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Shelly Berg: New Moon Over Miami

By Published: January 28, 2008
AAJ: And he also has good hair.

SB: Lest we forget!! Actually, that's the furthest thing from my mind. Anyway, what we're going to do is chop the degree down into far fewer courses. If you took four or five, plus playing with a symphony and taking private lessons—now you're like other students.

All of our students get eight hours of chamber music a week. Fifty chamber music groups meet at the same time, all of them freshmen and sophomores, because from your string quartet you can get your ear training, your composing, your history, your chords and analysis. Say you're a classical major. We're going to look at a certain classical period for this entire semester: we're going to play Mozart, we're going to compose in that style, we're going to ear train, we're going to learn about Mozart.

AAJ: Do jazz people get this, too?

SB: For jazz people, it's going to be six weeks of Horace Silver. Weïre going to improvise in that style, compose and analyze in that style, perform in that style.

Shelly BergAAJ: That does sound radical.

SB: And weïre going to use technology. Your e-mail arrives, and there might be an MP3 track. It's in four parts, and your thing is to get the second part from the bottom, by ear: sing it, learn it, write it down in notation, then e-mail the file to the next person in the group. They get their part, they bring it to class, and now we have a score to analyze. What did we just hear? What's going on with the harmony? How does it fit into the style that we're studying? Let's play it; now, let's compose in that style. This is going to change everything.

So people will be sent out who are inside the music, as we talked about earlier, rather than outside. You don't want to watch an actor who doesn't really understand what he's saying. It's like you want me to act a play in Russian when I donït know what any of the words mean, but you say, "Say this word louder, youïre supposed to be mad here."

AAJ: That would be pretty shallow and meaningless.

SB: Well, too often that's how we're playing music. The actor you really want to see is the one who seems to have just thought of that line, because of the situation. I want to play with musicians who sound like they just thought of that note—it was inevitable because of all they've played before. And the only way to do that is to train musicians in a different way.

We're going to have a first year that's all skills training, to make sure that we're all on the same playing field. Everybody plays piano for the first year, they get basic knowledge of all the harmony. The second year is going to be heavy technology: everybody will hard-disk record, take a score and sequence it so they can realize it with synth sounds, or take a score and rotate it and put it out. We're going to have a year of entrepreneurship.

AAJ: Sounds very practical.

SB: When I went to college, there were pools of opportunity: you could go to Vegas. That was a big pool. You could go on the road. You could play in symphonies or studios. Those things are smaller and more fragmented. So now you have puddles of opportunity.

AAJ: Puddles?

SB: Yes. But in other ways there's more opportunity than ever. How many people had a transistor radio when I was growing up? A lot, but not everybody. How many people have an iPod now? Every college kid has one. And how much music is on them? Thousands of songs.

AAJ: But there's such an element of greed in all those gigabytes; it seems like kids don't relish or repeat the songs, they just want to collect them.

Shelly Berg<SB: My only hope is that we'll train musicians who will stop and go, "Oh, my God. The Rudolph Serkin recording of the Brahms 'Second Piano Concerto,' with Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra: the moment that it goes from the scherzo to the trio? I wore that record out." That moment was so beautiful that I just kept taking the needle off the record and playing it back. I just had to live that moment over and over and over again. That's one of the great tension and release moments—it goes from minor to major, the scherzo's in minor—(sings)—it's trying the cables of this minor key—that moment when it gets to major, I gotta tell you...

AAJ: I've got goosebumps, and I don't even know the piece.

SB: So we have to develop musicians who realize that one such moment can define or change your life in some way. There may be fewer jazz clubs, but there are more jazz festivals than there were, and thus exponentially more opportunities. If we can teach our students to be entrepreneurial, really entrepreneurial, in this chamber music model, by the time they get to be seniors, they can make a living.

For example: You have two jazz majors and a music business major. You ask them, "What would you put together, to go get a gig?" And your assignment is to do just that. I want to train musicians to think about how they're going to create their own niche, and give them the artistic and business and technology tools to do that. I also want to train arts presenters.

AAJ: You want to grow a crop of George Weins...

SB: At Miami we had the first business music department in the country, and it's still the best. We also have a six-week long music festival—no other college has anything like it—everything from three famous opera singers doing Haydn's "Creation" to the Ramsey Lewis Trio to the Nosso trio doing Brazilian music to Maria Schneider and her big band. It's an unbelievable festival.

I want to have a cadre of music business students who are arts presenter majors, and say to them: "OK, we have a 600-seat house. I want to see 600 butts in those seats, and that's your assignment. How do you market it? Whatïs the niche for this? Is there an educational component you could put on there?" That way, when they go out and work in the performing arts centers all over the country, they've learned how to present good music profitably.

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