Berklee Today

Overcoming with the Power of Music

A glimpse at the lives of four remarkable musicians who have been inspired to overcome formidable obstacles in the pursuit of musical expression

  Vince Paunetto
  Bobby Vince Paunetto '73 (right) goes over his score with bassist Mike Richmond during a recording session for Paunetto's Commit to Memory CD.

Click to hear "Spanish Maiden"

Best-Laid Plans
Composer and vibist Bobby Vince Paunetto '73 grew up in the Little Italy section of the Bronx. A New Yorker through and through, he still resides in the same borough. Paunetto showed musical promise by age four, working up a song and dance routine with his mother that brought offers for work at New York's famed Roxy Theater. But Paunetto's mother, Rosemarie, with three young sons, decided the time wasn't right to embark on a music career. Thirty years later, the younger Paunetto's career aspirations would also be sidelined for a while, but not by his choice. After pursuing a career as a composer and performer, symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS) began to appear and the music stopped for a time.

During his early teens, Paunetto had begun listening to recordings by Cal Tjader, Vince Guaraldi, Mongo Santamaria, and others and developed an appetite for jazz. Inspired by Tjader and Milt Jackson, he took up the vibes at 18, and in 1962, he composed his first piece of music, "Nuance," dedicated to the Modern Jazz Quartet. In the same year, Paunetto formed a septet to play Latin jazz, ballads, and swing tunes. On the strength of a demo the group recorded, Paunetto was offered a recording contract with the Seeco label in 1964. He planned to record a dozen pieces for the debut album but he was drafted by the U.S. Army in 1965 after recording only eight songs. The label released six tracks on 45s but folded before Paunetto was discharged from the service in 1967.

Returning in New York after his hitch in the army, Paunetto resumed composing and playing with his group. High points included gigs his manager Symphony Sid arranged for him: opening act for Count Basie at the New Yorker Hotel and for Art Blakey at the Village Gate. Paunetto received encouragement and chances to sit in with fellow vibist Tjader and Latin-jazz percussionist Tito Puente. Older musicians Gary McFarland and John (Pompeo) Rae suggested that Paunetto go to Berklee to study jazz composition. Cal Tjader wrote him a letter of recommendation. Paunetto lists among his most influential teachers John LaPorta, Herb Pomeroy, Paul Schmeling, and Michael Rendish, and for vibes, Alan Dawson, and Gary Burton.

After graduating in 1973, Paunetto tapped such Berklee friends as guitarist John Scofield, bassist Abraham Laboriel, Sr., saxophonists Billy Drewes, Tom Sala, Todd Anderson, and other New York-area players to record Paunetto's original music, which explored the intersection of Afro-Cuban grooves and the melodic and harmonic sophistication of jazz and classical music. There was magic at the recording sessions for Paunetto's Point, his first outing on Pathfinder Records (now RSVP Jazz Records). The LP received a Grammy nomination for Best Latin Jazz Recording in 1975. Paunetto's reputation as a composer and bandleader grew with his second release, Commit to Memory.

Around that time, Paunetto began feeling numbness in his hands periodically and stiffness in his muscles in the morning. "My legs began to feel spastic when I woke up," he says. "I was feeling a loss of muscle tone, and my legs would give out as I walked. I actually fell down in the street once after getting off a bus in Manhattan."

Medical tests in 1978 revealed that Paunetto had MS, and he was forced to put his performing on hold. "I had to keep making a living despite my disability," Paunetto says. "I couldn't perform and travel anymore, but I continued to receive a pension from the Army and I could still write music." Paunetto soldiered on, and between 1985 and 1993, he wrote 300 works despite the crippling effects of his illness.

Having made recordings with jazz players who went on to renown, Paunetto remastered and reissued his early recordings to fill requests from jazz fans in several countries. Soul Jazz Records and Tonga Productions have recently made his music available throughout Europe, while Bomba Records and JVC Publishing Co. of Tokyo have given Paunetto visibility in Asia.

