Inspired in Athens

By
Alexios Grapsas and Amanda Gouldthorpe
October 1, 2006
Students from the study abroad program in Athens with Berklee President Roger H. Brown (fifth from left) and Leonidas Arniakos (fourth from left).
Rich Appleman and students with harps.
Office of International Programs
Office of International Programs

In the spring semester of 2006, Berklee's first-ever study abroad program took place in Athens, Greece. Philippos Nakas Conservatory, a founding member of the Berklee International Network, was chosen as the partner school that would accommodate Berklee students for a full-time academic semester. After careful planning, these partner schools built a program that would not only provide the students high quality education, but also expose them to another culture and way of life. The program provided an experience that left students with wonderful memories and a profound appreciation for Athens and its people.

After evaluating 130 applicants, Berklee selected 12 students to study in Athens for four months. The group consisted of Farah Sirah (voice), Claire Finley (electric bass), Janet Onyenucheya (voice), Mary Lobb (voice), Felicia Porter (trombone), Isabel DeJesus (piano), Chris Bilton (piano), Michael Burgos (drums), James Casey (saxophone), Ed Dillon (guitar), Terry Lemanis (guitar), and Brian Williams (drums). Rich Appleman, chair of the Bass Department, accompanied the students and spent the whole semester with them in Athens.

In order to ensure the program's success and the students' smooth transition to a foreign country, the Office of International Programs held informational meetings led by Larry Monroe, vice president of Academic Affairs/International Studies, and Sharon Glennon, director of International Programs. In those meetings, as well as during Orientation Week in Athens, students had the chance to meet Leonidas Arniakos, managing director of Nakas Conservatory, and Costas Baltazanis, artistic director of the Modern Music Department, and familiarize themselves with the school's facilities and procedures.

Upon their arrival in Athens, students were picked up at the airport and transferred to the Golden Age Hotel, a luxurious four-star establishment in the center of the city. In their new home, the students experienced Greek hospitality and traditional food, with breakfast and dinner provided each day by the hotel's restaurant. The hotel staff members became like family to the students. All students were guided through the necessary procedures to open bank accounts and to obtain public transportation passes and cell phones. Within a very short period of time, they adapted themselves to their new surroundings and familiarized themselves with the social life of Athens. It was the beginning of a fascinating journey.

Studying at the Philippos Nakas Conservatory was a great opportunity for students not only as a continuation of their musical studies, but also as an exposure to Greek history, culture, and traditional and folk music. Nakas Conservatory, as one of Berklee's three founding BIN partner schools, was able to offer courses equivalent to those that students take at Berklee during their first years (Private Instruction, Harmony, Ear Training, Arranging, Ensembles, Composition, Traditional Harmony, and Counterpoint).

Nakas also designed a section of "Greek block" courses especially for this program, intended to introduce the students to the elements of Greek language and ancient Greek history, as well as the principles of Greek traditional music, Byzantine music, music from the broader Balkan and Mediterranean area, modal systems, and rhythms and sounds of the Eastern traditions and cultures.

During an interview with Nakas's monthly magazine, when Janet Onyenucheya was asked to describe her learning experience at Nakas, she said, "I learned about modes and intervals that I never knew existed and I was exposed to music that was different from what I usually listen to. Greek culture has a lot of history, so it was very interesting to understand how music has evolved through the years." As for the teaching staff at Nakas, Onyenucheya said that she felt as though the teachers were friends and put a lot emphasis into developing personal relationships. "[They] treated us like individuals as opposed to treating us like just another student in the class."

In his interview for the same magazine, Ed Dillon shared that the most significant difference was the size of the classes. "Most of my classes were very small, so the teachers were able to get very excited about the progress of each student, instead of treating the class as an impersonal lecture."

"It was the first time that I met such inspiring teachers with so much passion for their art," wrote Michael Burgos in a letter to the school upon his return.

An equally strong bond was established with the students and the rest of the community at Nakas. The Berklee students participated in many concerts and events, giving the conservatory a new influence. And as part of their classes, the students and their teachers visited the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, the Acropolis, the Roman Market, and Ancient Olympia.

Further opportunities for travel came during their breaks, when Berklee students had the chance to escape from the city and visit some of the famous islands, take trips to the countryside, or go skiing in the mountains. Most of them also traveled around Europe, either individually or in small groups, visiting Italy, Germany, Spain, England, Switzerland, and France.

As one of the world's bigger cities, diverse and full of possibility, Athens itself offers a great variety of things to do and places to go. The study abroad students explored the city's life—and nightlife—and discovered their own favorite places. Walking around the city and experiencing traditional habits, food, entertainment, and places of cultural interest became part of everyday life for the students. Ed Dillon told the Nakas magazine, "When I arrived, I found a beautiful, vibrant world for me to explore. I walked and hiked whenever I had time, and found myself comfortable wherever I went, even at night. I was also quite happy to find the young people so hospitable there. I had a wonderful time."

Further immersing themselves in the Athens lifestyle, some of the Berklee students performed in clubs, had regular gigs, and even appeared on television shows. Their interactions with people from different backgrounds led to new perspectives and lasting friendships. Janet Onyenucheya said, "Upon my coming to Greece, I found it comforting to be amongst people who enjoyed relaxation and appreciated the beauty of life. In America I find people are always trying to climb the 'achievement ladder' and never take time to realize their accomplishments. In Greece I found it pleasant to be surrounded by people who valued happiness and love."