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The road less travelled – Berklee College of Music’s inspiring new path

by | Feb 14, 2018 | News, Strategy & Transformation

Halpin Consulting Fellow – and arts education specialist – Tony Woodcock explores Berklee College of Music’s inspiring new path…

Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts no longer exists…at least as we knew it. The School that was founded in 1945, becoming a College in 1970, has now transformed into something much bigger and with the strongest potential to change the course of music education over the next 20 years. This is as a direct result of their merger with Boston Conservatory of Music, which means that for the first time ever in the States we have, under one organisation, a College that offers the full continuum of music, from hip hop to classical, together with theatre and dance.

A Mega Strategic Plan

To realise this huge opportunity, Berklee has just launched a brand new Strategic Plan for the periods 2017 – 2020 and 2020 – 2025. It gathers together all the new creative strands under the rubric “Learning Pathways” in an imaginative and innovative approach to student education and artistic development.

The new Plan embraces diverse learning styles, “personalising” the student experience to meet individual needs and choices. There will be “integrated learning pathways” for each campus, ranging from online learning to internships and study abroad. And the curriculum will be flexible and creative reflecting the demands and opportunities of the changing contemporary world. Berklee wants to build new spaces both physical and virtual and break down barriers between all the arts disciplines emphasising the transferability of skills. And perhaps best of all for the students, it focuses attention upon affordability which in turn will support recruitment and retention. The plan is visionary and under the extraordinary leadership of President Roger Brown more than doable. As Brown puts it, “With music, movement and digital technology converging, artists possess powerful new means of creative expression in the theatre, on the concert stage, and through emerging platforms.”

With the merger of schools, the number of students overall has now increased to more than 5,000, with a corresponding exponential increase in opportunities for creative collision. A major development for the whole field of higher education in music and the performing arts, it elevates Berklee to a unique position in the global educational world. Their ability to attract the best students and faculty has just increased dramatically. Without doubt, it is a development that every performing arts institution across the globe should be watching.

In reading the Berklee plan there is a consistency of messaging that is striking. The same key words and phrasing occur on nearly every page of the concise 20-page document, emphasising risk-taking and the potency of technology in teaching and learning. The Plan also stresses the importance of key relationships with the music industry and demonstrates a remarkable awareness of the changes happening within the contemporary world. And it’s that last word, “contemporary,” that Berklee has managed to adopt as their signature not just in terms of their offerings but also how their work can help shape, inform, and reflect the world. They truly live in the contemporary world, understanding exactly its trends and what it can offer to the learning experience. With this plan we are looking at big ambition.

A History of Ambition and Innovation

Berklee has been around a long time. It was founded by Lawrence Berk as a School in 1945 becoming known for jazz, American music, and also rock and salsa. It was able to offer its first bachelor’s degree in 1966. The list of distinguished alums is as long as a freight train and includes John Mayer, Quincy Jones, Gary Burton, Diana Krall, Ramin Djawadi, Alan Silvestri, Esperanza Spalding, and Keith Jarrett. And that’s just skimming the surface. The complete list of artists is brimming with Grammy Award winners, practically since the first awards were presented in 1959. The College, established in 1970, currently offers concentrations in Music Production, Music Business, Contemporary Performance and Film Scoring, with some notable new Institutes in Jazz, American Roots, Africana Studies, and the Center for Creative Entrepreneurship. There is also a new joint five-year bachelor’s/master’s program with Harvard. And there is more to come with the Boston Conservatory merger.

Strategic Planning: Can Berklee Execute?

Institutional strategic plans are nearly all aspirational. But many, if not most, fall by the wayside in light of financial challenges. It’s the syndrome known as “next year’s budget is really your plan.” Berklee is in a very different world of possibility. To begin with, the College has an exceptional brand with a rich history in contemporary music. It has increased its reach globally with a new campus in Europe (Berklee Valencia is now five years old and doing famously) and major developments in NYC (we will look at that one in just a moment), LA, China, and India. It offers diverse programmes for students from study abroad, to an abundance of internships within the industry. Recently it invested heavily in brand new facilities at 160 Massachusetts Avenue, Boston, building student life facilities, dining areas, and state of art recording studios. In addition to its campuses, it provides access to free massive online courses (MOOC), which attracts 1 million students, and it offers an online bachelor’s degree program for 1,000 students, to be followed shortly by a master’s degree. Recent major capital campaigns have raised close to $150m. This is obviously an organisation with powerful leadership and a clear vision of their place in the world.

Embracing Technology

Besides their approach to teaching and learning there are some other major areas of their plan, which I found to be groundbreaking. The first is their attitude to technology. At Berklee the advantages and potential of our technological age are embraced completely. They have plans for leveraging new technologies to accelerate learning and to provide new experiences in learning. These will involve virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), mixed realities and immersive technology making the learning experience developmental and personal rather than simply linear. Just imagine for instance the effect that VR could have on distance learning.

