Songwriting Summer: Q&A with Melissa Ferrick '90

Berklee Office of Communications
August 21, 2009
Melissa Ferrick '90 warms up the crowd at the August 4 songwriter showcase with a few of her own tunes.
Photo by Phil Farnsworth

Singer/songwriter Melissa Ferrick '90 had taught songwriting at a college extension school and given weeklong seminars at folk festivals. This summer, she tackled a new challenge: working with aspiring songwriters as a visiting professor for Berklee's Five-Week Summer Performance Program. After some of her students took the stage at an August 4 Cafe 939 showcase, we checked in with Ferrick. As it turns out, maybe she shouldn't have titled her upcoming album Goodbye Youth.

Why did you decide to teach at the Berklee Five-Week Summer Performance Program?

I was honored to have been asked to join the staff here. I remembered how important the five-week program was to me when I attended it, when I was 16, so it seemed appropriate to give back.

What has your connection to Berklee been like over the years? Did you ever think about coming back to teach?

I came to college here in 1988 for songwriting, and trumpet was my principal instrument. I loved it at Berklee. At that time, however, I didn't realize how important an institution like Berklee was and how much it would influence my life as a musician. As I travel and perform I meet lots of alumni and there is a common Berklee "thing" about us.

to Melissa Ferrick's "Singing With the Wind"

As far as teaching goes, it is in my blood, so to speak. My grandmother was a public school teacher her whole life. My father taught sixth-grade science and math for 37 years in Ipswich, Massachusetts, and currently teaches at the Waring School in Beverly. So the importance of teachers and teaching has always been in my life.

What did you take from your experience as a Berklee student that contributed to your current career?

Mostly the ability to communicate musically with other musicians, and the ability to listen. I still have to concentrate to listen—I think most artists do. I personally needed an art school environment to feel safe with my art and my heart. Berklee honors that and also the need to get out of the isolating world of "practice rooms," which had ruled my musical life since I was 5 years old. So Berklee opened up my ears and widened my vocabulary.

What did you think of the five-week songwriting students?

They were way beyond what I thought I was going to be dealing with. Major talent in the performing songwriter division. I was blown away and totally inspired.

When working with students on their songs, what approach did you take?

Positive reinforcement... finding the good thing in the person and song and emphasizing that. Being careful not to tread on people's hearts. Songwriting is such a personal thing—it is a rare and brave thing to do. So I found it really important to be careful with my words. I try to encourage the student, not to trample them.

In your July 30 class, you worked one-on-one with singer/songwriter Harry Gensemer, who performed in your Cafe 939 showcase. What did you see in his song? 

Originality! He sounds like no one else. Berklee is a place that allows for originality to be applauded. There is enough copycat art in the world... and sometimes we can all practice other artists' solos for too long. I see the worth of learning verbatim parts, but I really, really am more interested in original sound, original lyrical content. I want to hear something that I've never heard before and yet somehow makes perfect sense. That is what is great about Harry.

You seemed to treat all the students with respect, as peers, almost, rather than novices.

I think it is imperative to make sure the student feels safe and honored. I think the students thought of me as their ally. I have no interest in teaching through fear, or ego. I do not think of myself as better or worse than anyone, really—I am a working musician who loves to be around art and to be around other people who are searching, not preaching. I have learned so much about myself this Five-Week session, it almost seems like I was a part-time student as well. That's the best thing about kids—they teach you without even knowing it.

Read about Ferrick's songwriting class and showcase.

See a slideshow of the August 4 performers.

Condensed and edited from an email exchange.