President Roger Brown's Faculty Journal (2006)

The president spends a week with Bob Pilkington.

Join President Roger Brown as he spends nearly a week finding out what it's like to be a Berklee faculty member. For four straight days, wherever you find Bob Pilkington, associate professor of jazz composition, you'll also find President Brown. Harmony and composition classes, the Afro-Pop ensemble, even departmental meetings. Return to this page every day, starting February 13, for President Brown's reports on what it takes to teach the next generation of music professionals.
 
Sunday, February 12, 2006
 

Teaching at Berklee College of Music

 
  Bob Pilkington
 
Photo by Nick Balkin
   

I am preparing to begin my week of accompanying Bob Pilkington to all of his classes, department meetings, and ensemble rehearsals. Bob is a member of the Jazz Composition Department and began teaching at Berklee in 1982.

Bruce Thomas, one of his colleagues at Berklee, says of him, "Bob is absolutely one of the most dedicated teachers I've known in my 25 years at Berklee. He maintains a youthful enthusiasm for what he does that I've never seen wane even slightly for as long as I have known him." Bruce says Bob knows the music software Finale "better than anyone I'm aware of."

Scott Free is impressed that Bob has continued his own studies, keeping up with technology, and recounted his use of Wizard of Oz clips so that Scott's computer would shriek, "I'm melting!" like the Wicked Witch if he hit the wrong button.

Mark Harvey teaches music at MIT and is the director of the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra. "Bob has been an invaluable core member of the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra for over a quarter of a century, and is one of the two or three linchpin players who really shape our sound and sensibility," he says.

I am listening to some of Bob's compositions as I write. One tune, "Aftermath," is played by the Sanctuary Composers Forum, another by the Jazz Composers Alliance. The compositions range from straight ahead to freer, more dissonant concepts, all with, not surprisingly, a strong compositional quality. 

Bob began playing trombone as an 11-year-old in Louisville, Kentucky. His father was a television producer and his mother a visual artist and painter. They both enjoyed music and Bob remembers hearing "My Fair Lady" and other show tunes playing in their home. He became enthusiastic about the trombone when he heard the bridge of the theme for the movie "The Bridge on the River Kwai," in which trombones did featured duty in bridging the Bridge. Bob's high school music teacher was a strong influence, introducing the students to everything from Bach to 12-tone concepts and Charles Ives. His teacher also took some band members to hear Stan Kenton, which made a lasting impression on the young high school horn player. He also remembers driving his family crazy transcribing the Chicago hit "Make Me Smile" during a holiday.

Bob went off to the University of Louisville and began as a math major, but a boring calculus teacher juxtaposed against an exciting music theory class made him reconsider. His knowledge from high school allowed him to place high in theory classes, which built his confidence. As he became more serious about music, he decided to try Berklee's summer program in 1973. He had met Phil Wilson from a trombone workshop and was able to study with Phil, Herb Pomeroy and many of the other legendary Berklee faculty of the 1970s. He recalls going out his first week at Berklee to catch a Buddy Rich concert in which Greg Hopkins, now a colleague in the jazz comp department, was late back to the bandstand after a break and received some of Rich's famous ribbing and harassment.

Going back to Louisville just didn't cut it after receiving this challenging and rich taste of Berklee. So like 44 percent of this year's entering class, Bob transferred to Berklee. As was common then, and still to some extent now, he left a couple of times to tour with bands—largely rock bands with big horn sections such as Subway and Aura. Needless to say, neither became the next Chicago or Blood, Sweat & Tears, but the experience of being on the road and working in bands was formative. In the late 1970s and early '80s he created a ten-piece jazz band called Excursions and polished both his playing and writing chops.

The next few years led him further out into the avant garde-jazz scene. His music became angrier and "rejectionist" in his words, rebelling against structure. Ironically, this foray into the "land of the unstructured" made him more appreciative of structure and form while enabling him to break rules if and when his vision required it.

