New Lessons: Berklee Alumni Craft the Future of Music Education

By 
Bryan Parys
August 10, 2015
Students jamming at So.i.Heard House of Music
Sean Killary '10 and Sam Morgan '11
Justin Nihiser '04
School of Rock students gather in a common area.
Students jam at So.i.Heard House of Music, a private lesson school opened by Berklee alumni Sam Morgan '11 and Sean Killary '10.
Sean Killary '10 (left) and Sam Morgan '11 (right) cofounded So.i.Heard House of Music in July 2013.
Justin Nihiser '04 launched a successful School of Rock site in Atlanta, Georgia, and now serves as a franchise director for the company.
School of Rock students gather to chat and jam in a common area.

While a Berklee education is often thought of in terms of what it allows students to do, for many alumni, it’s the way they learned that is equally inspiring. Several Berklee alumni—including those below—have taken this experience with the Berklee way of learning into the world of private music lessons in order to find new ways to innovate and build on that traditional model.

The Educator and the Entrepreneur

After graduating from Berklee in 2011, professional music major Sam Morgan '11 moved back to his hometown of Millburn, New Jersey, to start teaching music lessons. Realizing that his trusty iPad could centralize a lot of the rote material of the lesson, he began working his tablet into each session, drawing deeply on his three years in Berklee’s music education program. The result? The kids took to it instantly. Morgan’s student roster went from 5 to 10 to 30 to 40 in just a couple months.

The key was the technology; Morgan observed that the traditional private music lesson lacked an emphasis on the digital landscape. “It’s just a game-changer for these kids,” Morgan says. “The immersion in the technology makes a huge difference in their motivation to practice and their excitement about the lessons in general.”

In the summer of 2012, Morgan chatted with friend and Berklee bandmate Sean Killary ’10, who sought to relocate back to New Jersey, his home state, after being in Boston since he graduated with majors in music production and engineering (MP&E) as well as music business/management. Killary drove to New Jersey, and over pizza at Morgan’s home, the two developed a business plan, informed by Killary’s production savvy and business acumen, to take Morgan’s work to the next level.

By July of 2013—just two years since Morgan had started teaching lessons—the pair had opened So.i.Heard House of Music, a private lesson school, generally for the K-12 age range, that combines musical rigor with a deep focus on technology. “We have kids that are six-years old-writing songs in Logic and GarageBand,” Killary says. “It’s crazy.” Just like the traditional private lesson, a student meets for their weekly lesson with their regular instructor, but with the added benefit of learning in a dedicated facility outfitted with jam rooms and production studios.

A Berklee-Infused Vision for the Future

For Killary and Morgan, the future is about growth. The team has expanded its faculty, many of whom are Berklee alumni, added a music therapy program managed by Brooke Slemmer ’10, and brought in Geoff Mutchnik ’12 as the school’s technical director. Further, the school is already sourcing funding for three more site schools, and within 10 years, they hope So.i.Heard will have risen to a national scale.

The duo is proud to admit that the seeds of this idea started at Berklee, where they both took advantage of the college’s emphasis on cutting edge innovation. Berklee’s own City Music program, which has dozens of schools in the U.S. and Canada aimed primarily at underserved populations, has been championing the cause of staying relevant to students of all ages for over twenty years. It’s “impossible to ignore the influence,” Morgan says of his Berklee training. Also, Killary points out that the So.i.Heard curriculum “translates very, very well if the student then wants to go on to Berklee past high school.”

Rock the Classroom

In 2007, Justin Nihiser ’04 reached a turning point in his career, but where that career was turning was still somewhat to be determined. After completing his Berklee degree with a major in professional music in 2004, Nihiser gave himself a goal: within three years, he wanted to be working full-time in a music-related field. Up to that point, he’d been writing and placing jingles on the side, and had otherwise stayed active in the music world, so when he saw an ad for someone to launch a School of Rock site school in his current home city of Atlanta, Georgia, he applied and was hired as the site’s director.

Nihiser had first been introduced to the School of Rock through a 2005 documentary he’d seen about the school and its founder, Paul Green, called Rock School. In the film, Nihiser learned that just teaching lessons to kids (and adults) wasn’t enough. “Students really had to play in a group (in this case, a rock band),” Nihiser says, in order to “experience the broad range of music.” So in addition to their weekly private lesson, each School of Rock student (ages seven to 18 and older) also meets for a weekly band rehearsal. Similar to Morgan and Killary’s “a-ha” moment regarding technology, Nihiser knew that School of Rock was onto something that was changing the way kids learned not just about their chosen instrument, but about music as a multi-faceted force in the world. 

The philosophy immediately resonated with Nihiser, as he points out that “School of Rock is very similar to Berklee in its performance aspect in knowing that you can only learn how to do it by doing it—rehearsing and playing together as a band.” And beyond the music, Nihiser cites his training at Berklee as directly related to his ability to open and run a successful business like School of Rock. He sees the whole process through the lens of building a groove, saying, “It’s not just like, ‘put this here, play this note, do this;’ it’s an understanding of why these things work together.”

This understanding has continued to aid Nihiser in his career, as he’s since moved beyond his position at the Atlanta location and is now one of four franchise directors at School of Rock, covering around 75 site schools nationally. Meanwhile, he has continued to commercially license his own music, and he has placed his music in more than 150 television shows, a handful of films, and advertising campaigns for companies such as Chevy, Coke, and Burger King, among others.

“As a student you never know which class you take will inform your career at some point,” Nihiser says. With so much of the Berklee curriculum in the back of his mind, when it was time to embark on his career, he says, “the tools were there and I was ready to use them.”