President Roger Brown's Orientation Journal
The president spends a week getting oriented.
In order to better understand the Berklee student experience, President Roger Brown decided to go back to school this semester, his first fall at the college. Roger went through orientation and registration and wrote about his experiences throughout the week on this page. Read Roger's impressions and observations below, such as his take on the tension of auditions, including his own; a freewheeling lunch conversation with 15 students; a battle with his student mailbox; and a final convocation day that inspired ruminations on the importance of openness toward all people and musical styles.
Sunday, August 29th, 2004
The Evening Before...
It dawned on me that exactly 30 years ago, I loaded up my parents' car and we drove off to North Carolina for my first year of college. My high school Spanish teacher was sure I was going to fail. My math teacher was more optimistic and thought I would blossom. My girlfriend took off in the other direction for her college in Florida, only to meet a scholarship baseball player early in the year and leave me in the dugout.
I attended Davidson College, a small liberal arts college near Charlotte where it was unusual to unload a drum set into your dorm room. My roommate Bruce's parents watched with some fascination and much alarm as the gold flame Slingerland drums occupied a large percentage of the room. Bruce was unfazed and went about setting up the nerf basketball net—a sport in which he was dominant—and to this day, after rooming together four straight years, we are close friends.
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
I couldn't help but wonder how many of the entering students I met today would make best friends of roommates, ensemble partners, and study companions and look back with the same nostalgia in 2034. Today at Berklee, where Marjorie O'Malley of the Advancement Office and I met parents and students as they settled into their dorm rooms, one enterprising young drummer had all his hardware loaded into a golf bag. Why didn't I think of that? Now all he needs is a caddy.
Going off to college is a powerful and formative transition in a person's life. In most other countries around the world, the majority of students continue to live at home during college (as will some Berklee students). But it is a uniquely American tradition that so many young people leave home, take up residence in dorms and apartments, and begin living on their own. And at Berklee, we welcome just shy of a thousand international students to this ritual.
Many scholars have written about how college in the U.S. is as much about maturation and independence as it is about education in a narrow sense. For many of us, it is when we find out who we are, what we enjoy, what we believe, what we hope to become, and the kind of people we will invite along with us on our journey. And in many other countries, the most challenging phase of education is during the high school years, with college being a less pressured time. In the American system, college is more demanding, more pressured, and for most, the time of greatest learning.
So, as just under 900 new students arrive at Berklee to begin their journey, I begin my new path as president of this wonderful place. This coming week, I am simulating the experience of being one of these students. Tomorrow morning I will register, get my PReSS Card and begin the week of entering Berklee with the new class.
Like many of you, I am one part nervous and nine parts thrilled to be at Berklee. I hope that over the next four years, we can learn a great deal together: You, about how to pursue the passions that brought you to Berklee in the first place, and me, about how to create a Berklee that even more effectively gives you the tools, the skills, and the inspiration to realize your dreams.
See you tomorrow!
(alias Roger A. Student)
Monday, August 30th, 2004
My new student experience formally began today after the parent orientation. I picked up my PReSS card and tried to figure out how to navigate through the day. I must admit that following directions has never been my strong suit. But I managed to get to the BPC sessions on "Charting Your Course," on the counseling center, on instrumental studies orientation, and then my CLEFSS session. I liked the mix of rousing student encouragement and solid staff and faculty explanation of how the systems of Berklee work. I purposely sat far in the back and tried to be as inconspicuous as a 47 year-old can be in a sea of young musicians. I could already sense the legendary energy and enthusiasm of Berklee students, even when we're a little nervous and unsure.
Like most orientations, you are aware that about 90% of what you need to know goes in one ear and out the other because you just don't even know enough to take it in. But Sandra Iannuzzi totally impressed me with the span of her knowledge about how Berklee works and how the classes fit together. I sat with Alyssa Tumino, an entering marimba player from Danbury, Connecticut who seemed very charged up to be at Berklee, and if she was intimidated at all by the process, she sure didn't show it.
