By Rochelle Maruch Miller
While most little girls her age were playing with their American Girl and Barbie dolls, collecting the “coolest” trends in toys, and trading stickers, eight-year-old Sarah Dukes had already put pen to paper and composed her first song. Since she began taking piano lessons at the tender age of six, the North Carolina native increasingly turned to her music and songwriting as a means of expressing herself. By the time she graduated from high school, she had amassed a stirring selection of original pieces included in her debut album, Finding Forever.
Unique in that she is a completely self-taught composer, Sarah focused on enhancing her skills while pursuing her academic studies at Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University. Working with professor of music and composer Christopher Buchenholz, her career in composing music began and flourished. But as a result, she suddenly found herself writing music that exceeded her own technical expectations. Despite the constant support and encouragement she received from family and friends and the acclaim from her audiences who implored her to release a CD, Sarah was unwilling to sacrifice a perfect execution of the songs for her own debut album.
“I think the majority of my challenges in making my albums and performing actually come from within,” Sarah told the 5TJT. “I have always felt insecure about my compositions and my performances, convinced they weren’t ‘good enough’ and for sure not ‘perfect enough’ for the general public to enjoy or appreciate. We are brought up in a society that dictates that we have to be perfect, look perfect, and produce perfect results in order to be valued, appreciated, and respected. However, through my musical journey, I realized I was actually creating a certain reality in my head that wasn’t necessarily true–that things don’t have to be perfect or look perfect to be beautiful, but rather, people connect and are attracted to sincerity and genuineness. My music comes from the heart, and, as we are taught, ‘What comes from the heart enters the heart.’”
Raised in a traditional Jewish home, Sarah’s family became more observant throughout her formative years. She attended Chabad High School in Pittsburgh–an experience that positively impacted her and changed her life forever. “Chabad emphasizes the value and importance of every person as well as his or her unique role. Hashem has given each of us our own unique personality and talents and wants us to share it with the world.”
Bursting with an emotional energy, Sarah’s stunning, soothing melodies are genuine and heartfelt. Critically acclaimed for her abundant and unique talent, Sarah has won numerous awards as her career flourishes. Her songs “The Memory Lives On” and “If Only” won awards in the Performing Arts Senior Division for the Pittsburgh JCC’s annual Holocaust Arts and Writing competition. Sarah was handpicked by Whispering’s Solo Piano-Radio, one of their exclusively featured piano artists, and was granted the Akademia Music Award for best pop ballad in 2015 for her song “No More.” Her richly nuanced songs have been featured in several popular documentaries produced by Jewish Educational Media, as well as streamed on various international channels, including Enlightened Piano Radio, One World Music Radio, and Pandora.
Since the release of her debut album in 2011, Sarah’s career has burgeoned, and success could not have happened to a more deserving person. She recently released a new album of original piano solos, Life Sometimes, which has been selected a winner in the Global Music Awards and was honored with a Silver Medal for Outstanding Achievement in Music in the New Age Solo Piano and Album categories. This album was ranked #17 in Zone Music Reporter’s “Top 100 Radio Airplay” chart and was on the first-round ballot for the 59th annual Grammy Awards. Sarah Dukes gave up demanding perfection from herself and she was able to share her beautiful music with the world.
“I began playing the piano as a way to express myself,” she told the 5TJT. “It became my outlet. When I was excited, angry, or confused, I would be drawn to the piano and release my emotions through its keys. In the beginning, the songs were simple, yet sincere. The compositions were my journal and the piano keys were the pen. My emotions burst through my heart almost uncontrollably.”
Sarah’s gorgeous music garnered accolades for its unique, soul-stirring, and genuine quality. Yet despite the constant support she received from her family and friends, who encouraged her to continue playing, she limited her audience to this small social circle.
Critical acclaim notwithstanding, Sarah could not believe her music was “good enough.” Classically trained in the theory and rules of music, she was well aware that her music did not follow any of them.
Her musical treasures would still be hidden from us had she not been inspired by the teachings of Chabad, which remain an integral part of every aspect of her life. A licensed mental-health professional, Sarah and her husband, Rabbi Yehuda Dukes, are the proud parents of six beautiful children, bli ayin ha’ra–five sons and an adorable baby daughter. Formerly residing in Crown Heights, Sarah and Yehuda have been active and beloved members of our community since moving to the Five Towns last winter.
“We are so happy to be part of such a warm and vibrant community so steeped in Torah and chesed,” Sarah declares. “From the moment we moved here, everyone has been welcoming and gracious. We are so happy to be living here.”
