Berklee Today

Lead Sheet

Keepers of the Dream

By Melissa Etheridge

  Melissa Etheridge
  Photo by Phil Farnsworth

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. It is such a pleasure and an honor to be here. I attended Berklee College of Music 27 years ago. I didn't realize that until a couple of days ago. I wondered how long ago it was-10 years, 15 years? Twenty-seven years ago, most of you weren't even born yet.

If there's anything I want to impart to you this morning, it's that you are the keepers of the dream of music. You have come here to this college because you believe in music; you found music or music found you. I remember very well standing in our gravel driveway in Leavenworth, Kansas, hearing the amazing sound of the angels of music through a transistor radio. "Oh yeah I'll, tell you something/I think you'll understand/ When I'll, say that something/I want to hold your hand." I was never ever the same after that. There was no turning back, I was struck at that moment. I wanted that. Whatever was coming out of that little piece of electronics, that's what I wanted.

Teachers and other grownups would ask me, as I'm sure they asked you, "What do you want to be when you grow up, a fireman, a nurse?" I said I wanted to be a singer. They thought that was strange. You go through grade school, and you know you're a little different. Then you find the instrument that you can put this feeling in, this emotion in.

In between second and third grade, we tried out for band. I picked up the clarinet-an amazing instrument. I started to learn this language called music, notes that go after one another and create this amazing sound. I would go home, and I would receive my inspiration from the radio and from the records my family had. They had good musical taste. My parents brought home Simon and Garfunkel records and an album called Amazing Grace by Aretha Franklin. My father brought a guitar home. I thought it was for me because he had to know how insane I was about music. But no, he brought it for my older sister. I begged and pleaded, and my parents said, "An eight-year-old girl can't play the guitar." I showed them.

My guitar teacher Don Raymond was a jazz player who had lost some of his fingers in a horrible accident and learned to play amazingly well left-handed on this gorgeous jazz guitar. He just barely had enough time for a little eight-year-old girl who wanted to play the guitar. I was terrified of him, and I wanted him to think I was good more than anything in the world. I practiced until my fingers bled. I practiced and practiced and gained his admiration and respect. I remember him tapping his foot, and it would echo all the way through the practice hall. He would say, "I don't care what notes you play, just don't ever go out of time." He introduced me to jazz and many other kinds of music.

Bless our parents' hearts. They have such dreams for us. They want us to be doctors and lawyers; they just want us to have a job. When we keep insisting that we are going to go into the music business, they give in and say, "At least go to college." In 1979, I knew I had to go to a music college. No other music college would have me except Berklee, a place where I could major in guitar. I arrived here in Boston straight from Leavenworth, Kansas, and I walked into my first classroom, and you cats were so good.

I remember walking through the dorms. There were lots of boys and not very many girls, which made it interesting. Finding myself surrounded by all these incredible musicians, I wondered, where have you been all my life? You who share this dream of music, you who have been looked upon and blessed with this amazing gift of music. Here you were playing for hours and hours as I've always loved to do, just playing so well. But I couldn't play that well.

I sang, I wrote, I went to Berklee for about a semester and a half, and I played at restaurants in Boston. It would have been nice to think that I was playing my music in some cool club, but I was singing Barry Manilow medleys at Ken's Steakhouse across from the John Hancock Tower. But I was in the world; I was singing for people and making a living at music.

I called my parents and said, "I know you put a second mortgage on your house just to send me to college, but I'm gonna stop going now." I pursued my dream. I went to Kansas City for a while and made a living there. Then I went to Los Angeles to see my dream of being a musician-a successful musician-go as far as it could. I wanted to write my songs and sing; and in the meantime, life was happening to me.

That's another thing I want to impart to you: music can be very powerful; it can overtake our lives. But you need to realize that you are in the middle of your life right now, you are here and now. This step that you're taking, this day that you are in right now, be in that. We have so many dreams. We live our life in dreams. I spent so much time thinking about what would happen when I got "there:" when I got that record deal, when I got that Grammy. I didn't spend enough time in the "right now." That's where life is happening.

We have a lot of pressure on us as musicians because we are living the dream. We are keepers of the dream of music. Yes, there is success, many levels of success. If you want to be the one who lifts the music up, who records the music, who gets the music out there, who keeps the music going, be that. Be truthful in it. Do what moves your heart, and be real. You can tell when someone's trying to take the magic of music but it's not really coming from their heart. You know when that happens.

I have seen and heard my music being performed on American Idol; and last night in the concert you presented, you reinvigorated my hope in the music industry. You will come into this music business that I have been in for 25 years. I've lived it, and I've always said that "when I get "there" I'm gonna have a celebration." But there is no "there"! You are "there" now. Walk this path, believe it, always be in your truth. Whether you are singing it, wrapping your arms around your instrument and playing it, whether you are listening and mixing it, whether you are trying to figure out the best way to bring the music to the world. That is the truth. That's what the world needs today.

Now be it, bring it. You were given this gift, you were chosen. Success is not measured in money or fame. Believe me, I have had both, and I am grateful for both, but they don't bring the satisfaction or make it feel whole for me. Knowing that I can put my truth into music every time I have made a choice to speak, to be in my truth, that's how I've been immensely rewarded.

Be in your truth, be in your light, be in your love. Go out there, and be the musician that you are. Be keepers of the dream of music.