Berklee City Music Student Profiles
Making Dreams Possible One Note at a Time
"It totally changed my life. It gave me the confidence to pursue music and achieve my dreams. I thought, 'You can do this and you can make a living doing this.'"
In 1992, when Berklee College of Music instructor Sean Skeete was a student attending Berklee's Five-Week Summer Performance Program for high school students, City Music consisted of a handful of scholarships to attend Berklee during the summer. These awards were presented to Boston inner-city youths, with the prospect for 3 out of 10 to attend Berklee College of Music on full scholarship. Sean was one of those fortunate teens.
"At that point in my life, I didn't have a vision outside of music," he says. "I didn't have a strong vision for what it would take to play music and make a career of it—I don't know what I would have done without my Berklee education."
Today, Berklee City Music consists of five distinct programs that serve hundreds of inner-city teens throughout the year, not only from Boston, but also surrounding cities such as Cambridge, Chelsea, and Somerville: a Saturday preparatory school for grades 6–8, a music mentoring and exploratory program for grades 7–12, a Saturday and after-school program for grades 9–12, the Summer Youth Scholarship for Talent and Excellence in Music (SYSTEM 5), and the City Music Continuing Scholarship, which awards full tuition to attend Berklee College of Music.
In the year 2000, City Music began reaching out to organizations with similar missions in the cities of Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., through the Berklee City Music Network, providing teens in those cities with an opportunity to come to Berklee.
Many of today's City Music students feel just like Sean did back in '92.
"I thought, here's this opportunity, and I just jumped on it," Sean says. "I had no idea what to expect at that point. I just knew I wanted to do it. I really don't know what I would have done without it, but the program definitely prepared me."
That preparation can be especially important for young people from the inner city.
"It gives them the opportunity to be on a college campus," Sean says, "to be in a college atmosphere, experience the climate, and get a whiff of college life. I think that's profound, a chance to be ahead of the game."
"The way we sound when we're playing together is really good."
If there was one thing that alto saxophonist Kristie Grimes-Mallard had wanted to do it was, well, play the drums. But her mother, Darlene, didn't want that kind of banging in her house. So, in the fourth grade, Kristie went to her backup plan.
"I looked at all the saxophone players I had seen and decided that was what I wanted to play," says 12-year-old Kristie, of Roxbury. "I really liked the sound."
She hasn't put her horn down since. Now a seventh-grader, Kristie's complementing her middle school music studies with her work in the City Music Saturday Preparatory School. The preparatory school, founded in 2000 and located on the campus of the Boston Arts Academy, is designed to introduce students in disadvantaged communities to a music program of the quality enjoyed by more affluent areas. And no one's more grateful for the opportunity than Kristie.
"I really, really like it," she says. "I learned how to play in the different times of jazz. I learned songs, different kinds of music, how to play fast and slow. And the teachers are so nice."
The preparatory school has both a private lesson and ensemble component. Kristie says she appreciates the one-on-one attention she gets from her private instructor, and loves making music with the preparatory school jazz band. Apparently, she's not the only one.
"The music, the way we sound when we're playing together is really good," Kristie says. "People come in and say, 'You sound great. I can hear you from outside.'"
As for Kristie's mother, she's got a (slightly) quieter household, and a daughter with a huge head start.
"She took some of her work from the Saturday prep school to show her teacher at school, and he said, 'Whoa! This is really advanced.'"
Juan and Nelson
"You not only get better at your instrument, but it helps your character."
For Nelson Maldonado and his uncle Juan, music isn't the family business—it's the family itself. Juan began directing the Maldonado church band when his brother, Nelson's father, stepped down after 13 years. Nelson's been playing drums in the band, Los Maldonados, for as long as he's been playing drums. Clearly, this is no ordinary family.
"Growing up, we lived music," says 20-year-old Juan, of Chelsea. "It was us. It wasn't something we picked up. It was already in us, that's how I see it."
And this isn't just a musical family. It's also a City Music family. Fifteen-year-old Nelson was in the Music Mentoring Program, which offers young people in grades 7 through 12 one-on-one coaching and guidance from Berklee faculty members and students. Even though Nelson, a drummer, had been playing with his family, his mentor helped him realize how much there still was to explore.
"I learned how to read music a little," he says. "I learned how to play jazz, which I never used to play."
For Nelson, though, the mentoring experience wasn't just about the music.
"You not only get better at your instrument, but it helps your character," he says. "You learn to be humble, a better person."
Students completing the mentoring program often go on to try out for a Summer Youth Scholarship for Talent and Excellence in Music (SYSTEM 5), which covers tuition costs for Berklee's Summer Performance Program. Juan, a bassist, earned three.
"The three years have been the best," he says. "When I got here, I had a lot of questions like, 'How come we have to play like this?' and "What's the difference between the styles?' I could hear it, but I couldn't understand it. In these three years, I've learned. The fact that I've taken it seriously has helped me so much. It's set my mind straight. It's proven to me what I'm capable of doing."
Juan isn't done with Berklee—not even close. He was recently awarded a City Music Continuing Scholarship to attend Berklee full-time. And when he's finished with college?
"I want to teach here," he says. "At this school. This is where it's at. This is my goal."
"Never before was there any kind of place that encouraged me so much."
With theory classes, private lessons, and ensemble work, the City Music Saturday Upper School helps middle and high school students who have already participated in City Music programs continue their musical and academic development. Eighteen-year-old Laura McLaughlin was one of them.
"It's changed my life," says Laura, a vibraphonist. "I can't imagine what I'd be doing without Berklee right now."
A marimbist in high school, Laura entered the City Music Saturday Upper School with little confidence in her jazz vibraphone skills, not to mention her ability to improvise. Just playing off paper was challenging enough, and Laura didn't think she was capable of spontaneously constructing melodies. In the Saturday upper school, she realized how wrong she was.
