Interview: Denny Sila on Raising a Jazz Piano Prodigy
Joey McDowell is an experienced writer and editor originally from the Dallas area. A firm believer in a well-balanced lifestyle, Joey applies this forward-thinking approach as the editor-in-chief of The Idea Trader. He travels extensively to find compelling stories and insightful individuals.
The Old Way
Let’s take a look back in time, to the 18th century, when Europe was going wild for classical music. Kings and emperors were hiring composers for their courts, to create music, especially for their enjoyment.
During this time, there was a scrappy little kid named Wolfgang Mozart. He came from a musical family and was raised to be a skillful performer.
Mozart wrote his first fully-fledged composition when he was 5 years old. From there, he played shows around Europe until finding a permanent position in Salzburg.
Unfortunately, Mozart’s father remained an imposing figure to him for the rest of his life, representing a looming sense of inferiority and disappointment.
And even under this pressure, Mozart managed to compose some truly incredible works.
Young musical prodigies still exist today, but thankfully the methods used to teach them have become much more gentle, accepting, and enjoyable.
Today, we’ll be taking a look at a specific example of how musical education for talented individuals can be a highly positive experience, one which produces talented players ready to share their work with the world.
Nurturing Musical Intelligence
Denny Sila is the father and mentor of Joey Alexander, a Grammy-nominated jazz piano prodigy.
Sila played a huge role in developing Joey’s musical sensibility, gifting him an electronic keyboard when Joey was just 6 years old.
He also introduced Joey to American jazz, which led to the beginnings of his professional musical career.
Whereas many prodigy-level musicians tend to be the products of incredibly strict teaching methods, Sila has taken a very different approach to encouraging practice, composition, and a general love of music.
We had the unique opportunity to speak with Sila recently, and our full discussion can be found below.
We asked Sila about his own journey with jazz as well as how he was able to nurture musical mastery in his son. Check out the interview below to learn more about musical education today.
When did you first know that Joey had a real gift for playing jazz piano?
I always loved jazz myself, and I played it for Joey often when he was a baby and a young child. When he was very small, around 6 years old, I bought him a mini keyboard, to see if I could foster this same love for music in him.
I can’t remember the exact moment when we realized he had a gift. As Joey played more and more on the piano, we began to see his natural talent explode. We could tell that he was really listening to and getting the feel of the music that I played at home.
He started learning a new language: jazz. Without ever having been formally taught, he began playing in a way that really illustrated his gift. It was a gift from God, truly, and we’re very fortunate to have been able to support and nurture this gift in Joey so that he could share it with the world.
How did you personally fall in love in American jazz?
My late father was a Colonel in the Indonesian Navy. In 1985, when I was barely a teenager, he went to New Orleans for a conference and brought back a few cassette tapes of Mardi Gras music and swing music. He listened to those cassettes a lot, and I completely fell in love with the sound.
I began looking for more cassettes of jazz music and eventually came to the U.S. for university. In the 1990s, I was pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree at Pace University in NYC, and I had the chance to finally learn more about the music I loved.
I took courses in music and even took private piano lessons from one of my professors. I loved New York and really took advantage of my time there by immersing myself in jazz culture. I went to jazz clubs, listened to live music often, and picked up cassettes of different artists at music stores around the city.
Even though I never had the gift of performance myself, I loved jazz and I enjoyed learning as much about it as I could. I think this really set the foundation and planted the seed for the passion and talent that eventually bloomed in Joey.
Which of Joey’s accomplishments has made you the most excited for his bright future in the music industry?
Each of Joey’s accomplishments have been exceptionally exciting, and each has led him a step further into his professional development and his career.
In 2012, when we were still living in Indonesia, Joey had the chance to perform for jazz legend Herbie Hancock, who immediately saw his talent and potential, and helped us make some important contacts to transform Joey’s passion and hobby into a career.
A year later, Joey made a real splash at a major international jazz festival, by competing against adults and taking first place. When we first came to the U.S. in 2014, Joey was signed by a boutique jazz label, which gave him the chance to focus on developing his craft.
He earned two Grammy nominations for that first album and hasn’t stopped growing since. He’s gone on to release three more albums. It’s hard to identify which accomplishment has made us most excited, because as you can see, they are all connected to one another.