He joined the Berklee faculty in 1982, just a few years before the faculty strike that led to the formation of the union. He recalls those two weeks in 1986 as the "worst of his life" even though he supported the strike and saw it then and now as the "right thing to do." It was divisive and he particularly laments some of what went down between those striking and those who crossed the picket line.

Pre-strike, he was teaching 30 hours in the classroom, making $8/hour. Almost no one gave homework because there wasn't time to grade it. Post-1986, teaching far fewer hours and earning more money, Bob saw the quality of his teaching improve. He was able to develop more materials for his classroom, assign and grade homework, and prepare more thoroughly for his classes.

A few years ago, Bob became interested in African drumming and immersed himself in the medium. He went to Ghana and studied extensively and now leads an Afro-Pop ensemble at Berklee. He is listening to Dave Douglas, Christian McBride, Chris Potter, and exploring techno music. He enjoys the chances he gets to write for his departmental concerts and the many groups in which he performs. 

In retrospect, Bob observes with some surprise just how much he loves teaching. He explains that the typical Berklee student is energetic and motivated. The environment is one that values creativity, not the deadening, regurgitative atmosphere he and his colleagues have observed at some other music schools. And he is still growing and learning himself, excited about the next composition, the next class, the next ensemble. 

Our short interview last Friday makes me eager to step into the classroom with him. Bob's CD of compositions and arrangements is coming to an end just as I finish this note. His last piece is a plaintive arrangement of Stephen Sondheim's masterpiece, "Send in the Clowns." Coincidentally, just about two weeks ago I had listened to the Judy Collins version of this song with my 17-year-old daughter, getting her to concentrate on the poignant and subtle lyrics. Now of course my challenge is to be sure that I'm no clown when I'm sent in to Bob's Harmony 4 class!

 

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

President Takes the Fifth in Harmony 4

Today I began attending classes with Bob Pilkington. I arrived late to Chord Scale Voicings for Arranging due to a President's Council meeting that I could not miss. Bob immediately introduced me to every student (about 15) by name as he did in all four classes today. I noticed that he not only got every name right, he had also made an effort to pronounce the names of international students correctly.

President Roger Brown (right) sits among students in Bob Pilkington's Chord Scale Voicings class.
Photo by Nick Balkin

In this class, the students worked on techniques for chord choices in orchestrating various melodies. Bob repeatedly emphasized that the choices could depend on what is happening with the melody, key signature, or in relationship to other nearby chords. And the arranger has a great deal of choice over whether to go for simpler or more complicated harmonic ideas. He also stressed that another principle could outweigh any of these guiding principles if the sensibility of the arranger called for it.

I spent much of the class reflecting on the fundamental tension that exists in teaching any art form, particularly music. Obviously, much great music has been made by the untutored and unschooled and a common critique of music education and Berklee in particular is that it is filled with rules and restrictions that may deaden the artist's creativity and love of music.

If we consider an analogous art form, creative writing, it's clear that many great writers did not go to specialized schools to learn to write. Some great literature was created in the oral tradition before language was codified and without the benefit of pen and paper, typewriter, or word processor. But most of us would concede that some basic training in language, writing, vocabulary, grammar, and other tools of the trade is unlikely to hold back a writer's career.

Likewise, I spent the whole day thinking how wonderful it is that students who persevere and gain the skills that Berklee offers have these tools at their disposal. I would certainly not want to audition for a gig with my limited music education before or after someone with a polished Berklee skill set.

Clearly a place like Berklee is not right for every aspiring musician. I think the more clear we can be about who we are, the more likely we are to attract the student who seeks what we offer. As we see accelerated growth in the number of applications and a dramatic decrease in the number of students we can admit due to facility constraints, it is particularly critical that we attract students who are a good match for what we are about.

An education like Berklee's provides no guarantee of a brilliant career, but if you are hoping to scale Mount Everest, rigorous training and paying attention to the techniques of other climbers (both the ones who came back and those who did not) seems like a good idea. I was struck in all four classes today at how rigorous the education is, how demanding the expectations, particularly in the higher-level harmony (Berklee's lexicon for music theory) and ear training courses. I was also struck by how the learning weaves together in a comprehensive way. Observing Bob teaching courses in harmony, ear training, and jazz composition gave me a chance to see how students were bringing lessons learned from one domain to bear in another. 

