Composing Berklee’s Story

Mark Small looks back on nearly three decades as editor of Berklee Today.

Mark SmallBerklee Today first began rolling off the presses in 1989, and for 27 of the 30 years that followed, the magazine had one editor: classical guitarist, composer, and recording artist Mark Small ’73. Last fall, Small retired, ending an era during which he was Berklee’s chief chronicler, having interviewed key figures and written stories that represent the first draft of the institution’s history.

Beyond the vast musical knowledge and editorial mastery that enabled him to do such extraordinary work as a one-person operation, Small also possesses a calm selflessness that brought out the best in the subjects of his stories and his colleagues. Whether he was traveling to Iceland or Japan or interviewing greats such as Quincy Jones, Diana Krall, or Juan Luis Guerra, he always maintained a steady focus on the task at hand: producing a magazine that illuminated Berklee alumni while educating readers about the state of the music industry. His legacy—contained within the 83 issues over which he presided—is an invaluable document of a music generation.

You had worked as a professional musician and freelance journalist for years before joining Berklee as a writer in the News Bureau [now the Office of Public Information] in 1989. What led to you landing the Berklee Today gig in 1992?

My predecessor, Andrew Taylor, decided to leave to pursue a master’s degree. I thought he was a genius when I saw how he put the magazine together, and [I] didn’t think I was qualified. But [former Berklee president] Lee Berk encouraged me to apply. When I interviewed with him, I said, “I have to lay my cards on the table. I don’t know anything about desktop publishing.” Lee dismissed it. He said, “You know the institution, you’re a musician, and we can get you trained on the software.”

What was the mission of the magazine back then and how did it change over time?

In a sense, the mission hasn’t changed. As it says on the cover, it’s a “Forum for Contemporary Music and Musicians,” but some sections went away, and we started new ones. My focus came out of my background as a Berklee alumnus and a professional musician. I wanted people out there to know that there were a lot of careers in the music field that didn't necessarily involve being a music educator, performer, or film composer, which were the three majors when I was a student.

I discovered, as I put it, a vast “middle class” in the music field that I was unaware of before, and I found that these people were very happy in their jobs. They were using their music education and were getting a paycheck. So it became a big thing to interview alumni who were working in studios in various capacities, working in management, working in music therapy, and in all manner of music careers. It wasn't feast or famine, which is the conception of many people who send their kids to music school. I met people who were very happily working around the peripheries of music. They weren't on stage, but they were involved with music and musicians and music business.

When you look back at the cover interviews, which ones stand out for you?

I really like the Ingrid Jensen one. That was one of my last stories. She talked about how she's negotiated her career as a jazz artist and as a woman. She talked about having an attitude of not being so concerned about the woman thing. It's just about being a good musician.

Juan Luis Guerra was a wonderful person to interview. He had wanted to write instrumental music and go on a path like Pat Metheny. But when he saw that people weren’t having slack-jawed reactions to his guitar solos, he changed course. He went back to the Dominican Republic, and saw that he had a gift for writing songs. He’s very smart, so he followed his intuition and made a complete transition.

When the guys in Imagine Dragons were telling me about their beginnings, they said they were scuffling a bit when they were starting up the band, just after graduating. I asked about what they would have done if things didn’t pan out, and Wayne Sermon, the guitarist, said, “I had no plan B. It was all or nothing.” All three of those guys went the whole distance and got degrees. [Berklee President] Roger Brown loved the fact that they once told him that one of their favorite subjects was atonal solfège with Ed Bedner. They’re not your average rock band.

How did you prepare for interviews?

I would make it my duty to listen to their music carefully, study their past work, and do a lot of research so that I could ask questions beyond, “How did you get your start in music?” That can be interesting, but I wanted to give readers information they might not get elsewhere. I figured if I really understood what they were doing and could talk to them above the level of writers who weren’t musicians, they would give a good interview. I would even transcribe some of their tunes.

Another key element was I always wanted to do the cover stories in person whenever possible. Different questions always come up when you’re face to face. It was always helpful to be in the room and see the person’s work space or wherever they were. It gave more color to the story.

While you were editor, you released eight albums—one solo, and seven as part of a duo. How did you squeeze in the time for your own music?

At some point, I started getting up at 5:00 a.m. And I’d practice until 7:00 a.m. I’m married and have two kids, but that was a block of time when nobody needed me. They were all sleeping. It was an amazing thing. I was never a morning person. I was always playing nights in clubs and up till 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. I also practiced at lunchtime. I had a guitar in my office. I’d bring in a sandwich, gobble that down, and get about 40 minutes to play.

Having talked to so many successful music professionals, what traits do you feel they have in common? What makes for a great career?

I've noticed two things. One is they have incredible people skills. They're very welcoming. They really know how to get along with people. That makes people trust them so that they think, “This person is bankable. This person’s not an eccentric artist.”

The second thing is that Imagine Dragons concept around not having a plan B. I've noticed that with other people. They’re all in, and they hang in the trenches for a long time until it happens. [Guitarist] Mike Stern said to me—he was quoting somebody else—“You're not a musician because you want to be. It's because you have to be a musician. You have no other alternatives.”

What’s next for you?

I still want to maintain my ties with the Berklee community, and I'm still a writer for freelance magazines. I’m listening very closely to a lot of music. I’m practicing and playing a lot and taking lessons with [Berklee associate professor of guitar] Berta Rojas. And I’m writing [music]. One good friend on the faculty I’ve known through the years is Julius Williams from the Composition Department. He had listened to some of my music and asked me to write a piece for guitar for the Berklee Contemporary Symphony Orchestra. So I’m working on that now, and they’ll perform it on campus at some point in the future.

You once told me that the Berklee Today job never really felt like work to you. Why is that?

I guess I had too much fun. The hours would fly by and I’d look up and say, “Wow. It's five o'clock. I should leave.” I’d realize that I’d spent all day writing this article or talking to people and studying their work. It drew upon all the things that I've been involved in during my career as a musician—whether it was writing music or thinking about music and composition, or being fascinated by somebody's lyrics in a song.

To just talk to these people and go one-on-one with them was fantastic. You had the press pass to basically go and ask them anything you wanted. As a musician, getting to ask Quincy Jones or Branford Marsalis anything you want is a pretty great opportunity. It's a cliché, but if you love your work, you don't work a day in your life.