Alumna Rhonda Begos: Berklee Through a New Lens

Lesley Mahoney
April 12, 2013
Alumna Rhonda Begos
Begos still uses the tools she acquired at Berklee in her professional life.
Photo by Kelly Davidson
Photo by Kelly Davidson

Nearly two decades after Rhonda Begos left Berklee, vowing never to return to Boston, she visited the campus in late March to tell her story about surviving childhood sexual abuse. 

Although Begos had a positive experience as a student at Berklee—garnering tools she continues to draw from in her career as a professional musician—she said she simply wasn’t in the right head space to be here at the time because of the childhood trauma she had never dealt with.

Initially, Begos thought Berklee was an out, a way to escape the pain of her youth. Through Berklee, she met and performed with Dizzy Gillespie, Tito Puente, Lalah Hathaway, Paula Cole, Bobby McFerrin, and her roommate, Susan Tedeschi (for whom she sang back up on Conan O’Brien’s show). But at the same time, she turned to alcohol and dysfunctional relationships. She got off track, quit school, and moved home to Milwaukee in 1991. While she was successful professionally, she continued her pattern of self-destructive behavior until a brush with death in August 2004 led her to give up drinking.

Still, getting sober only dealt with a symptom of her issues, she said, and it was not until she cheated on her then-husband that she hit rock bottom and forced herself to confront the truth and get professional help.

Seeking that help was what allowed Begos to truly connect to others with her music—something she deems as integral to being a musician. “We all have a responsibility as musicians to share not just the notes that we play, but the experiences that we’ve had in our lives. Music is about freedom and expression, and most of us know that with truth and honesty comes real freedom,” she said. “We need to understand how important our role is in giving our audiences the opportunity to see our real, non-distorted, sometimes painful, sometimes victorious, truth so that they are not so afraid to see their own.”

Now Begos is thriving personally and professionally; she’s the lead female vocalist for Streetlife, the official band of the Milwaukee Bucks, and does commercial work as well as  performing with other bands around Milwaukee and Chicago.

In addition to sharing her personal story while back at Berklee, Begos visited professor Sally Blazar’s Identity class and professor Doug Kohn’s Telling True Stories class, met with Berklee president Roger H. Brown, and attended a Women’s History Month breakfast. The visit was sponsored by the Office for Diversity and Inclusion.

She took some time to sit down and talk more in-depth about her Berklee experience. The following is a condensed and edited version of that conversation.

What role has music played for you?

Music allowed me the opportunity to connect. I think in my younger years I viewed music as kind of mine. It wasn’t anything that anyone could really touch so I was capable of expressing myself and feeling things that I didn’t understand after listening to music and singing certain songs. I think that’s probably been true for most of my life except that now I don’t necessarily own the music, I share it more and understand that it’s more of a universal thing.

Tell me about your path to Berklee, and how you arrived here even though you said you weren’t totally prepared to come here.

When I was in high school I went to a college fair. I was interested in Berkeley in California. I didn’t know anything about Berklee College of Music but someone sent me to the wrong booth . . . My mom was really pivotal in helping me get audition tapes together and talking with the college president to give me a chance to come here and see if I could make things work. Then I was accepted, which was fantastic. But I wasn’t really prepared to be here. My mind wasn’t in the right spot when I got off the plane.

I was ready but I wasn’t ready in a lot of ways. But I learned so much musically while I was here. Berklee taught me everything about chord structure, how to write songs, how to chart songs, how to arrange songs, how to relate to other musicians, how to be on time, how to be responsible. All of those things I learned from here. And I met an incredible amount of people while I was here, too. Susan Tedeschi was my roommate. She and I are still very good friends. That’s been 22 years in the making. I take a lot of good things from here.

What classes or teachers influenced you?

Ken Zambello was huge. He was just fantastic. And Walter Beasley was a friend to you but he made it very clear that this is a business and it’s music and when people ask you to be somewhere you need to be there on time and you need to be prepared. He was also really good with voice structures. He made it very clear that you don’t have to take a song and do Chaka Khan things to it. You can tone back and make it very simple and bring in more of the complexities from your feeling and from your heart.

What have you gained from this visit?

I’ve gained a ton. I left here a very broken person and I wasn’t real happy about coming back. To be able to be here and realize how it wasn’t really an opportunity for me to come and relive bad moments but more of an opportunity for me to understand that person who was here before needed to be buried. So it’s kind of almost like being reborn. I buried that person and let her go.

If students are going through a tough time while they’re here, what advice would you give them?

The biggest thing is to be real and truthful about it to be able to let yourself know that something’s wrong and not to bury it and not to use music as a means to necessarily heal it. Music can be used as a healer when you’re dealing with your issues but when using it as a substitute, it doesn’t work.