Back-to-school guide: Berklee College of Music

We asked current students and recent graduates to give us the inside scoop on their colleges before the school year begins. Here, current student Caleb Hsu tells us the best and worst things about Berklee College of Music, and also gives advice to incoming freshmen.

Click here for a full-sized version of the cheat sheet

Tell us about three things you think are “right’’ with your school:

1. Berklee professors are some of the most compassionate, talented, and hard-working people you’ll ever meet. The connections students make with them in and out of the classroom can launch their careers. Berklee is fantastic at emulating the challenges graduates will realistically face in the outside world, at tackling the business side of music, the writing and creative process, and the inevitable social and collaborative aspects of the industry. The faculty members are well connected, and can provide an “in’’ with countless professionals throughout the country, and around the world. Most consider Berklee their “side job,’’ while they continue to work prominently and actively in the industry as Grammy-award winning performers, writers, conductors, composers, producers, and engineers.

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2. Berklee has an immersive degree program that requires students to get a strong core music background, as well as familiarize themselves with the business side of music. Regardless of their majors, of which there are 12, every graduate is a well-trained, versatile musician capable of arranging, reading music, sight-singing, and understanding advanced conducting and harmony concepts. Additionally, there are plenty of available electives such as Contract Negotiations and Legal Aspects of the Music Industry that are increasingly relevant to multiple career paths (e.g., production, songwriting, performing, publishing, etc.).

3. Berklee is a nucleus of multiculturalism, boasting students from over 100 countries. By participating in various world music programs, cultural liberal arts courses, and internationally influenced ensembles, students are forced to expand their minds and worldviews. They develop a deep respect for music across genres and borders, and they’re forced to develop and refine interpersonal skills to network and collaborate with artists from all walks of life. The student body as a whole strives to maintain an atmosphere of mutual motivation, open-mindedness, and healthy competition.

Tell us about three things that you think are “wrong’’ with your school:

1. Berklee tends to leave valuable resources under the radar, making it clear that the school is intended to be only as valuable as “you make it.’’ This means that, for younger students coming straight out of high school, it’s a difficult adjustment. Many students find out crucial information after it’s too late. Not all students know, for example, about placement exams to test out of courses. Additionally, Berklee has a wealth of opportunities students may not be aware of, including counseling, health and wellness services, student organizations, career fairs, one-on-one software and program training, intimate office-hour consultations, grants and scholarship competitions, media center and resource libraries, and scheduled core music tutoring. Berklee should make a point to equip students with as much knowledge and assistance as possible early.

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2. Tuition is steep. Yes, the education you get is arguably invaluable, and while there are financial aid and performance/achievement-based scholarship opportunities, many of the students feel that it’s a heavy burden that’s sometimes difficult to justify. You have access to the A-list faculty, state-of-the-art recording facilities, and some of the best musicians and writers around, but you also have to factor in the school’s location in Back Bay, and the limited student housing available. The school should do more to get students internships and set up more career networking events to help them pay off loans after graduating.

3. It’s a running joke, and a historical misconception, that if you graduate Berklee, you “weren’t good enough.’’ Examples that disprove this notion are countless, but among notable instances: Charlie Puth, Karmin, Kiesza, Betty Who, and Susan Tedeschi. Due to its reputation as being the top Hollywood music school, many students feel pressured to become stars. This leads some students to forget career paths that are perfectly viable and respectable options for sustaining a lifetime around music. A multitude of jobs go virtually unmentioned because Berklee students tend to set their ambitions around creating a name for themselves. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with that goal, and it’s undeniable that Berklee names are always in the Grammys, the graduates who achieve this level of fame are few and far between. There are various levels of success, and many musical careers that support vibrant lives (e.g., video game music industry, music supervision, stage design, artist development, music therapy, etc.) are overshadowed by Berklee’s emphasis on limelight-oriented success stories.

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What advice, specific to your school and campus, would you lend an incoming freshman?

Entering unfamiliar territory is always a daunting task, especially when you feel isolated and left to your own devices. College can initially overwhelm freshmen because they’re exposed—oftentimes for the first time—to tastes of what it’s like being a functioning individual in a very new place. I remember feeling small, almost like I was witnessing snapshots of life whiz by at light speed. Instead of facing my fears, I shrunk myself down and retreated.

The first thing you should know is that it’s alright to feel alone. It’s even expected. Talk to someone about it! This will reposition that negative energy and enable you to channel it into something productive. Berklee is filled with resources that help ease the transition period from being an outsider to feeling confident and capable. Obviously your peers are fantastic to reach out to, since they can directly relate, but don’t neglect reaching out to your professors. Not only do Berklee faculty offer career-defining insight, they also offer realistic advice about navigating your way through adulthood as a musician. Berklee professors can become indispensable lifetime contacts if you proactively seek them outside the classroom. One visitation during scheduled office hours can lead to a connection that can jumpstart your entire career.

The most advantageous bit of advice I can offer is to be proactive and get involved in areas that interest you as soon as possible. In my first semester, I signed up to be a contributing writer for The Berklee Groove, which quickly led to a full-time student supervisor position. I also trained to be a BIRN DJ, which led to getting hired as the BIRN’s communications director. I attended countless seminars and club meetings, and sought out individual tutoring and mentoring sessions offered by the Learning Center, which led to being offered a chance to teach. The networking potential is unlimited at Berklee, and you should take advantage of every minute you’re here!

Keep in mind that college is all about discovering yourself and striving to meet your full potential. Plan out a monthly schedule, leaving time for just you. Don’t isolate yourself, but don’t be afraid of being alone. Give yourself space, work ahead on projects, collaborate with peers in different majors than your own, and carve out time away from music to enrich and cultivate your personal growth. Music is art, and you should develop an appreciation for all art forms during your time at Berklee. Venture outside Back Bay; explore the surrounding towns and even states. Never underestimate sources of inspiration, and set realistic incremental goals for yourself each step of the way. Lastly, enjoy it—be in the moment every moment. It goes by faster than you’ll ever know.

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