30 under 30
Just as the magazine covers only a fraction of all the newsworthy projects and noteworthy people in the Berklee universe, these 30 artists and leaders are just a sample of our many successful young alumni who are changing the music industry and the larger world of entertainment, as well as moving the needle in fields such as business and education.
They are at the vanguard of areas where Berklee alumni have traditionally excelled, such as jazz, but they can also be found at the forefront of other creative arts in which our alumni have become increasingly involved, such as film scoring, electronic music, music therapy, and theater.
Narrowing the list of Berklee's infinitely gifted alumni to 30 representatives was no easy task. Members of the Communications staff started the process in 2018 by asking faculty to nominate exceptional alumni.
In many cases, a faculty member had more than one former student to highlight.
“So hard to choose one when they all are doing amazing things in their careers! I am so proud of them!” Felice Pomeranz, a professor in the String Department, wrote after her list of nominees. We heard this often.
With help from Conservatory staff, an intracollege committee took this long list of names and tapered it to the 30 you see here, pairing each nominee with a different nominator. Behind each example is a legion of alumni who are also working in ways large and small to change music and entertainment as we know it.
Conductor Jonathon Heyward (B.M. ’14, cello) is a storyteller. Winner of the 2015 Besançon Competition for Young Conductors, recipient of a Dudamel conducting fellowship, and assistant conductor of the Hallé Orchestra, Heyward’s own story began when his middle school orchestra teacher called in sick. Chosen at random to take her place, the young cellist fell in love with the depth of the score—a love that led him, years later, to Boston Conservatory at Berklee. Andrew Altenbach, director of opera music, remembers how Heyward “always seemed, first and foremost, interested in the music, not himself or the career.”
Heyward sees a narrative embedded in each composition: “[By] carefully choosing the nuances and stresses of harmonic and rhythmic progressions,” one can tell a great story. “This, to me, is the powerful connection and responsibility we have to the audience, who are always a part of what makes live classical music so exciting.”
Nella Rojas B.M. ’15 is a wanderer. The Venezuelan singer's art travels effortlessly from Spanish flamenco to American pop to world folk music. “I started singing pop, then jazz, blues. Then I began singing in Spanish and ended up having a mixture of Venezuelan roots with Andalusian influences,” she says. “You can hear all of this in my voice.”
Her talent has won her fans such as Spanish singer Alejandro Sanz, who has performed with her, and director Asghar Farhadi, who featured her music in his 2018 film Everybody Knows. For Javier Limón, artistic director of Mediterranean Music Institute and one of Rojas’s collaborators, her approach is singular: “Nella is the voice of a new generation of musicians ready to change the rules; her balance between roots and new vanguard styles is just beautiful.”
Singer and bassist Tonina Saputo B.M. '17 has a cozy, dynamic sound that lives in the spaces between jazz, folk, and soul. Not surprisingly, the St. Louis-based artist has plenty of fans, including President Barack Obama, who put her song “Historia de un amor” on his best of 2018 list, beside tracks from Prince and Beyoncé. “It was so unexpected and I felt extremely honored,” Saputo says.
Ron Mahdi, associate professor of ensembles, says Saputo reaches audiences with a “vocal spirit and bass playing that are so fresh and modern-sounding.” This year, she toured Europe and North and South America—perfect for an artist who sings in English and Spanish. “I love that my music is allowing me to travel and meet music lovers and musicians throughout the world,” she says. “I look forward to composing more tunes based on my experiences traveling.”
Channing Shippen B.A. ’11, M.A. ’17 headed to college with two loves: music and psychology. The Ipswich, Massachusetts, native thought she would have to drop one. Instead, Shippen became one of Boston’s highly respected music therapists. “From her service as an internship director at a leading healthcare facility…to impacting the field through her research and clinical expertise in pediatrics, mental health, and advocacy, Channing is pushing the profession forward with lasting impact,” Joy Allen, chair of the Music Therapy Department, says.
For those unfamiliar with music therapy, Shippen explains that it’s about using music to bring joy, catharsis, mindfulness, and more to people battling serious illnesses. “We are not working to cure cancer; I wish music could cure cancer,” she says. “But what we can do is reduce the stress and anxiety patients have just having the diagnosis.”
