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INTERVIEW: Denny Sila

Being a father, in itself, takes hard work.  Combine that with having a three-time Grammy nominated jazz prodigy as a son, and that paternal hard work amplifies itself in front of numerous people.  Denny Sila, father of jazz phenom Joey Alexander, has helped expand his son’s skills and promoted his talent since beginning to find opportunities within Indonesia. The journey from businessman to musical mentor and coach that began years ago with a simple electric keyboard as a gift from a father to his son has now taken Denny and his son Joey around the globe, dazzling audiences of all nationalities and even earning the honor to perform at the New Orleans Jazz Festival, the White House, and at the Grammy’s, just to name a few.  We had the opportunity to ask Denny about his accomplishments as well as his important milestones over the course of developing Joey’s young career.      

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It obviously ended up working out well in the end, but when Joey was younger did you ever have doubts or second thoughts about teaching Joey jazz, a type of music which is not very popular in Indonesia?

We, parents, introduce to our children things we know are good for them. I believe music is very important. I played all kinds of music at home and in the car, not just jazz. Jazz is not popular all over the world and I am always aware of that but I love jazz. It was only natural for me to introduce Joey to jazz, and teach him a bit. I play guitar and a little bit of piano and I went to New York for my Bachelor’s degree, and there I listened to a lot of jazz.

Why jazz?

Because jazz gives that sense of freedom and joy that I would like Joey to explore and hopefully ended up liking. Jazz is a conversation and I knew Joey would love the experience of playing in a band.

Were audiences noticeably impressed after seeing your son perform for the first time in those early jazz festivals?

It was mixed feelings, some could not believe their eyes, some are doubtful and thought that Joey would be a short-term thing, and also people thought Joey was not old enough to understand the music. I was determined to support my son so I listened to all feedback, but focused on the first because I also could not believe it sometimes.

What did you do to prove people wrong, and make sure that Joey did understand the music?

I always remind him to be himself and develop his own sound. We took risks accepting invitations to appear on high profile gigs with jazz legends at the White House, with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Wynton Marsalis at New York Town Hall and Rose Theater, as well as at the Grammy’s in front of millions of people watching on CBS.  We also took risks collaborating with famous senior jazz and country musicians on Joey’s albums. So Joey proved by playing. We believe the music speaks for itself.

What feelings and thoughts were running through your head when you found out Joey was to be nominated for a Grammy for the first time?

Thankful and shocked at the same time. We believe it’s God’s gift that Joey can play the way he plays and bring joy to people but never thought that he would be nominated for a Grammy.

You also worked very hard so that Joey could have this tremendous achievement and recognition. How did it feel for you to have your hard work pay off?

I felt humbled and grateful to God for the gift of music and opportunities to share our love of great music with the world.

Given Joey has learned much since he first started, what would you consider to be the most important skills or lessons you have taught your son in regard to music?

Joey learned by playing on his own, through being inspired by all the jazz greats of the past and present, and through jam sessions as well as self exploration. I encouraged him to feel what he plays, to play from the heart, to know that it is not only just playing notes or chords but also telling a story.  And that has a lot to do with being clear and accurate, but it takes practice.

Do you and Joey talk about storytelling together?

We discussed on how he wanted to build a story and play what makes sense to him.

What advice or insights do you share with him about how to tell a story through music?

Everybody is different. Joey has a way of starting and ending his solo but then he might change it according to what he hears around him, but he has developed something of his own.

What kind of techniques do you work on with him so that he has more confidence in his abilities?  

Either you love performing or you don’t. Confidence will grow the more they perform. However, we can always be there, motivate and encourage them to have fun and see mistakes as part of the journey and turn it into a beautiful mistake. We will laugh about it and learn.

Where would you like to be and what would you like to be doing five or ten years down the road?

I would be lucky to be doing what we are doing now, making music and traveling around the world. It is a blessing to see people smile after watching our concerts.

How, if at all, do you see yourself helping other young talented musicians like Joey achieve similar successes?

I will try to help the best I can based on the needs of each individual because everybody is different. Yes, Joey was the youngest nominee in Jazz category and I think it is good to inspire them, but it is not fair to push or encourage other young talents to achieve the same success because each will have their own time to shine, it may be earlier or later with even greater success than Joey.

What advice would you give to another parent of a young, gifted musician?

Find what they like and dislike, and find ways to deal with their dislikes and make it fun, but also emphasize on things they do like. For instance, Joey does not like to practice but he loves to play, so I found ways to start practice with something he liked.

It sounds to me like you are re-framing practice for Joey, from being work to being play.  Is that accurate?

Yes. That’s the plan. Continue to invent ways to deal with the challenges. Do not push.

Understandably, “not pushing” prodigies may be particularly important because they can get burned out or physically stressed more easily than adult musicians.  Do you think this is true? 

Yes it is true. For one, I do not recommend a long rigorous practice.

How do you encourage a talented musician like Joey to work harder and improve, but not push him too hard?

Make sure they are enjoying what they are doing, and then be honest with them on what to work on. There’s always something to work on during practice, rehearsals and even performances.  Everything is for our children to enjoy, but our guidance to make sure they have good character and attitude, which is crucial. A human being first and then a musician.

Why is that important for you to do, as a coach and mentor?

Make sure they have fun, keep improving themselves and stay humble, and also never compare your child or pupil with other gifted young musicians.

You have said that you would be open to coaching other talented youth.  What do you think is your strongest skill in regard to coaching and mentoring young musicians?

I have been active during all of the process, from discovering the talent, nurturing it, to getting noticed by the industry. And I did a lot of improvisation throughout the process and still do. So yes, improvisation.

What do you do that is special, in the way you coach and mentor Joey? 

Jazz is highly self thought. You can teach but everything else is personal, especially when improvising. I’ve learned a lot over the years, perhaps because I’ve been with Joey on daily basis and I know exactly his daily routines, and I learned certain things that others probably miss when dealing with young talented musicians.  I also taught Joey to be thankful and appreciate every opportunity to play. Some may say this has nothing to do with music, but I think it has a lot to do with it, and that is humility.

How did you keep your son mentally, emotionally, and physically ready for his world tours?

It is natural the more he performs the more he knows how to deal with nervousness and fear. Eating well and sleep well are a must. This music is to us a spiritual thing so praying is a big part of Joey’s routine. Every parent will have different takes on taking care of their children and every musician is different. Some musicians like to eat a big meal before a performance and some prefer after so it depends on the person. Nothing we do is special in regard to the fact that we should do more exercise when possible. Balancing physical and spiritual needs is key.

Is there any show or performance of Joey’s that stands out as being your favorite or most memorable?

Every performance, big or small, is special because what makes it memorable is what happens on stage when music is created, and experiencing the interactions between musicians as well as reactions from the audience. Every moment is precious. Playing in front of Herbie Hancock was special because he is a jazz icon, and Joey, nine years old at that time, was playing Herbie’s hit song ‘Watermelon Man’. Five years later, Joey was invited to play at the White House for President Barack Obama in collaboration with an organization for which Herbie is the chairman, and the performance aired on ABC.

by Giorgio Chang

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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