John Funkhouser

Trial by Fire

John FunkhouserWhen you first meet someone as personable and mild-mannered as Assistant Professor John Funkhouser, the phrase “trial by fire” may not immediately jump to the fore. But dig deeper, and you’ll discover that he has a fearless personality and throws himself into daring musical experiences, which inspires his students to do the same.

“Pretty early on, I learned to enter musical situations that were just beyond my technical grasp,” he recalls. “Everything from orchestral music which forced me to get my bowing technique together, to internalizing odd meters to mastering the art of ‘bubbling’ on keys for a reggae band, has informed who I am today.”

One of Berklee’s most beloved teachers in ear training, ensembles, and private instruction, Funkhouser is also an in-demand pianist and bassist. His musical territory has covered New Orleans jazz, South American and Indian music, European folk, and modern rock and hip-hop. Given this rich and varied background, his views on blending genres should come as no surprise. “Cultural cross-pollination is now the name of the game,” Funkhouser says. “Never before have we seen so much accessibility to so many different kinds of music. Berklee students are always looking for ways to merge reggae and jazz, avant-garde and funk, classical and blues—you name it. That’s what makes this place so exciting.”

A musician equally proficient on bass and piano is somewhat of an anomaly. “Growing up, I was the youngest of five kids,” he says. “We all had to take piano. I was the only one who stuck with it. When it came time for school orchestra, I latched onto the upright bass after hearing the figures in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.” Funkhouser kept both instruments central to his music training. The bass gave him opportunities to play in group settings, and solo piano offered solitude and a means to explore harmony and composition.

After completing his own music education at Cornell and New England Conservatory of Music, Funkhouser was drawn to Berklee. “Nowhere else could I teach from my experience as a working performer in quite the same way,” he explains. “I can bring knowledge directly from the bandstand or the studio right into the classroom. If it’s a compelling idea that will benefit my students, I get to share it regardless of its origin.”

Funkhouser is determined to prepare his students for the brave new world of a music career. “I used to think it was important for musicians to define themselves as a performer, teacher, or music therapist,” he notes, “but now most careers are pieced together through a variety of jobs or fragments. To thrive, I tell my students, you must know as much as you can about all aspects of the business—not just performing or songwriting, but also areas like engineering, entertainment law, and electronic distribution.”

Hand in hand with this is the work ethic and organizational skills that Funkhouser instills. “The Berklee student experience of having to answer to a lot of different people, and being just a little busier than you can comfortably handle is excellent training for becoming a working musician,” he says. “That experience of juggling isn’t essential to just a music career; it’s part of life.”

The Rewards of Teaching 

“I love watching John in the classroom,” says Ear Training Department Chair Allan Chase. “He has a special way of making musicianship skills relevant and fun for students, while keeping standards high and motivating them to do better.”

One of Funkhouser’s most rewarding Berklee experiences has been directing the Jam Band ensemble. “The Grateful Dead came along at a pivotal point in my life,” he says, “and I love the exploratory nature of jam band music. The ensemble allows students to trust themselves, and let their musical statements evolve naturally and take on a storytelling quality—that’s the ultimate goal of many improvisers.” After taking the class, students often find themselves seeking out Indian music or Western classical music and sonata allegro form to get further inspiration for their own musical narratives.

A chance meeting years ago at a jam session connected Funkhouser with pianist Matt Savage ’12. Their musical kinship has been particularly long-standing and always evolving. “He was a child prodigy and happened to be autistic,” Funkhouser remembers. Their work together led to television appearances on Lifetime and 20/20 and theToday Show. “Matt is a unique individual, and it’s been amazing to see him evolve into a critically acclaimed musician.” Savage shares similar sentiments about Funkhouser. “John has been a remarkable collaborator and mentor,” Savage says. “He has taught me valuable lessons about taking my professional life seriously, communicating with others, and remaining grounded as I navigate my musical career.”

Though Funkhouser continues similar collaborations as a sideman, he is particularly proud of the bonds created within his own group, which released its latest CD Still last summer. “I’ve learned that there’s nothing more important than a solid friendship based on mutual respect— particularly in music,” he asserts. “There have been opportunities for me to bring in high-profile people for my recordings, which may have increased my visibility or strengthened my résumé, but turning them down allowed me to commit to the musicians I’m playing with so we can all grow together as a unit. Our music definitely comes from a place of having fun and trusting each other, and our audience hears and sees it.”

Ryan Fleming is a guitarist and recording artist, and the assistant director for the Berklee Fund and Alumni Affairs.