This in turn will mean that they will need to design new learning platforms, extending out from physical campuses through a variety of media. In discussing technology with the College I heard something I have never heard from a School or Conservatory anywhere, “we must get ahead of these technology developments.” It is a clarion call about the future.

A Concert Hall for the 21st Century

Then there are plans to build a concert hall for the 21st century. It’s all very conceptual at this stage with much work to be done but with enough ideas to make the pulse race. The ideas that were shared with me drew comparisons with the ancient Greek Amphitheater, which 2,500 years ago was seen as revolutionary in providing audiences with a live, immersive, and somewhat allusive experience all based upon suspending reality. In recent decades, audience expectations and demands have changed completely thanks to artists’ creative deployment of new media. And this revolution has rendered the 19th century concert hall obsolete. As disturbing as some may find this, it presents a major opportunity for a new model, a concert hall that will be experiential and contemporary.

Berklee’s design would proceed from the hall’s program and the technology needed to support it. Then a building will be designed that best serves this vision. It will enable augmented reality, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence and include thousands of sensors in the auditorium that could blend sound into any shape or color you could imagine. The Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT), Boston is already experimenting with ideas for an adaptive environment that could include headsets for performances, immersive sound and visuals providing a 360° angle of vision. This would galvanise concert production and revolutionise audience engagement.

Berklee has already shown that it has the ideas and the innovatory capacity to move the agenda forward to transform the musical experience for the creative artist and the audience. And their latest foray into the property market of NYC has this type of thinking as central to their plans.

Berklee Adds NYC’s Power Station

In September 2017, Berklee managed to take over the Power Station in NYC, probably the most famous recording studio in the States. Operated as Avatar Studios from 1996 until 2017, it produced recordings that are the stuff of legend: Duran Duran, Tony Bennett, Serge Gainsbourg, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” Elton John, Harry Connick Jr., David Bowie and the list goes on. And at one time it really was a ConEdison Power Relay Station providing electricity for the L train. It’s a 33,000 square foot facility in the heart of Manhattan. Although considered the finest recording environment in the world, it was until recently in danger of closing its doors and becoming a condo conversion.

The musician and record producer Rick DePofi had a dream about its future and managed to excite a few influential people such as Peter Muller, the hedge fund manager and singer-songwriter. Roger Brown also became convinced of the studio’s potential value for the College. Muller stepped up to the plate, purchased the building and provided a major gift, and the City of New York came in with a further $6M. So the building was not just saved but is now reconceived for a future perhaps even more exciting than its great past.

Located on West 53rd Street in the heart of NYC, the Power Station has four large studios. Studio A, the most capacious, has a high domed ceiling and enough space to accommodate a 50 – 60 piece orchestra. This is where the cast of “Hamilton” made their recording. Studio C is the busiest multi-track recording space in Manhattan. The lower level has room for a laboratory-style rehearsal/ performance space suitable for experimental video shoots and VR. The whole development offers an opportunity to activate relationships between the College’s thousands of NYC alums and current students. It will also be a place to convene the most interesting and diverse thinkers, movers, and entrepreneurs. Needless to say, the music industry is taking a great deal of interest.

Stephen Webber, the new Executive Director and Dean of Strategic Initiatives, is in charge of the project. He looks like the happiest man on the planet! Highly energised, he talks with great enthusiasm about the plans for the building. These will include major upgrades to the technology, making it the best in the world: new lighting, LEDs, cameras, tracks, and booms. There will be VR including cinematic 360° cameras that will place audiences right in the center of an immersive live performance experience. The Studio will be used commercially, for concert, for teaching, and learning. The Educational component will focus on an Artist Development incubator program, treating musical careers as startups, and providing mentorship for emerging artists. “I see the studio as a hub of creativity and music, physically coming together to make art and to share this art through a new type of audience engagement,” Webber says.

And with the Boston Conservatory merger he wants to explore the worlds of Dance and Musical Theatre as well. “I want the building to be outwardly facing with strong partnerships in the business, and to be economically viable.” One of the new programs would provide the opportunity of doing a final semester in NYC around music production, engineering and music technology, with contemporary dance and on-line programmes. This will undoubtedly create unique and much-coveted degree programs. And I don’t think Berklee will stop at the Power Station. I have the keen sense that this is the beginning of an exciting development stage for the College’s expansion and influence globally.

And that takes me to the major area of Strategic Development in the Plan, the merger with Boston Conservatory.

Oldest US Conservatory Takes Giant Step into the Future The Boston Conservatory is the country’s oldest independent Music School. It was founded in 1867 and today offers concentrations in Music, Theatre and Dance. It has a reputation for excellence with great faculty and a student body of nearly 850 with around 425 in Music, 160 in Dance and 260 in Theatre.

