Famed Pianist Picks Armenian Musicians for Berklee Summer Program
For most Armenians, says Christina Azarian B.M. ‘17, being musical is simply part of their DNA. But the ability to afford a music education isn’t so commonplace.
Azarian was commenting on this bind with the celebrated Armenian pianist and composer Tigran Hamasyan when he came to Berklee last year to play the Middle Eastern Festival. He told her he wished that students back home could have access to a Berklee education, she says. It was a wish Hamasyan also discussed with President Roger H. Brown, who in turn asked him to identify two talented Armenian musicians to come to Berklee for the Five-Week Summer Performance Program, courtesy of the college.
Good News for Great Ears
“It was June when Tigran called me and casually said, ‘Hey, so I’m considering you for a program at Berklee. Can you go?’” bassist and vocalist Davit Paronikyan, 19, says. “I probably asked five times if he meant the Berklee...I was shocked.”
Drummer Arman Mnatsakanyan, 20, had a bit of fun with the news. “Well, maybe. I have to think about it,” he told his orchestra director, whom Hamasyan had contacted to inquire about Mnatsakanyan’s availability. “[The director] started explaining how great of an opportunity that was, and after five minutes I told him that I was kidding and I was stoked to go.”
Both men knew Hamasyan, having met him at workshops and musical gatherings in Yerevan, where they attended Yerevan State Conservatory.
Hamasyan first noticed Paronikyan’s talent at a master class he taught. “He was standing out with his ability to improvise and he had a very nice feel on the bass,” Hamasyan says. “He has very good ears and if he practices hard he can become a great jazz musician.”
When Hamasyan first heard Mnatsakanyan play, with one of his own former teachers, he knew that the drummer had “a fresh sound and new ideas” as well as “great ears” and needed to be “in an environment where he can share his ideas with other talented young players like him.” Mnatsakanyan, a jazz lover who comes from a family of musicians, has been playing drums since he was 12.
When Paronikyan was that age, he appeared on Junior Eurovision Song Contest 2012 with his band, winning third place. His musical preferences tend toward funk, fusion, and hip-hop.
Watch Paronikyan's Junior Eurovision performance:
Coming to Berklee
At Berklee, Paronikyan and Mnatsakanyan were both struck by the openness and lack of formality between student and professor, they say. "I am used to much stricter relationships with teachers. Faculty doing push-ups in class is nothing I have ever seen! I loved it," Paronikyan said. The relationships with these faculty, and with fellow students, was the best part of their experience. That and the cafeteria pizza, Mnatsakanyan added.
One of those experiences was a private concert that the two put on for the local Armenian community, with Professor John Baboian on guitar. “I could tell right away that they were good musicians with good musical instincts, belying their relatively young ages,” Baboian says.
That instinct and those ears also got the attention of Berklee’s scholarship office, which awarded Mnatsakanyan a partial scholarship for undergraduate study. If he’s able to fund the rest of the cost, he says, he’ll be at Berklee “in a heartbeat” after finishing conservatory. Paronikyan is also returning to the conservatory, and would like to continue playing in bands and to one day open his own recording studio.
“There is just so much talent in Armenian kids,” Azarian says. “And we want them to be able to follow their dream of pursuing music; we want them to know it's actually possible to create a career out of their passion.”