Learning to Learn in Every Style

By David Wallace

My office is sandwiched between two Berklee string ensemble rooms that provide an ambient soundtrack that fluctuates by the hour. 

In the morning, new, original Celtic compositions co-mingle with the Arabic microtonal modes of an oud, and a free-jazz ensemble occasionally syncs with the groove of the adjacent funk ensemble. In the afternoon, a Shostakovich string quartet and an amplified Jean-Luc Ponty violin solo vie for dominance. 

Later, a qanun player impeccably performs his transcription of David Gilmour’s final electric guitar solo from Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb,” while a mandolinist works out a Bach partita in a traditional master class. 

In the evening, an old-time fiddle jam highlights the striking and subtle musical differences that a century can make in American roots music when its syncopated melodies are superimposed over those of a high-octane newgrass combo. 

Throughout the day, the music of my own private students blends or clashes with the surrounding mix. Turkish EDM, original contemporary classical works for unaccompanied lever harp, cello-looping covers of classic rock songs, Texas-style contest fiddling, or viola masterworks by Hindemith and Rebecca Clarke.

This is the age of the pan-stylistic string player. Berklee’s String Department embraces all styles as do today’s professional string musicians. Many of our department’s graduates are forming or managing multiple groups, simultaneously recording different albums, and juggling multiple tours. Some bands fuse the various kinds of music they loved learning at Berklee to invent new genres. 

A number of string graduates find positions with established groups and artists, while other alumni pursue successful careers as solo artists. Some build portfolio careers by playing in musical theater pit orchestras, conducting, teaching, starting their own music camps and festivals, applying their eclectic musicianship as film composers. One composed a viola concerto to be recorded on the Naxos label.

Our community builds on an open-minded curiosity and a willingness to work extraordinarily hard to develop technical mastery, creativity, and idiomatic fluency with many musical languages. 

Admittedly, it is daunting to prepare string players to be capable of functioning effectively in a classical string section, improvising and arranging in various styles, and performing fluently in world music, jazz, pop, and other genres. 

We can do so only because of our musically diverse, deeply committed, and collaborative faculty. Collectively we can impart the lessons, experiences, and information that encompass more than any one of us could teach individually. Of course, our faculty must also walk the walk as stylistically all-embracing professional musicians. For example, recently Owen Young, a Boston Symphony cellist, toured with a trio that included James Taylor. Mike Block toured the globe as a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. Sara Caswell, a perennial violinist on the DownBeat critics and listeners polls, won the inaugural 21CM Emerging Artist Competition with 9 Horses, a jazzy, acoustic-folk trio founded by composer and mandolinist Joseph Brent ’99.

Chairs must model versatile musicianship and careers, too. Currently, I’m preparing for a January tour following the December release of my CD Garden of Joys and Sorrows with Hat Trick, my classical flute-viola-harp trio.  Simultaneously, I’m finishing post-production on my Texas-style fiddle band’s album, The Doc Wallace Trio: Live at The Cornelia Street Café; and composing new modern works for unaccompanied six-string electric viola and investing considerable time practicing the new workouts I’m assigning to my students. 

Four years seem hardly enough to master disciplines that demand a lifetime. But it is sufficient time to teach students how to continue learning and to practice applying that knowledge wherever their careers will take them.