I enjoyed Sara Regan's survey of the audience during her talk about the counseling center. I'm guessing we had 75% of the students who applied ONLY to Berklee. About one-third seemed to have earned college credits elsewhere before coming. About 40% didn't sleep well last night. My guess is that those in non-air-conditioned rooms were among that group. I won't make many promises, but I will promise to deliver cooler weather real soon. Most new students didn't know others at the college before coming. We are like moths to a light bulb—not attracted by prior friendships, not driven here by parental pressure, but drawn almost magnetically to a community of people who want to create music, share music, hear music, and live music.
Erin Barra and Nick MacDonald were my student facilitators of the CLEFFS group. I was late! I had gotten engaged in many parent discussions after the parent orientation session and missed lunch. So around 3:30, I rushed over to Wendy's for a chicken sandwich—which struck me as the right thing to do in my student-simulation mode. And of course I bumped into lots of students and faculty and then couldn't figure out how to get to the 4th floor of 136 Mass Ave. In any event, the group was forgiving and we jumped right in. Erin and Nick asked each person to write down something he or she was worried about on a card. Then we passed them in and they read them aloud. This was good because the concern wasn't attached to any one person, but we probably all shared some of the same thoughts.
One person worried about not getting into MP&E, which is one of the only majors in which you must be formally admitted. Another worried about failing out. One about losing motivation and not making the most of the Berklee experience. One was concerned about how a classical background would translate at Berklee. One about "undesired solitude" which I interpreted as, "Will I make friends and feel part of a community here?" One worried about improvising, and one about getting lost. I don't know if the person meant literally getting lost (which I had just done on my way to the meeting and was really not so bad), or about the deeper, more existential kind of getting lost.
I certainly remember my sophomore year in college when I read a little bit too much Sartre and Camus and pondered the ultimate meaning of life so late at night that I would intentionally fall asleep at a desk in the back of my math class to be sure I didn't miss the torturous eight o'clock class. In retrospect, a little more sunlight and a little more sleep might have been a healthier diet than Beat Poets and French Existentialists, but we probably all have to go through a time of challenging our own most fundamental assumptions about who we are and what we believe.
I couldn't help but think the most terrifying part of all this must be the audition in which I get assigned a number that reduces all that I love, all that I have learned, all that I am capable of musically to a one digit number. Everyone did a great job of explaining how this is for my own good, how it places us into the appropriate level ensembles, how you can audition repeatedly and bring up your rating, how it's no big deal. But it feels like a big deal. I did notice that I was not the only one on my row tapping out the sample sight reading charts during the presentations.
As I exited the BPC at the end of my helpful and slightly overwhelming orientation, I saw a fellow student with a great t-shirt that read: "Rock is Dead. Long Live Paper and Scissors!" Despite that headlline, I get the sense that rock is alive and well at Berklee—as is jazz, Latin, world music, blues, hip-hop, reggae, classical and new stuff we haven't even named yet. I can't wait to find out more.
Tuesday, August 31st, 2004
The first order of business today was to learn what our foreign students go through with the additional hurdles U.S. Immigration creates. I joined the queue and proceeded to meet those in line with me, including students from Korea, Japan, Germany, Brazil, Ireland, the UK and Argentina. Berklee has a tradition, almost as old as the college itself, of reaching out to international students. I think this is one of our most powerful attributes. We bring together talented musicians from around the world—almost 1,000 international students representing, at last count, 78 countries.
Throughout history, there have been fertile periods when an amazing flourishing of art or science occurred. Think of Alexandria 2,000 years ago, or Florence 500 years ago, or Paris in the first part of the 20th century. For instance, over 1,500 years before Columbus' voyage, a librarian and mathematician in the North African city of Alexandria named Eratosthenes not only knew the earth was round, but predicted its circumference to within a few hundred miles, using elegant geometric techniques.
The places that spawned these revolutionary hothouses of new ideas were characterized by large populations of gifted people from all over the world who congregated in artistic or scientific communities. Berklee has the opportunity to become such a place—for the world of contemporary music. The new forms of music that will sweep the 21st century are likely to be global fusions of disparate musical traditions. We can cook up this gumbo at Mass. Ave. and Boylston.
Next I descended into the basement of the Uchida building to observe the percussion auditions. I suppose that even in the days of cave dwellers, there must have been a basement cave, in which the hollow log beaters were forced to practice. Here at least 20 young drummers sat on the floor prepping for their moment of truth. Some dealt with the anxiety by hammering their practice pads with ferocious intensity; other aspired to Zen-like tranquility. There were stick twirlers, stick bouncers, and a few who seemed close to comatose from jet lag or late-night dorm sessions.