If there’s spiritual successor to Joni Mitchell among millennials, it might be Adrianne Lenker B.M. ’12. The guitarist and singer demonstrates a kindred unbounded curiosity, one that finds strange surprises even in the well-trodden terrain of folk and rock.
Her Brooklyn-based band, Big Thief, is one of indie music’s most acclaimed acts, due in large part to Lenker's knack for crafting enigmatic, unexpected musical narratives. “Making friends with the unknown…all my songs are about this,” Lenker said in advance of their latest album, U.F.O.F. (the last “F” stands for “friend”). “If the nature of life is change and impermanence, I’d rather be uncomfortably awake in that truth than lost in denial.”
Lenker's insight and boldness set an important tone in the musical culture, says Abigail Aronson Zocher, a professor in the Guitar Department. "People are as transformed by her wisdom and presence as by her music.”
By age 23, Charlie Puth B.M. ’13 had built a massive audience on YouTube, signed a deal with Atlantic Records, and released one of the decade’s biggest singles. Now, four years later, Puth has not only scaled the “pop mountain,” says Professor Susan Rogers, but he has set himself up for a long career “using a clever tactical approach to become more than just a heartthrob or pop idol.”
It's an approach that's paid off: He’s a regular on the Billboard Hot 100, and his most recent album, Voicenotes, went gold just four days after its release.
Puth credits his success to a listener-first mind-set that he puts into all his work, whether he’s writing for himself or with artists such as Maroon 5, Pitbull, and CeeLo Green: “I want everything I make to be a musical rollercoaster so the listener never gets the opportunity to be bored or checked out…. You want [listeners] to be married emotionally to every musical aspect of your song.”
Since becoming the first harpist accepted to the Berklee Global Jazz Institute program, Charles Overton B.M. ’16 has only expanded his approach to the instrument. Now a well-regarded professional, the Boston-based Virginian has talent that stands out in an orchestra, a quartet, or while riffing on pop music (like his take on the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Poppa”).
“He has brilliant technical ability, perfect pitch, and is as comfortable playing jazz styles as he is in the classical world,” Professor Felice Pomeranz says. Overton knows his work has changed people’s minds about what the harp can do. “I’d be lying if I said it isn't a nice feeling to see people's surprised reactions to hearing me play jazz or groove music on the harp,” he says, adding that he wants to keep expressing himself on “everything from standards with my quartet to Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.”
Playing trumpet since age 13, Berklee City Music and Berklee College of Music alumna Arnetta Johnson B.M. ’16 has developed her “Nettabop” jazz style, influenced by hip-hop, pop, and other genres. Terri Lyne Carrington, founder of the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice, says that Johnson “understood how important it is to challenge yourself to bring your highest level of musicianship to every situation.”
Johnson joined Beyoncé for her Super Bowl halftime show in 2016, and spent 2018 touring with her and Jay-Z. Now back in her hometown of Camden, New Jersey, Johnson is focusing on her own projects, including her band, Arnetta Johnson and SUNNY. She released her debut album, If You Hear a Trumpet, It’s Me, this summer, and NPR named her one of 20 artists to watch in 2019. “It’s great doing my own music,” she says. “It’s a freeing feeling, and I have ownership of my time.”
For Charles Patterson B.F.A. '16, dance was initially a way to keep his body in shape for soccer. But the then-teenager found a new passion onstage while a student at Boston Arts Academy. “I feel like I can do anything when I’m dancing,” says the Boston Conservatory at Berklee alumnus.
After graduating, Patterson apprenticed at Complexions Contemporary Ballet in New York City. He’s now in his third season with Dallas Black Dance Theatre. “I’ve been opened up in so many different ways,” he says of his time with DBDT. “Working with so many choreographers, and doing various forms of dance, challenges my body, mind, and spirit. It’s a powerful environment.”
Tommy Neblett, dean of dance at the Conservatory, says that Patterson brought a joyful and infectious spirit to class. “He worked hard, focused on his artistry, and became an exceptionally beautiful dancer and performer," Nesblett says.
