Berklee College Forges a Program to Lure More Irish Students to Campus

Founded in 1945, Berklee College of Music was the first school in the United States to offer formal training in jazz.  Today its reputation spans all musical genres and its student body is an international melting pot of individuals from more than 70 countries.

Berklee has long maintained a variety of connections with Ireland.

To start, Damien Bracken, the school's Dean of Admissions, is from Dublin as well as a graduate of Trinity College Dublin.  Beyond that, renowned Irish flautist Brian Dunning attended Berklee; U2 guitarist The Edge received an honorary doctor of music degree in 2007; and "Riverdance" composer Bill Whelan, a member of Berklee's Board of Directors since 2007, has brought "Riverdance" musicians to the school to conduct master classes.

This past April, the school cranked things up a notch when it launched Berklee In Dublin, a series of workshops that allowed 50 students from Ireland and beyond the opportunity to study and interact with members of Berklee's renowned faculty.   Additionally, representatives from the school's admissions office were on hand to audition students for summer scholarships.  The workshop sessions were held at The Dublin Institute of Technology while the auditions took place at Dublin's Newpark Music Centre.

The seven-day event included master classes, performances, style labs, lectures, and a special address by Bill Whelan.  On the final night, students and faculty took over the downtown club Shebeen Chic for a dual jam session of jazz and traditional music.

At the closing event, two deserving Irish students -- vocalist Karen Cowley from Bray, Wicklow, and bassist Isaac Hayes from Feakle, Clare -- were among the four students awarded full-tuition scholarships to come to Boston this month and participate with roughly 900 other students in Berklee's five-week Summer Performance Program, now in its 21st year and touted as the largest and most comprehensive summer music program in the world.

The idea for Berklee In Dublin was inspired by Bill Whelan, who felt that Irish students were underrepresented at the school. The challenge became, how to draw more young Irish musicians to Boston by providing a diverse experience that was both artistic and educational.

Said Bracken, "[Bill] felt our approach should be to go meet with the educators, not just in Dublin but all over Ireland and get a sense of what they felt would bring value . . . in terms of the kind of expertise that Berklee has, and what students might be looking for in their programs.  So we did a trip a year ago in March.  We traveled all over the country.  We visited schools in Belfast and Limerick and Dublin and Cork, just meeting with the principals of the schools and some of the educators and kind of assessing what would really work for us.  And we came up with this concept of teaching improvisation across styles.  Improvisation is traditionally thought of as a jazz-centric skill . . . but it applies, of course, to every songwriter. By virtue of the fact that they're composing music, they're improvising; they're just taking a different approach to improvising."

Clearly, from the masters of the classical world to the emerging artists of the new millennium, improvisation has been a constant.

One of the things Bracken was particularly pleased with in Dublin was the diversity of individuals who participated.  He said, "Out of the 50 people, 22 were from Ireland." They also had students from Italy, Portugal, Spain, Germany.  "And then we had one student come from Mexico." 

Overall, it was an interesting group, ranging from pop to classical, jazz and rock.  He said, "It was a really great cross section geographically. And very Berklee-esque. That's more of what the Berklee experience is like.  When you come, you're exposed to a very broad range of people from all over the world. And a very broad range of musical styles."

The Summer Performance Program is a sort of pre-college immersion program that Bracken describes as "a compressed version of what the full time Berklee experience is like. Students come and they have ensemble experiences; they have private lessons with a faculty member; they have courses in music improvisation and theory, ear training. We also have visiting artists come on campus." Additionally, "it tends to be a younger age group, 16 and 17 year olds . . . they're kind of testing the waters to see if Berklee is a good fit for them."

With its alumni ranging from Quincy Jones and Aimee Mann to John Mayer, Gary Burton, Juliana Hatfield, Branford Marsalis, Kevin Eubanks, and Alf Clausen ("The Simpsons"), Berklee offers a mission statement with a simple philosophy:  "Berklee was founded on two revolutionary ideas: that musicianship could be taught through the music of the time; and that our students need practical, professional skills for successful, sustainable music careers."

As Dean of Admissions, Bracken said one of his challenges in executing Berklee In Dublin was not only strengthening Berklee's identity in Ireland, but correcting the common misperception that Berklee is solely for jazz musicians. "That's primarily what Berklee is known for abroad," he said.  "And so it was an opportunity for me to talk about how we teach the music business, music production engineering, and many other non-performance-centric courses."

A quick glance through the college's admissions catalog verifies that diversity with courses that include Music and Sound Production for Games, Computer/Synthesis Applications for Film Scoring, Marketing Issues in the Music Industry, Sound Design for Animation, Financial Management for Musicians, and Music in Psychotherapy, among others.

From rock to pop, Latin, R&B, hip-hop, electronica and bluegrass, music is constantly evolving. And Berklee is intent on evolving with it by constantly adapting and updating its curriculum and learning lab technology to reflect what's current and vital to the business.  Exploring new talent through programs like Berklee In Dublin is an integral part of the process.