Next we went to a Jazz Composition Department faculty meeting, where, among other topics, faculty members wrestled with whether to continue requiring a course on music copying—essentially musical calligraphy. Clearly, the marketplace has shifted away from hand copying to computer-driven notation. However, many faculty believe that the lessons learned from the old school model will help students do better work even with Finale or other music software. Some faculty suggested that subjects such as music publishing or other aspects of the business might be more important for aspiring composers.

Ken Pullig (foreground), jazz composition chair, runs his department meeting. From left, faculty member Jackson Schultz, President Brown, and Bob Pilkington.
 

 

The next class was Harmony 4 and a discussion of "standard deceptive resolutions of primary and secondary dominants." Bob was particularly insightful in the way he kept bringing complicated and somewhat theoretical material back to real-world examples. He explained that the ear likes patterns, so one approach to very unfamiliar or more chromatic motion is to establish more obvious or familiar harmonic patterns. Likewise, you can break patterns in very familiar harmonic material to achieve an unexpected effect.

Throughout all the classes, Bob illustrated ideas at the piano and used standard tunes such as "Night and Day" and "Body and Soul" to illustrate ideas. In the third class of the day, Reharmonization Techniques, Bob played some examples of "structural modification," which he loosely translated as "messing with the chords" to illustrate. After a refreshing dose of Frank Sinatra, Natalie Cole, and Joni Mitchell played via a connection to his laptop, and some historical context on studio orchestras, the lesson became more rooted in the ways "messing with the chords" can sound like genius.

Ear Training 4 was the last class of the day. Like all the others, it had about a dozen attendees, so everyone got lots of attention, and even sitting in the back row, I couldn't hide from the solfege exercises. The head of a well-known conservatory told me how impressed he was with Berklee's ear training techniques, saying that our students can "solfege rings around most conservatory students." I don't know if that is true or not, but they certainly impressed me today. This class was very practice oriented, with students working on some passages possessing fairly complicated intervals and rhythms.

Bob had prepped me before the students had come in, making sure I could sing what I would suppose is the easiest of all intervals, the fifth, by using Star Wars as a mnemonic device. Having watched Bill Murray's lounge-lizard-in-the-Pocono's Star Wars skit half a dozen times, I thought I could probably nail this one. And indeed, Bob called on me and I more or less delivered—hence the title of today's installment.

Photo by Nick Balkin

 

The day was incredibly stimulating and bolstered my pride in Berklee, our faculty, and our students. I'm sure the pressures of learning all this rigorous material may occasionally be overwhelming. Students may wonder why they put themselves through all this when the original draw was the emotional or visceral sense of the power of music to create joy or meaning, rather than ways to deceptively resolve secondary dominants. And I witnessed some students for whom the material came very naturally and easily, and others who struggled with one technique or another. I saw a professor who never spoke of rigid rules or reduced music to a formula but rather demonstrated a deep love for the art. My advice would be to drink it all up like a cool fountain. What an opportunity to pursue what you love at the highest level!

While Berklee students of the 1970s were pursuing their craft, I was far away studying physics in college. A common critique of physics is that scientific explanations of natural phenomena take away their beauty and spirituality. I never understood this argument. Knowing how sunlight diffracts through the atmosphere at dusk to produce a red sunset and a blue sky only makes the whole tableau more dramatic and miraculous. If you really love music, if you want music to be your life's work, if you have a gift, why wouldn't you want to go as deep and as far as you can? Today I saw Berklee's students—the next movers and shakers of the music world—doing just that.

 

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Did You Hear the One about the Stolen Trombone?

Today, my first connection with Bob was not until his 1 p.m. office hour, so I had scheduled some regular business for the morning. I met with a consulting group interested in helping us launch our first capital campaign. I was impressed—its clients range from Spelman College, in Atlanta, to the U.S. Military Academy in West Point—so they are used to specialized and distinctive institutions.