Were it not for the spiritual inspiration and enlightenment of Chabad, the world might not be privy to Sarah’s wealth of musical treasures. Further cementing her decision to share her gems with the public was her chancing upon a quote by noted lecturer and teacher Leo Buscaglia–which Sarah describes as “a quote which contained a complete paradigm shift regarding my music and life in general.” Buscaglia said, “Your talent is Gâ€‘d’s gift to you. What you do with it is your gift back to Gâ€‘d.”
Discovering the quote was an epiphany for Sarah: “I realized Gâ€‘d had given me a specific talent and I was keeping it to myself as if I were unappreciative of His unique gift. And suddenly, my fear of imperfection seemed silly.
“Every one of us is a star, someone who has incredible power to make a difference in the world. We sometimes feel insignificant when compared to the rest of humanity, but every person deserves to be cherished, valued, and respected. You are a star, you are brilliant, you have the power to have an impact on the lives of others through your own unique abilities and skills. You matter.”
With that inspiration in mind, Sarah began the process of recording her first CD, Finding Forever, masterfully orchestrating the project to gorgeous fruition, together with the support of family and friends.
“Each song that I write stems from pure emotion, as opposed to the ‘rules’ of music,” she explains. “When I create a piece of music, I allow my emotions to express themselves freely, without analyzing if it makes sense structurally. My compositions have developed through the years as I gained new skills and experiences, yet they remain as genuine and true to my feelings as when I first began to compose music.
“There are many times throughout life when we can feel a sense of emotion but are unaware of what it is, or how to express it effectively. Playing (and listening) to music has the ability to draw out and release these emotions.
“As Victor Hugo said, ‘Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.’ Instead of expressing and releasing my emotions through words, I do it through sound. Composing is an incredible and powerful outlet for me, and is not only therapeutic, but feels very freeing as well. When I feel a strong sense of emotion, I am drawn to the piano and express myself and my feelings through its keys and sounds. I play wherever my fingers and emotions take me. I don’t have the melody in my head beforehand.”
“Another rewarding aspect of being a composer is the moment when a song has been finished. Completing a song is one of the most rewarding experiences–it is as if I created something from nothing–giving birth to something that never existed before. This is one of the most exciting and fulfilling moments for me.”
Personable, polished, and ever the consummate professional, Sarah enchants her audiences with her charismatic stage presence. A highly sought-after performer, her appearances draw standing-room-only audiences at venues throughout the nation. Since January, Sarah has been interviewed by Allison Josephs of Jew in the City, on the Nachum Segal Radio Network; performed at the Lubavitcher Yeshiva’s annual Chinese auction; performed for a women’s gala event in Montana as well as in Cleveland; and interviewed for Miriam Wallach on the That’s Life radio show. Her song “Dancing in the Dark” (the 12th song on her new CD, Life Sometimes) was selected as a finalist in the World category of the John Lennon Songwriting Contest! This is an international songwriting competition that judges based on great composition, originality, strong melody, and emotion. “It is a big honor to have been chosen as a finalist,” Sarah told this author.
In May, she was invited for a live, in-studio performance and interview for inthemixxradio.com, hosted by Pat Shannon. Sarah’s crowning performance took place in June, when she gave birth to her sixth precious child–a baby girl.
Next January, Sarah will be performing in concert at Chabad of the Five Towns–a not-to-be-missed event. She looks forward to sharing her music with our community and to greeting her fellow Five Towns residents. We look forward to experiencing the musical artistry of this gifted composer and musician.
Sarah says, “Sharing your talents and creations with others can be a scary experience. It leaves you feeling open and vulnerable. It is important to remember, though, that Hashem has given each of us our unique personalities and abilities for a reason and wants us to use our talents to positively impact the world around us. We need to believe in ourselves and what we have to offer, so we can have the confidence to use the gifts that Gâ€‘d gives us and share them with others.”
Sarah’s debut album, Finding Forever, and her most recent album, Life Sometimes, as well as two singles–“One” (orchestrated version) and “Raining Rockets”–are available for purchase from iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, and Sarah’s website, www.sarahdukesmusic.com (where one can also purchase sheet music). Additionally, her music can be streamed from Pandora and Spotify and can be heard on various international radio stations such as solopianoradio.com, calmradio.com, and oneworldmusicradio.com. For further information, visit www.sarahdukesmusic.com or www.facebook.com/sarahdukesmusic.
Rochelle Maruch Miller is a contributing editor for the Five Towns Jewish Times. She is a journalist, creative-media consultant, lecturer, and educator who writes for magazines, newspapers, websites, and private clients. The author welcomes your comments at Rochellemiller04@aol.com.