As his coach and mentor, I’m honestly most excited to have witnessed his development as an artist. He has grown so much and really matured in his technical skills and his instincts. As Joey continues to develop and hone his unique sound, I know that he will continue on in a successful career as a pianist, composer, and a bandleader.
What do you feel is one of the most important things to keep in mind when encouraging a child to practice and succeed?
One of the things I try to instill in Joey is the importance of practicing, and practicing with purpose, so as to not over-practice.
Efficient practice makes for perfect practice. You can’t practice all the time, or else you are not a balanced person, and this is especially true for child musicians. If you’re dealing with a talented child, putting that kind of substantial time into their talent makes it become an even bigger part of their life, so it’s important that they practice with purpose so that they can also enjoy the other important aspects of their life and development.
And this leads to my second piece of advice: make sure the child is doing it because they want to, not because you’re forcing them. If someone practices a lot but the practice is too intense and loses the fun, the musician won’t gain the same benefits.
This is particularly true for a child. If the child isn’t motivated to improve or isn’t interested in it, she or he will become an impediment to his or her own growth.
Lastly, for both the parents and the kids, try to enjoy it and make the best of it. You won’t perform perfectly every time. But it’s not about perfection. It’s about progress and growth. I believe that if the talent is there and you’re sincere in practice and promoting growth, success will come.
Has your relationship with jazz changed or evolved since you first started listening?
My relationship with jazz has definitely evolved since I first started listening. My first exposure to jazz was as a teenager in Indonesia, through cassette tapes of Mardi Gras and Swing. As I became more interested in jazz music, I started listening to different types of jazz, and different artists.
There’s a whole world of music just within jazz, and so much to listen to and learn about. Living in New York City as a young man really changed my relationship with music. I felt enveloped in the environment. I began studying it, rather than simply just listening and enjoying. My passion changed from simply an interest and a hobby into a scholastic pursuit. In New York, I was able to dive deep into the field of jazz music and see and experience more than I ever could have imagined existed when I was a kid in Jakarta.
Coaching and mentoring Joey has changed my relationship with the music as well. What was once my hobby has become my career. By developing and nurturing Joey’s talent, I have learned so much more about the field of jazz music and how artists interact with their craft. I am still an avid jazz fan and still consider myself a student of jazz, but now I experience the music on a much more profound level than I did when I first started listening, all those years ago.
Was Joey’s talent for improvisation always present or did it have to be developed over time?
Joey had a natural talent for improvisation from the beginning. It was one of the first things I noticed when Joey started playing around on that mini keyboard.
He would begin playing something familiar and then delve off into something he’d made up. As he has grown in his artistry, he has developed his own style, which make his improvisations more meaningful and clear. He has worked hard to craft a sound that is uniquely his own, so his improvisations improved in the sense that they have become more consistent with his identity as an improviser.
So do you see yourself more as a mentor, a coach, or a bit of both?
I am both a coach and mentor. As a coach, I think my role is to direct and advise. Much of jazz music is improvisation, so directing Joey to sources of inspiration and concepts is important, since it helps him develop the technical skills he needs to grow and succeed.
As a mentor, my role is slightly different. Rather than simply repeating or adapting from sources of inspiration, I motivate Joey to look inward and encourage him to figure some things out on his own. As an artist, it is critical to develop your own sound. Musicians who play covers of other artists’ music have a hard time achieving great success because they are missing the introspection and development of their own sound.
With Joey, I see my role as ensuring that he does both, looking outward to learn from and gain inspiration from the artists who have come before him and looking inward to figure out who he is as an artist.
Have you found that the musical community in America has welcomed Joey into the fold?
We are very thankful for the amazing community of artists, producers, and fans in the United States. It is a true honor for Joey’s work to be recognized by the Grammy Recording Academy. Joey has also had the tremendous pleasure of playing with jazz legends and other incredible musicians. He’s performed at some of the most significant jazz festivals in the country, and at some of the most renowned venues in the world.
We have been blessed with a very welcoming community and also a very strong support system of managers, booking agents, friends, and family who have all made this possible.
Editor's note: this article previously appeared on Current Artisan.