Then Dave Hornfischer, senior vice president for finance and administration, and I met for a working lunch to discuss real estate transactions and the upcoming board of trustees meeting on the budget. I arrived at Bob's office in a mode of doing and directing, only to radically shift gears to quietly observe his office hours with a couple of motivated students.

A panel from Lennie Peterson's cartoon about
Bob Pilkington's stolen trombone.
Courtesy of Lennie Peterson

One couldn't help but notice that Bob's office, in a bay with Marti Epstein, Lucy Holstedt, Rick Applin, Beth Denisch, and George Russell, Jr., was not the most optimal physical space. Having just come from a discussion about how we could someday create state-of-the-art office, classroom, rehearsal and other spaces for the college, the reality was a reminder of how important this could be. In real terms, however, it could take many years to get there given the need to raise money (my first meeting of the day) and to design, permit and build a new facility (my second meeting of the day). Of course, amazing learning can happen in the humblest of settings, but it certainly wouldn't hurt if the physical space was on par with the talents of the students and the faculty.

Marti's area was infinitely fascinating, with photos of musicians, humorous musical scores, a picture of Marti with Leonard Bernstein during dinner at a Tanglewood retreat, ads from magazines, and an eclectic array of other hints to her tastes and personality. Bob's area is also decorated with some great material, including a comic strip that features Bob himself and Berklee. Believe it or not, just as the old joke goes, Bob's trombone was stolen and pitched into a trashcan when the thief discovered no one wanted it. A former Berklee professor turned comic strip writer—Lennie Peterson—told the story to the whole world.

Two students sought Bob's help. One was a student from the prior semester inquiring about his work in counterpoint. The other was Mathias, an Oslo, Norway, native whom I had met the day before in Harmony 4. Mathias wanted to review homework and try to better understand Bob's comments on his work. The interaction was wide ranging, from Coltrane's conception of "Giant Steps" to Bob's own lessons with Berklee faculty trombonist Hal Crook—who helped Bob explore how to play outside chord changes without crashing and burning—to a short discussion of cultural differences in swearing.

 

Bob Pilkington takes a solo during the Write of Spring rehearsal. At his left is student trombonist Nick Noonan.
Photo by Nick Balkin

The first and only class today was a two-hour session of Jazz Counterpoint. Bob, Lucy Holstedt, and I had discussed the challenge of helping students learn techniques without feeling too "rule bound." Bob warned me that counterpoint was one of those subjects in which students often felt totally caged in by rules. In fact, the class exercises and homework felt to me like a set of sophisticated puzzles with certain logical constraints that allow latitude, but also impose strict boundaries as to what is permitted. I think I would enjoy the class a great deal.

We spent a good bit of time analyzing the homework of a willing student volunteer, David Burgler, a Swiss film scoring and contemporary writing and production dual major. We listened to two Kurt Elling tunes that demonstrated a few of the techniques covered in the class and homework (and heard some amazing singing). And Bob demonstrated real-time techniques for creating countermelodies and phrases for "Days of Wine and Roses" while allowing students to see him wrestle with dead ends and unsatisfying solutions on the fly.

Next was a rehearsal by a faculty band with a few student and staff members. The group ran through pieces composed for the upcoming "Write of Spring" concert. I was surprised that after only a few classes, I actually heard some of the concepts we were studying in the faculty compositions. I also wondered how tolerant the writing faculty are of one another's work; they all seemed cheerful and to be enjoying the chance to make music together. I must admit, having been joined at the hip all week with Bob, I felt a special pride in hearing his trombone solo in Dick Lowell's piece.

 
  President Brown watches guitarist Scott Free, professor of jazz composition, at the rehearsal.
 
Photo by Nick Balkin
   

During a couple of lulls in the rehearsal, I managed to find 95 words with three or more letters from the word "counterpoint." I also reflected on the possibilities of a Most Perfect Berklee Name Contest, one that would pit faculty member John Funkhouser against staff member Kara Jamrok or music production and engineering chair Rob Jaczko. It had already occurred to me that Scott Free (see photo) is the perfect name for the person who lobbed Bob's trombone in the dumpster and was never caught.

