Good Neighbors: Berklee, Partners Harness Music to Better Boston

From free summer concerts to programs for local youth, Berklee’s Office of Community Affairs and Campus Engagement helps the college be a good Boston-area neighbor.

August 8, 2014

On Thursday, August 7, 2014, frenzied flourishes from Puerto Rican percussionist Frankie Rodriguez and his band, Homenaje a la Salsa, floated in the warm summer air in Boston’s South End. Rodriguez’s dance-ready rhythms drew flocks of neighbors to O’Day Park, where they enjoyed a delightful summer evening with one another. The concert was part of the annual Tito Puente Latin Music Series and Berklee’s Summer in the City concert series—and one of many ways in which Berklee partners with Boston-area institutions to enrich the city’s cultural cache.

The City Streets Are Alive with the Sound of Music

When Berklee reaches out into Boston neighborhoods with music, those neighborhoods respond, says Ryan Woods, director of external affairs for Boston Parks and Recreation. Woods says his office has been fielding phone calls asking if the Tito Puente Latin Music Series—a partnership between the city, Berklee, and Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción—can be expanded into additional neighborhoods.

“We’re constantly getting phone calls the day after performances,” Woods says. “Especially in the summer months, people can’t necessarily afford to go away, or to go to a ball game at Fenway Park, or to a music hall where concert tickets are just too expensive.”

That’s where Berklee comes in, Woods says, “by bringing quality entertainment and artistic performances into the neighborhoods so people can get full access and be exposed to this kind of thing that they wouldn’t necessarily be able to do on their own.”

The Tito Puente series is just one example of this dynamic in action, and Abria Smith, ‘97, associate director of Community Affairs and Campus Engagement (CACE), notes that when Berklee supplies music for those in Boston and beyond, the college benefits as well.

“If we can pay a student band to perform, that not only adds to the quality of the event, it also gives our students some professional experience—and some much-needed income, of course,” says Smith, a Boston-born Berklee graduate who studied at the college thanks to a scholarship through the Berklee City Music program. “But most importantly, it strengthens the sense that we’re a community and we’re working together and for each other.”

In fact, Berklee’s sharing of talented musicians is just one of many ways that the college aims to be a great neighbor.

The Joy of Music and the Next Generation

If Berklee is going to benefit from many of Boston’s resources, Smith says, then it should also give back with some resources of its own. One of the primary ways the college does this is via a community service work-study program that sends Berklee students to deliver lessons to youth at “music clubhouse” partner sites such as the Blue Hill Boys and Girls Club in Dorchester, the West End House Boys and Girls Club in Allston, the Roxbury Boys and Girls Club, the Boys and Girls Club of Dorchester, Sociedad Latina in Mission Hill, and Hyde Square Task Force in Jamaica Plain.

“It’s a two-way street,” Smith says. “The youth in these programs aren’t the only ones who are learning something; it helps our Berklee students to strengthen their teaching skills. Some students who have taken on jobs at the clubhouses have discovered the teacher inside.”

Brianna Cox ’12 is one such example. Cox, a contemporary writing and production major while at Berklee, was a CACE work-study student at the West End House in Allston. Now, this alumna works as the West End House’s music clubhouse director, where she imparts enthusiasm for music in kids as young as seven years old. These kids can learn everything from how to play guitar, drums, bass, and keyboard; to how to sing; to how to use contemporary digital equipment in the music recording, mixing, and production process.

“Berklee students share very extensive knowledge with kids who come here for free that would otherwise have to pay $60 elsewhere for one similar lesson,” Cox says. “More than half of the kids we service are below the poverty line, so we’re bringing to them what their families could not afford elsewhere.”

Cox finds herself excited every time a child in the program discovers the joy in music.

“Berklee has given me the tools and West End House has fashioned me into a responsible musician who can impact these kids,” she says.

Good Music Makes Good Neighbors

In addition to supplying student teachers to programs like Cox’s throughout the area, Berklee’s CACE office is involved in a number of other neighborly activities: donating instruments to schools and other nonprofit organizations; donating tickets to senior centers and other groups; sharing the college’s performance space with other institutions for fundraisers (such as, for instance, a recent benefit in support of the music therapy program in Mass General Hospital’s Cancer Center); active engagement in neighborhood associations; and, of course, more than 200 free summer concerts.

For Smith, these concerts are an opportunity to disprove the old epigram—one which surely does not ring true at Berklee—that “good fences make good neighbors.”

“It doesn’t matter where you came from,” Smith says. “Music can bring people together and break down walls.”

See for yourself at one of Berklee’s upcoming summer concerts.