Berklee Today

Changing Lives with Music

How some alumni are using their talents to make a difference for others.

All readers of this magazine have probably experienced music's power to move us to tears, bring a smile that overtakes the lips, compel us to dance, or console us when words are inadequate. Most musicians spend a lifetime refining their skills so they can effectively communicate and move their listeners with sounds. It's a solitary endeavor and a process that requires balance in order to avoid becoming the stereotypical self-absorbed artist.

What follows are just a few of the many examples of Berklee alumni who, after developing their skills, turned outward to use their music to touch the lives of others for good. Long after the notes have faded, the effect of such work resonates.

  Yohei Kobayashi '06

A Song for the Children
In May 2005, film scoring major Yohei Kobayashi of Tokyo, Japan, had just played saxophone at a friend's concert when an audience member told him about the nonprofit organization Japan Alliance for Humanitarian Demining Support (JAHDS) and its landmine removal project in Southeast Asia. He told Kobayashi that as a result of wars in the area, thousands of forgotten landmines and unexploded bombs litter the region. Natives refer to them as "the Devil's Weapons," and these inconspicuous landmines and bombs have killed or maimed numerous unsuspecting victims, including a huge number of children walking and playing in these areas.

"This man listened to my music and was moved," says Kobayashi. "I made a promise that if he thought my music could help his cause in the future, I would play or write for him. I had been thinking about what I could do as a musician to help people-especially children."

Two months later, Kobayashi received a letter detailing plans by JAHDS for a presentation at the World Expo to be held in Nagoya that summer. Kobayashi was invited to write the soundtrack for a video to raise awareness of the landmine issue and generate funds for demining work at the ancient Sdok Kok Thom temple in Cambodia. He jumped at the chance and wrote the score as well as a song about the people who live in landmine-infested areas. The title of Kobayashi's song translates to "Dream of a Child," and it instantly connected with the World Expo attendees.

"I wanted to express my feelings about how unfair it is for children to be affected by this," Kobayashi says. "It was a small thing to do, and I wanted to do more." Kobayashi's involvement with JAHDS grew when he was asked to write music for a 2006 charity concert sponsored by major Japanese corporations. As part of his preparation, Kobayashi was invited to visit the area where JAHDS was operating to observe the work.

Kobayashi knew seeing the place would help his writing. In June 2006, he flew to Bangkok, Thailand, and traveled via back roads to Ubon Ratchathani and out to the temple site on the Cambodian border. "I can't explain the feelings I had there," he says. "The landscape is so beautiful, but there is a sad history there because of what Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge did. People can't visit freely because buried mines make it so dangerous."

Kobayashi brought his soprano saxophone along and carried it up to the temple site at the edge of a huge cliff that offers a panoramic view of the borders of Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos. Children from the nearby village followed Kobayashi's group hoping they might sell them postcards. Kobayashi sat on the cliff among the children and improvised a lyrical theme on his horn.

"At first the children just wanted to sell us things, but after I played, they seemed to change their attitude," he says. "They smiled and were quiet. Someone videotaped that moment. I brought it back, transcribed the melody, and composed a piece around it and orchestrated it for string orchestra, piano, and saxophone."

At a July 5, 2006, concert in Tokyo, Kobayashi got to perform his work with a 40-piece string orchestra while images of the trip and the group's humanitarian efforts were projected on a huge screen. Kobayashi says he noticed tears in the eyes of many audience members when the lights came up. The presentation raised awareness about the scourge of landmines in Cambodia, and a lot people made donations so the work will continue. "I was very happy to see the result," says Kobayashi. "This is why I became a musician. Music can add to the power of a scene. If I am poor, but my music has the power to move rich people, then I can help."

Since the concert, the mine removal near the Sdok Kok Thom temple has been completed, and visitors and children now roam the historic site without fear. JAHDS has arranged to have Cambodians trained to continue the work in other regions. In December, Kobayashi moved back to Japan after completing his studies at Berklee. "I hope my music will become good business for me," he says, "but there are more important things for musicians to do. I feel we should get involved in charitable work to help others."

From the left: TalkingTabs staff members Lee Ritter '01, Eric Palkovic '98, Jason Diana '01, and Bobby Koelble '85  

Light for the Blind
When Florida businessman Mark Hara learned that a medical condition was claiming the sight of his son Jared, he and his wife started searching for something to take the place of hockey, which had been Jared's passion. They bought their son a guitar and found a gifted instructor who was able to teach Jared the basics and get him fired up about music. Noting the lack of quality instructional materials made specifically for the visually impaired and the positive impact music had on his son's life, Hara saw an opportunity to help others. He began assembling a team to create educational materials for teaching guitar to the blind. Hara founded TalkingTabs in Orlando, Florida, and tapped Robert Koelble '85, a guitarist and faculty member at nearby Rollins College, to develop the curriculum.

