Berklee City Music Celebrates Three Decades Empowering Young Artists

The program has given generations of musicians—sometimes within the same family—the tools, opportunities, and scholarships to do what they love.

July 8, 2024

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Berklee City Music, an unparalleled educational enrichment initiative that supports youth in underserved communities locally and, now, globally.

Misael Martinez, assistant vice president of Education Outreach and Social Entrepreneurship, describes City Music as an “holistic approach to training performing artists, building leaders, and fostering community development.”

Leading up to the anniversary, an ensemble of Berklee musicians celebrated by composing an upbeat, uplifting official City Music anthem, called “That Feeling,” to evoke the joy derived from identifying one’s passion, having the freedom to pursue one’s dreams, and ultimately exploring and fulfilling one’s potential as an artist. Collaboratively written by Berklee alumni and City Music Ambassadors Theron Feemster ’00 (aka Neff-U) and Niu Raza BM ’18, along with Martinez and guest artist Badger, the song’s refrain—“It’s about that feeling when you do what you love, when you can be anything you want”—reflects the sentiments of thousands of students who’ve had the opportunity to experience Berklee City Music over the past three decades.

Watch the video for "That Feeling," Berklee City Music’s inaugural anthem:

Since the 1990s, Berklee City Music has been making “that feeling” a reality, first in Boston’s neighboring communities, then nationally, and now internationally through a comprehensive online curriculum and the ever-expanding City Music Network of partner sites.

City Music offers out-of-school music education programming to students in grades four through 12 during the academic year as well as an intensive summertime offering at the high school and college levels. Students audition for a spot in the program and receive intensive instruction from Berklee faculty, including musicianship and music theory classes, ensembles, mentorship, weekly master classes, workshops with visiting artists, and the PULSE online music curriculum. An integral piece is financial support—since 1995, the program has awarded more than $24 million in scholarships, funded in part by Amplify Berklee, an annual gala for City Music that last year raised over $1.2 million.

A City Music performance in the ’90s. L-R: Abria Smith, Kaimy Masse, J. Curtis Warner Jr., and Nichelle Mungo

Abria Smith, Kaimy Masse, Nichelle Mungo, and City Music founder J. Curtis Warner Jr. on stage during a City Music concert in the ’90s

In the early ’90s, when public school arts programs were being cut, the leadership at Berklee College of Music sought to provide supplemental education along with financial aid to school children in surrounding Boston communities, where such after-school opportunities were not otherwise readily available.

“[Past Presidents] Lee Berk and Roger Brown had a strong belief in the power and inspiration of music education for young children,” notes Krystal Banfield, vice president for Education Outreach and Social Entrepreneurship.

From its inception, City Music set out to open doors and broaden the horizons of children of all abilities and interests through creative expression.

“It’s a lifelong journey that develops the mind and spirit and cultivates the entire person so that they find their purpose and find their voice,” Banfield says. “Everyone has art in them, particularly music, and this program has benefits well beyond learning about music.”

Berklee City Music includes the after-school High School Academy for grades nine through 12 and the Preparatory Academy on Saturdays for students in grades four through eight. The High School Academy runs for 24 weeks from September through May, offering master classes, music theory and musicianship classes, ensemble opportunities, and visiting artist master classes. The Preparatory Academy follows the Berklee academic calendar but meets on Saturdays, with weekly classes in music, dance, and theater, plus performance workshops, creative management courses, and master classes.

City Music students also have the opportunity to receive scholarships to participate in Berklee’s five-week summer music performance program, Aspire, which draws high school and college students from 70 countries. Aspire offers a comprehensive curriculum to enhance students’ instrumental and vocal mastery and includes one-on-one instruction with Berklee faculty, ensemble opportunities, and explorations of music industry topics, such as songwriting, music production, music business, music therapy, and more. To date, City Music has awarded 1,900 scholarships to students taking part in the summer program.

Berklee City Music students perform at the High School Academy Winter Showcase in 2023.

City Music students perform at the High School Academy Winter Showcase in 2023. 

Image by Omari Spears

“It’s magical for students to have the opportunity to immerse themselves in this one-of-a-kind educational experience with students from all over the world,” notes Martinez. “They create friendships and bonds that last throughout their lives. And they have access they wouldn’t otherwise have to Berklee faculty in Berklee facilities.”

Three decades ago, a young percussionist who had taken a detour on his musical path became one of the very first students in the Berklee City Music program. Twenty-year-old Sean Skeete had dreams of attending Berklee but, until then, those dreams had been just out of reach. At the time, he was employed at Lord & Taylor in Downtown Crossing selling shoes. One of his loyal customers was Bruce Nifong, a professor of ensembles at Berklee. Nifong and fellow professor David Cowan invited Skeete to join the fledgling summer program that eventually evolved into City Music.

