Recap from Part One of this post.
A Facebook Memory that came up from 2011:
prompted a question from a friend of mine.
“Is there any part of you that misses doing all that writing? Are you happy to have (seemingly) traded that out for a ton of playing and gigging lately? Do you seek a middle ground between the two?”
This prompted a long reply.
In Part I, I talked about learning guitar in the cultural tiaga of 1980’s upstate New York.
Here in Part II, I’ll talk about what it was like to be at Berklee in the early 90’s.
(Important disclaimer – the following relates to my experiences being at the school and my general state of being during that time in my life. Anything written here is a matter of opinion.)
Ultimately I’ll get to playing in bands in Boston, seeing the writing on the wall, facing your past applying to grad school, what it was like to be at CalArts as a non-traditional student and why you always have a backup plan.
So why drudge all this up? Well for a couple of reasons.
- A lot of people wonder what it is like to engage in formal study of an instrument in an institutional setting.
- You’re reading the words of a guy who managed to almost fail out of a major musical institution and still make progress after the fact despite himself.
- Because, I can see now how sick I became when I was there. There are many times when people dive in deeply and get caught in the undertow. These things are often glossed over (or worse – romanticized) but I think it’s important to acknowledge how insidious the destructive forces in our lives can be in order to transcend them.
Finally – this excerpt is probably 4,000 words. I debated putting it up for a while – but decided to just keep writing and get as much down as I could. (Honestly – I have a thousand light hearted stories from my time there including the time a pimp broke into the dorm determined to kick the ass of the student who threw a roll of wet toilet paper and hit him in the ass as he was enagaged in the reproductive act in the alleyway outside our building.) It would take 20-50,000 words to get into this in real depth but this overview will likely be uncomfortable enough for many people. It’s highly personal and more than a little raw. Some people get pissed at real writing about things that don’t relate to gear or shredding. If you’re one of those people – it’s probably best to stop now.
Berklee College of Music was originally a Schillinger School in that Lawrence Berk was trained in the methods of composer Joseph Schillinger. (You can find out more about his compositional process here or here.)
The story related to me when I went to Chas. Colin music in New York years ago was:
Schillinger’s widow was a pain in the ass. She wanted too much money for Berk to call the school a “Schillinger” school and so Lawerence just reversed his son’s name, Lee Berk and that’s how you got Berklee.
How hard can it be?
Everything you need to know about Berklee at that I can tell you in my first day at Berklee.
When I got to Berklee, I was in a dormitory at 98 Hemenway Street. It was about 6 blocks away from the rest of the school. All of the surrounding buildings seemed to have jocks from NorthEastern living in them, and Boston Conservatory was up the street. At the time the dorm was all male. So you take 18-year old musicians (who have sacrificed social skills for musical chops) and put them in a all male dorm and you basically have Animal House / Revenge of the Nerds meets Miles. A classmate of mine met me at the dorm once to go over some material and she was hit on 5-6 times in the few minutes it took me to get downstairs to meet her.
So my parents have dropped me off and I’m in Boston and I am freaked out because Fort Plain has 2,000 people and Boston just seems HUGE and overwhelming to me. I’m sitting in my room waiting for my roommates to show up and playing guitar and I hear someone playing a Tony MacApline cd. So I walk downstairs with a black Aria Pro II Knight Warrior guitar strapped around me and knocked on the door of the room directly below me. A guy swings the door open violently and says something to the effect of “What’s up?”. He is also playing a black Aria Pro II Knight Warrior. His name is also Scott. It’s a weird moment. He lets me in and I meet Drew, the guy who was playing the Tony MacAlpine cd. Drew was a strange cat. He was in a coven and knew a lot of people in LA but he had one thing that had everyone’s immediate attention. He had learned like the first 10 licks of the Michael Angelo (now Batio) instructional DVD and could play them even faster than Michael Angelo and just as cleanly. I’d never seen anything like it in my life. It might be a false memory but it’s still one of the more impressive things I’d seen technically. In the meantime Scott (at the time Gealy now Crosby), was siting on his bed doing some insane two handed tapping and shredding thing. There was a guy named Ted Tuck living there who could play the Hell out of the guitar, Tony Savarino and an unknown guitar player from Canada (eventually to be a VERY well know guitar player) named Dave Martone.
