Re-engaged in Music and the Community

Jeryl and Steve Oristaglio have found a way to contribute to Berklee and, they hope, the larger Boston community.
Jeryl and Steve Oristaglio
Jeryl and Steve Oristaglio

Soon after Jeryl and Steve Oristaglio moved to Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue during the late 1990s, they started to wonder about the contemporary music college in their backyard. As they became involved in the Boston arts scene, their curiosity about Berklee grew. But only once Steve reawakened his own musical aspirations did the relationship click, which led not only to a seat on the presidential advisory council but also to a show on one of Berklee’s hottest stages.

After years of hearing her husband muse about taking up the piano again, Jeryl hunted down a Berklee student pianist—found through her nonprofit work—to teach him. “We had such good experiences with the students,” Jeryl says. “They really led us back to the college.”

Jeryl and Steve had a personal connection to Berklee: their son’s friend, Nora, who participated in the Berklee City Music Program (BCMP). They saw her perform at the end-of-summer SYSTEM 5 Blowout Concert, where a dozen or so talented students win full scholarships to Berklee, including Nora. “Her life was completely changed by City Music,” Jeryl says. “Nora could not have attended Berklee without the scholarship.” Since then the Oristaglios have introduced two other students to the program.

As Nora’s life was changed by Berklee, Steve’s was too. After he started studying piano, he decided to put together a home-recording studio. The music-store employee who offered to teach him how to use his new equipment turned out to be a Berklee student. Steve’s contact with the college started to snowball. When he met members of the college’s administration team, he learned that Jeff Shames, a longtime contact Steve met through his work in the finance sector, was a Berklee trustee.

Steve is now actively engaged in moving Berklee forward and spends hours in “Stags Studios,” a small room in his home packed with instruments, several iPods, sound-insulating foam, and recording equipment. With help from Berklee sound engineers, he has recorded several albums with his brother Paul that feature songs by Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, and Coldplay. Recently they made an album of Paul’s original songs.

When Steve took the stage as part of the Executive Sessions series at Café 939, he called his group the Full Circle Band because it included people from all along the Berklee continuum, including a student he’s informally mentoring, a couple of alumni, and Ensemble Department staff member Joe Kay. It was “thrilling,” Steve says.

Following that experience, the Oristaglios were the first to support the newly created Executive Sessions scholarship. In fall 2010, the first scholarship will be awarded to a senior who has outstanding musical merit, entrepreneurial promise, and financial need. The goal is to assist a student in completing his or her studies at Berklee.

“Steve’s very excited to help out the arts, specifically music,” says Kay, who took over as Stags sound engineer. Of Oristaglio’s work with Berklee, Kay says, “I think that he sees it as a great opportunity to help students [attain] that dream.”

In the family’s gifts to the college, “the two themes are how do we help the kids . . . and how do you further the music experience?” Steve says. One contribution supported a MIDI lab, and another the annual Encore Gala. “Every time another student gets touched at that high-school level, it will make a difference,” Jeryl says.

Steve’s own musical ambitions continue. He hopes to finish an album of originals this year. Taking up music again “has been just an absolute delight,” he says. Music also gave him an added connection to his sons Jason and Jett, who play guitar and drums and use the studio space to jam. Steve joined Jett’s band the New Propaganda for his bar mitzvah. Unlike the pressure he feels to succeed in his financial career, with music “it doesn’t matter how good I am. . . . It’s almost Zenlike,” Steve says. He encourages everyone who feels like they’ve missed out on an artistic pursuit to just try: “It’ll be one of the great joys of your life.”

Now the Oristaglios want to share their Berklee connection with the people of Boston. Both are active in the city’s nonprofit scene. Steve is on the board of the Boston Book Festival, helped start the nonprofit Etruscan Press, and is a gold member of the House of Blues Foundation Room. Jeryl cofounded the Esplanade Association and is currently the president of the board. She also serves on the board of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay, the advisory board of the Charles River Watershed Association, and more.

Tying their commitments together, Jeryl hopes to find a time when Berklee students can play at the Hatch Shell as part of her work for the Esplanade. Students performed at the inaugural Boston Book Festival last year.

The Oristaglios envision Massachusetts Avenue as a true musical corridor, a fun and funky place that draws music fans on a Saturday night to go to any number of venues, with music spilling out onto the sidewalks. “Boston has an amazing institution right in the heart of the city known around the world as the premier contemporary music college,” Steve says. “Our hope is that Boston realizes the gem it has.”

Caption: Jeryl and Steve Oristaglio