Sarah Dukes, 33, has been playing the piano since age 6. “It was fun and exciting” at first, recalls the Yeshiva Schools grad, “but at a certain point, I felt bored.”
Endless scales and practices meant Dukes was soon reluctant to play. But her parents asked that she spend 20 minutes a day at the piano, albeit with a compromise: She didn’t have to practice scales, but she could improvise and fool around if she so wished.
“I started exploring the keys,” she says, and when she realized she could make up her own songs, piano playing “became a lot of fun.”
Shortly after this epiphany came Dukes’ first composition, at the age of 8. “I never planned it; it just sort of happened,” Dukes says of the whimsically named “Elephant in Tights.” The name was chosen because, as she played it, Dukes envisioned “an elephant wearing a tutu, jumping up and down.”
Her parents were excited with their daughter’s newfound abilities, and Dukes’ father brought her to a musician friend of his, who orchestrated the short song for her.
“It sounded amazing” to hear all that could be done with the tune she’d composed, she says. Now, the song is her cell phone ringer.
Composing became her outlet for whatever emotion she might be feeling. At 13, Dukes left home in Charlotte, N.C., and came to Pittsburgh for high school, attending Yeshiva Schools. Her compositions picked up in those years, especially as she struggled with homesickness. Fortunately, her parents had ensured that, though she was moving, a piano would be coming along with her.
She wrote so much in Pittsburgh, that when she was preparing to release her first CD, “Finding Forever,” Dukes didn’t need to compose any new music. All of the songs were culled from her high school years at the piano.
Though classically trained, Dukes says she considers herself more of a New Age composer.
“My compositions don’t really follow the rules of music theory,” she explains. But that doesn’t bother her. “I don’t want to analyze it too much. I just want to play whatever comes out.”
Dukes prefers the genuine emotion of improvisation over tightly structured progressions.
Choosing to share her music was a nerve-wracking decision, she admits, especially since she considered her compositions “more like a diary,” a way to catalogue her emotions.
“I’m releasing a part of myself, and I don’t know how it’s going to be received,” she says. But a friend quoted Leo Buscaglia — better known as Dr. Love — the motivational speaker, telling her, “Your talent is God’s gift to you. What you do with it is your gift back to God.”
Though nervous, Dukes decided to share music she regards as imperfect. Still, she says, “people aren’t attracted to perfection. They’re attracted to sincerity.”
Dukes doesn’t play her own songs on the CDs. Instead, she enlists the help of another pianist-composer, Yaron Gershovsky.
“I compose the songs in my head, and I hear it in a way that I don’t have the skills to play,” says Dukes. “I definitely consider myself more of a composer than a pianist. I needed to find someone who would be able to play it with more emotion.”
Gershovsky records the songs in his studio and sends them to Dukes, who makes any necessary suggestions. Sometimes, in order to explain exactly how she wants a song to be played, Dukes calls him while sitting at her piano and plays the song over the phone. Each song typically takes a month to perfect, though sometimes Gershovsky captures the song in a single take.
Dukes’ music has been used by Jewish Education Media in some of its documentaries on Chabad-Lubavitch life and teachings and has been streamed on several radio stations. Her second album, “Life Sometimes,” which was released in May, won the Silver Medal from the Global Music Awards in the New Age Piano Album Division, and her song “No More,” which Dukes wrote to eulogize Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah, the three Israeli teenagers who were kidnapped and killed in 2014, won the Akademia Music Award for Best Pop Ballad.
“This all started in Pittsburgh,” says Dukes, who sells her albums and other items on her website, sarahdukesmusic.com. “It’s because of the support and encouragement of [the community] that I am where I am.”
Dukes’ music is available on iTunes and Amazon.
Masha Shollar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.