Faculty Spotlight: Jacob Pleakis

Jacob Pleakis teaches piano and coaches ensembles in Church Street’s Rock the House program. Energetic and always in demand, Jacob has been on the CSSMA faculty since 2008. For our first interview in a new series with CSSMA teaching artists and faculty, Jacob was interviewed by Director of Music Toby Wine.

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TW: So, you went to Purchase College, is that right?
JP: Yes, I did an undergrad in jazz studies there. I graduated in 2006 and then I went right to NYU where I did a graduate degree in composition and film scoring. I studied with a lot of different teachers, including Justin Dello Joio, who is a very good composer and orchestrator, and Ira Newborn, who did a lot of movies in the 80’s and 90’s, things like The Naked Gun and the Ace Ventura movies, the John Hughes movies – a lot of comedies.

TW: You’re originally from the Buffalo area?
JP: I am, I’m from Olean, about an hour and a half south of Buffalo.

TW: What drew you to come east?
JP: New York! I came here to study music. I was a bit of a jazz player, interested in jazz. I didn’t have a ton of aptitude at the time but I had enough to get me into school. I wanted a conservatory program so I went to Purchase, and it seemed like a good fit because it got me close to the city without being in the city. Coming from a small, rural, middle of nowhere kind of town of 15,000 people I would have been ill-equipped to handle a huge move and college and all that comes with that right away. I would recommend it to anyone, that kind of baby step, because even after I graduated and moved to New York it took some adjustment. Being in school, spending your money wisely, all the things that go along with being in New York City (laughs). It’s a tough place to live.

TW: How did you get into music initially?
JP: My parents would probably tell you that I liked music from when I was very, very little. I used to bang on pots and pans and things. I think I had taken piano for maybe six months or so, and they bought me a piano – they could see that it was a big deal for me. They got me a Wurlitzer spinet; I remember coming home from school one day and it was just there, this amazing thing. I spent so much time at that piano. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love music and wasn’t totally fascinated by it.

TW: How old were you at the time?
JP: I think I was 6 or 7. I went to a small local music store for lessons. I sort of liked it, but mostly I just liked playing! I studied steadily until 8th grade. There was a recital that year, and my grandmother had died, I missed the recital, and I never went back. I kept playing though. I was in a choir since I always sang a lot as well, and I was asked to accompany the choir. I became more serious about it in high school but I didn’t have regular lessons at that time.

TW: Were you kind of teaching yourself then?
JP: Yeah, a little bit. I have a strong ear. Everyone has different strengths; for me I had that thing where I can play what I can hear. I cheated a little bit. Reading was tougher for me, but obviously, conservatory training will beat that out of you (laughs).

TW: When you were in high school did you keep a tight practice regimen?
JP: No, it was everyday but it wasn’t regimented. I played all the time, but it was, oh, here’s a thing I have to learn for this, or I want to learn this song, and so on.

TW: Were you practicing scales and technique?
JP: A little. When I started auditioning for colleges I had to do a lot more of that, Bach inventions and things like that. I did some of that in private lessons but not much.

TW: Were you playing in bands?
JP: Yes, not so much rock groups but I was in some jazz bands. There was even a big 18-piece swing band I used to sub for. That was super intense, it was all these older guys, teachers from the area, and they’d get booked for festivals and big gigs around the area. It was tough, lots of reading, soloing, working on charts and not missing things. That was huge for me. It pushed me very hard. Later in high school I had a gig playing solo piano in a fancy restaurant, playing 4 or 5 hours a couple nights a week, and I built a repertoire. I learned a lot of songs, and found a way to play the stuff people wanted to hear, and play the songs that I wanted to play too. Those two things were pretty huge in terms of getting my playing together.

TW: Those are great opportunities.
JP: Huge! I don’t know if you could do it now, have an underage kid playing in a bar anymore. Maybe some places, not in New York, not these days.

TW: How would you describe your teaching approach? Is it one that you adapt to each student?
JP: I would say so. I think every student is different and every student has a different skill set and thing that they’re trying to get out of learning music, whether it’s serious classical study or let’s play some pop songs or what have you. Every student can benefit from a certain amount of structured study and every student I have gets a little of that, but my teaching approach evolves as I evolve as a musician and a teacher. I’m better at getting things started, at getting a student hooked on it. If they’re apprehensive about taking lessons, if they don’t really know yet how they feel about it, I try to bring a little of them out. My goal is always to bring out a deeper love and a deeper knowledge of music. However I can achieve that, however I can send a student out of the room with perhaps a broader taste and a deeper understanding of what they’re listening to, I’m happy. 

TW: What can your students and families do to improve their experience? What kind of constructive criticism would you offer them?
JP: I would say: be aware of what your kid is learning. Show interest in it, because they will work harder if you do. What song are you checking out? Show me something that you did in your piano lesson. That has an effect that I don’t think parents fully appreciate. Show an interest it, keep abreast of what your kid is learning and I think you’ll see a marked improvement.

TW: That’s great advice. Hopefully people reading this will say, I knew that, but I’m going to hold myself to it even more.
JP: It’s hard. A lot of parents are very busy, have very high stress jobs, travel often. It’s a very tricky thing. This neighborhood has a very specific set of people with specific needs. The burbs is a different thing altogether.

TW: What do you when you’re not at Church Street School?
JP: I write, and I have a band that takes up a huge amount of my time, Hurrah! A Bolt of Light! A number of us went to Purchase together. The drummer (Kenny Shaw) and the bassist and I had a jazz trio together for years, now we’re doing this indie rock thing. We’ve moved to the dark side.

TW: So, where people can find out about your gigs?
JP: Hurrahmusic.com. We play in New York at least once a month, and we’re planning a fall tour. We’ll go out and see a bit of the country, play a bunch of music, always an adventure (laughs).

TW: Jacob, thanks for taking the time to talk with me and for being the first subject of this interview series. We learned a lot about you and the way you work.
JP: It was my pleasure. See you in September!

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