This coming March, a 14-year-old Filipino cellist will represent the country in one of the most prestigious music tilts in the world—the XI International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians. Child prodigy Damodar Das Castillo is one of 60 contestants out of the more than 900 musicians from 23 countries who qualified in the competition that will take place in Moscow, Russia, with the finals happening in Chengdu, China.
The past four years have seen the wunderkind winning the top prizes in five international competitions—the 2017 First North Competition International Music Autumn (online); the Tallinn, Estonia 2018 Competition for Young Artists; the 2020 International Artur Rubinstein Competition in Dusseldorf, Germany; the 2020 Young Ludwig International Music Competition in Berlin, Germany; and the 2021 Musica Goritiensis in Gorizia, Italy.
A quick look at Damodar’s musical history on his YouTube account would reveal that the boy started to explore his musical gift when he was about five. He was, as mothers would say, cuteness personified as he playfully moved the bow on his small cello as he sang the notes aloud. The kid would also be seen making funny faces in his other videos. In the latter part of one video, one can see how Damodar has developed into a fine musician over time, his music often able to transport the listener to another space and time.
Meet Damodar Das
Damodar is the only child of musician couple Alvin Castillo, a cellist, and Daloiza Bartolay, a violinist. They named him Damodar Das because it meant “servant of God.” In an interview with ANCX, the boy reveals how he was naturally drawn to music, inspired likely by the sight and sound of his father practicing with his cello four to six hours a day.
It so happened, too, that Alvin was teaching young Korean students at that l time and he was gifted a small cello. The instrument was just the right size for his boy who was already showing interest in music. “Noong una, laro-laro lang—ten minutes a day. Kung kailan niya lang magustuhan,” the dad tells ANCX.
But even at that very young age, Alvin knew Damodar has a gift. “Nakita ko after a week, itinotono na niyang mag-isa ang cello. Normally, it would take six months to one year before a student can learn to tune his instrument,” the father recalls. “Then I checked with the tuner, eksakto. Ibig sabihin may ear siya na perfect pitch.”
For two years, Alvin gave his son informal lessons on playing the cello. When Damodar turned seven, the older Castillo let his boy join the Philippine Youth Orchestra primarily so that he could socialize with other kids. Damodar has been homeschooled ever since he was young. The kids in the youth orchestra, however, turned out to be mostly beginners in terms of skill sets so Damodar didn’t find the experience challenging and exciting. So Alvin had his son join the rehearsals of the Manila Junior Symphony Orchestra and that was when the young musician’s interest in learning the cello really started to show.
At age eight, he underwent formal training with Dr. Renato Lucas, the current president of National Music Competitions for Young Artists Foundation (NAMCYA). “At that time, nagseseryoso na [si Damodar] sa pagtugtog so tinuruan ko na siya ng discipline. Kailangan two hours a day, pagod ka o hindi, i-try mo talagang mag-practice. Sumunod naman siya kaya grabe ang bilis ng growth niya,” recalls Alvin.
When Damodar turned nine, he competed with the Manila Symphony Junior Orchestra (MSJO) in Vienna where the group won second place. The major sponsor, Standard Insurance, was so impressed with the orchestra that he offered to support the scholarship of whoever wanted to study in the best music schools abroad. Damodar, of course, wanted in. He wanted to pursue his musical studies abroad so he spent four to five hours practicing in order to pass the audition.
“Sa hirap, minsan talaga umiiyak na ako lalo na sa pagpa-practice ng ear training,” recalls Damodar. “Kasi ang pagiging perfect pitch, hindi naman siya naa-achieve agad-agad.”
The aspiring musician got accepted at the Mozarteum University, where he studied for four years. At the same time, he qualified in the Highly Gifted program of the Leopold Mozart Institute, where he spent three years. Both schools are in Salzburg, Austria.
How to raise a genius
Alvin admits that it’s not easy homeschooling one’s child. “Mahirap kasi full-time ka talaga dapat sa anak mo,” he says. “Yung mga modules niya sa school, I also have to make sure na nagagawa niya. So hindi maiiwasan, minsan nag-aaway din na kami. Kalangan ko din siya ma-motivate kapag nahihirapan na siya sa music o sa ibang bagay.”
Alvin had to accompany his son when Damodar started studying in Austria. The father had to give up his teaching career and business, while his wife works as a music teacher in Dubai. They’re just thankful that Damodar’s education and other expenses in Austria have been fully supported by Standard Insurance.
Damodar opted to come home to the Philippines this year because it was Austrian policy for children aged 16 and below to attend regular school. The Filipino cellist found difficulty in juggling his music and academics. “He tried going to a regular school there for a year, pero nahirapan siya. Maghapon din kasi yun. Pag-uwi niya, pagod na siyang mag-practice, kaya napapabayaan niya ang music niya,” says Alvin.
So father and son decided to come home last October. They plan to go back to Austria when Damodar turns 16. For now, he attends online schooling in music with his German teacher. At the same time, he plays the electric cello with a Davao-based rock band called Atmarama (which means “supreme spirit”) who plays original compositions and almost all music genres.
“Ang ginagawa ko ngayon, nagre-rehearse ako for two hours ng classical, then two hours with the band,” says the teenage musician. Damodar is a big fan of rock music especially heavy metal, death metal, and grind. He also listens to rap and pop.
Aside from giving honor to his country in future international music competitions, the young virtuoso says he dreams their band will someday also make it big in the music scene. As for himself, he may try to explore other pursuits but one thing’s certain: music will be always part of his life and he wants to make a lifelong career out of it.
Photos from Damodar Das Castillo's social media accounts