So what were my more directed thoughts about the day? Again, what a rich learning environment Berklee offers students from all over the world! Students I met today hail from Norway, Switzerland, Japan, South Korea, Brazil, Connecticut, and other places. I thought about how great the need is for better facilities so that Berklee can continue to provide this environment. The room where the faculty band played (101) is not worthy of the music that was being rehearsed there. I remembered how useful it is to stop doing and spend more time observing and listening. I contemplated how we can be sure to stay as progressive and future oriented as we were in 1950, even as our curriculum, faculty, and traditions carry the weight of 60 years of history. My sense is that when in doubt, we should err on the side of the future, as we have always done. And I wondered about what the college needs from me and how I can best be a catalyst for the change that needs to happen.

Tomorrow: Back at it with another round of Harmony 4 and Reharmonization Techniques.

 

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Where Would Sade Be Without the Minor Ninth?

 
Bob Pilkington makes a point from the piano during Harmony 4.  
Photo by Nick Balkin  
   

Today, we had our second Harmony 4 class of the week. I suspect that I was like many Berklee students, happily minding my own business, catching up on email (including one from my wife Linda, who has been in Darfur, Sudan, for the last 10 days), digesting my tasty Berklee cafeteria turkey meatloaf, and thinking about getting a Mocha Frappuccino when I realized it was time for Harmony class. And I didn't want to go. 

I did what I hope most Berklee students would do: I went anyway. The class turned out to be a very good one. We went over the homework assignment on deceptive resolutions and discussed examples from Antonio Carlos Jobim, Otis Redding, James Brown, Benny Golson, McCoy Tyner, and Duke Ellington. We heard about "ginger," the "dark chocolate interval," tasty dissonance, and I absorbed my favorite aphorism of the day: "Where Would Sade Be without the Minor Ninth?"

Bob continued to show both his complete facility with the math of music coupled with his deep love of the art and passion of making and listening to it. There is a Buddhist koan, or riddle, in which the initiates are asked to think about various concepts and meditate on their meaning. One of the most famous goes, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"

I ponder this one often and return to the idea that the sound of one hand clapping is not much of a sound at all. It is the opposing motion of the hands that makes the handclap. It is the collision of left and right, up and down, theoretical and intuitive that makes transcendent sound. That seems to be the important balance in Bob's teaching, the tidal wave of theoretical material balanced with hearing the various deceptive resolutions on the piano and letting them sink in. "Is it music?" he asked the students repeatedly. "Sure, you can do it, but is it music?"

The students were more lively today. I don't doubt that having me sit in the class, even as unobtrusive as I have tried to be, changes the dynamic. In every class I attended I have been struck by how respectful, quiet, perhaps even shy the students are with one another. There isn't a great deal of lively or irreverent chatter before class. No wise guy disrupting the classes. No musical Sartre questioning the existential purpose of every lesson. No stoned-out Sean Penn character a la Fast Times at Ridgemont High coming into consciousness at unpredictable moments.

President Brown and student Kelsey Bennett find some humor in the harmony.
Photo by Nick Balkin

I speculated with a few of the faculty about this phenomenon. Some believe the karma of the school changes every decade or so, and that unlike the Wild West days of the 1970s and 80s, students of the new millennium are more internal and focused. Or maybe when you reach the Harmony 4 levels of activity, you are just resolved to getting the material absorbed—like mile 23 in a marathon where you don't ask yourself why you are running anymore, you just put one foot in front of the other.

Another theory is that Berklee's writing classes are popular among international students, many from cultures in which asking lots of questions or jumping into discussions is not encouraged. Clearly, our diversity strategy should include developing a better understanding of the cultural norms of our international students and to help them acclimate to ours. I wondered to myself if the pace and volume of activity at Berklee may sometimes work against building the social dimension of the community. I am hopeful that we can find more ways to help students develop those relational skills that often may have as much to do with getting and keeping the gig as technique and knowledge. Maybe curriculum review will look at ways classes, especially those early in the Berklee experience, can build community as the learning takes place.

