Faculty Spotlight: Laura Dreyer

Laura Dreyer teaches piano, saxophone, clarinet, and flute. She sat down with Director of Music Toby Wine recently to discuss her work at Church Street School and beyond.

TW: What was your early experience with music? How did you start playing?
LD: Well, I was adopted, and the story I’ve heard is that the social worker wanted to place me with a family that would appreciate art and music. My parents weren’t musicians, but they had a player piano. When I was a little kid I spent a lot of time looking at the piano rolls, learning melodies, learning about harmony, and about how the piano worked just from watching the player piano. By the time I was 6 they’d signed me up for lessons. The issue was that I had really good ears and could remember things so easily that I sort of breezed past the reading part of things – I was one of those kids. My friends would come over and show me their little Beethoven pieces they’d been working on for months, and I could play them in about a day. That kind of frustrated them. I kept it up and when I was 9, I started playing flute in school. I still wasn’t very good at reading because of my ear; I could just listen to people play and I could grab it. I could grab stuff off the radio and could play it on piano or guitar. I think that experience was good, because it was playful and fun rather than being regimented. I played because I wanted to play.

When I was 12 my band director asked me if I wanted to try the saxophone and I was like “it looks kind of heavy, I don’t know about this.” But he convinced me to give it a shot, and I did, and immediately liked it, because it was really loud! I was like “this is great, the power!” I kept learning things by ear. I came in one day and started playing “Pick Up the Pieces” (by the Average White Band), and all the kids were like “how did you learn that, show me how to do that!” When I got to high school I got into jazz band. The combination of having really good ears and being able to play the things in my head made me think I’d be a good jazz player, and I started practicing really hard; I’d play along with records, teaching myself to improvise. I’d practice everyday, 4 or 5 hours. I would drive my parents crazy because they’d want me to come out of my bedroom and do the dishes, In my high school yearbook they asked “what’s your career aspiration?” Kids wrote things like doctor, scientist. I said jazz musician (laughs)! I look back at it sometimes and say oh my god, but that’s what I did. It was something I felt like I had inside me and I had to do.

TW: You were in the bay area of California up to this point?
LD: Yes, but then I went to Berklee in Boston for College, and visited NYC frequently. I loved it and knew I wanted to live here. I went back to California for a year to study with (jazz great) Joe Henderson, then moved to the city when I was 21 and have been here ever since.

TW: In your experience, what are the challenges of teaching children as opposed to adults?
LD: The challenge can depend on their age, but if they’re very young it’s harder to keep things interesting enough and keep them focused, while making it fun as they learn. My memory of being a very young student is that I responded better to things that were fun and engaging at the same time – music that I liked, that I could remember. The challenge is finding a way to engage the student so that they’re interested enough to want to keep doing it, and not to come at them in a way that’s very dry or pressured. You want to teach them fundamentals and principles and give them a very solid foundation to build on, so they don’t get lost in the shuffle when the music gets harder.

Adult beginners can be a challenge because they often get frustrated. They know they want to play a certain thing but can’t always do it right away. I had a beginning saxophone student once who told me he wanted to play like (legendary saxophonist) Charlie Parker! That’s great that you like Charlie Parker but it’s going to take some patience to get there. Frustration sets in because they still have to go through all the fundamentals to get to the place they envision themselves being. It takes some work to even play a very simple melody when you’re just starting out. The other challenge is that if there’s some experience the student may have learned some really bad habits and then we have to go back and unlearn things. That can be very frustrating – “I’ve been doing it that way for years!” Well, it’s still the wrong fingering or technique, and we have to go back and fix that. The challenge for all students is finding the discipline to practice. When you have a job and a family, or if you’re a kid and you have tons of afterschool activities and homework and weekend trips with your parents, it’s hard to find time, or to make time.

TW: What do kids do better than adults as music students?
LD: It depends on the individual, but kids are super absorbent – they’re like little sponges! Sometimes I’ll put something in front of a kid without saying “this is really hard,” or whatever, and they can just do it, because they don’t have any preconceived ideas about what’s hard or easy. I’ll just say let’s do this, and they do. Sometimes instead of talking I’ll just show them, or I’ll sing something, and they’ll get what’s going on by osmosis, rather than me having to explain everything in a linear way.

TW: How has your approach evolved during the seven years you’ve been at Church Street?
LD: Well this was my first time working with really young kids. I’d taught middle and high school kids before but never really, really young beginners.

TW: That’s true of the majority of our instrumental faculty.
LD: I had to learn about the different manner and speed of children’s development. The coordination of the fingers is still developing when you’re five and six. Sometimes kids just can’t do it yet simply because they haven’t grown enough physically. How do you circumvent that? I also realized the importance of being very engaging, and try to ask myself, how would a child see this? I’m constantly thinking, if I were a child how would I look at this, and how would the teacher best reach me? I try to project myself into their perspective, and then back into me, and find a way to communicate in a completely different way than an adult might.

TW: We as adults have such a different way of thinking and working that it’s a real challenge to understand what a child is struggling with, and why, and how to fix that.
LD: Of course everyone is different no matter the age. Some have a very logical way of thinking from early on, and you can see the predisposition towards the different types of adult personalities they’re on their way towards.

TW: What advice would you give to the parents of our students so that they’ll get more out of their lessons?
LD: That’s easy. The kids that learn the best, even if the parents don’t know anything about music, have adults that are involved. I’m happy to show them what I’m working on with their kids and explain things so that the parent can reinforce it and explain it at home. If they can sit with their kids and make sure they remember their finger positions and where middle C is and the like, the simple fundamentals, those kids come back and just zip through things. Even if it’s a caregiver and not a parent, it will take me two minutes to show them what the students should be doing and it will be incredibly helpful. It’s something I didn’t have and I remember looking at my piano book with my eyes glazing over. Nobody really thought to help me and I wish they had! They thought “well, we paid for lessons, the teacher shows you and you practice.” But it takes a while to remember all the information, and notes don’t always do the trick with the very young, so having someone there to reinforce it makes a big difference.

TW: Let’s talk about what kind of things you’re doing now, aside from teaching at CSS. I know you have a new record (Vida. Arte. Amour, on Mayimba Jazz).
LD: Yep, it just came out. I recorded it in Rio de Janeiro last August with a Rio-based rhythm section. It’s pretty much all original music that I wrote in the Brazilian jazz idiom, something I’ve been passionate about for about 20 years, an immersion in Brazilian music. I collaborated with a couple of different singers who wrote lyrics in Portuguese, Spanish, and English. Brazilian music has always moved me very, very deeply, both on a melodic and an emotional level. It’s also rhythmically very sophisticated.

TW: Have you spent a lot of time in Brazil?
LD: I’d gone 4 times before this last trip to make the record. I originally went as part of Dom Salvador’s sextet to play the Copafest at the Copacabana Palace, which is this great hotel there. I met up with some friends that were Brazilians who had lived in New York and moved back and one invited me to stay longer. She encouraged me to get some gigs in Rio, and having her there really helped, because she could help with translating and other things. I speak Portuguese okay, but you really need a native speaker to help you get around.

TW: Thanks for taking the time to talk, Laura. How can people keep track of your shows, buy the record, and the like?
LD: They can visit my website, Lauradreyer.com. The record is available on itunes and amazon.com. Thank you!

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Photo by Rachel Kaplan

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