Musical Mentors

Berklee work-study students bring their knowledge to classrooms and clubhouses around Boston.

December 18, 2009

Night fell early, but the sunshine-yellow Blue Hill Boys and Girls Club music clubhouse sparked with energy. Some tweens and teens sat in a soundproof recording room laying down beats. A cluster of kids frowned in concentration over acoustic guitars under posters of Miles and Jimi. Berklee work-study student Dan Fontana demonstrated a ragtime number at the piano. D.J. Jordan, 10, ran up to Rick Aggeler '07, music clubhouse director, with a guitar and a song his friend knew. Aggeler showed Jordan how to hold the guitar, sit properly, and strum—the beginning of who knows what musical journey.

It's all in an afternoon's work for these Berklee student and alumni music teachers, who bring the college to the community, one curious kid at a time.

"We try to make this a mini-Berklee," said Aggeler, who created the club's music program in 2005, when he was a work-study student with the Office of Community and Governmental Affairs. After he graduated, the Boys and Girls Club hired him full-time. Now each day 60 to 70 kids come through the music clubhouse.

It's far from an isolated endeavor for Berklee. The Office of Community and Governmental Affairs has a web of connected initiatives with a number of Boston-area organizations, including two other Boys and Girls Clubs, Sociedad Latina, Boston Public Schools, and the Music and Youth Initiative. Along with the Community Service Work-Study Program, which employs 40 students permanently plus an additional 40 for short-term projects, the office donates instruments and gear, organizes volunteers, helps kids enter Boston City Music, and sends visiting artists.

Everyone benefits: the Berklee students, who gain experience and income; the youth, who get access to the great equipment and music instruction that public schools often can't provide anymore; and Berklee itself. Colleges and universities only come into their full potential when they are "fully committed members of the local community," said Office of Community and Governmental Affairs director Jim McCoy.

The commute alone—an hour from Berklee to the Boys and Girls Club in inner-city Dorchester on public transportation—testifies to the work-study students' love for the place.

It's also good job prep, McCoy pointed out: Aggeler "is one of four Berklee alumni who have been hired as program directors in the Boston area."

Work-study student Daniel Pattianakotta chose to major in contemporary writing and production, not music education. But he and friends from church "have been talking about opening a music school," he said. He called the position at the clubhouse a stepping-stone.

The kids don't get formal lessons. "They've had their full day at school," said Fontana, a fifth-semester contemporary writing and production major. But the learning happens anyway. This fall, teachers and youth even started staying late on Fridays to start a garage rock band.

Elijah Ohiri, 14, credited his Berklee teachers with expanding the variety of music he listened to and teaching him guitar, bass, and drums. "They're all just willing to help. They all come in with this positive attitude," he said.

Youth with motivation can really grow as artists, Fontana said. About one 13-year-old rapper, he said: "The stuff that he comes out with—it's ridiculous." He took another teen through "most of Harmony I."

They get the occasional all-star guest, too. Berklee faculty member Prince Charles Alexander came to record "The Blue Hill Shuffle," a student-written hip-hop/dance tribute to their neighborhood. The Office of Community and Governmental Affairs filmed the proceedings:

Boys and Girls Club musicians show off their rap/dance "The Blue Hill Shuffle," starting at about 3:45 into the video.

"We made a beat and then we had to write down raps," explained cocreator Marchaina Roscoe, 11. She referred to music-making technology as casually as most sixth-graders talk about Miley Cyrus: "We go on Reason . . . you need to pick the mixer, the reed drum, the subtractor." She also attends Berklee's City Music program for urban youth. City Music sees the Office of Community and Governmental Affairs programs as something of a farm team, Aggeler said.

Along with the music skills, Fontana said, "You're more of a professional role model for the kids. They're like, 'You go to Berklee? That's so cool!'"

"I plan on auditioning for Berklee. That's a big goal of mine," Ohiri said. After that, "I'd like to make a band, hopefully get lucky, become famous."

Aggeler thought the clubhouse was already proving its worth. "Music is kind of a vehicle for them to find self-esteem," he said, estimating his job as "50% social work and 50% music education."

Back at the clubhouse, the kids were supposed to be getting ready for dinner and a field trip. But Roscoe still sat at the computer with Fontana, music software open. Aggeler and Jordan had their heads together over guitars.

"The strings are creasing my hand," D.J. complained.

Said Aggeler: "That's good."