My day started with a meeting downtown with a prominent Boston corporation interested in forging a new partnership with Berklee. It is considering supporting our concert series, which I envision becoming a strong part of the cultural fabric of Boston and more consciously showcasing student talent in conjunction with better known professional acts, a wonderful example being last fall's Meshell Ndegeocello concert.

Then I had a discussion with another prominent Boston cultural institution eager to discuss partnering more closely with Berklee. The 60th Anniversary Concert was a grand success in many ways—wonderful, diverse music from stem to stern, a sold-out crowd of 3,600 with tickets being scalped for as much as $800, more than 70 Berklee faculty and students performing with Paul Simon, Herbie Hancock, and other luminaries. But one unexpected benefit has been the outreach to us by so many other cultural institutions who seem eager to tap into a Berklee vibe that can help Boston bridge racial, cultural, generational, and stylistic boundaries.

After class, I offered to make a Starbucks run to satisfy my Frappuccino jones, and then joined Bob for office hours. A student was running down skills requirements for Ear Training. Bob responded in Zen master fashion, encouraging him to relax, put all his concentration on the task, slow down, and keep that sense of mild panic from elbowing into the moment. "I know you have it in you," Bob counseled. The student was like a before-and-after photo in a weight-loss commercial; the improvement was immediate. 

Harmony 4 class photo. "Okay, everybody. Say 'deceptive resolution!'"
Photo by Nick Balkin

It reminded me of the clinic Victor Wooten gave earlier this year. He is one of my favorite musicians because he takes you so deep into the groove that you get the bends if you come up to the surface too fast. Victor had a bass player come on stage and play some lines. I was holding my breath, hoping this eager student would make us proud, and clearly he was a talented and proficient player, but you could tell he was little overstimulated and not really settled. Then Victor said something like, "I want you to close your eyes and listen to the way you want this to sound in your head, and when you are ready, play it again really listening to what you are playing." It felt like a parlor trick. The student, one minute later, played the same line with astonishingly more feeling.

So I suppose that today's observation for Berklee students is that after you learn all this material, you will definitely "have it in you." Then your challenge will be to listen to yourself and to what you want to sound like, and then be astonished as it all comes tumbling out in your music.

 

Friday, February 17, 2006

More Cowbell

 
Roger Brown and Bob Pilkington talk during the Afro-pop rehearsal.  
Photo by Phil Farnsworth  
   

Friday was my last day of following Bob to all his classes, and the only one on the schedule was his Afro-pop ensemble. I brought a couple of CDs for him to listen to. One is by Kanda Bongo Man, a famous Congolese musician who was very popular in Kenya when I lived and taught there and was much imitated by Kenyan bands. The other CD is by recent Berklee alum and Thelonious Monk Institute fellow Lionel Loueke, who is from Benin in West Africa.

I had the good fortune to meet Lionel in NYC recently at the International Association of Jazz Educators Conference. His older brother taught him guitar before he found his way to study at the Ivory Coast, then Paris, then Berklee and is now playing with Herbie Hancock and Terence Blanchard and releasing CDs featuring his own band (whose members include two other Berklee alums—Massimo Biolcati, who also studied at the Monk Institute with Lionel, and Ferenc Nemeth). He is a brilliant musician and a very warm and enthusiastic person. His music definitely embraces the most advanced ideas in contemporary jazz, but has an unmistakable West African spirit. The Monk Institute has been a wonderful launching pad for Lionel's career as for many other Berklee talents. In fact, Berklee has been home to more Monk Institute winners—including last year's top guitarist, Lage Lund, from Norway—than any other college in the world.

The ensemble members began arriving. The students are from Wisconsin, South Carolina, Texas, New Jersey, Washington, Virginia, New York, Puerto Rico, Japan, France, Russia, and Austria—a representative cross-section of the college. Most ensemble members I spoke with had heard good things about the class from friends or roommates and sought it out as a result. Drummer Alex Raderman's brother had been in the ensemble before him. Saxophonist Dennison Blackette from Boston was an alumnus of the ensemble who dropped by and sat in just for fun.