I didn’t know it – but I was in a dorm with some of the best guitar players in the school. I just thought this was a random cross selection of players and I was already having an “oh shit – what did I just get myself into?” moment.
One of the other guys in the dorm came to me and said, “Hey some guys are going to be playing some real book tunes in the basement later.” I was so green I had no idea what a real book was, “What the Hell do you mean ‘Real Book?’ (holding up a book about a serial killer). “I have a hundred books here and all of them are real!”
So I went to the basement. Here were the guys playing:
Freshman Roy Hargrove (now 2 time grammy winner)
Freshman Geoff Keezer(now 2 time grammy winner)
Freshman Seamus Blake
Freshman Dwayne Burno
and two upper classmen Pat Loomis and Al Giles (I hope I’m spelling your name right Al) on drums.
They did the classic head cutting thing. It was cutting and it was INTENSE.
Again, I didn’t know it – but I was in a dorm with some of the best players in the school. These guys all had major scholarships and got in late so they ended up in the dorm I was in. Again, I just thought this was a random cross selection of players and I was now having a full-on “oh shit – what did I just get myself into?” moment.
So that was day one.
About two weeks later, I was walking through a practice room row and listening to 30 guitar players all working on the same Eric Johnson lick at different tempos that was printed in one of the popular guitar magazines at the time and then realized that not all players were at the level of the players I had seen.
Lesson – Things are often not what they seem at first.
People think that music school is a lot of playing and easy nonsense. “Oh you went to music school? Must be nice to just sit around and play all day.” Yeah…not exactly. My first semester was 18 credits. It was a TOUGH load. Most of it was Ear Training, Theory, Music Notation, English, Lesson, Labs and a few other things. ALL of which was put through a Jazz filter. My proficiencies at the time had things like voiceleading I-IV-V’s in position in all Major, minor, Melodic minor and Hamonic minor modes. I kept asking where I was going to use thing and no one could tell me.
So I was working all the time on material that I didn’t like and wasn’t engaged in with the only motivation being an ill defined generic goal that SOMEHOW all of this was going to prepare me for a career in music. To be fair the skills WERE profoundly useful (sight reading, theory, ear training, etc.). The problem was that it was up to ME to figure out how to tie it in to what I wanted to do and I just didn’t have that understanding. Ear (s)training and theory turned out to be REALLY useful in the real world but honestly it wasn’t until about 5-10 years after Berklee that I was able to assimilate it on my own.
One of the real substantial problems I faced was since I spent most of my life listening to classic rock I had NO EAR for extended harmony. I didn’t like the sound of 7ths or 9ths because I just wasn’t used to the sound of them and people poo-pooing triads. “You don’t want to play some lame ass triad there do you?” “What the hell is wrong with a triad?” seemed to be my perpetual response. I wasn’t ready and as the school was based on the concept of already having buy in for a JAZZ curriculum it was hard to move forward. Ultimately, my composition classes did just that.
The faculty had people who were truly awesome and a few who were truly awful. Some things I saw at my time there:
- On the plus side – I saw faculty members literally save student’s lives on more than one occasion. I saw people so completely and totally committed to what they were doing and helping students that in other fields they would be nominated for humanitarian awards. There were teachers there that REALLY knew how to reach students and you could find people that had life changing revelations because of the education they got there. It was an awesome and inspiring thing to witness and experience.
- On the minus side – seeing a teacher hand out applications to Burger King after an exam and telling students that if they couldn’t pass said exam that they should leave now. While extreme, variations of this attitude was not uncommon amongst more than a few of the faculty and staff at the time. I knew of one faculty member that was so brutal to a friend of mine that my friend stopped playing music for more than a decade. I could also talk in more depth about the time I watched a faculty member walk on stage and take an instrument out of a student’s hand and berate them in a recital. When I saw the film “Whiplash” – I thought – “No one would ever be dumb enough to lay a hand on a student” but the reality is the psychological slap of moments like these were very real and VERY common when I went there and those slaps lasted a lot longer.
