Berklee College of Music Turns 50 With Industry Savvy as Its Goal
School's results-oriented style draws students from around world
BOSTON — Four young men clasp hands in greeting, then settle in to do what aspiring jazz musicians have done for decades: jam together on a stage the size of a postage stamp in the local hangout. The only difference is that these players are students at Berklee College of Music, and they are in class -- at least the kind of class the college aims for.
Berklee, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, is well-known in the global music community, and 37 percent of its students come from outside the United States. Berklee also boasts of former students who have gone on to stardom: producer-arranger Quincy Jones, singer Melissa Etheridge, and sax phenomenon and former ''Tonight Show'' band leader Branford Marsalis among others. The film score for ''Forrest Gump'' was written by Alan Silvestri, class of 1970.
Berklee's mission is simple: to help musicians earn a living. ''It's one of the few schools where the degree is focused on the performance industry,'' says Larry Jacobson, director of recording administration at MCA Records in Los Angeles. (He earned a master's degree in jazz studies at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind.)
Berklee has come a long way since the school occupied just one brownstone building on the sleepy end of Boston's Newbury Street. ''Established conservatories didn't have much respect for us,'' recalls Larry Munroe, chairman of the professional-performance division and a 1969 graduate. ''Berklee has always been about meat and potatoes. [Founder] Lawrence Berk wanted to help people make a buck in life,'' he says.
As the music industry -- one of America's largest moneymakers -- has become more complex, Berklee has tried to keep pace, offering music-industry related courses.
The school has plowed about $10 million over the past eight years into computer technology for recording studios and engineering. Its music-business major has about 200 students.
Next year the college will offer a major in music therapy, a growing field that explores the use of music to treat medical and psychological problems ranging from addiction to shock.
Berklee's break with traditional music education sets it apart. ''Every music school has a certain core curriculum,'' Mr. Jacobson says. ''It's Berklee's electives that separate it from other schools.''
The college has 350 bands for its 2,650 students -- and students can study anything from classic jazz to country, from funk to rap.
But Berklee's constant effort to keep abreast of all aspects of the music industry -- not just the music -- has drawbacks. Munroe is saddened that the once-noble pursuit of earning one's keep has tightened into a more ''panicked'' concern with ''things that help them make a living.''
''In my day, we were pursuing the art life,'' he sighs. ''Times have changed. Kids are more yuppified, or pragmatic.''
While Berklee stresses that it has always been performance-focused, the changing definition of a ''performer'' is altering the school as well.
''It's a package that includes attitude, your personality. Even being punctual and reliable,'' says Steve Lipman, assistant dean of students. ''There are four or five fabulous players for one job, more than enough talent. You have to go beyond the music. Berklee makes the student aware that it is not only the product that you are marketing, you're marketing yourself.''
This semester, folksinger Livingston Taylor (brother of James) is offering a popular course in stage-performance techniques, where students learn things like eye contact and how to build rapport with audiences.
The Berklee education is one that, for better or worse, is closely attuned to the whims of the market, and young musicians are attracted to Berklee because they believe it will help them prepare for the demands of the music industry.
''Eventually other schools will have to adapt'' to a more industry-focused curriculum as the market for traditional jobs saturates, says Jacobson of MCA Records. ''There are only so many orchestra, opera, or teaching positions open. At least Berklee is offering [students] a chance to be something else.''
Getting a degree is not necessarily the goal at Berklee, says Jim Lane, who attended the college for a semester after graduating from Carnegie Mellon Universty in Pittsburgh. He now composes film scores while working at the college bookstore nearby. ''People go to the school for networking and [to get gigs]. It's flexible. A student may go on tour and then come back.''
The attrition rate after one year is actually about 30 percent, slightly below the national average for four-year colleges. But the emphasis on practical experience dominates ''book learning'' throughout the campus.
Karin Allen, a senior business and performance major from Exeter, R.I., says she was appalled at the number of musicians who ''didn't even know what happens when you sign a contract'' at a recent music conference in Texas that showcased new artists.
But since Ms. Allen also performs in Boston and studies voice in addition to business, she says she has a double edge. ''Performers like the fact that someone like me is going into the business -- someone who understands music,'' she says.