Busy Berklee Bees


Alison Lee chats to ex-pat done good, Damien Bracken, about the Berklee College of Music in Boston and its Dublin programme

Remember the first time you read the Harry Potter books? I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who secretly hoped an acceptance letter would come (by owl of course) and I’d be whisked off to a magical, fantastical school of witchcraft and wizardry like Hogwarts. Any budding musician who’s heard of Berklee College in Boston probably feels the same about this institution. Except here it’s music, not magic that’s on the agenda.

That said, some of the facts about the college have a slightly supernatural quality to them, as Dean of Admissions Damien Bracken reveals to otwo. “Berklee is the largest college of music in the world – there are over 4,000 students attending from all around the US and more than 76 countries are represented. We have a long list of alumni that are well-known in the industry, from Quincy Jones to Steve Vai.”

A quick trawl through the Berklee website reveals a few more statistics that would make any self-respecting music nerd weak at the knees: 176 Grammy awards have been won by Berklee alumni; 80 per cent of its graduates work in the music industry – and, oh yes, they’re rather generous too. “Berklee awards over 26 million dollars in scholarships every year,” Bracken states, an impressive figure by any standards in this era of education and arts budget cuts.

But back up a second: What is it exactly that Berklee College does? “It’s really known as a college of jazz and contemporary music study,” Bracken explains. Traditionally, rock and jazz are perhaps considered to be quite organic, unstructured music genres; Bracken readily acknowledges that “students are buying laptops and using Garage Band to create beats and writing music very successfully on an intuitive level.” But Bracken still feels there’s definitely a place for a more formal approach to contemporary music education. “The music industry is a challenging industry to go into so we take a broad-based approach,” he explains. “We have majors in music production and engineering, film scoring and songwriting, music business…” on offer.

Not only that, Berklee seems to be the perfect environment for creativity to blossom. “We have students coming from all parts of Asia, from Africa, from all over Europe and the United States. It’s an incredibly diverse community; people are bringing their influences, their musical heritages, their cultures with them and engaging with all of the other students: cool things happen when you put people together in that kind of environment.”

So what does Bracken think about the many university-level music courses that focus entirely on classical music to the exclusion of almost all other genres?  “Being a classical music student is perfectly legitimate,” he says. “It’s not what Berklee does but neither is better than the other. There are so many different ways that you can access music – the study of classical music is certainly one approach.”

A diplomatic answer, but there are many prospective rock or jazz musicians out there that would be glad of the opportunity to pursue study of their genres of choice to third-level without having to focus for years on a musical style that they don’t really see themselves pursuing in the long-term.

Bracken himself studied classical music (“I studied at the Royal Irish Academy; my degree is from Trinity College”), which brings us to our next topic: Berklee’s Irish connection. Bracken is Irish, (as the name suggests, although his strong Boston accent certainly wouldn’t give him away as a Dubliner). This April, representatives from Berklee College stopped by our capital city to hold improvisation workshops and simultaneously scope out local talent. This is also thanks to the man who brought us the world-renowned Irish musical institution, Riverdance.

“Bill Whelan, who’s on our board of trustees, approached us a few years ago about bringing a programme of improvisation to Dublin. Ireland is full of musical talent. I know this from a personal perspective as well as an objective perspective. I would just be thrilled if we could grow the population at Berklee in terms of Irish students”.

Last year was Berklee’s first sojourn to Dublin, and a lucky few were indeed singled out to study at Berklee. “There were five students that we brought over for our summer programmes. There was another student that ended up getting a presidential scholarship, Matt Halpin, a jazz saxophonist.”

And what traits do these lucky individuals have to display to be considered for such an opportunity? “It’s a combination of two things: there’s a level of achievement and a level of craft that we’re looking for obviously. We look for students who are very focussed on what they want to do, who are very serious about pursuing music as a career and are willing to put in the time and energy to succeed at Berklee.”

Although the college certainly seems to be demanding in terms of commitment and focus, it gives valuable return on this investment. “We really believe that being a musician out in the world today requires that you’re a well rounded person. The skills that the study of music gives you makes you a very employable person: the skills of discipline and focus and adaptability and improvisation.” Further, Berklee is located “in the heart of Boston city proper; a very culturally rich environment at Berklee and in the surrounding city.”

Not quite Hogwarts perhaps, but a mystical environment nonetheless!