In all honesty this is not unique to Berklee and is the case at a lot of colleges with focused curriculum. The divide just seemed more extreme there and I think the divide was so strong when I was there because the people just cared that much about what they were doing. Paraphrasing one faculty member’s introduction to a class, “Just to let you know. Music is my religion. Don’t EVER f*ck with my religion.” It was a kool-aid moment for sure and most of us took BIG gulps.
The Fateful day I stopped being a Guitar Major
My first guitar teacher was a guy named Doug. Really good player and teacher, but made me start all over again. Picking starting from square one. Changing my action, etc. Dude was 100% Jazz. And man, the news that I had learned everything wrong and would have to start all over was a bitter pill to swallow.
This becomes one of those moments that define you. You either decide “To Hell with this.” and go do your own thing or you buckle down suck it up and dig in deeper.
I dug in deeper.
It didn’t get me much at the time – but that hunger – that fire to do absolutely whatever was necessary to get “better” fueled me for much of my life.
In my first guitar proficiency with Doug, another (now deceased) teacher sat in and while he was a great player, the dude could be an asshole. As I was playing through the scales and chords when I made a mistake he would announce to me that he was deducting points from my score. I worked my ass off for my proficiency and got especially nervous during the classical piece I had to play. I started playing and he started pounding the table, “TEMPO”, he screamed “KEEP IT IN TEMPO”. I got furious and stopped playing. “Well that’s a fail.”, he said. “I don’t give a shit.”, I said. “I’m not going to try to play this with you pounding on a table like a fucking caveman.”
Man, I thought he was pissed BEFORE. He wanted to strangle me. “I don’t care how many points you take away. I’m just going to play this to the end like a normal human being trying to play a normal piece of music.” I played the piece again. Doug told me I could go. Once the adrenaline wore off I was shitting myself. I knew I was in trouble. Apparently the other teacher was just pushing me. I got a C (which as an A student in high school was pretty crushing). “You did really well” Doug said, “a lot of my students failed that proficiency.” I didn’t wonder why. I was more confused at what the point was of setting up a proficiency in a way to try to make people fail? Thinning the herd? Tough love?
There were like 800 people in the guitar program so the upper level students got to study with who they wanted to. My friend Scott (he of the Aria Pro II guitar fame) recommended that I talk with Cliff. He really liked his lessons with him. I signed up with him. And I was really happy. I had a really clear goal. I wanted to be able to play like Yngwie but bring in all of the energy of the Bad Brains and understand some of the dissonances I was drawn to.
I’d ask Cliff about Japanese modes and he’d help me. He’d show me really cool things to work on and approaches. One day I said, “Hey man. This stuff is great. It’s really helping me. Is there a way we can keep working on this stuff instead of the proficiency stuff? Bill Leavitt seems like a pretty cool guy but I can’t imagine ever wanting to play a re-harmed chord solo version of ‘And I love her.’
He said to go to talk to the guitar department chair. If I could work it out with him he was fine with it. I made an appointment.
The guitar department chair was new and overwhelmed. Bill Leavitt who basically built the program and literally wrote the book on guitar pedagogy for “popular” guitar, “Modern Method for Guitar” (a landmark book in the guitar canon) had recently passed away and all of us were stunned. I get that he did not want to meet. I outlined what I wanted to do and he interrupted me.
“Yeah. That’s not what we do here. Okay. We teach you the BERKLEE sound and then you have the rest of your career to get YOUR sound together.”
I was confused. The substance of music is (arguably) 12 notes. EVERYTHING else is style. I didn’t get it. What was the possible advantage of molding 800 guitar players into 800 indistinguishable players? I asked the questions and was told I could take it or leave it. I thanked him for his time. Went to the stairwell walked down one flight and put in a change of major for Music Composition. I didn’t have a goal to become Beethoven or anything, I just thought that if I understood arranging that I could, at a minimum keep some money coming in making music while I played guitar.
Using the binoculars of retrospect, I was not a good student at Berklee. I had glossed over a lot of the experience because people around me knew me as a player but when I applied to CalArts I was stunned at how bad my transcript was. I really had no memory of how much I struggled in school.
