Berklee-in-the-Round: Nashville Comes to Boston

By 
Lesley Mahoney
January 5, 2012
Jacqui Stewart performs as part of Berklee-in-the-Round.
Jackson Wargo performs in Berklee's acoustic session series.
Faculty member Lauren Passarelli.
Eitan Akman
Photo by Michael Spencer
Photo by Michael Spencer
Photo by Michael Spencer
Photo by Michael Spencer

It had all the makings of a Nashville round-robin acoustic session—intimate, supportive, and creative—but on a smaller scale and about 1,000 miles north. On a recent evening faculty member Lauren Passarelli and three student singer-songwriters sat in a circle at Cafe 939 and took turns sharing their music, a blend of styles featuring original tales of heartbreak, love, and wanderlust.

Songwriting assistant professor Stan Swiniarski, who's put in his time on the Nashville circuit, hatched the idea and presented it to Cafe 939 event manager Jackie Indrisano. She gave him a monthly slot and Berklee-in-the-Round Tuesdays was born. Open to students, alumni, and faculty, the free sessions also feature occasional special guests whose identities are not revealed until the night of the show.

"Nashville is a songwriters town. Everybody's a songwriter. . . . I really missed the singer-songwriting community that Nashville had, clubs like the Listening Room and Bluebird cafes in particular, where people could sit in the round and perform and it's really all about their songs," said Swiniarski, also noting there aren't a lot of opportunities for students under age 21 to perform in the Boston area. "People are sitting together sharing new songs, a lot of brand new material. It's not always perfectly polished."

At this recent session—the third installment of BITR Tuesdays—the supportive vibe was palpable, the audience clearly appreciative of the raw talent on display. The room was noticeably quiet, except in between songs.

"You can really hear a pin drop. There's no one talking. Everyone's just listening," said Swiniarski. "I think the performers love that; it's kind of magical for them."

Jaqui Stewart, a first-semester voice principal from Bainbridge Island, Washington, liked the intimacy of the experience. "I loved the set-up: all of us songwriters of different styles and backgrounds singing to each other [in a setting] much like a living room environment," she said. "Performing in an intimate setting like this helps songwriters be more expressive when they're singing and playing."

Along with the performance aspect, BITR also provides a forum for the artists to network with each other and audience members.

"In Nashville, it's a really great environment for songwriters to come share their work and also network," Swiniarski said. "It's a place where I met cowriters and things like that, so I really wanted to create that same kind of community here."

Alumnus Patrik Gochez '10—who since graduation has been touring the Northeast and the U.K. with his band WhiteShoeBrownShoe—performed at the first BITR session and appreciated the additional exposure. "I thought the Berklee-in-the-Round session was a terrific place to workshop new or experimental material (as you are in the company of some very experiences and talented writers), and get a little bit of exposure among the younger Berklee crowd," said Gochez, whose debut album is due out in early 2012. "I managed to come away from the experience with both a handful of new fans/followers and also some great connections to open-minded writers."

Plus, it gives newer performers like Stewart the chance to prepare for a bigger stage. "I think doing this show really prepared me for bigger songwriter shows similar to those in Nashville," she said. "Being able to play and organize with not only older students but also faculty members gives you a really professional and fun experience. As a first-semester student, I was really honored to be selected to play."

The performers can play off each other as well as audience members. Eitan Akman, a seventh-semester performance major/guitar principal from Highland Park, New Jersey, ordered his song selection based on the crowd's mood. "In a setting like BITR, in which we have limited instrumentation, it can be hard to keep the crowd interested," he said. "BITR was a chance for me to practice keeping my music interesting in the absence of a full band."

Audience members appreciated the significance of the series.

"It's great that this kind of thing exists so singer-songwriters can show what they're made of," said Franka Batelic, a first-semester voice principal.

"I know there are a lot of acoustic artists here at Berklee, and this is a great way to showcase it," said Habitat Tinubu, a fourth-semester songwriting major and voice principal.

The next Berklee-in-the-Round is scheduled for January 31. To be considered for a slot at an upcoming session, submit three songs (mp3 or link) and a short bio to sswiniarski@berklee.edu.