Not Forgotten
"What has helped the most is the deep love of fans and jazz critics who never forgot the music they had heard on my first two albums," Paunetto says. "They've sought me out and helped me to continue." In September 2003, jazz historian Bill Kirchner, host of the Jazz from the Archives radio show, programmed an hour of Paunetto's music, and Dee Kalea, who has a jazz radio show in Vermont, played four of Paunetto's CDs in their entirety on one show. At the grass-roots level, musicians such as baritone saxophonist Gary Morgan dedicated his tune "Refractions" to Paunetto on his Live at Birdland CD.

With the help of a host of medications, Paunetto's MS is not currently advancing at the rate it was previously. Health-wise, he has good days and bad days, but the spirit is always willing for work on his music. Lately he has had enough good days to prepare 45 new pieces for four future CD releases. The first will be titled Beyond Con-Tent, Volume I. The sessions will feature the CTM Players, those originally assembled for Paunetto's Commit To Memory album.

"My inability to continue playing the vibes has been my greatest lament," says Paunetto. "Accolades and applause are great, but mainly I just want to contribute. I'd dreamt of the day that I would continue with my music, and the day came in 1994 with the release of the Composer in Public and later the Reconstituted CD. It's a great blessing to still be making music." To learn more, visit

Lisa Thorson  
Associate Professor of Voice Lisa Thorson

Click to hear "I Mean You"

Photo by Susan Wilson  

The Best Thing I Ever Did
When Associate Professor Lisa Thorson was a musical-theater major at Boston Conservatory of Music in 1979, she had a serious accident and became a wheelchair user. As a driven person (Thorson's own description), she decided afterward that she would continue her path toward a career in musical theater. Doctors and physical therapists told her that she would not have the capacity to sing anymore, but she couldn't be talked out of her dream.

"It took me about five or six years to realize that my original plan wasn't going to work," Thorson says. "I discovered that it would be a hard sell for me to get work. The theater and even Hollywood are not that inclusive for wheelchair users. When I finally understood that I was not going to be on Broadway or have a working life in the theater, the adjustment was difficult. I asked myself, what was my strongest asset? I knew it was my voice. I had been an okay dancer and a pretty good actress, but always a better singer. So I focused on that."

Thorson made the transition from the musical theater vocal style to cabaret singing and eventually to jazz. Her brother had a great jazz record collection that he'd left at Thorson's house. After she started listening to various artists, she could imagine herself singing jazz. She began to explore that direction in earnest around 1985. "I was almost 30 by then," she says. "It seemed a bit late for me to learn a new genre, but it was the best thing I ever did. You never know when you are going to find something during your life that will become a real passion. Some find it when they are 15, but a lot of people don't."

Thorson began doing gigs as a jazz singer in 1986 but also worked as an advocate for access to the arts for people with disabilities. "I gave speeches, seminars, and workshops and wrote materials about universal design concepts for all kinds of people," Thorson says. "I also provided awareness training to help people better relate to people with disabilities. I sat on panels for the National Endowment for the Arts advocating for the disabled. These things taught me a lot about teaching and relating to people, but I eventually burned out on that work because obstacles were not coming down fast enough. I also really wanted to fully explore my artistic interests.

"I had been having a hard time deciding what I was going to do with my life," says Thorson. "In 1988, I started attending the Jazz in July improvisation workshops at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst; where I met Sheila Jordan, Max Roach, Billy Taylor, Yusef Lateef, and others. Those programs really changed my life through the energy of the music and the atmosphere the teachers created. People were really open to possibilities. Sheila Jordan taught me about welcoming everybody, regardless of their ability. I thrived there."

Even though Thorson was performing and making recordings, she felt that she didn't understand the vocabulary of jazz deeply. So she pursued a master of arts degree in jazz performance at New England Conservatory (NEC), graduating in 1994. "The experiences I had at Jazz in July and in the graduate program at NEC profoundly influenced my life and teaching," Thorson says. "After that, I was completely hooked on jazz."

Thorson had begun teaching part time at Berklee in 1996 and became a full-time faculty member in 2003. These days she performs less so that she can concentrate on teaching. She does, however, continue to make new CDs and delve deeper into the music. Since 1999, Thorson has offered a unique live presentation called the JazzArtSigns program. The performance features Thorson and her jazz quintet, whose improvisations are interpreted in real time by a painter, a sign language interpreter, a narrator, and an LED display that scrolls text. It offers people with a variety of disabilities a chance to enjoy the show.

