Scene at Berklee: Michael League

The Grammy-winning Snarky Puppy bandleader spoke on crafting an authentic sound in a master class with the Berklee Snarky Puppy Ensemble.

February 25, 2020

Scene at Berklee presents snapshots and stories from the hundreds of clinics, workshops, performances, and other events that take place in our community year-round.

There are a handful of artists who have amassed a kind of cult following and appreciation in the Berklee universe—hip-hop legend J Dilla, for instance, or underground R&B pioneer Micki Miller—the sorts of acts students form ensembles to explore more deeply. Judging by the packed Friday audience assembled at the Red Room at Cafe 939 for a master class with Michael League, bandleader and bassist for the Grammy-winning band Snarky Puppy, it’s clear his omnivorous jazz/funk/rock group has struck a similar chord with the Berklee crowd.

The session began with a performance by the college’s Snarky Puppy Ensemble, which League praised enthusiastically: “If my band sounded like this when I was in college, we’d be a lot better off now.” League then offered a wealth of wisdom that ranged from highly practical arrangement tips (“challenge yourselves to keep a thread through everything”) to exhortations to understand each moment of a song (“every four bars you should be able to write a dissertation on”) to reflections on the “98 percent human stuff”—musicianship, responsibility, and attitude—that plays a crucial role in a person’s success in the music industry.

Much of League’s advice centered on how to avoid appropriation in music like Snarky Puppy’s, which pays homage to a diverse set of influences. “If all we did was take the things we like from all these different genres and played them like a wedding band...then that 'A' word would come up more.” Ultimately, the goal is to push into new and more personally authentic ways to relate to the music that inspires them. “Not being different to be different, but being different to be you, because you are different."

Learn more: Berklee’s Ensemble Department offers the largest selection of ensemble opportunities of any college in the world, from Afro-pop and bebop to bluegrass and funk.

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