Faculty Spotlight: Caili O’Doherty

Caili O’Doherty is one of a handful of exciting new teachers joining the Church Street School faculty this fall. In the following interview she discusses her approach to teaching piano, as well as her own musical development and blossoming career as one of New York’s most promising young pianists.

Toby Wine (TW): Talk a little about your philosophy and methods as a teacher.

Caili O’Doherty (CO): My approach comes from first, listening to music. Exposing kids to different types of music, then moving on to singing – being able to sing what they hear and connecting what they sing with what they can play on the piano. I teach music as a language, and kids understand that as a way of learning to improvise, and to improve. I ask them if they speak another language, and many of the kids at Church Street do. I’ll ask them “how do you learn?” and they’ll say “my mom speaks to me in French.” Music is the same; you have to listen to it to be able to play it and you have to practice and listen a lot to get better and to build vocabulary. I think it helps to reduce frustration at not being able to play everything right away, when I can get them to think about it that way. I relate playing the piano to vocal qualities, to speaking and communication, which is its purpose in my opinion.     

TW: Do you listen to music in the lessons?

CO: In group classes we haven’t listened to recordings yet, but I play for them all the time. I’ll play something and ask them to follow along with their fingers, and I’ll stop and ask where I am in the piece or what note I stopped on, and so forth. Often I’ll sing the music as we’re playing it, and they will usually do the same and sing along with me.

TW: Is there a difference in your approach when working with younger or older students?

CO: I always thought I’d work with much older students but most of them are very young right now. I’ve realized kids are geniuses! They can pick up anything. It’s prime time for them to learn these skills. They say it’s the perfect time to learn a language. Kids can build patience through piano. The parents need to be sure they are practicing of course. In the early childhood classes I play for at Jazz at Lincoln Center (the WeBop! program) we teach them about improvisation, or about the blues. That seems like a really advanced topic but if you ask them whether they get blue about anything, of course they do. By simplifying things they can apply and relate them to their lives. When you’re older you have much more facility on your instrument, but little kids can absolutely learn the same concepts.

TW: How did you get involved with the WeBop! program?

CO: I got that job the first month I moved to the city. I had a friend who had the job who was moving to another position and she recommended me. They’re group classes, 8 to 10 kids, 8 months to 5 years old. I’m a piano accompanist, working with another teacher, who sings or talks about a particular topic, like blues, swing, or call and response. All things that we as jazz musicians know so well, but can be introduced to very young kids. At Church Street I try to apply many of the same concepts to the piano lessons I teach here. When the students are on the younger side there’s more movement and listening involved, more games and physicality, because they’re not always ready to just sit at the piano for a full lesson.

TW: What advice would you give to parents and students to help them get more out of their lessons here and out of studying music in general?

CO: The main thing would be exposure to music. Students of all ages may play jazz or classical music, but they don’t always listen to it. Expose your kids to many genres. Listen to music everyday. Don’t always feel everything has to be read off a page; you can still play music and not do that. And they need to practice, with a parent supervising. A five year old isn’t going to want to sit for 30 minutes every day, or 10 minutes even, and do a homework assignment. They’re not necessarily going to want to do their school homework either. You have to sit with them, know what they need to do, and do it with them. Very few five year olds are going to do that willingly without a parent. The books I use are very clear and an adult reading through them should understand. They explain the hand position, fingerings, notes on the keyboard, how to demonstrate these things to your kids.

I feel that listening to music is like reading books, and demands the same degree of attention. If you value it and show your kids that you value it as a skill–and I believe listening is a skill–they will too. There are things you just love but you can also grow your tastes by exposing yourself to new things and challenging yourself. Listen to new songs and new artists every day. You may not love everything, but you’ll grow and your kids will grow.

TW: Let’s talk about your upbringing in Portland, Oregon a bit. How did you get started playing music?

CO: My dad plays the guitar as a hobby, and my mom grew up playing the piano. We had an upright piano and I was always very drawn to it. My dad would sit with me and we would play songs from the time I was two or three years old. When I was five I started to take lessons, and my dad would sit in taking notes, and would practice with me. My sister also played violin and he’d practice with her. He was very present and I’m sure that helped me a ton. When I was eleven, I moved away from classical music and didn’t want to always read from a page. I was nervous always going to competitions. My sister and I both got into an arts magnet school for music, much like LaGuardia, and there was an amazing educator there named Thara Memory I got to work with. He recently got an honorary doctorate from Berklee for his work as an educator, and won a Grammy with Esperanza Spaulding. He taught me all about listening, transcribing music, and rhythm. We studied African drumming with a drummer from Ghana. We actually made our own drums. As a band of students we took salsa dance classes together and learned to incorporate all of our senses, how to work together as a group, particularly in a rhythmic context, as well as vocally. We would sing African chants and play the drums at the same time, dance, and move to the music, feeling the rhythms. We’d listen to tons of recordings in class too. We had to transcribe solos every week and play them in class. Thara was kicked out of the public schools because he didn’t have a teaching license, which is ironic now that he has a Phd. He taught me so much and has had a crazy success rate. Out of 20 people in that middle and high school band a bunch are professional musicians and many of them live in New York now.

