Ear over Gear: Why Limitation Is the Best Teacher
As Berklee students have learned to adapt to the shift to remote learning, both in the spring and now the fall, they’ve become adept at adjusting expectations. Under the guidance of Berklee faculty and staff, ensemble performers are learning how to “futureproof” their careers, songwriters are rethinking what it means to demo their ideas in real time, and interns are gaining firsthand experience from their homes. But what about aspiring music producers and engineers, who were looking forward to working in Berklee’s 16 state-of-the-art production facilities?
For Enrique Gonzalez Müller, professor in the Music Production and Engineering Department, the loss of access to expensive gear is, dare he say it, a good thing. “Resourcefulness and having great ideas will get you much, much further than gear and the price tag on something,” Müller said.
This isn’t a new observation, but rather a touchstone of Müller’s teaching philosophy. It’s not the gear that he finds issues with, but the way students think about gear. He wants his students to use their equipment to add flavor rather than rely on it to create a professional and emotionally resonant song.
“When the resources aren’t available, it creates fear,” he said, adding that he saw this reaction in students in the spring. But, he stressed, this fear was both necessary and temporary. “My anticipations [about the spring shift to remote] came true: students will be shocked, go from shock to fear to bummed out, then find new energy for new things, then timid discovery, and finally to the blossoming of excitement,” he said.
Müller’s ability to be objective about the toll the switch would take on students prepared him to be there for them every step of the way. It also helped that his classes were designed in such a way that moving online wasn’t as disruptive as it could have been. He said he has a “personal policy” of never talking about a concept that he can’t demonstrate, which means he has years of assets and examples stored digitally, ready to be deployed. And with classes happening over the internet, he found that he could teach, demo, and then have students actually work on projects, a process that he hasn’t been able to achieve in a classroom. “This is better than the classroom. There are live reactions to student work—everyone’s engaged at the same time,” he said. “I shortened three weeks of iteration into an hour and a half.”
“No one is limitless. The embrace of a limitation is your signature.”
—Enrique Gonzalez Müller
Take Müller’s Vocal Production and Mixing for Musicians course from this past spring. How is a vocal producer supposed to engineer a successful session with a vocalist when they can’t work on location with the vocalist? This challenge allowed Müller the chance to really push the idea that, as he put it, no one is limitless, and that when students explore their limitations they discover not just alternative solutions but their own voice. “The embrace of a limitation is your signature,” he said.
For one of his students, Emanuel Keller, this meant using his own vocals in order to finish a production and mixing project for the artist Miki Xu. The problem was that Keller had never sung before, and didn’t really consider singing to be an option. But his openness to the limitation gave him a sense of freedom and confidence, and he was able to successfully complete the project in a way he could never have foreseen.
That experience gave Keller the tools to finish the song’s production the way he had originally envisioned—which Müller learned when Keller sent him the link to the song on Spotify.
Watch the video for "Burning Slow" by Miki, mixed and produced by Emanuel Keller:
At the end of the spring semester, Müller noticed that the students had surpassed their own expectations. Turns out he was right: by owning their limitations, students were able to overcome them. A few weeks after the course ended, Müller held a check-in over Zoom, and amidst the casual conversation about favorite food and new movies, he said, “I heard organically the repercussions of the course, with students saying, ‘I’m free. I’m boundless now. I’m not bound by fear.’”