Daniel Bitran Arizpe
Many music production and engineering majors dream of jobs at Abbey Road or Capitol Studios. Daniel Bitran Arizpe B.M. '13 wanted to transform a house in the Mexican forest into a studio.
“Fresh skills from Berklee allowed us to adapt this house into a studio in a very efficient, quick, and cost-effective way,” Arizpe, who was raised in Mexico, says of El Desierto Casa-Estudio. “Berklee alumni and friends have also been crucial to the growth and success of the studio, with many Berklee alumni coming to record and work with us.”
Arizpe has earned two Latin Grammy wins and two Grammy nominations. Recently, he was nominated for another Latin Grammy, in the Album of the Year category. “Daniel has engendered a creative community around himself and set himself up for a lifelong career by being someone that people want in the room shepherding their creative vision,” says Daniel M. Thompson, assistant chair of Music Production and Engineering.
As the manager for pop star Betty Who (Jessica Newham ’13), Ethan Schiff ’12—along with the core team supporting Who at his company, Backbeat Management—is a shining example of the synergy within the Berklee community. Schiff connected with Who through her producer and cowriter, Peter Thomas ’10, shortly after the three of them finished their studies. In the years since, two other alumni have joined the crew as part of Who’s touring band: Ian Barnett B.M. ’13 on drums and Jemila Dunham B.M. ’08 on bass.
And Backbeat’s roster continues to grow. Schiff cites being people-centered as his key to success: “Every person I interact with is a human first and a musician or industry person after that.” That focus was clear to George Howard, associate professor in the Music Business/Management Department, who says, “Ethan’s success is not surprising to me. From my very first class with him, I recognized his drive, determination, and intelligence.”
After graduation, Fabiola Mendez B.M. ‘18 headed to the Boston Public Schools to “give back what was once given to me”: an opportunity to express herself through music. In addition to teaching, Mendez is pursuing a career as a cuatro player and wants to familiarize audiences in the Americas with the sound of the Puerto Rican guitar. Her latest album is about her experiences since leaving the island five years ago, and becoming the first Berklee graduate with the cuatro as a principal instrument.
“It’s super-important to keep practicing the skill I’m teaching to stay relevant and true to the art,” she says. Mendez’s commitment shows. Libby Allison, an associate professor in the Music Education Department, calls her “one of the most professional and charismatic” teachers she’s known. “Fabiola is a strong voice for the concept of music for all students, regardless of social, economic, or ethnic background.”
When it comes to career-building, Fred Choquette B.M. ’12 says, “it’s clear that very little goes to plan.” His first job, at Canadian independent concert promoter/producer Evenko, can be traced to a hallway conversation with Jeff Dorenfeld, a professor in the Music Business/Management Department. “Don’t just take an internship to fill a graduation credit; take one that will challenge you,” Dorenfeld told him, setting Choquette on a path that has included Live Nation, Snap Inc., and his own company, Drover Ventures.
Currently, he’s an associate at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company in Los Angeles, where he helps companies in consumer, technology, and media sectors tackle their toughest strategic opportunities. While Choquette couldn't have predicted his path, he says that “laying out a set of achievable goals over a defined period of time has allowed me to focus my efforts and cut out the noise.”
Grace Kelly B.M. ’12 recorded her first CD at 12, played President Obama’s inauguration at 16, and has since headlined Symphony Hall with the Boston Pops and toured two dozen countries. The Brookline-raised saxophone colossus could live comfortably in the jazz world forever (as a teen, she released albums with icons Phil Woods and Lee Konitz), but has let her sound evolve. “She plays and sings beautifully, she loves jazz tradition yet lives by her own rules,” ensembles Associate Professor Alain Mallet says.
Kelly recently expanded her aesthetic to include pop and bebop, experimental sounds, and radio-ready tunes. The jazz queen won the 2019 John Lennon Songwriting Contest’s Song of the Year for the country tune “Feels Like Home.” “Now that the days of ‘This is jazz' and ‘This is pop’ are over, I can let my muse guide me,” Kelly, who lives in New York, says. “There are no more artistic boundaries.”