It was an amazing school and a once in a lifetime experience – but it wasn’t a good fit and I wasn’t in the right frame of mind or level of emotional maturity to make heads or tales of what was going on. There was a lot of pressure from the people around me to become a jazzer and I felt like it was just something that a.) I had no interest in and b.) had no capacity to learn (remember that “Spain” moment in high school from Part I of this series? Amplify that by 1000).
In response to a endless barrage of “your music is garbage, your playing is garbage.” I went with what I knew. I got angry. I became a giant middle finger and went full bore into Chris Impelliteri mode (“I promise to all my fans that my solos will only get faster.” – strange aside: for years a lot of people around me bagged on Chris and while I respected his speed I thought it was a strange thing to focus on. I found out years later when he was 9, both his parents committed suicide and guitar became his way out of that black hole. Another lesson on compassion – you never know what other people are battling at any point in their lives. And also a lesson in determination as Chris Impelliteri is one of the few people from that era still releasing new music. )
Lesson – when you don’t have perspective or understanding where you want to go, you’ll revert back to familiar modes of thinking and action, regardless of how uncomfortable they are because no matter how uncomfortable they are it’s more comfortable than facing fear and going into the unknown.
The Part Where I Found Out That I’m A TERRIBLE Composition Student
Ok so imagine this scenario.
You got through a basic composition class and squeek through with a mediocre grade. You pass, but you didn’t really master the material. So what happens? Now you need to go to Part II and are even MORE LOST than you were in part ONE! Failing up is what I believe they call it now.
Ultimately, you get to a point where you just keep working as hard as you can to keep your head above water.
Lesson – if your foundation is bad – no amount of window dressing will make your house more stable.
On one hand it was an incredible moment of good fortune because I got exposed to SO MUCH amazing music I never knew existed. It gave me all new ways to think about writing music and doing things.
On the other hand (particularly a psychological hand) it got bad. If I thought I was lost before I was in the utter wilderness now. There’s a phrase, “Dancing with the devil” which refers to what happens when you see that things are not right but you ignore what’s going on and buy into the fantasy that somehow it’s all going to work out. I got caught up in a trap of maintaining an image of what I thought was expected of me while trying to create a new version of me.
It literally tore me apart. I didn’t realize that I had put myself into an impossible situation that I couldn’t get out of and didn’t realize I was in.
To be 100% clear. I don’t blame anyone for this but myself. This is certainly not something I put on the college. I’m simply trying to look at where my life was objectively at the time.
There’s a theory I developed years later thinking back to this. The college did not have a lot of resources – but they definitively DID have help available. I just never took advantage of it. I think part of that was coming from a middle class background in upstate New York. We were taught that you needed to figure things out for yourself. No one was going to help you and if you want, you could cry like a little kid or you could suck it up and pull yourself up by your bootstraps and figure it out. What I thought was, “I don’t need help” but in reality I needed it more desperately than I could have imagined. I didn’t drink or do drugs but my brain was chemically unbalanced. I was fighting a biological demand to end my life. It’s a fight I lost on more than one occasion.
I hit rock bottom. I got incomplete grades in almost all of my courses that term and never made up the courses in the following term – thus failing them.
I got some help. I hurt a lot of people around me badly. A friend of mine wrote me a note that helped a lot. I didn’t want to use the college counselor because I was paranoid that someone would find out my dirty secret so I saw someone privately. It didn’t help. I had to figure out what was wrong on my own. I did a lot of research. If only a fool represents himself in a court of law the same can probably be said for someone who tries to use logic to cure a physiological imbalance. But somehow – through sheer intellect and determination – I reached an equilibrium.
This is NOT recommended as a course of action. I was simply too vain / naive to keep seeking out the proper treatment I should have had. Even now – years later knowing what I now know – I have to remain constantly vigil about what my brain is telling me. There are moments I feel myself slide into a deep depression and I need to be aware enough to catch myself and ask as an objective observer, “You understand what’s happening right now – yes?” I’m not always successful but having lived with depression for probably close to 40 years I can see that the slides are momentary rather than the full on manic cycles I’d engage in before.
