Berklee Today

Faculty Profile: Stephen Webber's Long and Winding Road

By Mark Small

Professor Stephen Webber
 

In a move not unprecedented among musicians his age, Stephen Webber took piano lessons as a kid but went for the electric guitar after watching the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in the 1960s. For some, such pivotal moments happen once, maybe twice, in a career. Webber has experienced several such epiphanies that have altered his musical direction. The road thus far has led him from classical piano to guitar to recording engineering to composing music for postproduction to turntablism.

Overlapping with his high-school garage-band period, Webber had a guitar teacher who introduced him to classical guitar technique and kindled his interest in the Spanish repertoire. That background was fortuitous when Webber became a college music major. "I went to the University of North Texas and enrolled as a jazz major, but at the time, all of the private guitar instruction there was classical," recalls Webber. "The other jazz guitarists complained about it, but I really enjoyed it."

During his college years, Webber played jazz, rock and bluegrass several nights a week and spent a summer in Europe playing on the streets, in clubs, and at festivals. Before finishing school, Webber became hooked on record production and engineering. After graduating, he continued working in Texas, playing and recording with such artists as Mark O'Connor and Tony Trishka before heading to Nashville.

Webber relocated to a 100-acre farm that the family of his wife, Susan, owned on the outskirts of Nashville, and built a studio. "Originally it was going to be a place where I could compose PBS soundtracks and make records for my own Willowshade label," Webber says. "Others asked to record there, and I wound up making records for artists from every conceivable genre."

Focusing on guitar again, Webber completed his master's degree in classical guitar performance and studied with John Johns at Vanderbilt University and Sharon Isbin in Aspen. He later accepted a post as guitar professor at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee.

"At Austin Peay, I developed their first courses on music technology," Webber says. "Eventually, the university built a new music/mass communications building, where I led the team that designed the music technology labs and recording facilities."

After hearing about an opening in the MP&E Department at Berklee, Webber sent in his résumé. "I really didn't have any intention of changing jobs when I came for the interview," Webber says. "But when I felt the energy in the lobby of the 150 Massachusetts Avenue building and interacted with the students, it stopped me in my tracks. I wound up taking the gig as the assistant chair of the MP&E Department." He held that post for a few years before opting to devote himself to teaching full time in the recording studios of MP&E. Since then, he has been teaching classes in record production, postproduction, 5.1 surround mixing and remixing. That's where he first encountered turntablism.

"When I started teaching remixing, it meant something totally different than what it means today," Webber says. "Then, it meant redoing musical parts and getting a better mix. Now it means preparing a dance, trance, jungle, or house remix. Today, many remixers are DJs, and studying their work is how I learned about using the turntable as a musical instrument. In 1997, one of my students brought in a video of a championship DJ competition. It just blew my socks off, and I thought, 'I've got to do that!' I bought a pair of turntables, set them up in my basement, and started practicing-much to the chagrin of my family. They thought I'd totally lost it."

Finding no good turntable instruction, Webber started noting techniques he'd figured out on his own or from videos. His notes became the best-selling book Turntable Technique: The Art of the DJ, published by Berklee Press. In his book, Webber outlines the basics of turntablism (using standard music notation) and interviews top DJs about their techniques. "I think this is an important cultural movement," he says. "Hip-hop has been widely misunderstood and misrepresented in the media. To me, it is urban folk music that originated in the Bronx. DJs are the musicians of the culture, and the turntable is their instrument. The level of performance is incredibly high, and the creativity involved in developing different techniques is amazing."

Webber approached the Berklee administration about offering turntable classes. After being turned down twice, Webber spoke to Executive Vice President Gary Burton, and the two assembled a diverse study group to explore the pros and cons of adding turntable instruction. "As I started thinking about teaching this at Berklee, I wanted to be careful to do it for the right reasons and treat it with respect," says Webber. "Gary and I were on the same page. We weren't interested in doing this just because it's popular. Like jazz and rock, there is a lot of worth and excellence in the Hip-hop arena and the DJ's expression of it."

Recognizing the parallels to the discussions about offering rock education at Berklee years ago and the merits of Webber's proposal, the administration approved the lab in August 2003. Webber designed a mobile turntable lab and in January, began teaching the basics of turntablism through the Ensemble division of the Performance Department. Having reached this goal, Webber is now thinking about courses on the art form of music video. "I have too many ideas," he jokes. When he says, "I might just mind my own business and sling hash for a while now that this turntable technique lab is going forward," don't believe him for a second.