"I'd been in education for about 17 years," says Koelble, "and saw this as a unique opportunity to help a different group of people." Koelble took the lead in producing the TalkingTabs instructional method. The beginner tutorial comprises 16 CDs that describe in meticulous detail the anatomy of the instrument and all hand positions and movements. The work is painstaking. "The beginner lessons must explain and demonstrate everything, including such basics as the difference between chords and scales," says Koelble. "The teacher has to describe things that would need little explanation for a sighted student. The method gives opportunities to people who might never have had a chance to play music because of the circumstances of their lives."

The company has also developed the Play-It-Now Tunes (PINTS) collection to give users access to a variety of material. TalkingTabs staff members have recorded cover versions of more than 100 pop, rock, country, inspirational, blues, and children's songs for the PINTS collection. Each song package includes spoken-word instructions that dissect the song, carefully explain how to play the accompaniment and key licks, and explain the song's structure.

TalkingTabs currently employs about 25 staff members. Other Berklee alumni working with Koelble include Eric Palkovic '98, Lee Ritter '01, and Jason Diana '01. Koelble is completing the intermediate-level instructional materials and will soon begin writing the advanced materials. Diana, Ritter, and Palkovic are also involved with expanding the PINTS repertoire. Palkovic serves as the producer, studio manager, and bass player on the sessions and keeps the production values high. "We want the students to get the feel of playing with great musicians," Palkovic says. "This work is exciting to me. It's a joy to give someone music who might have thought they'd never be able to play."

Of the work on the PINTS repertoire, Diana says, "We transcribe a song, make a chart, and then put it into the script, a formula for teaching it according to our finger, string, fret method. The script and chart are checked by other staff members, and then we go into the studio and record the song as well as the teacher's voice describing every element involved in playing the song."

TalkingTabs' materials are gaining acceptance among the visually impaired and others. "It's amazing," says Ritter. "We've had nothing but positive responses to what we are doing." The method has changed lives by offering access to music. "We've heard from disabled veterans and even dyslexic students who are using the method," says Diana. "We got an e-mail recently from a father who was non-sighted who said he had been looking for something that he and his son could do together. Now they play guitar together, and it has helped them become closer."

"We've corresponded with a veteran of the Iraq war who lost his sight," says Koelble. "He's been playing the tunes, and it has really helped him to cope with his situation. That's the greatest thing in the world to hear. It's what drew me to this endeavor."

"I have a close relationship with Jared Hara," says Palkovic. "He's grown exponentially in the past year and a half using this method. It has been inspirational to see him overcome and play music and have a good attitude about his situation."

"We created TalkingTabs to give those who learn best through their ears an opportunity to have quality musical instruction," says Mark Hara. "While Bobby Koelble, Lee Ritter, Jason Diana, and Eric Palkovic may not be as well known as some Berklee alumni, to us they are superstars."

  Misha Segal '76

Easing the Pain
Israeli-born Misha Segal has enjoyed a thriving career as a pianist, composer/arranger, and producer since he left Berklee in 1976. A veteran writer for film and television, his scoring work has won him an Emmy Award. He has also written arrangements and done production work for Luther Vandross, Dave Grusin, Maynard Ferguson, and many others. But he put it all aside when his mother, Elisabeth, learned she had lung cancer.

"After she was diagnosed, I put my work in writing for film and TV on hold and devoted myself to trying to keep her around," Segal says. "She was very strong willed. The doctors said she only had six months to live, but she lived for six years. I played for her a lot while she was sick because she said it helped her. I asked her if it was just because I was her son that she liked it, but she said, 'No, if you played the tuba, I would ask you to play somewhere else-like at the train station.'"

Nearly every day, Segal would sit at his mother's piano creating long improvisations that mingled spontaneously created themes with well-known melodies. She told him that the music helped to take her away from her situation. After his mother succumbed to her illness, he figured that if the music had helped her, perhaps it could ease the suffering of others with lung cancer.

"I felt that it was kind of a calling," he says. "I started traveling around the nation playing for cancer patients, and I formed collaborations with the Georgia Cancer Coalition and with the Lung Cancer Alliance. I've done a lot of concerts, public service announcements, and fundraising events for organizations around the country."

