Student Profile: Leah Dennis
Leah Dennis has made the most of her time at Berklee, managing to both focus her energies and dabble in just about everything the college has to offer. She’s graduating this spring with a film scoring and professional music dual major, and a drama minor.
Dennis arrived at Berklee with a background in classical violin and musical theater, and is leaving with skills in composition, conducting, music supervision, and a variety of experiences that demonstrate that she is leadership material. Again and again, she has risen to the challenges before her.
Coming from a classical background, Dennis has found the education at Berklee freeing. Whereas a conservatory might have put her on the same track as her peers, Berklee has allowed her to develop a highly specialized and unique toolbox to launch her career in music.
Dennis spoke with us about her experience making a video that went viral, and how Berklee is really like a graduate program.
You’re Canadian. What brought you to Berklee?
I was a student who had been immersed in the classical field. I played violin for 15 years. Classical violin. My mom’s a classical pianist. But I’d done a lot of musical theater and when I was looking at colleges, I was applying to musical theater programs. Then I found Berklee.
My family decided that if I was going to pursue music, I would do it in the states. In Canada, the classical field is good but the caliber of contemporary music education is still under development. When I was accepted to Berklee, I kind of reevaluated what I wanted and realized that voice is something I really want to focus on rather than a triple threat program that makes you a cookie cutter. I’d done that and figured, voice is my main thing. I can always do dance in Boston and do acting somewhere else. Berklee has an emerging musical theater program—I was well aware of that.
What was it like to start your contemporary music education after so much classical training?
I was a fish out of water. I’d never sung jazz. I’d only done stuff for fun with pop and rock in the shower or the car or at a school talent show. I just went at it. I did a performance assortment of classes at first and then took an Intro to Film Scoring class and loved it. So I decided to move in that direction.
I also took some songwriting and some music therapy classes. My only preconception was, “I’m going to go to Berklee and sing.” And I ended up exploring everything else. I learned a lot from all my branching out and different classes. But I definitely connected with film scoring. And I liked the idea that I would be able to graduate with a toolbox of knowledge when it comes to composition as well as the technological side; they really do teach you about the technology that is necessary in the industry today.
In the film scoring program, they teach you a lot. You have to be a one-man show. A one-stop shop. You write your music and you also need to understand how to represent yourself and show how it should sound. You need to understand the programs involved and make MIDI mockups.
Did you declare the professional music dual major right away?
No, but it’s something I always toyed with because I had all these other interests and all these other classes that I wanted to take. The film scoring major is very demanding. Dual majoring in pro music is not normal, a lot of people do it to get out as soon as they can or because they don’t know what to do. But I said, “I need an open pass to take all these other classes.”
You have so much in your toolbox, which was your goal, but where is that taking you?
The drama minor is my carryover on paper because I’m very interested in directing. I’ve done a lot of theater directing, but I’m moving a little more towards film and TV. I’m exploring the idea of going to graduate school for directing. A lot of what I’ve been doing in my leadership positions have been helping me exercise those skills. So even though right now I’m not in a theater program and I’m not taking Directing 101 and the Great Directors of the 20th Century I’m really using those same skills in a different way. Conducting is one of the things that I immediately fell in love with. With Conducting 1, I immediately felt this connection to it, then with Conducting 2, my teacher pulled me aside and said, “Listen, Leah, you need to keep doing this. You have a natural talent for it.”
At that point I thought, “Ok I’m not imagining this. I really am connecting with this.” I continued with the conducting and I found an opportunity to conduct the Crepusculum Choir at Berklee, which I had been singing in. There was an opening for an assistant director, so I auditioned and took it. Now I do everything: I am the artistic director, I choose the repetoire, I’m the conductor, I audition the singers, I do the finances, I book the gigs. I’m learning so much about all the different aspects of being a leader. I connect with all these things and that’s why I’m toying with the idea of going to school for directing.
What would that mean for your musical interests?
Well—that’s one path! (laughs). Berklee is so perfect for having a lot of things up in the air. You can really explore a bunch of different fields.
You also make music videos?
These days, everything’s visual. Whenever I listen to music that I connect with, I’m always envisioning some sort of video. The reason why we do videos with the choir is to bring choral music into this contemporary moment, to make it more relatable and to show that it is something that is still relevant. A lot of people think of choral music and they’ll kind of think of something old and outdated or just not as relevant to today. The director before me started doing these music videos, and I continued. We do at least one a semester. It’s a fun thing for us. We record—get a good recording, find a location, do the shoot. Our videographers are students. It’s completely student run. We don’t have a lot of money. It’s all our own initiative.
Leah Dennis conducts another choir in an arrangement of "Silent Night" by Evan Chapman that went viral
What do your parents think about your diverse interests and talents?
My parents never pressured me to be anything necessarily. I would say that they weren’t too happy when I decided to do musical theater or music, but Berklee won them over. They got the publications in the mail and they visited and they realized that that this is a serious place and it’s not just a conservatory—not to bad talk conservatories—but it’s not just performance based. My mom’s a classical pianist. She did a performance undergrad, then a performance and pedagogy master’s. She ended up teaching, but she looked around and saw her colleagues and a lot of them weren’t able to sustain their musical careers. Or they weren’t happy. They may have ended up teaching but they really wanted to be performers. But maybe that was a mindset of the past and now people are realizing it’s not that hard to have a career in music or in the arts. You just need to know who you are and follow that path. And everything will fall into place. There are so many positions out there.
You’re about to graduate. Are you happy, ultimately, that you chose your unique path that includes some film scoring, conducting, and music business?
Berklee to me is like a grad program. Everyone is already a little specialized. I visit my friends at regular colleges and it’s so different. Not to say it’s bad, just different. Berklee’s very special. I’m so glad I came here.
I look at programs in which everyone’s competing for the same thing. Their end goal through graduating from the program—performance programs at other schools are a good example—everyone wants the same thing. If you’re in an opera program, everyone wants to be at the Met. If you’re in a musical theater program, everyone wants to be on Broadway. The competition—I’m sure, and I’ve heard—can be so fierce. It’s because everyone is vying for that same thing.
Even in my film scoring program, you’d think everyone wanted to do the same thing, but they don’t at all. There are so many jobs in film scoring. You could be the composer, the film music editor, the mixer. There are so many different options.