Berklee City Music Boston and Boston Arts Academy Nurture Students Together

Through a longstanding, mutually beneficial relationship, Boston Arts Academy and Berklee City Music Boston offer underserved high school students in Boston the chance for an innovative arts education.

May 11, 2017

Students and teachers filled the hallways of Boston Arts Academy (BAA) early on a mid-March Saturday morning, chatting amid strains of music filtering from the practice rooms that lined the brightly painted corridors. They were between classes for the Berklee City Music Mentoring Program and the Berklee City Music Preparatory Academy, which hold Saturday lessons at BAA during the school year. An innovative visual and performing arts high school, BAA was formed 19 years ago through the collaboration of Boston Public Schools and the ProArts Consortium, seven Boston institutions of higher education, including Berklee, whose mutual goal is to promote the arts in the local community and beyond.

Berklee's Associate Vice President of Comunity and and Government Relations J. Curtis Warner Jr. B.M. '76, who was instrumental in the creation of Berklee City Music, also helped found BAA, and the goals of BAA and Berklee City Music Boston are so well aligned, it isn't surprising that musicians from underserved communities throughout the city often find themselves involved in both. 

City Music Boston provides numerous opportunities for kids beginning in grade school to attend music classes and private lessons. A musical journey that may start with the City Music Mentoring Program in third grade can continue through the City Music Prep Academy (fourth through eighth grade) and the City Music High School Academy (ninth through 12th grade). Many of the BAA's 180 music students have been a part of one or more of these programs, and through the City Music Mentoring Program and City Music Prep Academy classes at BAA, they get a chance to see an option for high school, too. (City Music Boston classes and lessons that don't take place at BAA are held on Berklee's campus). This unique bond has grown into the frequent exchange of music programming and staff, and the sharing of physical space and emotional and academic support for students. 

Greg Holt, director of the academies for City Music Boston and a full-time teacher at BAA, can quickly list multiple City Music ensembles and private lessons that take place at BAA, and points out that even the actual building bears marks of the BAA/City Music collaboration in the colorful musicians' portraits on the walls, images that were chosen by City Music students in the summer of 2015. “The dual use of all the space is very powerful and positive,” he says, emphasizing how crucial it is that all of BAA’s resources get used, including a new electronic production lab and two new recording studios. In addition to the shared space, this collaboration creates shared goals: many BAA students apply to Berklee and for the City Music Summer Scholarship.

“The Berklee mark has always been a powerful draw for our students.” —Greg Holt

As the enrollment and advising manager of Berklee City Music Boston, Kasey Cox spends a lot of time with students. “Finding people who love music as much as you do can mean everything,” she says of the community at BAA, emphasizing that, just like City Music, it’s a place focused on student involvement and success. Therefore, BAA is academically blind, with no required GPA or test scores for admittance, and the faculty and staff eagerly offer counseling on both academics and music. They strive year-round to address students’ challenges and help with scholarship and college applications when the time comes. This approach fits with the school’s shared values: community with social responsibility, diversity with respect, passion with balance, and vision with integrity.

The following three students embody these values and are a testament to how well BAA and City Music work together to promote creative, driven individuals.

Making Music for the People

A BAA 11th-grader from Boston, Donte Harrison got involved in City Music High School Academy his sophomore year, thanks to Holt’s encouragement after seeing Harrison's band perform, and he has been a part of the program ever since. He has found the focus on ensembles and theory at BAA and in City Music invaluable in improving his performance skills and his ability to make original music. Currently a member of the Vocal and Motown ensembles, and studying theory and electronic production through City Music, he says, “I can’t tell you the amount of new music I listen to because I go to BAA and Berklee City Music. There’s a lot of diversity, which helps me grow as an artist and really makes a difference in the type of person you grow into.”