But I got to chatting with a young percussionist named Jennie Merullo, and she mentioned that she had taught my son! It turns out Jennie had studied with Mark Kohler, who runs the music program at Belmont High School, and Mark had subsequently enlisted her to work with students. Mark, naturally, studied here at Berklee.
The whole idea of the audition and the rating is enough to get your attention, but on top of that, drum auditions are hardly a private matter. As we waited, we could hear the young lions who covered every lick Dave Weckl ever laid down. I could sense that many of the students were tempted to over-reach, to try stuff that they hadn't really mastered as a result of this.
Three students graciously offered to let me observe their auditions. The faculty worked hard to put them at ease, to establish some rapport, to give them a chance to show what they had prepared and not pull out any sadistic sight-reading assignments.
Ryan McBride was one of the students gracious enough to let me sit in on his audition. His prepared piece was Steely Dan's "Aja," with the famous Steve Gadd drum solo. I admired his chutzpah, to choose such a formidable piece. When asked why he selected it, he observed that this song is one of the very few popular songs in history with an extended drum solo in it. Needless to say, this is an important insight for drummers.
But we were all still tied in knots. After about an hour, I just had to get out of there. I felt like an anxiety sponge, the Rolaids of Nerves—absorbing 47 times my weight in excess anxiety. Ah, but the sighs of relief once the audition passed! Most students ultimately seemed to have a great, positive attitude about the whole exercise.
Later in the day, I dropped in on Gary Burton, Berklee's Executive Vice President and one of the most gifted musicians to pass through our doors. Gary recounted a story of auditioning Steve Smith as he entered Berklee. Steve of course is one of our most famous alumni drummers, known for his work with Journey as well as many other rock, jazz, and fusion gigs. But in his first audition, Steve scored right down near the bottom of the ratings.
Gary recalls re-auditioning Steve a few semesters later and he was so improved that Gary figured there must be two Steve Smiths; after all, it's a common name. But this was indeed the same Steve Smith, one who had taken the Berklee opportunity seriously and shifted into high gear. As Gary recounted this tale, his drummer—current Berklee student James Williams—nodded in recognition. Seems his first audition was a bust, too. So if you did great—congratulations! If not—have faith, have patience, and have the courage to trust the method; it has worked for many great musicians over the years. Remember Steve's most famous band: you are on a Journey and with consistent hard work, you will make alarming progress.
This afternoon, I took the English placement exam and processed sentences like this: "The post-modern mishmash is a self-advertising effluvium that threatens to drown the art it was meant to serve." We were intended to conclude that the writer did not like the museum being described. I thought it was not a bad preparation for the kind of effluvium music critics serve up from time to time.
I was sitting down getting ready to write up today's entry when I got a call on my cell phone from Phil Ramone, Berklee board member and legendary producer of Billy Joel, Ray Charles, Paul Simon, Barbara Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Elton John, Madonna and literally hundreds of others. He had freed up from a session he was doing in Boston. We connected for a couple of hours of mental power lifting, thinking about all the great opportunities open to Berklee. Phil was a Juilliard graduate, but his affinity is for Berklee because, as he put it, "Berklee is about creating music, not preserving it." He recounted recent projects that featured Berklee alums arranging, recording, mixing, and mastering, and is very impressed with the caliber of young musicians that walk out our doors.
We dreamed of a touring Berklee music festival aimed pragmatically at helping us find new talent, but also dedicated to keeping high quality, live performance a part of our society. We cooked up the notion of a retreat of wild-eyed musicians to brainstorm where the industry might go and to help artists reclaim power over their own creative output. We speculated on ways to establish an archive of our era's greatest contemporary musicians at Berklee, and how to create an online companion so that musicians and scholars could access this great resource. Not a bad way to end the day.
Wednesday, September 1st, 2004
Trading Food for Information
Today's highlight was a lunch with 15 entering students at Charley's. Having been through much of the orientation routine with the entering class, I felt it would be good to have an extended conversation with a randomly selected group of students. I sent Katie Leonard and Margaret Downey from my office out to round up a group.
