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Profile: J. Curtis Warner

Transforming Young Lives

 
  J. Curtis Warner
  Photo by Phil Farnsworth

When Philadelphia native J. Curtis Warner Jr. came to study at Berklee, he dreamed of becoming a professional drummer, but his mother urged him to major in music education, and he dutifully obeyed. The move proved providential. "All I wanted was to be a player, but when I did my student teaching, I really got into it," he says.

It was a colorful path that led Warner to his present position as Berklee's associate vice president for education outreach and executive director of the Berklee City Music Program (BCMP). His position has enabled him to positively affect the lives of numerous urban youth in Boston and elsewhere.

Back in 1977, with a music education degree in hand, Warner accepted his first teaching job at South Boston High School and promptly found himself amid Boston's desegregation busing turmoil. The school was under federal receivership, and there was little left of the music program. "That's because during the riots, it was a tradition to roll a piano down the stairs and smash it," Warner says. "I really didn't want the job, but a friend told me, 'Curtis, you know, they're going to send our kids over there whether they like it or not. So somebody needs to be there with them.' That reached my conscience."

Warner set about rebuilding the school's music program and learned instantly that the white students in his classes wanted to test his mettle. Every time Warner wrote on the chalkboard, they chanted the first syllable of a racial epithet. When he turned around, he saw closed mouths, eyes staring straight ahead, and hands folded on desks. "The third time, I turned around and said, 'I want to continue, but I'm so puzzled by you guys.' I was acting very dramatic. I said, 'You defy everything I've heard. I really believed that white people didn't have rhythm, but you do!' They just cracked up, and that was it. I had them. They started looking forward to me coming every day."

Warner taught at the school for nine years. After earning his master's degree at Cambridge College, he worked for the next seven years as the headmaster at Dorchester High School, then arrived at Berklee in 1993. The experience he'd gained equipped him to help the college cultivate relationships with Boston's public schools and develop the incipient Berklee City Music Program. Launched in 1991, the strategic initiative offers underserved urban middle- and high-school students a year-round music-education program designed to prepare them to pursue higher education.

Warner noticed that many students returning for a second summer had not improved their skills during the intervening year. "They had gone back to schools with no music programs, so there was nowhere to apply what they had learned the summer before," Warner says. "I immediately recognized that we needed a year-round mentoring program." That program included Berklee faculty and student mentors helping urban youth reach for the Berklee City Music Summer Scholarships to enable them to attend the Five-Week Summer Performance Program. The best of these students then competed for full scholarships to attend Berklee.

As the initiative blossomed, the number of participants began to exceed the allotted resources. In 1998, with a matching grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, Warner established Saturday music programs to reach out to more students. Noting the success of the program, the Theodore R. & Vivian M. Johnson Foundation offered funding to further expand it.

The programs Warner and his staff now administer include the Music Mentoring Program, the Faculty Outreach Program, the Preparatory Academy, the High School Academy, the City Music Summer Scholarships, and the City Music College Scholarship (visit http://berkleecitymusicnetwork.org). The success of these efforts is evidenced in the lives of the programs' participants. "There are kids who have been with us since they were 12 and 13 years old," Warner says. "When they finish City Music and enroll at the college, they're testing into third- and fourth-semester core courses." Many who entered as BCMP students later serve as City Music mentors before embarking on professional careers or further education after Berklee. Among the many successful graduates are Nichelle Jones '93 and Sean Skeete '04, current Berklee faculty members. Brian Abreu '04 toured as the keyboardist for singer Keyshia Cole, and Brent Irvine '00 is an attorney.

Warner has begun expanding BCMP to other cities. "I knew we could do this if we organized it as a consortium of organizations that we would coach and support and provide Berklee scholarships for their students," Warner says. "It's modeled after the Berklee International Network. We started with organizations in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and one in L.A." Now there are 14 in such far-flung cities as Seattle, New Orleans, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Another initiative is the virtual Berklee City Music project PULSE. The Web-based music-education curriculum is available to students nationwide who participate in an online community with trained mentors and state-of-the-art support materials.

Warner says that more than 1,000 students have participated in BCMP to date, and 116 have attended Berklee on full-time scholarships. Others have gone from the program to graduate from Brown and Harvard universities. "And a lot of the City Music students say that college was not on the map when they began," says Warner. "This work has been great-a privileged way for me to earn a living."