Her bio is impressive: she started classes at age 5 (showing talent even earlier). Studied at the Conservatory of the City of Luxembourg under celebrated pianists Marco Kraus and Jean Muller of Luxembourg. Spent six years at the esteemed Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel alongside classical pianist Maria João Pires. Recorded her first album at the age of 14.
But at her “From Amadeus 2 Albena” recital at the Philharmonie in February, it wasn’t just Zala who wowed the crowd. Her younger brother, Val, 14, came on stage during her encore to play a few pieces with her, including Heitor Villa-Lobos’ “The Gaiety of a Children’s Band” and the first movement of Mozart’s “Sonata N°3 for piano four hands”.
What impressed many wasn’t just that the two were playing technically challenging pieces while seated at the same piano. As Zala says, “Many people say there’s a special connection they can hear in the music… It’s good to play four hands when you know the person very well.”
Val, who is now studying at the Musica Mundi School in Belgium, is also training to be a concert pianist. “My sister is a big inspiration for me. When I started, it was because she was playing. Today she also helps me a lot.”
It’s easy to wonder whether there might be a bit of healthy sibling rivalry, given the talent that both exhibit. But they seem to stay grounded. “If there is competition, music dies,” says Zala. “It’s hard to be a real artist if you’re competing with someone, especially in the family. It’s more like mutual helping, and inspiration.”
Their father, Marko, was always a music lover who played mainly bass guitar--pop-rock, then jazz. He had originally planned to study music before he received one of two prestigious scholarships by the French government for all of then-Yugoslavia, which led him to study literature and languages instead. Their mother, Lijie Che, studied biology. But the couple enjoyed attending concerts together. “When my wife was pregnant with Zala and we went to a concert,” Marko recalls, “I remember the bass played, and Zala moved.”
Zala has early memories of attending children’s concerts, as well as “discovering music through play” in weekly children’s workshops at La Chaise Musicale in Belgium. She also says that most evenings after school, she and her dad would sit down at the piano together, even if for just 15 to 20 minutes.
“Our original motivation was for the children to learn an instrument, since it has been proven that children who play or learn music are better in any professional career,” Marko says. And, while he supported both Zala and Val as they showed their love of music, saying he felt “motivated seeing them motivated”, he didn’t want to impose on them.
“What’s most important is that parents should not, at any time, have ambition,” Marko says. “Ambition is a personal thing, so it should be left to every individual child or adult to have their own ambition.”
Zala agrees. And her advice for children wanting to learn music? “It’s more for their parents, actually. When children are young, their parents mean everything to them, and I was lucky my dad accompanied me… At the beginning, the role of the parents is very important: to motivate.”