Student Profile: Brian Whelan

Lesley Mahoney
March 27, 2009
Brian Whelan<br /><strong> Hometown:</strong> Galway, Ireland<br /> <strong>Major:</strong> Contemporary Writing and Production<br /><strong>Instrument:</strong> Piano
Whelan rehearses with trumpeter John Frazee.
Whelan takes a break from a rehearsal session.
Whelan at the piano, a passion he discovered only shortly before coming to Berklee.
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth

Brian Whelan grew up in a musical household and dabbled in playing the guitar, but didn't take a serious interest in making music until after he graduated from National University of Ireland, Galway with a degree in psychology and economics. Everything changed when he took a seat at the piano, on which he had no training, and taught himself to play over several weeks with Dr. John and Michel Petrucciani records as his muse.

"That snowballed into an obsession," said Whelan, now a sixth-semester contemporary music and production major. He spent the months leading up to his arrival at Berklee learning what he could. But with no nearby music shops in County Galway, he borrowed a book from a nun who taught music lessons in a convent 20 miles away. Now, with every conceivable resource at his fingertips, Whelan is soaking it all in as he pursues his newfound passion.

How is Berklee preparing you as a musician?

I feel like Berklee has just started me off. I'm amazed at what I've achieved so far here, coming from not knowing where middle C was on treble clef or piano to where I am now. I have a solid grounding in harmony and in ear training. That's huge and something I'm really grateful for.

You're going to learn a lot of what you know you need to know at Berklee but then you're going to learn a lot of stuff you didn't know you needed to know. There's this wisdom here, there's the culture of people who've been in the business. Musicians are running this place so they're always mindful of what's going on, what needs doing, and what challenges are facing us. I was a blank slate when I came here. When I finish, it will be a purely Berklee education. I'm definitely a Berklee cat.

I can definitely say to someone in my position that you need to be here at Berklee. If there's one constant for me it's that I absolutely know that I'm in the right place. Even though I have times when I'm stressed out, or when I think: "What I'm I doing here? I should be an economist or a journalist or something," I know I'm in the right place.

Why did you choose to study contemporary music and production?

I chose CWP because writing is a pursuit of mine. At the same time, I feel like I need some means of positioning myself in the industry once I leave. With the way the industry is now, it's every man and woman for himself or herself; one person can be a record company. I don't want to leave here without a strong knowledge of computer software and all the applications that are being used in studios. I want to be able to navigate my way around a studio. That's very important.

What are your post-Berklee plans?

I see myself possibly based in Dublin or London or New York, and the priority will be writing and arranging, and trying to get a small band together to do gigs. I'm also going to look into getting job in a studio. I want to have fluency in the studio, the confidence to work with musicians. I see myself as more of a writer, arranger, and producer than as a performer.

What courses have made an impression on you?

I took Writing for Small Ensemble. It's such an amazing opportunity. You prepare your score and arrange it. You're put on the spot with your work. Someone takes the score and conducts it. It's real-world. It was my first project in my third semester and I was planning out a score for all these guys who have been playing their instruments since they were 5. I was scared but it went fine. It was probably one of the best experiences I've had. Now I stroll in there. I sit down and my palms aren't sweaty. I've grown a lot as a musician.

You can take extra credit courses outside your major. I took World Percussion with Jamey Haddad. It was great fun, a great release, being able to approach what you do from another angle. It doesn't get stale here.


Brian's Top Five Desert Island Albums

  • Steely Dan, Aja
  • Radiohead, OK Computer
  • Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now
  • Värttinä, Vihma
  • Sergio Mendes, Brasileiro