Segal also recorded music similar to that which he used to play for his mother on a three-CD set titled Red, White & Blue Female that has been embraced widely. "I've gotten hundreds of letters from people all over the world who have either heard me play or bought the CD from my website," says Segal. "It's what I used to play in my mother's living room, an intimate setting, and the music was poignant. I think those who hear it seem to pick up on that."

Last fall, after completing the score to the NBC movie Santa Baby, Segal slipped back into outreach mode. He flew from his Los Angeles home to Boston to perform for the Crystal Ball, a gala to benefit the Lung Cancer Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated solely to patient support and advocacy for people living with lung cancer and those at risk for it. The event raised $120,000.

When asked about the healing properties of his music, Segal is self-effacing. "A lot of people make claims about their music possessing healing powers," he says. "I would never say that. For some, Eric Satie's music is healing, for others it is rap or hip-hop. All I know is that when I play this kind of solo piano music, I get a response that I'm happy about. I played in Los Angeles, and a lady in her eighties came up and told me that she had been suffering with a lot of pain in her knee. While the music was playing, she forgot about the knee. Sometimes I get letters from people who aren't sick but have felt soothed by the music. I don't care who uses it, as long as the music does some good for people."

Metta Quintet. From the left: Mark Gross '88, Helen Sung, Joshua Ginsburg, and Marcus Strickland, and H. Benjamin Schuman '90  

For the Music's Sake
"I spent my first four years in New York City playing jazz clubs, trying to get one low-paying gig after another," says jazz drummer H. Benjamin Schuman '90. "It didn't seem like the path to fulfilling my artistic aspirations." A big part of Schuman's aspirations involved building an audience for the straight-ahead jazz he loves, and he felt the best place to start was with the young.

In 1994, using funds netted from selling a Steinway grand piano given to him by a supportive grandmother, Schuman founded JazzReach, a nonprofit organization to foster greater awareness of jazz and support the creation, teaching, and performance of the music.

The sale enabled him to get a computer, letterhead, and a logo designed. "For three years, that's all I had," Schuman says. "I wrote lots of letters to foundations telling them about the value of exposing young people to jazz. Finally, the ASCAP Foundation awarded us our first grant of $5,000."

With those funds, Schuman hired pianist and composer Larry Goldings to write new music for JazzReach's first multimedia show, 'Get Hip.' The show is geared toward elementary school students and integrates video projections, narration, and live performances by Schuman's Metta Quintet to shed some light on the cultural history of jazz and societal principles. "I wanted to contextualize the music for the kids and give them a reason to care about it," says Schuman. "'Get Hip' shows how a jazz ensemble functions like a community and everyone has to contribute. The music is a metaphor for promoting values about participation and interaction within a community."

Since those early days, JazzReach has produced three more multimedia productions: 'Stolen Moments' chronicles the first 100 years of jazz, 'Hangin' with the Giants' familiarizes audiences with the great innovators of jazz, and 'She Said/She Says' introduces audiences to the history and status of women in jazz. To date, Schuman and company have presented their programs nationwide to more than 100,000 students ranging in age from eight to 18.

"Our mission is to make jazz accessible," says Schuman. "There are young people who need to be introduced to the music, and the places where you typically hear jazz-clubs-are not accessible to them."

Because of the technical requirements for a JazzReach presentation, shows are best when staged in concert halls and arts centers rather than in school auditoriums or cafeterias. Schuman fondly recalls taking field trips when he was young and wants to offer students a similar experience that will make an impression on them.

"If you are hoping to give kids a first experience with jazz, you want it to be something memorable that really grabs them," he says. "I want it to be as much fun to watch as it is to hear. Also, bringing kids into a concert hall trains them to become an audience. Our educational programs use multimedia applications to make an experience with jazz more immersive for audiences. Special lighting effects, video projection, and scenic design are a big part of theater, opera, dance, and pop music. We use them to give a multidimensional experience with jazz."

JazzReach has also commissioned new music and partnered with the Sunnyside Records label to release the CD Subway Songs. The disc showcases Schuman's Metta Quintet featuring saxophonists Mark Gross '88 and Marcus Strickland, pianist/composer Helen Sung, bassist Joshua Ginsburg, and Schuman on drums.

Schuman is looking to expand the vision and mission of JazzReach. "I'd like to partner with arts centers to offer two-week summer camps with listening and harmony classes and a few ensembles," says Schuman. "We dream of creating a JazzReach all-city high-school jazz ensemble. I'd like to create an environment where we could develop character as well as talent, like the Boys Choir of Harlem does.

"The state of the world is more important than one's own talent," says Schuman. "Any artist needs to nurture his or her own talent, but should be in the world doing something constructive that contributes positively to advancing their cause. I'd like to think our efforts have reached people."