Charley's is the ancestral home of Berklee; the place where it all began. We don't own the building anymore, but there are a few photographs that depict its history, including one of Duke Ellington visiting the school in the '50s. I had each student introduce themselves to me and to one another. I asked where they were from, how they had found out about Berklee, and where else they had thought of going. We were a fairly representative group with vocalists the largest group (four), guitarists and bassists (three each) all the way to violin and bassoon. We came from the Basque region of Spain via Venezuela to L.A.. We were black, brown, and white; women and men.
Dan Carpel had first discovered Berklee when he and his family came from Minnesota for a Red Sox game and he fell in love with the city. Sidney Wayser did a demo last year and her engineer had gone to Berklee and recommended it. Lino Martinez' high school music teacher in Silver Spring, Maryland recommended us to him. Ashley Arlington comes from a musical family in Philly and was invited to audition—she was the bassoonist of the group. Eric Moore turned down $5,000 of additional scholarship support from the University of the Pacific to come to Berklee. Steve Wood, a guitar player with a deep knowledge of the history of popular music just moved from Florida to Georgia and had thought of Florida State as an option.
Shannon Sigley, a percussionist from Houston, left after a year at the University of Texas at Austin to get more personalized attention. Kendall Schmidt studied violin at the Berklee in L.A. program and got the fever. Caitlin Smith discovered Berklee on her computer late one night, and was attracted by the scope and reputation of the music therapy department. Ron Courtney found Berklee's music technology focus way ahead of other schools and hopes to major in MP&E. Others considered going to Juilliard, Columbia College, Penn, Drexel, Emerson, Guildhall in London, Carnegie Mellon, NYU and USC. Jonathon Young considered passing on college altogether, and just heading off to New York or L.A. to try to get something going there.
The most lively session centered around the music they like, which had started like spontaneous combustion as we walked over to the restaurant. Here is a rundown on what they hope the president of Berklee and the faculty will tune into: The Mars Volta, Dream Theater, Modest Mouse, Radiohead, The Postal Service, Cursive, Alice in Chains, Pain of Salvation, Coldplay, Ben Folds, Ben Harper, The Honorary Title, The Carpenters (just checking to see if you were paying attention), Mae, and Steve Vai. Though no jazz appeared on their list, several mentioned an interest in expanding their listening and playing to include jazz and Latin. A few want to be BIG STARS as soon as possible. Clay Southworth, from nearby Lexington, Massachusetts pledged to share ideas about venues where the students could hear music and seek gigs.
What struck me most about this group of students was the ease with which they opened up to one another. Several had already put jam sessions together this week. Two were plotting a songwriting and performance career as a duo. At least three clusters ate food off one another's plates—the surest sign of connection! Their beefs about Berklee so far: no air-conditioning in the Comm. Ave. dorm. Their likes: friendly, open people; upper classmen who are friendly and helpful. I think it was Bobby Daglio who pointed out that starting a conversation at Berklee is so much easier than where he is from. You simply ask what I asked—what do you play, what do you listen to, where are you from—and there's a freeze-dried conversation waiting to happen. Several pointed out how only at Berklee could you find so many people who loved many of the more obscure bands on the list they gave me.
Another striking thing about the group was how much I liked them all. They are bright, enthusiastic, positive, interesting people. They were already helping one another, making suggestions, giving one another compliments and support. When one student admitted liking Christina Aguilera, the group engaged in an intelligent discussion of the effect of MTV and the entertainment quotient in music, rather than simply supporting or condemning his confession. Shannon pledged lifelong servitude to Berklee if I can get Vinnie Colaiuta to campus again. Juan Goicoechea explained how Berklee was revered in Venezuela, and how for him there was no place he would rather be.
Larry Berk founded the college in 1945, and he spent countless hours in the building that now houses Charley's. I'd like to think he was listening in on this conversation and heard that his dream of a place where a person can come to pursue the music they love has reached so many people and seeped into the consciousness of musicians around the world. I feel a deep responsibility to these 15 students—and their 3,800 colleagues—to insure that Berklee is worthy of their sprawling dreams and immense talent.