Always Have an Exit Plan
I was determined to get the degree and in doing so I simultaneously saved my life by giving myself an intense short term goal and became that problem student that all the faculty knew by name and wondered whether I was going to pull it together or become a serial killer.
I don’t think anyone thought I had any potential (well Henry Tate did – but he wasn’t a member of the music faculty he taught art there.) I remember getting called into a meeting with an advisor and her telling me (“I’m confused. You’re obviously bright. You have like a 3.95 in all your academic classes and a 2.3 in your music classes. Are you sure that this is the right place for you to be?”) And again, up went that middle finger.
I took the ideas I was exposing myself to and kept writing music. I pulled a band of my talented friends together for what was going to be a one-off show in the Berklee Cafeteria and ended up performing around the Boston area. We recorded a demo that I sent out for review and was getting calls from major labels wanting to hear our stuff. I kept telling them they wouldn’t be interested and they thought it was some kind of negotiation strategy. Ultimately it was too weird for them. Here’s one of the tunes I wrote that we played.
I’m guessing this was 1991? To give you an idea of cultural context at the time C&C Music factory had not one but TWO top 100 hits in the Billboard chart that year.
Scholastically I just kept trying to show up and trying to dig myself out of the hole I dug myself in. I remember being 1/2 way in the process for my directed study for orchestra and my teacher said, “Boy you got some real balls to turn something like this in.” Hardly encouraging but I loved his honesty. I may have had balls but I didn’t have much in the way of brains.
So the end of the semester came. I went to my mailbox for the first time that semester. It turned out I had a lot of mail. It turned out that I had a lot of IMPORTANT mail – including notices for the mandatory composition meetings I had missed and the portfolio submissions that I needed to put in. I was so clueless that I didn’t even know what I needed to do to graduate. So I bought a ream of manuscript paper, sat down at a table and spent 2 1/2 days – STRAIGHT – hand copying scores to submit for my portfolio. As I didn’t have a computer at the time, I just re-wrote everything by hand (my soon to be girlfriend help me with part of this), photocopied it, had it bound at Kinkos and turned it in.
The committee was not amused. In fact, one committee member in particular was determined that I wasn’t going to graduate. He vetoed every score I submitted. (Again – in retrospect – I totally get this and he was well within his right to do so).
Since I refused to go away it became a “What do we have to do to get rid of this guy?” scenario. Eventually, I had to work with the (newly acting) chair (I did NOT envy that guy – but he was a very decent human being) and resubmit every change demanded of the scores. It took another two months of meetings. I passed. Probably with the lowest GPA of any student in the history of the program.
I was a Berklee grad. I was playing in a really good band in Boston. I was working at a cool music store having the time of my life. I was in love and post-graduation traveling across Europe. For the first time – ever maybe – things were going my way.
The Biggest Lesson
Here’s the real take-away from this part of the story. I have no regrets about going to music school and Berklee in particular. None. Zero. It is a remarkable school and I got an incredible education while going there.
And that’s not only because of the education I got from the faculty. My biggest gains came from the education I got from the people around me.
In going through that process I made lifelong friends. Among them are people I can call any time day or night who will be there for me. You’re lucky if you have ONE of those people in your life. I have a several of them and I love them all like they were the biological brothers and sisters that I know that they are.
That environment is one that had some adverse effects on me, but can’t be replicated. That excitement of everyone around you being as driven as you are…. it’s very difficult to find that in the real world.
To be exposed to players at that level pushed me more than any recording ever could. I learned so much by just watching people play so well. That’s a debt I can never repay.
Neitzsche was right in that that which doesn’t kill you CAN make you stronger. That force of will needed to move on carried through to everything else I did. Lesson – people often give up too easily. Sometimes all you need is endurance. All you need is the ability to keep pushing yourself and a goal of where you want to go and that act of putting the work in consistently can be enough to get you there.
Alright! Believe it or not – this all played a factor into HOW I got into writing! Now that the foundation is set – Part III will be a much easier ride. If for whatever reason, you still want more these two posts:
have some more information.
As always, I hope this helps in some way even if it just gives you some perspective with dealing with your own adversities.
Thanks for reading.