Class of 2020: This Is Your Moment

Berklee President Roger Brown addresses students during the August 28 convocation.
Berklee President Roger Brown addresses students during the August 28 convocation.
Mike Spencer
Boston Conservatory at Berklee President Richard Ortner speaks to the audience during the September 2 opening day activities.
Boston Conservatory at Berklee President Richard Ortner speaks to the audience during the September 2 opening day activities.
Mike Spencer
Alumni guest speaker Taku Hirano ’95 performs a percussion solo at the convocation.
Alumni guest speaker Taku Hirano ’95 performs a percussion solo at the convocation.
Mike Spencer
Vibraphone and marimba player Stefon Harris was the keynote speaker and performer for opening day.
Vibraphone and marimba player Stefon Harris was the keynote speaker and performer for opening day.
Mike Spencer

“This Is Your Moment” was the theme for the entering student convocation held on August 28 for a record 1,101 members of the class of 2020. In his welcome remarks, Larry Simpson, Berklee’s senior vice president for academic affairs and provost, asked the young crowd if they had heard of the John Coltrane song “Moment’s Notice.” After a huge cheer reverberated through the Berklee Performance Center, Simpson told the crowd, “As I thought about meeting you, I thought of this song. That is what today is about. This is your moment. Notice it; don’t let it get away from you. Take full advantage of your time at Berklee.”

Related to the main theme was the secondary theme of encouraging the young students to find their artistic voices. Betsy Newman, senior vice president for student enrollment and engagement, shared thoughts on the topic gathered from her peer advising and residence staff. “Finding your voice at Berklee is not a journey to resolve your shortcomings or inadequacies,” she related. “It is a journey to better understand and embrace the unique gifts that have already shaped the voice responsible for guiding you here in the first place. Allow your vision to evolve. This vision was shaped without experiencing all that will be transformative. Berklee will inspire and change you, so let it.”

For his part, President Roger H. Brown reminded the students not to be competitive with one another. “Music is built on trust and communication,” Brown stated. “We are all stronger when we help one another. Someday you’re going to hire one of your friends from Berklee or they’re going to hire you.” He then quoted from the poem “The Journey” by Mary Oliver.

     The stars began to burn

     through the sheets of clouds,

     and there was a new voice,

     which you slowly

     recognized as your own,

     that kept you company

     as you strode deeper and deeper

     into the world,

     determined to do

     the only thing you could do.

Celebrated percussionist Taku Hirano ’95, the alumni speaker, told the audience, “This is a full-circle moment for me. It was 25 years ago when I sat out there at 17 having just graduated from high school.” Hirano has since enjoyed a spectacular career touring and recording with such acts as Dr. Dre, Fleetwood Mac, Ariana Grande, John Mayer, Shakira, Whitney Houston, and Beyoncé. He advised the class to “have a strong work ethic, learn to follow through, and be open to new things outside of your comfort zone.”

Musical performances included spots by Fabiola Mendez (playing a solo eight-string cuatro piece), and Hirano in a dynamic and thoughtful hand-percussion solo. Student pianist and vocalist Desmond Scaife Jr. led an eight-piece band in a soulful rendition of Adele’s “Someone Like You.” The band was then joined by Hirano and Mendez for the show closer, a rock original by Scaife titled “Party Boy.”

A few days later on September 2, the 11th annual opening day activities were held in a large ballroom at the Sheraton Boston Hotel. This marked the first time the entire body of faculty, staff, and administrators from both Berklee and the Boston Conservatory at Berklee gathered to kick off a new academic year.

Opening the event, Larry Simpson spoke about the merger and some historical background. He detailed that after its founding in 1867, the Boston Conservatory was one of the first conservatories in the country to admit African Americans and women. Fast forwarding to 1945, Simpson spoke of Berkee’s beginnings and how its curriculum was based on jazz and music of the African Cultural Diaspora. “This merger was meant to be,” Simpson said, eliciting robust applause.

Richard Ortner, president of Boston Conservatory at Berklee, expressed the enthusiasm for the possibilities of the newly merged institution. “Next year will be the conservatory’s 150th anniversary, but simultaneously this is year one of our new life together. We are fired up to make something completely extraordinary. Roger Brown and I have talked about how this merger positions us internationally as the world’s most comprehensive performing arts institution.”

Roger Brown spoke of current events and then added, “Rather than lament what is wrong out in the larger world, what if we look at this as our garden in which we try to create the community that is a model for what we’d like to see in the world? If we can do a good job of giving our students courage, hope, and inspiration to create the art they are meant to create, that’s the best hope we have for building the world that we want to live in. Here is my promise: we are going to build the greatest organization on the planet for training young musicians, actors, and dancers.”

The keynote speaker Stefon Harris closed the event. The virtuosic jazz mallet player alternately performed several pieces with his quartet and shared ideas on music, leadership, and fostering creativity. “To be creative means to be a risk taker,” Harris said. “It’s very difficult to be creative if you are not willing to accept that there are some things you don’t know.” Harris also stressed his belief that authenticity is the highest value in art and that creativity is a byproduct of authenticity. He closed with encouragement for Berklee’s merging with the conservatory. “I wish you as much inspiration as possible, Harris said. “I think what you are doing is incredibly brave; you are at the forefront.”