Thurday and Friday, September 2nd and 3rd, 2004
Final Day, Convocation
The Magic and Mathematics of Incremental Improvement
Today began back in the basement of the Uchida Building. I figured the crush of students waiting to audition would have subsided, and I decided to go face the music. I walked into a collection of Percussion Department Faculty and announced that I was ready for my audition. In the room were Dean Anderson, Chair of the Department and an accomplished percussionist for the Boston Pops and many others. Kenwood Dennard was there, one of my drumming heroes for his work with Miles Davis and Jaco Pastorius. He was with Jaco in the tempestuous period leading up to his untimely death, when he would play with great brilliance one night and leave at a break to not return the next night.
Steve Wilkes, a specialist in Japanese drumming techniques, was there, as well as Sean Skeete, a newer faculty member and veteran of Stomp and Blue Man Group, who I believe is the first participant in Berklee City Music to join the faculty, and Mike Mangini, who has played and recorded extensively with Steve Vai and holds the world record for fastest single stroke roll. Shortly after I finished, Ralph Peterson joined as well. Ralph has played with a who's who of jazz including Michael Brecker, the person we would shortly present with an Honorary Doctorate from Berklee.
Kenwood took the lead and asked me some questions about what I liked to play, what I listened to, and what I hoped to learn at Berklee. I was trying to be relaxed and demonstrate to the faculty that I was a mature adult, capable of handling this simulated audition. I know they weren't expecting me to wow them with my technique, but I felt like I would let them down if I were totally awful. And so, slowly, nerves starting firing without my permission, and I felt myself tightening up, second-guessing my answers.
At one point, as I explained that I would like to work on straight-ahead jazz ideas, I confessed that I often felt like I was "faking it." Kenwood very thoughtfully took issue with me and said in his opinion, when you are playing music and expressing yourself, it's not possible to "fake it." He's right. I quietly vowed to honor my own playing, even with my limitations and self-criticism.
I had not prepared a piece so I just played a basic rock groove, figuring that I would try to do the simple well, rather than the complicated poorly. I also felt that a little warm-up might relax me a little. They asked for some jazz/swing feel, bossa, salsa, shuffle—all of which I more or less knew, and did with the same emphasis on just staying solid. But I was definitely tight and having to work at keeping a relaxed feel. For trading fours, I asked if anyone could play piano and Kenwood jumped into action, and it made all the difference for me to have someone to play with. Many times, I felt blessed that I was in Kenwood's hands; he is a very caring person who can communicate his compassion even amidst the stilted dynamics of an audition.
Then came my nemesis: sight-reading. I have never studied other than two years of junior high school band and I confess that our band teacher had a nervous breakdown—in part because of the percussion section. When I got professional jingle work, I looked at the charts for anything that might be totally obvious, and then just listened as hard as I could for the first run through or two and hoped other players would make some mistakes, ask some questions, etc. I learned to watch the bass player intently and, worst case, just try to follow along. They put the easiest charts on earth in front of me, stuff I could probably read in the privacy of my own home, but now the nerves were exploding with deafening intensity. I did the best I could and just held my breath until I got through it.
The group was extremely supportive and encouraging. I asked them to give me the feedback they would give a student, and I listened in as they debated my audition and how they would react to it. The positives were that I clearly had played with other people and could get a decent sound out of the drum kit. We agreed that I needed lots of work on basic technique, and especially reading.
The longer we talked about my audition, the higher my ratings got. I suspect I was the beneficiary of a presidential ratings inflation factor of about 50% or so. Now clearly this is an advantage the average entering student is not granted, but then the average student is 20 years old and is going to have the advantage of great classes with these teachers. I on the other hand have to go to meetings, raise money, review budgets and, if the real estate deities smile on us, buy some new buildings. I would say the ultimate advantage tilts toward the student.
A little wobbly from the experience, I decided to head to the mailboxes and see what awaited me there. It is one form of pressure to audition, another to open the #*&$@% mailbox. I tried my password three dozen times. I practiced positive self-talk, "You can do this Roger, just persevere." I tried the combination assuming "turn left" meant counterclockwise. And then the opposite. I tried going all the way past zero on the second number and then not doing so. I tried massive force to pull it open. I asked for help from Pedro Contrerras al Mela, an entering Spanish student who was helping a friend of his. He couldn't get it to work either. I finally broke down and asked for help from the professionals upstairs in the copy center who demonstrated the devilish little final turn after the third number that had defeated me. Of course my self-confidence is now at a low point. Not only can I not sight-read a bunch of quarter notes, I can't even open a mailbox.