TW: How did you choose Berklee College of Music?

CO: When I was fifteen Berklee came to Portland to audition students for the college and I was able to audition for a scholarship to their 5 week summer program while they were there.  From my audition I got selected to be a member of the Workshop band which paid for all the program costs. The Workshop band was directed by jazz drummer Teri Lynn Carrington. While I was at the workshop in Boston they were conducting college auditions for some of the students and I decided to audition as sort of a trial run since I had just completed my sophomore year of high school and was too young for the real thing. Anyway, they ended up offering me a full scholarship to attend Berklee the following year.  I had to take extra high school classes online in order to graduate a year early so I could use the Berklee scholarship. I was really lucky because I wouldn’t have been able to afford it otherwise.

TW: How was the adjustment from the northwest to the northeast?

CO: Portland is an amazing, beautiful place, and I’m so lucky that there happened to be such an incredible jazz educator living there, which is kind of strange. Jazz is not that big there, but he created something that’s really tops in the U.S. I miss it, but this is where I can grow. There are so many amazing musicians here and so much more competition and you can’t really compare it.

TW: You’ve gone on U.S. State Department tours of Colombia and West Africa, and I know you are involved with humanitarian work as well. Tell me a little about that.

CO: When I was at Berklee I was part of the Global Jazz Institute program, with (Panamanian jazz great) Danilo Perez as artistic director. The philosophy of the program is to bring music to the community, not just to play it for ourselves but to share it. One of the tours was through the Colombo Americano program, to Colombia, and on the state department tour with Danilo we performed and did clinics in West Africa, which was really amazing. Both of those trips inspired the music that will be on an album coming up soon. I wrote a song called “Tree of Return,” about one of the five slave ports in Ouidah, Benin, called the “gate of no return.” We took a tour of the route the slaves would take to board the boats and there was a tree there, called the Tree of Return, which they’d circle three times, binding their spirit to their homeland. No matter where they died their soul would come back to live in this tree with their family. Other music was inspired by my travels in Panama, where we taught at the Danilo Perez foundation. I wrote “The Promise of Old Panama City” after we worked with students there. We toured the old city, which is kind of run down, with people living in shacks. We went in and met a woman living there with her kids who told us about bringing the kids and their mattress to the basketball court to sleep at night because she was scared that her ceiling would collapse and kill them. After seeing these terrible conditions, we’d work with the same kids and families. They were very hungry and didn’t have much clean water. The foundation had given them instruments and the kids focused so much of their energy into the music, which was inspiring to see. They were so strong, and the work the foundation does everyday to help these kids is so meaningful and it really affected me.

TW: Tell me a little more about the album.

CO: It’s called “Padme,” which is also the name of the first song I ever wrote, in eighth grade. Padme means lotus flower in Sanskrit. The lotus grows in muddy ponds and blooms on the surface and every night closes and goes back under the water to bloom cleanly again each day.  It represents rebirth and awakening. This is my debut album, and the concept is to use all these stories from my travels. Almost every song was written from a different place that I’ve visited and a different story, like the ones from Panama and Benin, and it was my attempt to capture the feeling of these places. The instrumentation is piano, bass, drums, with a different arrangement for each song, augmented by alto and tenor saxophone, violin, and trombone, and Adam Cruz as a special guest. The ensemble varies from trio to septet. I’m recording the album on November 22 and 23 at Peter Karl studio in Brooklyn.

TW: You have a Kickstarter to raise funds the recording?

CO: I’m hoping to raise $8000.00 for the studio, to pay the musicians, and for the mixing and mastering, packaging and distribution. I’m offering different rewards through kickstarter, such as copies of the CD and house concerts. Depending on the amount donated I’ll have solo piano, duo, or trio performances. The campaign is live now and runs through November 27 and people can donate by visiting:


Visit Caili’s website at: cailimusic.com.


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