On January 12, Amy Allen ’15 reached a milestone other songwriters work toward over entire careers: A song she cowrote, Halsey’s “Without Me,” hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. It likely won’t be her last chart-topper—Allen has already written material for Selena Gomez, Shawn Mendes, and half a dozen emerging acts.
“Amy worked on her songwriting to develop mad skills, takes criticism with equanimity, is extraordinarily adaptable in personal and career choices, and has created a support system of friends and family,” says Bonnie Hayes, chair of the Songwriting Department.
Allen, a Mainer who’s now based in Los Angeles, plans to pen more hits for megastars, but feels ready to focus on her solo career again. “I need to spend 20 percent of my time writing for others and 80 percent writing for myself,” she says. “I now need to find that balance that lets me build my own career.”
Khiyon Hursey '14 started his career as a music assistant for Hamilton. For some, it’s only downhill from there. But the songwriting major's talent took him from Broadway to Hollywood. Universal Pictures recently green-lit the movie musical Love in America, which Hursey cowrote, and Netflix picked up the musical TV drama Mixtape, which he also cowrote. “An original from the start, he wrote stuff in odd meters, wrote intense lyrics with true authenticity,” Professor Michael Wartofsky, who teaches musical theater, says.
Hursey is preparing to move back to Broadway. Eastbound, a musical he created with Cheeyang Ng B.M. ’13, about two brothers separated at birth, will likely premiere in 2020. “It's an exciting time in musical theater, even if it is an uphill battle for unknown artists with new ideas, but I’ve been encouraged by the reactions to everything I have been doing,” Hursey says.
Mayssa Karaa B.M. ’12 earned her first major break on the strength of an iPhone demo. It’s easy to see why: The resulting track, a startling Arabic rendition of “White Rabbit” for the 2013 film American Hustle, testifies to Karaa’s powerful voice.
Last year, Karaa broke into Bollywood with the massive A.R. Rahman–produced hit “Hayati.” And this July, the Lebanese-American singer released her debut album, Simple Cure, which fuses modern pop with Middle Eastern influences.
"It’s not always easy,” Karaa, who’s based in Los Angeles, says of her artistic journey. "There are many challenges I have to face every day, but whatever I can do each day to keep making that a reality, I’m in.”
Annette Philip, the artistic director of Berklee India Exchange, calls Karaa “a beautiful spirit and vocalist,” adding, “I'm excited to see what her journey ahead will be!”
Boston-based singer Luis Gamarra B.M. ’16 has a career that expertly blends song, video, business savvy, and social activism. His work has earned him international press and chart placements, including a no. 2 hit in his native Bolivia. His approach is exactly what the Berklee Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship highlights: musicians and entrepreneurs sharing DNA. In 2016, Gamarra partnered with BerkleeICE as a student to produce his immigration-themed song and video “Yo Soy Inmigrante.”
Panos Panay, senior vice president of innovation and strategy, and BerkleeICE founder, says that “Luis truly exemplifies the path of a creative entrepreneur. His ability to effortlessly weave together art, passion, values, and innovation have set him apart.” Gamarra’s goal has always been to “change the world through music,” saying, “that may be a challenge, but it keeps me busy and fuels my passion.”
Layth Sidiq B.M. '14, M.M. '16, has a versatility that is rooted in his childhood; his parents, accomplished classical musicians in Jordan, would have friends over to sing songs from across the Arab world. Later, at Berklee, Sidiq immersed himself in jazz and other styles. “He’s a superlative musician,” says David Wallace, chair of the String Department, “[who] goes all out in all these genres and is just so successful in everything he’s done.”
Snapped up to teach at Tufts, Sidiq is a violinist and singer with Danilo Pérez’s Global Messengers and with Javier Limón, and performs his own Arabic-jazz-classical compositions. At the same time, he’s working to bring structured musical education to those in the Arab world “who desperately need music but cannot pay for it,” he says. “We are slowly building up momentum.” This summer, working with the Kayany Foundation, he hosted workshops in Lebanon for Syrian refugee children.