"The thought behind it is to make the show as inclusive as possible. I also wanted to shape it so that people in the audience with all of their senses might be the most confused. They have to decide where to focus. In contrast, visually impaired people have no choice but to listen to the music and the narration. They can't see the painting. It's a way to bring people together and put others on edge and make them think a little bit. This project is one way that my lives as a jazz artist and a person with a disability intersect. If I hadn't had my accident, opportunities like JazzArtSigns never would have come into my life.

"As a performer, I don't want to pretend that I don't use a wheelchair. My art is not defined by that; it's defined by the kind of music I sing, whether people like my voice, and whether I connect with the audience. That's what's most important to me." To learn more, visit

  Paul Nash '72
  Composer/guitarist Paul Nash '72

Click to hear "Logo Rhythm"

The Only Thing I Really Cared About
Unlike the others featured in the story, Paul Nash '72 had spent two decades with his career as a music educator, composer, and performer in full swing before encountering health problems. In March 2003, Nash was diagnosed with Glioblastoma Multiform, a fatal brain tumor. This gave urgency to Nash's recent push to get his catalog of compositions and recordings organized and made available for distribution.

Like Paunetto, Nash also grew up in the Bronx. He began playing guitar in rock bands in the 1960s. Early high-water marks came when his group shared the stage at Greenwich Village's Caf? Wha? with the Blues Project and a then-unknown Jimi Hendrix. He came to Berklee, where he earned his degree in jazz composition in 1972. "I had realized that music was the only thing I really cared about," Nash said. "Studying with Herb Pomeroy was the best part of going to Berklee for me."

Nash would later earn a master's degree in classical composition at Mills College in Oakland, California. By 1977, he was working in the Bay Area with the 10-piece Paul Nash Ensemble featuring trumpeter Mark Isham and drummer Eddie Marshall. Nash also helped to organize the Bay Area Jazz Composers Orchestra, a jazz ensemble that included a string quartet, to create a confluence of jazz and classical music. He released three CDs, A Jazz Composer's Ensemble, Second Impression, and Night Language, featuring such players as Tom Harrell, Anthony Cox, David Samuels, Art Lande, and others. After moving back to New York in 1990, Nash founded the Manhattan New Music Project to further the concepts he'd been probing in San Francisco. Through the years, the group has featured such New York musicians as Tom Varner, Jack Walrath, David Taylor, Jamey Haddad, Vic Juris, and others live and on the CDs Mood Swing and Night Language (both for Soul Note Records, Italy) and Avant Noir.

Of the meeting ground between classical and jazz, Nash remarked, "It was tricky to do both kinds of music at first. Eventually, I found a mix that worked once I let go of the idea that they each belonged in separate realms." Premieres of Nash's orchestral and chamber music have been given by the Chamber Symphony of San Francisco, the Reading Symphony Orchestra, the Aspen Festival Orchestra, and other ensembles.

Nash has also touched on performance art with his music by creating site-specific pieces. "These are musical works designed to incorporate sounds from the environment in which the piece is performed," he says. "They're not designed for the typical concert environment. The site may be a lobby of a building, a park, or a street corner where many people pass by." One 60-minute piece titled "Still Sounds Run Deep" was written for three trumpets, two trombones, three French horns, and a tenor saxophone. Nash positioned the players at various locations around the lake in Central Park. Each played from a written score echoing phrases back and forth, and at various times played off the sounds they heard around them-including quacking ducks. "It fits the John Cage mold in some ways," Nash said. "We have an average of three to five of these types of performances yearly."

While composing and performing was always closest to Nash's heart, his educational initiatives provide more revenue to his company. Julia Reinhart, Nash's producer, describes Creative Music Educators (CME) as a professional development training program designed to help teachers utilize creativity in the classroom. CME received a federal grant that provides $350,000 per year to work with the New York City schools. "We have about 20 musicians going out to the schools to train music teachers to teach young students through composition," Reinhart said. "Special-needs students with emotional disabilities really react to a creative approach. It is not about learning an instrument and then learning to improvise. We want to introduce the kids to the idea that music making is fun. After they get that, we can teach them more about music theory."

