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Interviews

Shelly Berg: New Moon Over Miami

By Published: January 28, 2008
Shelly BergAAJ: That's a big guilt to walk around with all those years—a good reason to go into therapy.

SB: I never have. I got this screwed up on my own! No, I've never had therapy about it. Fortunately I'm about the most optimistic person I know. You can't tell me things are going to hell, I'm not going to believe it. People who describe my playing usually say it's full of joy.

AAJ: It is exuberant.

SB: I've even had a reviewer use that disparagingly: "Oh, he's one of those exuberant types."

AAJ: I remember talking to Monty Alexander about this—he was very bitter about the critics who put him down for having so much fun.

SB: Another one of those exuberant types.

AAJ: We certainly need less of those!

SB: Yeah, don't bore me with emotion. Anyway, I never had any therapy about Tourette.

AAJ: Maybe the music provided a place where you could be free of thinking about it, and immerse yourself in wonderfulness.

SB: That's the thing. When I'm playing, I'm immersed in wonderfulness—you said it—and most people don't know how to get there.

AAJ: And you can't teach them—you can show them the door, but they may or may not be able to go through it.

SB: As you know in your business, if somebody is sad, you can't just say "be happy." They don't know where the door to happiness is.

AAJ: Some people can even get very uncomfortable with it, simply because it's not what they're used to. They'd rather be miserable, because at least that's familiar, they know the terrain. But you're an artist: you're not supposed to be happy, you're supposed to be all messed up and miserable and clenched and pessimistic and suicidal—what's wrong with you, Shel?

SB: Well, I've had plenty of heartache. But even the expression of that, to me, is beautiful. Anything you can really get to and express, there's great beauty in that for me, and it's very cathartic. You started by saying that I'm under-known. I had a moment about fifteen or twenty years ago, teaching at community college, and playing receptions on the weekend. I supported my family very well with my casual band. I remember thinking, I could be the next Leonard Bernstein, but it's never going to happen, because I'm not on a path where that's possible. The choices that I made, it hit me like a ton of bricks. Cause I don't know how much time I have. You can't run away from that.

There's no kind of music I can't do—write a movie score, a symphony—and I've done a lot of things since then. Besides, be careful what you wish for—I got to meet Bernstein after that, and he was about the most miserable guy I ever met.

AAJ: So much for wanting to walk in his shoes.

SB: Yeah. So I know about disappointment, but I look at myself now, having people I love who love me, being able to express music in the way that I get to express it, being respected for who I am. That's enough for anybody.

align=center>Shelly Berg

AAJ: Amen! So let's talk about your new gig.

SB: I have the humble agenda of reinventing what a music school is.

AAJ: Wow, tabula rasa! That's a rare opportunity.

SB: I had a good life in L.A. I never thought I would leave. But music schools were dumb when I went to music school, and they're no smarter now. We sat there as undergraduates, twelve or thirteen classes every semester, while people were going to business school and becoming lawyers with four classes a semester. Why does it take thirteen classes to teach a music student, but only four to teach a future CEO?

AAJ: Good question.

SB: So the biggest complaint music majors have is that they have no time to practice. Ninety percent of the people who go for a classical degree—I donït care if it's Julliard or Dade County Community College—don't even learn the things that they're being taught. For instance, you take ear training for two years, but most students who go through a music degree can't hear anything. You're lucky if they can hear a perfect fifth.

But if you're playing in an orchestra, isn't it helpful to know that's going on? You need to know the notes that created it; it informs the way you play. People take ear training but they're not able to hear; they take theory and composition but they don't know composing, and history is a romp through—"OK, it's time for our ten minutes on Monteverdi."

So, why are we doing this fifty, sixty, seventy years later, the same thing that wasn't working then? Why are we wasting people's time?

I've never known somebody who was a creator of music to get jaded to music—if you're a creator, itïs reborn in you all the time. But we're teaching and manufacturing a lot of replicators of music.

AAJ: Sounds almost robotic.

SB: It is. People love music, but something can get dulled so quickly. They play it, but it's not inside, they don't understand.

As a result, you get symphony orchestras that all sound the same. We have two people on our faculty at Miami who were principal players, first-chair players, in the Chicago Symphony, in their thirties. They had the greatest job in the country for what they did, for life. In their thirties! And they quit. Because they were going to hate music, since the people around them were so jaded—packing up their instruments during the standing ovations because they couldn't wait to get off the stage. And so no wonder we have a hard time with great music finding an audience: because something's dead inside of so many musicians. Yo Yo Ma doesn't have a hard time getting an audience, because it's life-altering to hear Yo Yo Ma.


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