All summer, Skeete took classes, played in ensembles, and developed relationships with his peers and professors, notably a woman named Johnnie Malvin, then-director of the program, who was affectionately known as Auntie Johnnie. Skeete and the small cohort of students in her charge often gathered in Auntie Johnnie’s office to chat about their studies and their goals and how they each fit into the Berklee community.

Through City Music, I had a community to support me and help me thrive. 

— Sean Skeete

“When I came into the program, it was very small, but it provided opportunities that I and the other handful of students hadn’t previously had access to. Having this cohort and this program helped us to navigate a space that was predominantly white,” he recalls. “Through City Music, I had a community to support me and help me thrive,” he adds.

In addition to financial assistance, City Music offered this new cohort invaluable educational, mentoring, and networking support—as well as a clear path to pursue further studies at Berklee, if desired.

“On the night of the final concert, it was announced that I had received a full scholarship to Berklee, and it blew my socks right off,” Skeete remembers.

Today, Skeete serves as the dean of the college’s Professional Performance Division. Before this appointment, he chaired the Ensemble Department from 2018 to 2023.

Recently, in his capacity as a member of the Berklee faculty, Skeete contributed his time and talents as a mentor to participants in the City Music program.

“It was great knowing I had an impact on someone’s life,” he says of the mentorship experience. “I understand the power of mentorship. It changed my life, that one act of consideration.”

Sean Skeete, dean of Berklee's Professional Performance Division, with his daughter Nia at the Berklee Abu Dhabi Center

Sean Skeete, dean of Berklee's Professional Performance Division, with his daughter Nia at the Berklee Abu Dhabi Center

The Next Generation

A generation later, Skeete’s 20-year-old daughter Nia continues the City Music and Berklee tradition. As a teenager, she took part in the City Music summer program, where she honed her skills as a bass player and thrived in the various ensembles she played in.

“In the program, I felt connected for the first time in my life, as a musician and as a student,” she says. She felt inspired by her professors, who opened her eyes to different musical genres, to discipline and regimen, and, in some cases, pushed her beyond her comfort zone to embrace new approaches.

She also appreciated the “constant mentorship” available during the summer session and the faculty and student connections that continue today. “I know that if I need help with something, I can get that help easily.”

Nia Skeet performs at a City Music concert.

Nia Skeete performs with a City Music ensemble, following in the footsteps of her father, Sean, who participated in the program decades earlier.

The City Music experience inspired her to continue her studies at Berklee. She recently finished her sixth semester, majoring in music business/management and performance.

Over the past three decades, the program has expanded far beyond Boston, now reaching more than 60,000 students. A major driver of this growth is the City Music Network, a consortium of 46 community organizations across the US, Canada, and Latin America.

“The City Music Network is about building the sustainability of our communities and the health and wellness of our children. We’re increasing equities and offering hope and opportunities,” Banfield adds. “There’s no other program like this one.”

Thanks to City Music’s ongoing and ever-evolving success, support for the program continues to grow. Each year, generous donations from Berklee alumni and champions of the arts help to fund City Music scholarships.

In addition, many renowned leaders in the industry lend their talents and expertise to help mentor the next generation of students. Among them are a stellar roster of music professionals known as the City Music Ambassadors, including Feemster, an acclaimed songwriter, producer, and composer who has worked with Macy Gray, Dr. Dre, Justin Bieber, Kendrick Lamar, and Sia, among many others.

[City Music is] an opportunity to give students access, to help them find their joy and their purpose.

— Theron Feemster ’00, aka Neff-U

As a City Music Ambassador, Feemster has the honor and privilege of seeking out young talent who might benefit from the program’s offerings.

“City Music is cutting-edge,” he says. “I get to find amazing individuals and bring them to this safe place, where they can grow and thrive. It’s an opportunity to give students access, to help them find their joy and their purpose.”

As an artist and a producer who has worked collaboratively with countless talented individuals, Feemster understands the significance of mentoring and having a network of friends to help each other achieve their dreams.

“I want to put dreams in people’s hands,” Feemster adds. “I want to share my tools and help students figure out how to move further, to what’s next, so they can see a way forward for themselves. I want to go from ‘What’s stopping us?’ to ‘Why not?’”

To that end, Feemster will open a Berklee City Music partner site in Los Angeles this September. Adding to the already expansive Berklee City Music Network, Feemster’s site features a brand-new, custom-built studio with the latest in recording equipment as well as an immersive concert arena for performance opportunities.

Partner sites provide an extension of City Music’s “wraparound services,” Martinez points out, as students continue along their creative journey and, ultimately, discover “That Feeling”—doing what they love and being anything they want.

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