Typical of Afro-pop in the outside world, this is a large ensemble, with two drummers, a percussionist, two guitar players, two keyboard players, bass, a vocalist, and six saxophonists. Bob started the session with a tune the group had been working on, and percussionist Keita Ogawa handed me a cowbell and showed me the pattern. 

Guitarist Jeremy Krull was playing the coolest-looking guitar I have ever seen. It is a fretless with a brass fretboard (Is it still a fretboard if there are no frets?  Perhaps this is another Buddhist koan like "the sound of one hand clapping"). Jeremy really had the Afro-pop guitar style nailed. He played very rhythmic lines that are often the hooks of the music, and they had a different sound on the fretless guitar. Bassist Ryan Butler looks like a rock star and was calmly grooving, eyes closed for much of the 20-minute tune. Alex was doing more timekeeping, while Puerto Rican drummer David Rivera de Jesus was coloring and using the drum kit to pick up accents. Keita was playing congas, shaker, bongos, and all kinds of odds and ends that percussionists like to carry around. 

Bob let the horn players alternate taking solos and was working on helping them define an arc to a solo, suggesting they start out with lots of open space and some basic ideas that can then be built upon. The tune—"Sumun," by Salif Keita, from Mali, which they used as a jumping-off point—sounded just great to me and after being in the classroom all week, it was a fantastic release. Mike Roberts, aka "Juice Box," had been a master solfeger in Ear Training and of course you don't forget his nickname. He was organizing the non-soloing horn players into some nice background lines to complement the soloist.

Keita Ogawa shows President Brown the cowbell groove.
Photo by Phil Farnsworth

Pianist Ayako Higuchi has very nice Latin-influenced ideas, and the other synthesizer player Marco Annau delivered a strong solo with lots of melodic lines and judicious pitch bending. Bob had the percussion section trade fours and it was a blast. By this time David had gotten out the timbales, reorganized his left-handed drum set and invited me to sit in, and we were cooking. Alex had a very tasty kick/tom/snare riff he pulled out, David was doing some very polyrhythmic timbale solos, and Keita was tearing up the congas. We were breaking a sweat, the room was full of sound, and the vibe was joyful.

Nikola Pirogov told me that his dream had been to come to Berklee from Moscow and how excited he is to be here. Will Compton shared that it is nice to hear another southern accent in the middle of a Boston winter. When we broke, everyone felt a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood that comes from making music together.

I realized what a perfect choice Bob Pilkington has been for this week's experience. He is "old school" in that he went to Berklee, has been teaching here many years, and teaches across the curriculum, a much more common occurrence 20 or 30 years ago than today. Bob's classes sit in the Harmony, Ensemble, Ear Training, and Jazz Composition departments. So not only does he teach in four different departmental areas, but in two different divisions (Writing and Performance) as well. The week gave me a very diverse sample of the Berklee curriculum.

We head off to the Writing Division convocation in a downpour and arrive drenched—a helpful if unintentional shower after the intensity of the ensemble. Kari Juusela, dean of the division, introduced me as "the Shadow" and gave an introduction that highlighted many of the initiatives of the college—curriculum review, a plan to audition and interview every single qualified applicant to Berklee, and a prototype entering-student advising system that will involve faculty, upper-semester students, and staff among many others.

These initiatives represent a very important change at Berklee and one that was proposed by a significant number of faculty, staff, and students during my introduction to the college and in every survey we conducted during our vision development process. Historically, we have admitted about three-quarters of the applicants to the college. With applications increasing dramatically (up 25 percent this year alone!), many more currently enrolled students staying through to graduation, and severe limits to the capacity of our facilities, we admitted only slightly more than half of our applicants last year, and next year the number will be down to 40 percent. So as we are forced to be more selective, interviewing and auditioning will help us be sure we are inviting the strongest students to enroll at the college. Advising will help us ensure that they decode the Berklee experience and connect with peers and faculty right out of the blocks, and curriculum review will ensure that we are teaching what our students need "to excel in music as a career" as our mission statement says.