Time for the BBQ. I headed over with Lisa Ruokis and Katie Leonard from the President's Office. This was a great event. I reconnected with many faculty I hadn't seen since the spring. I met parents, many students, and lots of staff. The spirit of the event was terrific. As one student in her later semesters observed, everyone is fairly relaxed and confident and the burdens of a busy college schedule, the rigors of ear training and harmony, and the weight of the experience have not yet begun. I spotted another classic t-shirt—"Avid Indoorsman"—though its owner was out in the beautiful late summer day with the rest of us, listening to the drum circle and soaking up some sunshine.
I was glad to see that Berklee has a GLBT (gay, lesbian, bi and trans-gendered) organization. I spent some time talking to both the student and faculty leaders of the group. They had copies of a powerful article about homophobia in jazz and contemporary music. Some of the students shared the slights they had experienced, as people asked for music that's not "faggy" or music with more "balls" or more "testosterone." This way of speaking is clearly deeply ingrained in the culture, and yet one would hope that those who are called to make music—many of whom have known the worst discrimination possible—would empathize with the struggles of others for respect and understanding.
Of course this issue is complicated by the fact that many religious teachings cause some of us to see homosexuality as sinful. I can only share my experience of hearing and reading the Christian religious tradition used to justify racism and slavery. This is an area where perhaps Berklee can be a leader in helping demystify the stigmas that have surrounded gay and lesbian music makers. Certainly the fact that Gary Burton—our recently retired Executive Vice President and massively gifted musician—came out as gay years ago should help us embrace that role.
Friday night was convocation. Larry Bethune welcomed the students with his wonderful warm and familiar manner. Mike Zawitkowski, a vocalist from Poland gave student remarks, which were eloquent and full of wisdom about how to make the most of the Berklee experience.
Having just experienced the orientation week through the eyes of an entering student, I wanted to both challenge and reassure them. I spoke of the "magic and mathematics of incremental improvement," of how if you get only 1% better each day for four years, you would be 2,078,007.24 times better. So what you scored on your audition ratings is irrelevant—what matters is how you apply yourself for these next precious years. When you are focused on something you love, with great instruction, and peers who are also fantastic teachers, the rate of progress can be phenomenal.
We honored Michael Brecker, whose accomplishments range from recordings with Elvin Jones, Bill Stewart, Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, and Steve Gadd to more popular work—having played signature solos on pieces like James Taylor's "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight," and Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years." We learned he had spent the summer of his sixteenth year at Berklee and loved the experience. The best quote of the night came from Michael's frequent collaborator and Berklee alum Mike Stern, who said, "Once Michael is a doctor of music, I expect that if I call him late at night for some advice, he'll tell me to take two eighth notes and call him in the morning." Sounds like good medicine if you slip into a "coda" or come down with a "staff" infection.
Finally, the point of it all: the concert. The upper-semester students performed a stunningly good show. Having been to over a dozen concerts in the last year, much of the material and most of the performers were familiar to me. I had heard Evan Baughman in the Gospel Choir. Jeremy Ragsdale and Kamaria Ousley were staples of prior events, and had been part of a band Ken Zambello put together for my farewell last spring at Bright Horizons, the organization my wife Linda and I started almost 20 years ago. Godwin Louis and James Casey were wailing on sax.
Linda Little assiduously avoided the middle of the audible spectrum by playing the baritone sax and the flute. Michael Tucker and Max Lubarsky were among the impressive soloists visibly enjoying the gig. Maeve Gilchrist was deftly turning the Celtic Harp into a blue-note machine. Lyndon Rochelle, my idol, whose drum solo with kick drum grooving while the hands were revving continuously through all kinds of exotic polyrhythms, was transcendent. The Yo Team somehow pulled all this together in about three days.
It was everything I had expected, but seeing it through the eyes of my "fellow" entering students, I could feel lots of humble prayers being sent up in hopes that someday they might be on this stage, making their own musical offering. My prayer was one of hope that I will have the wisdom and strength to lead Berklee as it deserves, and of thanks for the opportunity.