"Improvisation became an actuality," Laura says. "I always thought it was done by these jazzmasters—and it is—but it became available to me. It wasn't this faraway thing that I couldn't achieve. Once you learn the theory of it, it's there for you to take. In theory class, so many of my questions were answered, and it made me feel so good that they could be."
Of course, busy high school students such as Laura often try to unwind on weekends. Laura, however, says she's been more than happy to dedicate her Saturdays to City Music—she did so for two years—but in a sense one day each week doesn't quite capture her experience.
"It fills up your entire schedule being here," Laura says, "because you're always thinking about the songs you're learning, and practicing them one at a time, building your repertoire. Never before was there any kind of place that encouraged me
Laura, who twice attended Berklee's Summer Performance Program on a City Music Summer Youth Scholarship for Talent and Excellence in Music (SYSTEM 5), is enrolling at Berklee in the fall. The promise she demonstrated in the summer program earned her a four-year, full-tuition City Music Continuing Scholarship. And Laura, who's planning on a dual major in film scoring and music education, says the City Music Saturday Upper School has got her ready for what's next.
"It was like being in college already," Laura says. "If you think of it that way, it can be that way for you. When you get a taste of college when you're in high school, you just think 'college, college, college,' and you try to accelerate your learning so you'll be even more prepared. It's important for students to be able to see this dream as an option because it is."
City Music Continuing Scholarship
Each summer, a number of SYSTEM 5 scholarship students who successfully complete the Berklee Summer Performance Program receive scholarships for full-time study at the college. Often, these students have been associated with the college for several years through mentoring and SYSTEM 5 and are well prepared for the challenges of full-time study at the college. Scholarship students also help serve as role models for Berklee's outreach efforts in Boston's schools.
"Knowing you can get a scholarship was enough to push me."
Will Junior loved playing basketball. But when he was diagnosed with a heart condition, his cardiologist told him that the sport wasn't safe for him anymore. And for a while, there was just no replacement.
"I couldn't find anything I liked to do," says Will, of Mattapan.
His father played the guitar, and always encouraged his son to pick it up. Will thought he'd play the drums, if he ever wanted to play anything, which was unlikely. But one day he tried it, just to see. Soon, his father was teaching him modes and the pentatonic scale, Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" and George Benson's "Breezin'." This all began when Will was 15. He's 19 now, and attending Berklee full-time on a four-year City Music Continuing Scholarship, an award given to exceptional City Music students attending Berklee's Summer Performance Program on a Summer Youth Scholarship for Talent and Excellence in Music (SYSTEM 5).
"I was so happy," says Will. "There's no real way to describe someone who just brightened your future and given you an opportunity like that. It's only something to experience."
Will knew that an ordinary effort wouldn't have been enough to earn him the scholarship he had wanted so badly.
"I was notorious," he says. "I started off in one ensemble. By the end of the summer, I was in four. I wanted to make the best impression. I felt like I was a good candidate for the scholarship and wanted to put in the work. Just the idea of knowing you can get a scholarship was enough to push me. I wanted to do something with myself, something to be proud of."
Will enrolled at Berklee as a full-time entering student last fall, and he's kept up his enthusiasm. He needs it, too, with a demanding dual major in music business/management and music education.
"Why be lazy?" he says. "I want to get as much out of this as I can. I need a back-up plan just in case I'm not the next superstar."
But, of course, Will's working on that, too.
City Music Alumni
"Positive places." According to one college administrator, that's where City Music alumni find themselves, both those who go on to complete their college education at Berklee and those who take on other challenges. Alumni of Berklee City Music are at Harvard University and Suffolk University Law School, teaching in the public schools, working as financial officers and CEOs, touring Europe, and occupying faculty and staff positions at Berklee College of Music.
"I'm so glad that I came to this college."
A college degree is in many ways a ticket to the professional world, and without it there's sometimes no other way in. That's why City Music works so hard to help promising students complete a Berklee education. Even if they don't enter the music industry, there's still opportunity awaiting anyone with the right credential.
"You definitely get a general education here," says 24-year-old Marie Tai of Jamaica Plain. Marie graduated from Berklee two years ago with a music business/management degree, having attended on a four-year, full-tuition City Music Continuing Scholarship. "I'm so glad that I came to this college as opposed to something more traditional. Berklee is more specialized, but I wouldn't have traded it in for the world."
Back in eighth grade, Marie had reluctantly taken up the clarinet only because her school's music program couldn't accommodate the piano, which she could already play. Of the Plan B instruments, the clarinet seemed the least unappealing to Marie. But the more she worked at it, the more her opinion changed.
"When I really started playing and practicing," says Marie, "eventually it sort of became a love, a passion, after I started sounding more like a musician and less like a duck. I had to play it. It became my escape. Some people have sports and extracurricular activities. This was mine."
She still plays—right now she's auditioning for a community orchestra—but she also has her real estate license. It has allowed her to move out of her parents' house and to make her own hours. But it wasn't so long ago that she was a high school student spending her senior year in the hospital after open-heart surgery. She managed to graduate on time, however, and soon she was on her horn again.
"I was back on the clarinet a few weeks after the surgery," Marie says. "I couldn't play too long, but eventually you build up stamina."
Her endurance paid off. In the summer after she graduated, Marie received a City Music Summer Youth Scholarship for Talent and Excellence in Music (SYSTEM 5) for Berklee's Summer Performance Program, and from there, her full-tuition City Music Continuing Scholarship. She may not be the next Benny Goodman, but she's not complaining about her time at Berklee.
"It's just such a valuable tool," Marie says. "It's helped me so much."