Eight Tips from Alumni on Building and Sustaining Your Career

By 
Bryan Parys
April 26, 2018

Advice and insights from alumni in the music industry and beyond.

Alumni Achievement Award honorees pose for a group photo
The 2018 Alumni Achievement awardees, from left to right: Eugene Gearty, Susan Tedeschi Trucks, Tim Cushman, Stephen Oremus, Cristina Abaroa, Robert Vega, Makeba Riddick-Woods, and Mihail Jojatu.
Image by Kelly Davidson

From Rihanna to Avenue Q, Chicago classrooms to sushi, Berklee alumni are excelling in engaging careers in all kinds of industries. The Office of Alumni Affairs recently honored eight alumni with Alumni Achievement Awards, bringing the group to campus for a day of reconnecting, networking, video shoots, a reception, and an awards ceremony. Each honoree took some time to share their highlights from their career journeys, offering advice for young artists on everything from the need for arts-education programming in American public schools to what it's like to audition for coveted slots in organizations such as the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Cristina Abaroa

Cristina Abaroa '91

Composer; Talent Coordinator; Executive Producer

On expanding her career opportunities beyond her initial training as an arranger:

“I didn’t have an agenda. When I meet with new students, I tell them, be open to opportunities because you never know what your next call is going to be.”


Chef and entrepreneur Tim Cushman

Tim Cushman '80

Chef; Restaurateur (O Ya, Hojoko, Covina)

On the intersection of food and music:

“The commonality of music and food is layering. So, if you have harmony—it’s picking which notes work well together and which ones don’t, and should I add this note here or should I not. It’s the exact same thing with flavor. You don’t want too many notes and you don’t want to have to few. You just try to hit your target with exactly the right amount.”


Sound designer and editor Eugene Gearty

Eugene Gearty '82

Sound Designer; Sound Editor (film credits include Life of Pi; O Brother, Where Art Thou?; Gangs of New York)

On finding an aesthetic:

“What is art to you? What is quintessential, or pleasing, or not pleasing? You have to have something when they turn the spotlight on and say, ‘What do you got?’ and it has to come from somewhere. If you’re a chef and all you’ve eaten is McDonald’s, how are you going to do it?” So to create, if you put less restrictions on yourself early, and let things come to you, eventually you will develop this sense of aesthetic that is valuable to you because it’s nurturing to you, and it helps the project, and it’s not just work anymore—it’s creating.”


Cellist Mihail Jojatu speaks on an alumni panel at Career Jam

Mihail Jojatu (G.P.D. '99, Cello)

Cellist, Boston Symphony Orchestra

On what it takes to land a job with an orchestra:

“One day the BSO job opened, and I took the audition—there were about 350 applicants. So it got down to two after a couple of days, and then I got the job. In our field, it’s really very important to know that the most prepared person will win a job. Not necessarily the most talented. Whoever is most prepared, that’s who will win a job in an orchestra. It’s very important to follow your instincts and know exactly where your place is.”


Broadway music director, arranger, and conductor Stephen Oremus

Stephen Oremus B.M. '92

Music Supervisor; Arranger; Orchestrator (shows include Kinky Boots, The Book of Mormon, Wicked, Avenue Q)

On collaborating to make a successful Broadway show:

“I’m in a very communicative role. It’s really about communicating and collaborating with all these different people. The director is usually the final word, but you’re also working with producers and actors and choreographers and musicians and sound designers, so to me it really is about finding that communication and collaboration. In the end, we need to all come together and make a product that everyone is proud of.”


Songwriter Makeba Riddick-Woods

Makeba Riddick-Woods '99

Songwriter; Producer (song credits: Beyoncé, Rihanna, Selena Gomez, and others)

On finding success as a songwriter:

“For every songwriter, it starts with yourself, the story starts with you, and then an A&R person or manager hears it and thinks ‘this could work for my artist…’ Be true to your own emotions first, even if you’re writing a song for another artist, think about what you’re going through and how that could resonate with other people. Secondly, know the business, and know how to get your songs heard. Finally, trust the process.”


Guitarist and singer-songwriter Susan Tedeschi Trucks

Susan Tedeschi Trucks B.M. '91

Guitarist; Singer-Songwriter (Tedeschi Trucks Band)

On finding inspiration for blues songs:

“There’s so much going on in the world that it’s hard to not be inspired. You can draw off a lot of things like current events, actual tragedies—anything from fires to natural disasters, those can be a source of inspiration. And just hearing people’s stories. I’ve always been one for justice and standing up for truth and standing up for those who don’t have what you have. So, that’s always easy to find something to write about.”


Music educator Robert Vega

Robert Vega B.M. '06

Director of Bands, Chicago Noble Networks of Charter Schools

On the value of music education:

“I work at a school with a 95 percent poverty rate. A lot of these kids come in with emotional baggage. One of the things that I learned while [at Berklee] was how to motivate these kids to be successful in life. I think that that through music and what I do on a regular basis, I give these kids an opportunity to really look beyond themselves so that they can ensure that they will be successful, whether they decide to continue with music or whether they go into something completely different.”

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