Opening Day: Identifying a Deeper Purpose
With Mark Small
A sense of immediacy permeated the morning. And the day's theme—"Now's the Time," after the Charlie Parker classic—provided the right message and music to inspire faculty and staff at Berklee's third annual Opening Day, held at the Hynes Convention Center.
"We are here today to celebrate and strengthen this community, to prepare ourselves for the upcoming academic year, to create the conditions in which all of our students will be able to do their best work, to become their best selves," said Lawrence J. Simpson, senior vice president for academic affairs/provost, after highlighting the past year's milestones, including the launch of the $50 million Giant Steps capital campaign and the expansion of the City Music Network.
Berklee President Roger H. Brown used the theme of the day to urge the Berklee community to consider its deeper purpose, asking, "Now is the time for what?"
While extolling the virtues of serving the legacy and history of the college, creating a great workplace, fulfilling the comprehensive strategic plan, and focusing on students, Brown noted that each of these worthy missions is a means to an end.
To get at the deeper purpose, he shared the story of a 1953 University of Chicago science experiment that attempted to simulate the early primitive earth's atmosphere in oceans by activating electrodes through a container of water, methane, ammonia, and hydrogen. The result was the creation of amino acids and some precursors of DNA.
"What we know from this experiment is that the right mixture of chemistry and energy can create an environment in which something unprecedented can happen," said Brown. "In my mind . . . our ultimate purpose at Berklee . . . [is] to create the conditions under which some kind of miraculous, unpredictable creativity can occur."
That's just what has happened for first-year student Taylor Gordon and senior Gianpaolo Eleria, who shared their Berklee stories. For Gordon, Berklee represents a way for her to realize her "destiny" with music. "Coming to Berklee has changed my life, because I can finally say that I have the resources and tools to be successful."
"Forget your comfort zone. It's a prison," Eleria said. "Being here by definition means choosing a risk over caution. It's improvisation."
Margot Edwards, publicist in the Office of Public Information, and ensembles professor Carolyn Wilkins, who traveled to Ghana and South Africa to audition students for the newly launched Africa Scholars Program, spoke about musicians eager to come here. Wilkins, who called the experience the "most profound and humbling experience I've ever had," said she had never "met a group of students so hungry for an opportunity."
And if granted a scholarship, those musicians said they would share what they learn with people from their native Africa, "allowing an entire community to benefit from one person's education," Edwards said.
Music Technology dean Stephen Croes remembered the late music production and engineering professor Wayne Wadhams, an individual who embodied the deeper purpose Brown spoke of. "Wayne led us, our department and division and college, to the idea that technology can be an instrument or tool for powerful expression, expanding not only Berklee's notion but also the notion of higher education and music everywhere," said Croes.
The morning program ended with the words and wisdom of a living legend: scholar, arranger, composer, conductor, and horn player Gunther Schuller. Interviewed by Harmony Department chair Joe Mulholland, Schuller talked about his maverick career and his early advocating for bringing together jazz and classical music. He also urged students to be the shepherds of their own education. "Absorb, have your ears totally open, be completely receptive to any talented person who comes into your life," Schuller said. "You have to open those floodgates very wide and take in everything you possibly can."
Following a barbecue at Mothers Rest in the afternoon, the evening's Entering Student Convocation and Concert were the final events of the day. Many of the 950 students of the entering class packed the BPC for the concert and a welcome from members of the administration and faculty, student, and alumni speakers.
Vice president for student affairs/dean of students Lawrence Bethune greeted the students by saying, "If people where you come from considered you different because you so spent all your time listening to and playing music, welcome home. We're all like you here." Simpson told them, "We are committed to your success at Berklee. I look forward to May 12, 2012, when I'll see you will walk across the stage at graduation."
President Brown told the crowd, "The Berklee curriculum has been carefully crafted over the last 63 years. It may not always make sense to you, but it works and has produced 162 Grammy-winning artists, 47 percent of the Thelonius Monk Fellowship winners, and numerous top music educators, business leaders, film and game composers, engineers, and more. Someday in some unexpected way, you will use the skills you learned here."
Distinguished alumni speaker Derek Sivers '91 (founder of CD Baby) shared six things he wished he had known his first day at Berklee. In short, he advised the students, 1) Focus, disconnect, and don't get distracted. Stay in the shed. 2) Push yourself to do more than is required. 3) Teachers can present information, but you have to teach yourself. 4) Learn from your own heroes, not just your teacher's. 5) Innovation is needed more than imitation. Don't get stuck in the past. 6) When you finish your Berklee studies, become valuable to the world.
Berklee's Yo Team produced a memorable concert showcasing 24 excellent singers and instrumentalists in a program ranging from Benny Goodman's "Flying Home" to Aretha Franklin's "Spirit in the Dark." Among the many standouts were Denise Hudson's soulful vocals on "Everything Must Change," and singer Jonathan Carr's mature-beyond-his-years vocalizing on "The Meaning of the Blues." Phillip Ferrell rendered Eric Benet's "When You Think of Me," beginning in a rich baritone range before soaring to his upper register. Among the notable instrumentalists were pianist Manami Morita (who thrilled the crowd with her version of Chick Corea's "Armando's Rhumba"), alto saxophonist Dan Puccio, trumpeter Linsey McDonald, bassist Shaun Munday, and guitarist Josh Connelly. Three days after the curtain closed, the new academic year opened.
Mark Small '73 is the editor of Berklee Today.