Bob Pilkington coaches the horn section.
Photo by Phil Farnsworth

One of the most distinctive aspects of Berklee is that unlike the typical conservatory, where the majority of graduates will not work in the music industry, around 80 percent of Berklee's alumni are working professionally as musicians, music teachers, music therapists, in record companies, as producers, etc. We certainly have plenty of students who go to law school, business school, become software engineers, investment managers, start new companies, and so on. In fact, Ken Pullig, chair of the department, was discussing one of the jazz comp majors who was just accepted to a couple of law schools, and last year, I met a Berklee alum pursuing a Ph.D. at MIT. I am pushing us to do a better job explaining to parents of prospective students that Berklee alumni have many, many options within the industry, and a strong set of analytical skills, the discipline of daily practice on an instrument, and knowledge of technology should he or she opt to pursue a different path. But Berklee has been hard-headed about guiding students into the music industry and has been remarkably successful at doing so.

I have heard many say that Berklee back in the day was "easy to get into, but hard to get out of."  Some have argued that like the music industry, the college was a winnowing out process designed to see who was strong enough, talented enough, and persistent enough to make it through. While this approach has served the college well for its early history, we find ourselves in a very different place today. We simply cannot admit even most of those who would like to come to Berklee. The college leadership concluded that the student experience in the classroom and the faculty teaching experience will be better if we have a more targeted admissions process. Likewise, our new philosophy can then allow us to raise our expectations. Rather than assume many students will drop out, we can assume everyone who is at Berklee can and should make it, if they are willing to do the work. In this model, it is logical to invest more heavily in advising. It also makes sense to review the curriculum in light of the implications of this new approach to admissions.

This model of more selectivity based on aptitude, motivation, and creativity coupled with greater support for entering students doesn't mean that we dilute the rigor or expectations of the curriculum. In fact, it probably means the opposite. Many students have complained that some of their classes are not challenging enough. A more consistently capable class, chosen for the skills and aptitudes that we believe will allow success at Berklee and beyond will allow faculty to move more quickly, to set the bar higher, and perhaps to find their own teaching fresher and more exciting.

We are just launching this process, and undoubtedly, we will learn as we go and probably experience a pothole or two in the road. But I am very excited to see what will happen as we all engage more fully in selecting students, advising them early on, and comprehensively examining what and how we teach.

The Afro-pop rhythm section
Photo by Phil Farnsworth

I had to leave early for a Trustee Executive Committee conference call, but before leaving, I heard a moving tribute to retiring former chair of the Harmony Department Barry Nettles, including a beautiful performance of his arrangement of "My One and Only Love," played by Daniel Ian Smith, Will Silvio, Mike Scott, Bruce Nifong, and Danny Harrington on alto, tenor and baritone saxes (it was a big day for saxophones). I also joined in congratulating Dan Moretti and Jakov Gaubanov as they received awards for teaching and curriculum development. 

Ken Pullig somehow also ended up telling Bob, who has spent most of his Saturday nights gigging, about the Saturday Night Live skit featuring Will Ferrell as a cowbell player and Christopher Walken as a record producer that led to the famous "More Cowbell" mantra. Little did Ken know, I had been doing my best Will Ferrell, hammering that defenseless cowbell, just a few hours before.

At one point, I looked over at my partner for the week as we showed our appreciation for Barry Nettles. Bob was unconsciously clapping a clave rhythm in his applause. Clave is the essence of Afro-Cuban and much Latin music, which ensemble drummer David Rivera de Jesus explained came to the Caribbean from Africa with slavery, and emerged as a New World musical form. Later, it was picked up by African musicians and transformed into what we call Afro-pop. Clave means "key" in Spanish and opens doors to the understanding much of the rhythmic underpinnings of contemporary music. This seemed to wonderfully symbolize Bob and his dedicated teaching, which is all about giving students the keys. My fellow classmates (if only for the week), you still have to open the door, but the key is now in your hands.