Ensemble Department Assistant Chair Sean Skeete
Adam Renn Olenn
What is the Berklee alchemy that has turned out multitudes of Grammy and Emmy award winners? Many people think of the technical prowess of the faculty and students, but that’s only half of the picture. After all, technique without feeling isn’t art. Part of the Berklee magic is present in teachers such as Ensemble Department Assistant Chair Sean Skeete ’03, who teaches students how to harness their technical abilities to actually say something.
Born to a pair of pastors in Trinidad and Tobago, Skeete’s family emigrated to America when he was six. “My father came here to lead a new church, and we came with him,” he says. “I grew up hearing music in church, and I loved the drums in particular.” He soon began playing drums himself and practiced so obsessively that if he took a break to watch cartoons, his mother would come rushing into the room to check on him. “If the drums stopped,” he says, “she figured something must be wrong.”
In high school, Skeete’s musical proficiency prompted his teacher to introduce him to some faculty members involved with Berklee’s then-nascent Berklee City Music program. “They liked what they heard, and they invited me to come to the Five-Week [Summer Performance] program on scholarship,” Skeete recalls. At the conclusion of the program, Skeete was offered another scholarship: a full ride to Berklee. “It’s the only place I wanted to go,” he says, “so this was really a dream come true, and the whole thing happened really fast.” True enough. Eight months after Skeete first heard about Berklee’s summer program, he had a full scholarship to the college.
He enjoyed the musical and academic atmosphere at Berklee, but left before completing his degree. “I was seduced by the trappings of success,” he says of his time gigging throughout the United States and Europe. “It was a good time, but I realized I needed to come back and finish my degree.”
Skeete re-enrolled at Berklee, and was soon invited to join the faculty. “We didn’t talk about it at the time, but I was simultaneously a student and a faculty member,” he says. “At graduation, I sat near some of my students. They looked at me wearing my gown with my daughters on my knees, and said, ‘Wait, you’re graduating too?’ It was pretty surreal.”
As a teacher, Skeete likes to help students home in on the meaning behind what they’re playing, and leans heavily on analogies to help them dig into the meaning behind the notes. “It’s helpful to start them in a place that’s familiar and then gradually move farther away until we end up somewhere new,” he says. For example, I might ask them to play a phrase as though they were holding a baby, and then as if they were holding their lover’s hand, and then as though their heart had been broken. By getting them to think about these things, it immediately begins to affect their playing. You can hear the difference right away.”
This poetic approach to music yields even more results in the ensemble setting. “I ask my students to think about how they’re feeling all the time. It’s the most important thing,” he says. He frequently paraphrases a thought by former United States Poet Laureate Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you said and what you did, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel.” He tells students, “If you want to be remembered as an artist, what counts is how you make your listeners feel.” He frequently queries his students to keep them engaged in class. “They pay attention because they know that at any second I could turn toward them and say, ‘So how did that make you feel? What was it about your classmate’s performance that made you feel that way?’” Skeete has found that this approach holds students’ attention, and it helps them open up to one another.
“I see them bonding much more once they’ve opened up,” he says. “Then they start hanging out together outside of class. Half of what makes the Berklee experience so valuable is the friendships and networking that happen here. I try to encourage that as much as possible.”
Skeete notes that emotional fluency and feeling alone won’t carry a musician in today’s economy. “You’ve got to have both something to say and the technical skills to be able to say it,” he says. “That’s what makes Berklee such a special place. We’re able to help the students who are technically proficient but need to grow emotionally, as well as those who have a clear idea of what they’re trying to say but don’t yet have the tools to say it.”
In addition to teaching at Berklee, Skeete continues to perform and record with artists and ensembles in an array of genres, including saxophonist Walter Beasley, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Blue Man Group, the Boston Pops and Boston Symphony orchestras, Stomp, Vinx, and many more. But one project he’s quite partial to right now is the Skeete Five, an ensemble comprising his five children.
Skeete’s philosophy on balancing technique with musical feeling in a collaborative setting makes him an ideal fit for Berklee’s Ensemble Department. “Whether it’s a group of Berklee students, my own kids, or a band I’m in,” he says, “I’m passionate about creativity and people finding their voices. It’s beautiful to see people expressing their individuality while working together.”
Adam Renn Olenn is a Web producer for Berklee’s Office of Institutional Advancement.