A Letter to Parents of Prospective Students
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
I have just settled my second child into college, and that of course makes me reflect on the importance and power of the process of selecting an appropriate college. As parents, we all know that whatever choice our children make will be a life-changing one, but we have no way of knowing what those changes will be. Clearly, a great deal of chance and serendipity is inherent in the whole affair.
At Berklee, we believe the best way to facilitate that process is to be crystal clear about what we are, and what we are not, and help your son or daughter evaluate whether this college is a good fit. For the right student, I can promise you that Berklee is the most amazing place on earth. I meet students every day who tell me they have finally found a home, a place where they are able to make close friends, study, learn and grow musically, and put their prodigious talents to work. But Berklee is certainly not for everyone. I would like to share my observations of the college in the interest of helping you make this important decision.
Berklee is a big, diverse place. Unlike most conservatories, which may have 500 to 800 students, we have 4,000 undergraduates. Their interests are as broad as the entire music industry. In fact, a Berklee student is likely to become friends with future producers, engineers, record company executives, composers, arrangers, performers, educators, and music therapists. The range of majors is also quite broad—from performance, to composition, to production and engineering, to film scoring, to music therapy, to music education and music business and more. With just under 1,000 international students and representatives of virtually every domestic ethnicity imaginable, your student will be exposed to colleagues from many different cultures and nations.
While the college is big, the scale is human. We have a faculty student ratio of 1:8, and classes rarely exceed 20 students, with 10 to 12 the average. Every entering student takes private lessons with a faculty member for half an hour each week. Every student is in an ensemble with a small group of other students and a faculty leader. Instrumental labs and other small workshops abound. Every class is taught by a faculty member.
Berklee is centered around contemporary music, itself a broad array of musical styles ranging from jazz, blues, rock, pop, r&b, gospel, bluegrass, Latin, modern orchestral, and world music.
Berklee is intense and demanding. Perhaps the most common mismatch is with students who only want to play their instruments and are not prepared for the rigor of our harmony and ear training curriculum requirements. We consider reading and music literacy skills essential. This approach has been proven effective time and again as alumni report they had the edge on the competition in the rough and tumble of the music industry because they combined intuition with deep musical knowledge, could not only play but also write and arrange as well. Sometimes untrained but intuitively gifted musicians harbor a fear that music literacy might squelch their creativity. But a quick glance at the achievements of our alumni should allay those concerns.
Our Liberal Arts Department is strong. Many of our liberal arts faculty tell me they enjoy teaching at Berklee because the students are so creative and focused. We believe that given the vicissitudes of the music industry, or of any industry for that matter, a student needs to able to read, write, analyze, evaluate, and communicate. For those who wish to only take the music curriculum, we offer a diploma program.
Outside the field of technology itself, there may be no field more radically affected by or dependent upon technology than contemporary music. I can say unequivocally that Berklee lives at the edge where music and technology intersect. Every student is required to own a state-of-the-art Apple laptop installed with the most powerful software tools in the industry. Our recording studios, music synthesis studios, learning center, and film scoring labs immerse students in these tools. The majority of our alumni work in the music industry, but not surprisingly, one of the most popular careers for alumni outside the music industry is software engineering.
Understandably, many parents have anxieties about their children aspiring to a career in music. I'm reminded of the Willie Nelson lyric: "Mamas don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys. Don't let them pick guitars and drive them old trucks, let them be doctors and lawyers and such." Aspirations for careers in music might be right next to cowboys in generating parental anxiety. I believe the music industry, though no cakewalk, is not nearly as limited or treacherous as the average parent believes. I have discovered alumni working in fields I didn't even know existed, such as composers of music for video games or designers of electronic instruments. We have successful alums who have gone on to law school and become agents, while others start companies in the digital music space. Some teach in public schools, and some work in hospitals as music therapists. The ability to teach an instrument is a powerful form of career insurance—music teachers abound in every village and hamlet on the planet.
A Berklee degree is excellent preparation for a music career, but even if the graduate chooses a different path, the degree gives a student the discipline to master an instrument through daily practice; the leadership skills to organize and prepare ensembles for performances; the analytical and problem-solving skills that come from studying composition, harmony, counterpoint, and music theory; and the creativity to express oneself in a unique and authentic way.
Should your son or daughter be drawn to Berklee as many others are, I think you will be surprised at the depth of passion and seriousness our students bring to their work. I look forward to welcoming you to this global music family.