Giri and Uma Peters, and Mom Sarika too!
I first heard about Giri and Uma Peters last year at JHMF 6, 2016 afters Giri won first place in Fiddle and Uma won 2nd in Banjo. Giri was eleven, and Uma, at the time of this writing turned 10, May 31st. They live with their mother, Sarika, a pediatric Psychologist at Vanderbilt.
You know, I’m nearly 60, about another week and I’m there. I’ve attended so many festivals and live performances and jams, you’d think I’d seen it all.
I am amazed by the amount of talent these days. I wonder if there’s something in the food. But, now and then I encounter a rare one. One that is naturally gifted in a very complete way. And sometimes they come in pairs. Giri and Uma are deeply gifted, very aware, very polite and other worldly talented. Their mother, Sarika, tells me they just heard some awesome musicians while they were just toddlers, and said “This is what we want to do.” And do, they did. Very well. So well that they have garnered respect from some of Nashville’s finest musicians and are welcome “jammers” at the legendary Station Inn. Uma has caught the attention of fellow banjo picker Rhiannon Giddens, and Giri just appeared on CBS Little Big Shots. We are tickled to have been able to book Giri and Uma Peters at our 2017 John Hartford Memorial Festival.
The following is an interview with Mom Saika, Giri and Uma.
Were the kids playing music when you moved to Nashville?
No – we moved to Nashville in November 2009 (Giri was 4 and Uma was 2) so that I could take a job at Vanderbilt. But Giri especially was interested in music from the time that he was very young. Little Einsteins was his favorite cartoon, and he would always talk about the violin and hum the melodies. I remember going to the Houston Symphony Family Concerts when Giri was 3, and there was an “instrument petting zoo.” That was the first time he saw a violin in person. He literally begged for a toy violin and as soon as we came home, he held it up and acted like he knew just how to play.
Are there musicians in the family, either side? Not really. I played the piano and the flute growing up (didn’t start still age 10 with piano) and loved to sing when I was a young child. I think that my dad has an amazing sense of rhythm. He always wanted to play the tabla, but the opportunity for him to learn never really presented itself. My late grandfather (my dad’s father) loved to sing I’ve been told, but was a physician. For Uma, I think she started to become musical from being around her brother. Uma has an amazing sense of rhythm and timing.
You are a pediatric psychologist? Yes. I work with children with rare genetic conditions. Many of these children are nonverbal and some are non-ambulatory as well. I do a combination of clinical research as well as seeing children for diagnostic evaluations as part of my clinic.
What have colleagues said about the incredible talent your children possess? They have been so supportive and are quite impressed! A few have said that they get chills listening to them and some have asked if I understand how remarkable it is.
When the kids told you they wanted to play music, what did you think? What did you think about their choice of genre? They started with Suzuki violin. Giri saw a viola player at the Nashville Symphony (Chris Farrell) who came to play for their Montessori class and came home begging for a viola. He was 5 at that time. We were still fairly new to Nashville so I did not know where to look for lessons and ended up stalking to some folks who recommended that they start with Suzuki violin. Uma started lessons when she was 4.
Giri saw the Goat Rodeo sessions when he was 8-years-old. We were actually watching it because of Yo-Yo Ma. As soon as he saw Chris Thile, he started begging for a mandolin. I didn’t actually know what a mandolin was and had to look it up. So in August, 2013 he started taking mandolin lessons. In October 2013, he switched to fiddle.
Uma was sitting in on his fiddle lessons and announced “I want to fiddle too.” She switched to fiddle in January, 2014 when she was 6-years-old. In the meantime, we saw Rhiannon Giddens and the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Uma was mesmerized. Her fingers and her hands need to grow just a bit, so she started banjo in August, 2014 (she was 7-years-old). She had a little parlor-sized banjo that she started with. Banjo came easily for her (easier than fiddle) and she has an innate sense of that old-time groove.
How do you offer support for the musical direction your children have chosen to take? I take them to lessons, we listen to a lot of different music to get ideas for songs they could play, and over the last year we have been to more festivals. Exposing them to a variety of genres and professionals has been inspiring for them, and they come back with new ideas.
How do you juggle education, your job, with the kids schedules? I do not think that I do it very well. The kids maintain a nice balance between school and music though, and being in school gives them the time to “just be kids” and enjoy learning/exploring.
How do you deal with ethnic diversity? Well you cannot hide your skin color as I say, so I believe it’s best to embrace who you are and honor your roots. I do not consider myself outspoken, but I also do not hide from who I am.
My parents were immigrants from India. My father came to college at Oklahoma State, and that was still in the era of segregation where he remembers having to use separate water fountains, etc. He has his engineering degree as well as a Master’s degree. He told the kids stories of how hard it was for him to get his first job. He was hired by a small company in Chicago initially at $2.50/hour and got a raise to $5/hour after 3 days. He helped design steel mills. His first boss was a Greek gentleman who treated him like a son and eventually helped my dad get a job at Amoco Chemicals. My mom worked in a lab at the University of Chicago before I was born. My parents worked extremely hard and instilled that sense of hard work in me. They always stressed the importance of getting an education and being self-sufficient. My parents are both American citizens. I am a Native Houstonian (Giri and Uma were also born in Houston!), and my younger sister was born in Chicago.
What is your hope for your children, career and music? I know that Giri and Uma are always going to play music – it is just in their souls. I hope that they will be able to sustain themselves to do this for a living in some form (i.e. touring, teaching, producing, etc) but I also understand the changes in the music business. They are both smart and creative and are having a great time playing, creating, and performing.
