Student Profile: Neara Russell

Danielle Dreilinger
April 25, 2010
<strong>Hometown:</strong> Spring Green, Wisconsin<br /> <strong>Major:</strong> Composition/Performance<br /> <strong>Instrument:</strong> Piano/Voice
Russell performs at the 2008 New Music Festival with her band. In her music, she aims to fuse pop hooks and experimentation.
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth

Physicists might consider studying Neara Russell to find out how she manages to fit 25 hours of work into each 24-hour day. A double major and one of the college's first piano/voice dual principals, she's done four times the work of the average busy Berklee student. On top of that, she writes both classical pieces and pop songs that fuse catchy licks with advanced compositional techniques à la "art rock" innovators such as Peter Gabriel.

But from the time her artist parents replaced the downstairs TV in their farm-town cabin with a grand piano, Russell, now a Berklee Presidential Scholar, has known what she wanted. We spoke after her final spring break, which she spent having business meetings in New York. Below is a condensed and edited account of our conversation.

You chose to double-major in composition and performance. What's that been like?

It's been twice as much work, basically, being a dual major, especially in two kind of opposite majors. It's two different skill sets in a lot of ways. It takes a lot of really efficient time management. I've had to flick a lot of switches in my brain every day. But I always wanted to be a performer and a composer.

Not only that, but you're pioneering a dual-instrument principal, developing proficiency in two instruments instead of one.

I'll be one of the first two people to graduate as a piano/voice principal. We do eight semesters of piano lessons but we also take four semesters of voice. The final recital has to incorporate both. I have to practice both two hours a day. I mostly did it because I wanted the voice lessons. It's actually been wonderful. [Professors] Donna McElroy and Janie Barnett helped me to get out from behind the scenes, to present without any instrument in front of me. I'm thinking of maybe getting a headset so I can move around, do some programming so I can move away from the keyboard.

You write pop songs, but you don't study songwriting per se. What's the difference between the songwriting and composition majors at Berklee?

Fairly night and day. In composition, we are being informed by Bach chorales. Our particular department is very open to other influences, but still it comes from a tradition of concert music. The notes are written down. In songwriting, they draw more from the contemporary tradition—Great American Songbook, anything that would work well on the radio. I've enjoyed drawing from both of them, though I am definitely loyal to my composition major. I'm the student government representative for composition. Recording my pop songs, I think of the piano arrangement of every single note I'm going to play.

On top of the creative side, you've handled the business part of your career, releasing two albums and booking your own shows. How does that work for you?

My parents have been full-time artists since 1979. They're my biggest supporters and advisors on the business end. I invest all my money back into my equipment. I keep my food and fun down to a minimum. If someone wants to go on a date, I say, "Let's go for a walk." I'm looking forward to having a manager, but even Madonna, she'll be on her Blackberry. You need to know what's going on.

Let's look beyond Berklee for a minute—what are your dreams?

I've grown up trying to be modest, and I try not to admit when I have big thoughts. On the other hand, I've always thought that anything could happen. It really has been my motto. Walking around in my little farm town, I would think about the biggest, wildest, awesomest things I could do. I definitely harbor the idea of playing in Madison Square Garden, a sold-out run. Of being artistic and innovative as a musician but being able to speak to humanity and a large amount of people . . . a universal kind of voice.

I kept those thoughts quiet for a long time. But if I keep practicing and being a decent person to work with, and be creative and honest, good things could happen. You've got to have the goal and you've got to have the focus.

Graduation's only a few weeks away. What comes next?

I'm trying to dovetail it—to graduate with a 4.0 and ramp up the next stage simultaneously. I'll probably try some time in New York, mostly because all their clubs have pianos! I'm hoping to be on the road more than half a year if I can swing it.

I've definitely done a lot of orchestration work. I've performed other people's pieces. I like finding people who need a certain thing done but who appreciate that I have my own voice. I just wrote some tracks for a music library. I would love to even go on tour as a keyboardist. I definitely want to continue to be my own artist—and taking on anything I can on the way. It's all part of being a working musician and driving my own career.

Top Five Albums


  1. Arthur Rubinstein, The Chopin Collection: The Mazurkas
  2. James Taylor, (LIVE)
  3. Sheryl Crow, s/t
  4. Incubus, Morning View
  5. Imogen Heap, Speak for Yourself