As a rapper and hip-hop musician, Harrison considers himself a voice for the voiceless. With his group, 20/20, he aims to blend different kinds of sounds with his unique hip-hop spin. “I find myself walking home from school listening to jazz and ‘70s pop because of my experiences at BAA and City Music,” he says. “There are some really great artists at both, and it inspires me to go even harder with my music….I try to work as hard as I can to make a cohesive body of work each time I make a song, or even working in ensembles. You have to make sure you're working as hard, or even harder, than the person standing next to you.” 

When he leaves BAA, Harrison plans to attend college while pursuing his career as a rapper. He wants to put the Boston rap scene on the map while being “one of those artists actually working on making an impact and inspiring change.” As he says, “The world is in a dark time right now. Art speaks louder than anything. I will help our voices be heard.”

Making Connections In and Out of the Classroom

Tamy Carrasquillo, an 11th-grader from West Roxbury, joined City Music when she was 12. She has participated in City Music Prep Academy and the City Music Mentoring Program, and took a class at Berklee during the spring 2017 semester. She has found “balance and connection” to be the most important elements of all of this study. “The theory class in City Music helps me appreciate jazz theory and its purpose,” she says. “With the extra help, it encourages me in my BAA theory classes to comprehend what is going on.” Carrasquillo’s ear training class at Berklee assisted her with this as well by showing her what a college course is like, in addition to teaching her about her range as a singer.

Last summer, Carrasquillo's job through Mayor Marty Walsh’s Boston Center for Youth and Families Division of Youth Engagement and Employment helped her expand upon her musical knowledge in a completely new way. She worked with the Boys & Girls Club and Hyde Square Task Force to raise awareness about topics that are important in their communities. She says, “Some of these conversations were about sensitive topics like police brutality, slavery, immigrants, and the Black Lives Matter movement. The best part about this job was that we used our art in order to introduce ourselves, whether it be a poem or a song.” 

“BAA’s atmosphere has taught me that it is up to you to find your own passion in [your] instrument and fight for that solo or gig. City Music is different because they focus more on positivity and making sure each student is heard. This is also very important because some kids may need that push to find who they are.” —Tamy Carrasquillo

Now that Carrasquillo can engineer a song, thanks to a recent lab session with Linwood Harper, she’s looking forward to spending this summer creating and recording her own music. Her future goal is to attend Berklee and get a degree in performance and possibly music business/management. None of this, she says, would be possible without the combination of her studies at BAA and City Music. “I have grown to find my voice and who I am through these programs. Singing is not just about sounding like another artist, but about making your own voice, with purpose, to make the world a better place.”

Building Relationships through Beats

Boston 10th-grader Dashawn Borden is an R&B, hip-hop, and jazz drummer who has been performing since he was 10. He first got involved with the City Music Mentoring Program through the Boys & Girls Club of Dorchester. Now that he’s at BAA and continuing with City Music, he’s taken classes such as Theory 1 and R&B Ensemble, and had private lessons. He appreciates being a part of the “very friendly musical community of young people” he's met. A key part of Borden’s experience was the time he spent at the 2016 Five-Week Summer Performance Program as a City Music Summer Scholar. In addition to the musicianship classes, private lessons, and drum circles, he says, “We would hang out outside the school and play music. One of my friends would set up his sax, and I had a beat machine, and we would make music throughout the downtown area. I got to expose a lot of kids that were from different parts of the world to Boston culture.” He left the Five-Week program with close friends from such nations as Barbados, Switzerland, and Japan, and these friendships endure to this day.

Borden considers his relationships at BAA and City Music crucial as well. “The community focus definitely creates young professionals and develops a very elite music community. I feel like, especially despite what goes on in society, it’s important to create those kinds of communities to impact younger generations.” His studies have helped him not only with his musical technique and his ability to perform with others, but also taught him to communicate more effectively with all kinds of people with various perspectives. City Music also helped him develop his time-management skills, which are put to good use with all of the practice time he puts in on the drums. 

Although Borden’s college plans don’t currently include music (he wants to study biology and economics, though he is also considering other options), he will still pursue music somehow, saying, “My drum set’s always going to be there as long as I keep putting in the practice.” He’s thankful for the City Music community that got him started and has encouraged him on this path.