What do you tell the kids about their future as musicians? None of us know with certainty what the future brings. I am encouraging them to follow what they want to do as opposed to any external pressure/standards of what is “right,” but to also be open to exploring different styles/genres and not be boxed into one path.
How do you motivate them? I always tell them that playing music is a privilege. I certainly want them to have fun, because that reflects in their playing. That being said, supporting them takes a lot of time and money so I also expect that they are going to practice and keep working on technique, learning from mistakes, etc.
Ernie: Sarika, Giri and Uma, a fact of life for very young exceptional performers is the reality that they do grow up. People love to see young performers. People love to see proficient and great musicians regardless of age, but often, young folks get pressured to keep getting better. My advice to you, is to roll with it, have fun and do not beat yourself up when you encounter a block. Just figure out how to move over or around it. That creates style according to Norman Blake.
The kids do not have an agent. I am content to let things unfold as they will. I know that people are fascinated with kids but my hope is that Giri and Uma will successfully make the transition to also playing as adults. There is no pressure on them to earn an income with this right now – my emphasis is on them learning, growing, and having fun. Each time they play, they learn from any “mistakes.” Honestly, we have seen professionals forget the words to their songs on stage, start songs over, and miss a note here and there so that humanizes this whole experience. Giri and Uma are pretty happy playing as a duo right now.
Giri and Uma, Giri, and Uma, you are experiencing stardom. Do you see yourself as “different” from your classmates because of your talent?
Uma: Not most of the time but, some kids make fun of it.
Giri: I do see myself different from some of my classmates because of the fact that I play music and shows instead of playing Xbox all weekend long. In class, I do sometimes get made fun of because of the style that my sister and I play. One kid in my class said “What do you call fun, sitting on a tin can playing a banjo like a hillbilly?” There are other kids who have hobbies like we do, and they understand and appreciate us.
EH-Giri, do you still take time to carve and whittle, to be a kid?
Giri: I do take breaks from music to do other activities such as basketball, reading, drawing, etc. I do think that it is really important to take time to do other activities besides music. It gives me new ideas and inspiration.
EH-Uma, Do you think it’s important to take breaks from music?
Uma: I do like to take breaks from music. I draw minions, read, play basketball, and jump on my trampoline.
EH-About how much of your daily mental time is occupied with music?
Uma: I hum songs in my head but, I don’t really think of music without an instrument in my hand.
Giri: I do think about music often, but rarely at school because I’m focused on doing my work there. I don’t really think about music unless I have an instrument or a notebook in my hand. I do hum songs in my head throughout the day.
EH--You both enter contests and you do really well. What was your first contest, how did you do and how did that make you feel?
Giri: My first contest was a fiddle contest at a county fair and I wasn’t there to win, but more to practice and have fun.
Uma: State of TN oldtime fiddlers championship. I was very nervous, and was the youngest kid in the contest.
EH-Uma, Rhiannon Giddens is a fan of yours! Tell me how you felt when she contacted you about a visit, and please tell me about your friendship with her.
Uma: I was like: “she’s actually here!” and I was really shocked that she was at our house. I also learned so much from her coming to our house. She taught us a few songs, but also taught us about the history of old-time music.
EH-How does a melody come to you? Don’t’ overthink, just tell me how you feel when you realize you have a melody.
Uma: I am usually practicing in my room and I finish doing a song that I am practicing. I start thinking about school or something then I start noodling without even knowing it, and sometimes I come up with a melody.
Giri: When I have a melody and I think that it’s good, I have to record it that instant or I keep playing it over and over again so I don’t forget it. One time I was walking out of the house, and I had a melody in my head and I immediately got my mom’s phone and hummed it. I can’t really give you a good answer of how it comes to me, I would say that it just comes to me.
EH-Are you being instructed in songwriting?
Uma: No, I am not.
Giri: I do not have a songwriting instructor. Songwriting is easier than it looks and I have a lot of fun with it.
EH-Uma and Giri tell me about your lyrical songs, what inspires you?
Uma: It just kind of pops in my head. The words just come in my head.
Giri: When I am writing a lyrical song I am inspired by my life experiences and I think back in time.
EH-Uma and Giri, What goes through your mind leading up to a performance? Uma: If there are a lot of people I am thinking "Don't mess up!"
Giri: I tend to get really nervous right before a show, but once I start playing, I get settled in. I have to tell myself to calm down and take deep breaths. I do love performing for crowds though.
EH-Giri and Uma, it looks like, to me, when I watch you perform, that you are fearless, that it is natural. Do you ever feel nervous?
Uma: I feel nervous at first but after a few songs I forget about it because I get into the music.
EH-Is performing what you want to do with your life?
Uma: I don’t want to go on tour but I will always play music. I have thought about opening my own music school.
Giri: When I am older, I do want to go on tour with a band and collaborate with other musicians from different genres and ethnicities.
EH-What advice do you have for other performers, both young and old? Uma: My advice is always have fun playing the music.
Giri: My best advice I could ever give is to stay calm and have fun most importantly because that’s all that matters. My other advice is to feel the crowd and talk to them, and if they aren’t answering, pretend they are and that they are your friends.
Wise beyond their ages. Be sure to catch Giri and Uma Peters when they perform near you.
Check out their website, www.giripetersmusic.com, for more info, music and gigs.