Though she graduated four years ago, Michelle Golden M.A. ’15 says she’s still a student at heart in the way she takes on professional challenges: “I approach my career the same way as I think about the music industry; it’s important to keep learning, keep adapting, and growing with and from change.” Her studies have taken her to Superfly, American Association of Independent Music, Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, and to her current job as senior manager of brand marketing and communications at the Orchard in New York City.
“In addition to the executive roles she’s taken, Michelle is a great advocate of gender equality in the music business,” says Emilien Moyon, director of the Global Entertainment and Music Business program at Berklee’s campus in Valencia, Spain. Moyon notes that while a student, Golden cofounded ProjectNextUp, an initiative to spotlight stories of successful women in the music industry. “She’s a powerhouse.”
Nêgah Santos B.M. ’15 has reached the top. Sorry, she’s reached a top. But the hand percussionist won’t stop searching for new artistic and professional summits. “You could see in her face she always wanted more knowledge, she was always asking questions, pushing for more, and that shows in her playing,” says Eguie Castrillo, a professor in the Percussion Department.
Born Anne Caroline Santos Da Silva in Brazil, Santos can be seen banging out beats on a range of instruments on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. While she says the experience has been incredible on every level, she advances her craft by moonlighting in New York City’s best music clubs. “It’s my way of keeping in touch and meeting new people in the city,” she says, adding that these gigs allow her to experiment. “[My work] has evolved a lot. I’ve been transitioning from playing for others to lead myself.”
Sid Sriram B.M. ’12 was still at Berklee when A. R. Rahman recruited him to sing on the track “Adiye" for the film Kadal, kicking off a long string of Indian film collaborations with Rahman and others.
Sriram was born into a musical family in Chennai, India, and raised in California. "I first met Sid when he was eight years old,” recalls Joey Blake, associate professor in the Voice Department. "His tone was so hypnotic and his feeling so deep.”
Today, in addition to his film work, Sriram produces his own music, a fusion of R&B and Indian classical styles. Splitting his time between L.A. and Chennai, he tries to focus as little as possible on the "rat race,” and to lose himself in his work. “My most profound growth occurs when I am simply focused on (at times obsessed with) the rush that comes with creating and performing."
A Juilliard-trained violinist and singer, Olivia Dawn M.M. '15, M.M. '16, discovered electronic music production while completing two graduate degrees at Berklee’s campus in Valencia, Spain. Within two years, the Hong Kong- and London-based artist was bringing her genre-bending performances to some of the world’s biggest clubs and festivals, integrating her live violin and vocal performances into a DJ set.
Her success has been meteoric, but it’s not accidental. “Olivia has a rare quality beyond her obvious talents as a musician, composer, and performer: a drive and relentlessness, focused by self-awareness of her strengths,” says Pablo Munguía, director of Berklee’s Music Production, Technology, and Innovation program.
"The biggest challenge,” Dawn says, "is to develop a consistent routine of practicing, producing, digging for new music and recording my sets while creating an aesthetic around my brand that is underground yet relatable.”
For bassist and composer Petar Krstajic B.M. ’18, commitment is key to successful collaborations. “When I say ‘commitment,’” Krstajic, from Serbia, specifies, “I mean trust your colleagues with their visions and be with them through the hard process. Commit a part of yourself to someone else.” Some of those partners have included David Binney, Terri Lyne Carrington, and Lee Ritenour.
Krstajic also teaches bass at the Collective School of Music in New York City and was the 2018 winner of the Yamaha Six String Theory Competition in the bass category. Marko Djordjevic, assistant professor in the Percussion Department, describes Krstajic as prodigious. “Having played with some of today’s finest bass players, it is my honest opinion that Petar Krstajic is worthy of comparison.”
Alexis Scheer (B.F.A. '14, musical theater) believes in writing the kind of theater she wants to perform in. She’s directing her first off-Broadway show, Our Dear Dead Drug Lord, which opened in September at New York City’s WP Theater, in collaboration with Second Stage Theater. Scheer is the producing artistic director for Off the Grid Theatre Company, which she founded as a student. Since graduating, she has continued her work with the company while earning her M.F.A. in playwriting from Boston University. “My work is centered around the young, female Latina experience,” Scheer, who’s from Miami, says. “That’s an experience I have and understand. I feel like I can be a force in helping tell these stories.”
