from a musical background herself, nor she didn’t try to make it as a musician.

Her ambition was and is for us to be happy, and I would say this is the most successful recipe in a parent; not to feel too strongly to go one way or another, but just to encourage and support. Our music and our choice of instruments was never forced on us, that’s why we still love them till today.

What about your dad? Does he follow a musical route?
He loves the Tabla very much, but no he doesn’t play anything. As far as classical music goes, he likes it in small doses, and like many others, he’ll enjoy it if it’s something familiar; but the idea of sitting through a 2-hour opera, is certainly a bit too much for him.

He just about likes our album:) It was written with a listener like him in mind!
How easy is it for you to gain new fans of your music? What’s your trick or selling point?
We feel the most important thing is to give listeners a ‘quality listening experience’. When we perform now, we split our concerts in 2 halves. The first is core classical – Piano and Violin, and the second is purely cross over with Violin and Cello, and a loop station for support. We advertise it exactly as that mix, so people know what they’re signing up for.

At our concerts, we have Classic FM listeners, but we also have Ed Sheeran fans that hear us on the radio and come to listen to the concerts waiting for the 2nd half. What happens is that both end up listening to the other half, and both end up being converted. We never had someone (yet) who said I hated one or the other. The ‘Classic’ generation is intrigued by ‘the [loop] box’, while the ‘Pop’ generation is ‘impressed’ by the technical ability needed to play the instruments. We think this is the best way to convert both sides; to play in front of them and give them a quality listening experience.

The school was very encouraging, if you were in a competition, and you end up in the newspaper, they’d put it outside the assembly hall.
Speaking of ‘experience’, do you have the opportunity to show off your own personalities on stage?
Unlike typical classical concerts, we have to interact with the audience. In doing that, they get to experience who we are as people. We share with them how we got to where we are and explain what we’re playing and why. And of course, they see chemistry even without speaking, typical on-stage siblings.

Being siblings on stage who grew up together, how does that dynamic work during your performances? Or is it left completely off stage? It’s a total plus, we couldn’t do it any other way. I would hate to imagine my life as a soloist, not to have anyone who’s got my back. To go through this really turbulent, unpredicted career- ‘There’s no better way to do it with a sibling that you know so well, and it’s just transparent from the get-go’ Because it’s us, you don’t have that fear of offending.
Has there ever been a moment on stage where you guys just ‘didn’t gel’?
YES! There was one incident, and it wasn’t even a concert, it was a corporate event!
Are you going to tell us what happened?
[Laura] Let’s just say we were both so stubborn and Sarah eventually caved, ‘But I was right!’- she said!

Can you describe the moment for us, after Mark Ronson’s discovered you, when you realized ‘this is it’?
Wow. At the heart of it was that the idea of the Ayoub Sisters and this thing we’ve been joking about ever since we were so young, isn’t that far-fetched anymore. It was the first kind of acknowledgement, from someone big in the (pop) industry of all places, that what you’re doing is actually good, and now you’re given a platform to show it off to other people.

I remember it clearly, it was in 2015 after I had just moved to London to start my studies. Sarah had just graduated and was exploring free-lance life in Glasgow. So, then Mark getting in touch after seeing our video and inviting us to Abbey Road Studios, it was the first time when we actually thought that maybe what we’re doing is more than just being two instrumentalists, but it actually caught the attention of someone who knows what’s good and what isn’t..

So, who got the call?
It was an e-mail, sent to our joint e-mail account. We got the initial message which wasn’t from Mark, it was a made-up e-mail account. They wanted to set it up as surprise, to get us to Abbey Road and surprise us there with a complete setup ready to record.

It took a few people to telling us things that weren’t entirely true. We didn’t really know till we actually arrived at the studio.

There were a line of cameras filming us getting out of the car. I remember thinking ‘this is a bit weird’, but we eventually started playing. Then when Mark walked in and found out that we were recording for the Brit Awards, we realized that something is happening, this wasn’t what we signed up for, it’s a lot better!
Was anyone else in on your secret?
We weren’t allowed to tell ANYONE! We filmed in December and The Brit Awards were coming out in February, so no external communication until the day on Awards itself. We obviously told our parents, and few of our friends, but we had to keep it really quiet, but luckily it was only for 2 months.
How did The Brit Award experience impact your life?
Sarah: It’s been incredible. Ever since we recorded I would go to bed and wake up with my feet tapping ‘Uptown Funk’, and I didn’t stop for three whole months.

This all happened just two weeks after I had just left Glasgow and moved to London permanently. Laura’s ongoing comment to was always ‘Welcome to London!’ Laura: Bearing in mind that I spent the previous 6 months convincing her to move to London, and then finally when she moved this happened.

London is so unpredictable. We posted a video on YouTube (a very basic one) which was viewed about 20 times; 19 of them was our Mom, and the other one was Mark Ronson.

Is there a learning curve you’re going through right now?
We learn a lot on this job. There’s so much that college teaches you, but we’re learning a lot from real life. Being thrown in the deep end, you either sink or swim.

Living in London, you don’t feel ‘cushioned’. It’s kill or be killed and you have to fight to survive every day; but we’re very thankful that there’s two of us with a fantastic support network of family and friends.
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