Although she just graduated from Berklee in May 2013, Caili O’Doherty’s passion for jazz piano has already taken her all over the world. Thanks to the Berklee Global Jazz Institute, O’Doherty had the opportunity to become a well-traveled performer and teacher while obtaining her degree in piano performance. Equally important are the lessons she learned about using music as a tool to bring communities together and help people connect and cope in difficult circumstances. From her new home in New York City, O’Doherty is building on these experiences as she pursues life as a champion of social change through music.
How would you describe your music before you started working with the professors, artists, and other students at the BGJI?
When I got into the BGJI, it changed the way that I worked, the way that I started writing music and the reasons that I was writing music. It gave me a reason for playing music—instead of not knowing exactly why I was doing it except that I really loved to do it. It gave me a direction and showed me what the future could look like. And it was that—community service and using music as a message of peace and community with other countries—that gave me a lot of purpose, which was really useful when I came to New York because in New York, a lot of people are really lost in just playing music because that’s what they love to do and because they’re good at it. Everyone is trying to get the same opportunities, but we’re not creating our own opportunities. I thought about that a lot when I got here, how could I create my own opportunities and do something different than what everyone else was doing? That really was because of BGJI.
Can you say a little bit more about how you felt about the international aspect of the BGJI?
All of those experiences shaped the musician that I’ve become and that I’m striving to become. I was able to go to Panama three times, and in Panama, we worked with the Danilo Perez Foundation, which is in Old Panama City in an extremely low-income neighborhood. That was really eye opening to me and shaped my desire to work with kids in those circumstances. I saw in Panama and West Africa that music can be a really healing thing for these kids that maybe don’t have food or clean water or shelter over their heads. Music can create an outlet for them to dream and I feel that that completely transfers to this program that I work with in Harlem [Harlem Children’s Zone], where they’re in very similar circumstances. For these kids, music is extremely powerful.
How has your personal voice as an artist and musician changed through your experience with BGJI?
The main thing that has changed is the depth behind what I was doing and what I am doing. I’m playing for different reasons, and I’m sure that translates. My compositions and my improvising and everything has been informed by these experiences of seeing other cultures and learning about rhythms and music from other cultures.
Do you have a favorite experience from your time working with the BGJI?
One of my favorite experiences is when we went to Africa, and we went to this orphanage. It was an all-girls orphanage where the girls were not allowed an opportunity to get an education. When we went to play at the orphanage, we played for them and it was really amazing, and they wanted to thank us, and they sang for us. They sang this amazing song, and it was in French so I can’t remember all the words, but it was about how they’re just women and they deserve more, they deserve to have an education, and they deserve to have a better life. While they were singing to us, [BGJI artistic director] Danilo [Pérez] sat down at the piano and he was playing with them, and I knew that it was really powerful, and that through music you can tell so much. When there is a language barrier, music can overthrow that.