Andrea Southwick, associate professor of theater at the Conservatory, says, “Alexis has been an amazing artistic force for creating meaningful theater, both when she was a student at Boston Conservatory and in the years since."
Last year, Simone Torres B.M. ’15 saw the single she engineered for Cardi B, “I Like It,” go platinum. Then it went platinum again. And then five more times. Then the song was nominated for Record of the Year at the Grammy Awards, and the album it was cut from won Best Rap Album.
Torres has racked up credits working with superstars Sia, Backstreet Boys, Camila Cabello, and Ed Sheeran. "Whether I’m the vocal producer, engineer, assistant, or the intern,” says the Atlanta-based Long Island native, “I always apply the same amount of care, detail, and pride to the task at hand."
“She possesses a rare vocal gift which gives her great empathy for other singers,” says Leanne Ungar, a professor in the Music Production and Engineering Department. “In addition, she has a tremendous work ethic and a gracious, caring, sparkly demeanor.”
Will Wells '11 does everything. No, really: The Brooklyn-based film scoring/music production and engineering major from New Jersey has every aspect of the industry covered. “He arranges, he writes, he programs, he produces, he engineers, he mixes, he tames every technology on the planet, he’s a consummate businessman—heck, he even dances like a pro,” says Stephen Webber, BerkleeNYC Dean of Strategic Initiatives.
And the world has noticed. Wells has written for the Pentatonix, toured with Imagine Dragons, and helped with production on the cast recording of the Broadway smash Hamilton. For him, bouncing from one project to another seems natural: “A lot of my work comes by recommendation, and I see my fortune in that. One thing leads to the next, and you need to let it happen that way, need to be open to anything happening and be excited about that.”
The way we listen to music hasn't changed much in recent years: audio comes into a listener’s ear from one or two directions. But Yao Wang B.M. ’17, from Montreal, wants to push the limits of our listening experience. Her Vancouver-based company, ICTUS Audio, creates immersive, 360-degree compositions and soundscapes that, as she says, “put the listener in the center of a sphere of sounds, without expensive surround speakers.” Wang works with filmmakers, artists, and musicians on original scores, music production, sound design, and post-production.
"Yao has deftly combined her film and [electronic production and design] skill sets with an energetic entrepreneurialism,” says Alison Plante, chair of Berklee’s Film Scoring Department. “Her company is pushing the boundaries of spatial audio and virtual reality."
Wang says that the possibilities are so exciting they keep her up at night.
For Simon Moullier B.M. ’16, what’s important is “getting out of my comfort zone and never stopping developing my curiosity for new things,” whether in music or his career. Perhaps this explains why the Paris-born vibraphonist, producer, composer, and bandleader, who is based in New York City, often can be found playing jazz clubs around the world.
Perhaps it was this thirst for new experiences that led Moullier to pick up his first pair of vibraphone mallets in high school, after years of studying classical percussion. It might also explain why the Thelonious Monk Institute grad’s approach to the instrument is so singular and captivating. Of his former student, Professor Darren Barrett says, “His work ethic is to be admired and his talent is limitless. I believe that his forward thinking will help to propel the vibraphone into a new musical spectrum.”
As a teenager in Beijing, Xueran Chen M.M. ’14 dreamed of a career as a Chinese pop star. But earning his master’s degree at Berklee Valencia changed his path. Now, he composes theme songs and other music for feature films, shorts, and TV series, writing demo lyrics in English or Mandarin. “It’s easier to work as a composer than to be a star,” jokes Chen, who founded NEM Studios in Los Angeles.
He worked on more than 30 projects for film and television last year, including Princess Agents, one of 2017’s most popular TV series in China, with over 40 billion total views. “Xueran has what it takes to make an impact in the industry,” says Lucio Godoy, director for the Scoring for Film, Television and Video Games program. “He has knowledge of the cinematic language, discipline, reliability, and an ability to study his way through new challenges.”