Award-Winning Alumna Offers Motivational Advice To Young Musicians

Laila Biali

Award-winning jazz pianist, singer, and Music Development Program alumna Laila Biali has toured with Sting and performed in some of the world’s greatest performance venues, including Tokyo’s Cotton Club and Carnegie Hall. The Brooklyn-based musician sat down with us In advance of a string of shows in New York City, recalling her earliest musical influences and offering motivational advice for aspiring young musicians. 

How old were you when you started your musical training, and how did it come about? 

According to my mother, I was three and a half years old when I first climbed up onto the piano bench and plunked out the melody to the Sesame Street theme.  At that point I hadn’t yet received any formal training but my mom noticed I had an ear for music and enrolled me in official lessons by the time I was four.

How has your early arts and music education contributed to your growth and success in the jazz genre?

Music education in public school alongside private classical piano lessons fostered a love of music in me from a very young age.  My piano teacher, Juanita Ryan, exposed me to recordings by some of the classical world’s finest recording artists, loaning me stacks of cassettes and CDs to take home and absorb. They became the soundtrack to my daily life. I can recall vividly going to sleep to Arthur Rubinstein’s interpretations of Chopin’s nocturnes and preludes, envisioning myself performing these pieces.

The joy of listening to music remained crucial when I was introduced to jazz for the first time by my high school band instructor, Bob Rebagliati.  He turned me onto recordings by Chick Corea and Renee Rosnes, whose music became a new and exciting source of inspiration.

Both Mrs. Ryan and Mr. Rebagliati pushed and encouraged me as a young pianist, exposing me to local performance opportunities that were occasionally high-pressure and even frightening at times. But these experiences ended up being fertile ground for growth as a young musician, and in some regards, practical training for the career in music that was ahead.

As a musician, what techniques keep you motivated?

These days I don’t have much time to practice, so listening remains a steady part of my diet as well as a means of development.  It’s amazing what one can learn just by virtue of listening to music. Daily I cue up music that I love, music that challenges my ear and tastes, music that is historically relevant, and music that is of the moment. There is no substitute for time at your instrument of course, but listening develops and trains the brain in a way that is complementary and important.

What advice would you offer hopeful musicians?

No matter what you’re working on, be sure to nurture your love of music—that love will sustain you through the days and seasons of fatigue, frustration, and disillusionment almost every artist goes through at some point. Keep close at heart and mind your initial motivation for getting into music, or that moment when you first fell in love with the experiences of listening, playing, and sharing music. Music can transform spaces and lives and our work is incredibly relevant, no matter how devalued we might occasionally feel. Be grateful for the rare gift you have and cherish it. 

Have you any preferred pieces to play?

In all our shows we like to include a dynamic and diverse range of songs, from the energetic and joyful to the reflective, melancholic, and even the angry. Most of our set lists encompass a large breadth of human emotions—something for everyone, I suppose.

Can you share a fond memory of learning music using the Royal Conservatory curriculum?

Growing up studying classical piano, practice sessions were often quite sporadic. This meant that I would sometimes show up for lessons ill-prepared.  However, there was one piece that never failed to delight me and my teacher: Golliwog’s Cakewalk by Claude Debussy. At that time I was about 10 years old and hadn’t even been exposed to jazz, but this piece definitely foreshadowed where my tastes would ultimately land.

You have a son, Joshua. Do you plan on teaching him music or enrolling him in music lessons?

Absolutely! Joshua, who’s now almost three years old, demonstrated an affinity for music as an infant. His rhythm and pitch are excellent; even more importantly, he exhibits the most pure and beautiful joy whenever we sing and dance together. Music has already proven to be one of his most powerful learning tools. This is not entirely surprising since my husband Ben Wittman (Josh’s father) is also a musician and Joshua was in utero when I toured with Sting and recorded my album Tracing Light. 

Finally… you have performed with Sting, Dave Brubeck, Diana Krall and many more. If you could collaborate with any artists – living or dead – whom would you choose and why?

You said “artists,” plural, and “living or dead.”  That is quite a long list, but it would most certainly include the following people: Björk, Bobby McFerrin, Bono, Joni Mitchell, Peter Gabriel, Sting (once again), Kenny Wheeler, and Michael Jackson. There are many composers I revere, like Stravinsky, Bach, Chopin, and Ravel, but I cannot imagine what collaborating with them would be like—so I think I’ll stick to songwriters and composers who also perform(ed). 

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