A Musical Lifeline
Reinhart says that Nash's diverse musical activities have been like a lifeline in rough waters. "Having the music to focus on really helped Paul to deal with some very difficult news," she says. "It has been enormously important for me to keep going musically," Nash says. "I've had three surgeries that were helpful, but the effects were temporary. I am presently undergoing another round of chemotherapy. This is a very difficult disease; most people do not live even two years with it. I have gone through the treatments, and then I get right back into music."

Nash's drive to produce new music and organize his vast catalog for posterity is an absolute inspiration. It has kept him upbeat and focused on the future. "When I go to the recording studio and work on music, it's so good," he stated. "Next week we will begin recording a new CD project." To learn more, visit

Days before Berklee Today went to press, we received word that Paul Nash passed away. Until the time of his death, he was putting the finishing touches on nine CDs of his compositions and a guitar-method book.

Patricia Elena Vlieg  
Vocalist Patricia Elena Vlieg '98

Click to hear "Seguir Creyendo"


A Natural Sequence
Patricia Elena Vlieg '98 and her twin sister Ana were born blind in Panama City, Panama in 1975. From an early age, the twins showed musical ability. Notably, Patricia sings and plays keyboards, guitar, and various South American instruments. "My parents tried to provide a lot of stimulus in our lives through music, reading, contact with nature, and any other way to get us acquainted with the world around us," Vlieg says. "That opened our minds and hearts. I am very grateful to my parents and grandparents and other supportive family members. They were the source from which a lot of good things sprang." Patricia and Ana have sung together for years and have been roommates in Boston from the time they attended college to the present. Patricia majored in professional music as a voice principal at Berklee while Ana earned a degree in creative writing at Emerson College and is currently in a graduate program for English at Boston College.

Patricia came to Boston from Panama in 1996 after being awarded a Berklee scholarship. Having help with the finances enabled her to leap over one obstacle, but being a blind person in an unfamiliar city and country and studying music posed other problems. "One difficulty came when I studied arranging," says Vlieg. "All of the music technology at Berklee is for the Macintosh, and the main platform for blind people is IBM-type PCs. So I put a lot of time and effort into dictating my music to others. I also got a lot of help from the tutors at the Berklee Learning Center. I would bring them a disc of my sequences, and we would work from it."

Vlieg now creates her music using CakeTalking sequencing software and Sibelius notation software coupled with Sibelius Speaking, a screen reader for the blind. "I try to stay on top of technology," she says. "I am very grateful for those who have spent the time and effort to create software that gives opportunities to those who are visually impaired or have another disability."

Some might assume that a blind musician may have a better ear for music, but Vlieg doesn't believe that her ears are innately better than those of her sighted friends. However, she has developed an amazing memory that helps her learn tunes as well as basic factual information-appointments, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses. "Being blind has stressed the need for me to be good at memorizing," she says. "It's my way of learning things and a way that I can work around reading. It has been a process each day to realize what my assets are and what my liabilities are and how I can improve a little bit more. Being blind is not something you overcome; you take on new challenges every day as you learn a new song or plan a new performance, or whatever the task is."

Several kinds of Latin American music styles and sacred music inform Vlieg's original songs. While she considers herself primarily a singer, she writes a fair amount of music. For Tus Promesas, a CD with rich spiritual content recorded with her sister Ana in 2003, each of the Vlieg twins contributed songs. For Patricia's new CD, Origen, she wrote all the songs and arrangements. One portion of Vlieg's livelihood comes from leading the musical ministry for the Spanish masses at Boston's Saint Francis Chapel in the Prudential Center. "The life and message of Jesus Christ has given a special sense to my music," she says. In addition to her church work, Vlieg performs at clubs and concert halls in New England, Panama, and South America. She recently sang at Ryles Jazz Club in Cambridge with faculty bassist Oscar Stagnaro and his group Peru Mestizo.

"For me, music has been the best way of communicating my feelings, thoughts, my desires for a better world," she says. "It expresses my belief in a higher power as well as my belief that people can change their lives and circumstances. But music is only part of life. Someone once said you can have life without music, but you can't have music without life. Overcoming obstacles is an ongoing process in our lives. Once you think you have solved some issues, you discover that you have so many others to work on. Music is a way for me to give something from my heart and soul to those who listen. It's been a way for me to celebrate my life and show that I am thankful for what I've received." To learn more, visit