Undoubtedly, the most acclaimed programme is Music Theatre, which has produced numerous performers who have gone on to work in Broadway and regional theatre. Among the most noteworthy are Tony Award winner Alex Lacamoire ’95, co-winner for Orchestration of “In the Heights,” Eddie Korbich, Erin Davie, and Katharine McPhee.

The B.F.A. in Contemporary Dance is another great strength and has been recognised by Backstage and Onstage.com as the best such program in the country.

The opera programme is also admired and can boast Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as an alumna who studied there under the great conductor and pedagogue John Moriarty when the programme was run as a joint venture with New England Conservatory (1981-89). In recent years, it has become known for exceptionally adventurous repertory choices including Nico Muhly’s “Dark Sisters,” Janacek’s “Cunning Little Vixen,” Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin,” and Jonathan Dove’s “Flight.”

It was not surprising then that Richard Ortner, Boston Conservatory’s popular and deeply committed President for the last 18 years wanted to examine new ideas for the future of the School. He started discussions with Roger Brown at Berklee about the commonalities and opportunities between their schools and these talks eventually lead to the merger announced in 2015. It is a brilliant move bringing together two of the nation’s preeminent schools centered upon a transformational educational model of development.

Richard Ortner has now retired as President although he is still being retained as an adviser. This has given way to some restructuring, changing the position of President to Executive Director of Boston Conservatory at Berklee. This new position, with the many challenges that the merger will inevitably create, has been described as the most formidable job in higher education. And without doubt it is also the most exciting.

A New Executive Director at the Helm

Enter Cathy Young who was appointed to the position in the summer of 2017. She is more than a known quantity at the Conservatory having for the last six years been the Director of the acclaimed Dance programme. She is known for promoting supportive relationships with faculty and has a great reputation for the effective implementation of new ideas.

Her story in the performing arts is a fascinating one. At the age of 21, and without any previous training, she decided upon a career in dance just when everyone was advising her very strongly that she was just too old. Her subsequent career as a dancer and choreographer was stellar! She is passionate about teaching and learning. “What we teach has little to do with steps or movements or technique, but has to do with things like how to take risks, to embrace uncertainty, to be passionate and committed, to be vulnerable, to investigate, and to constantly challenge yourself. What we teach is, on the most profound level, how to live your life- and how to be alive.”

Cathy is full of excitement and energy about the merger. “The Conservatory system does not necessarily create innovators in the field and I now want to create an environment that will help to do exactly that. I want us to be known as the Innovatory!” The merger with Berklee will help with this evolution although she sees the Conservatory maintaining its brand within one merged institution. This will mean steering a steady course, carefully navigating change to allow all voices to be heard and cultures to adapt and develop. That she is a known quantity and someone who inspires trust will make the inevitable changes both more manageable and understandable. There are already ideas to produce an ancillary plan to Berklee’s own strategic plan to guide the schools’ integration. But Cathy is exuberantly optimistic about the future: “I am fascinated by the idea and potential of more interdisciplinary collaborations and how we can make this a central part of the overall experience we offer.”

She speaks with passion about the need for greater diversity, which should extend to faculty, students and pedagogy. About what needs to be preserved and what needs to change. Mission-driven, she wants to emphasise and maintain in this new model the excellence, passion, individual attention as well as the long and distinguished history that the Conservatory enjoys. She is confident of making major progress towards these new goals over the next two to three years and wants to see a giant leap forward after five years. But she does not want to irresponsibly dismantle programs or ideas that are still valuable. “The worst mistake would be to lose something without understanding its value and importance.”

How to Make Change a Reality

Panos Panay, Vice President for Innovation and Strategy

Berklee certainly has the track record, leadership and resources to make change a reality but what are the practical considerations when it comes to changing the overall culture of an organisation? The scope of the new Strategic Plan clearly implies a major shift in culture. Panos Panay, Vice-President for Innovation and Strategy, gave me the best description of the challenges. We talked about the management guru Peter Drucker and his maxim “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” and how this relates to Berklee.

“Change requires a different approach,” Panos said. “Who are we right now? We have all these assets, all these experiences and we now want to effectively share this need, this identity and new narrative.”

And then he told me the story of the difference between Gardening and Architecture as a metaphor for the management of change. Architecture, he says, tends just to arrive. It’s suddenly there and that’s when you start talking about it. It’s the classic edifice complex. Gardening is very different, he went on. It’s about observing the desired outcomes through planting, pruning, feeding, nurturing, and checking on the environment. In management terms, this could mean emphasising consistency of messaging, great communication, respect for individuals and a shared identity and purpose through a new approach to joint projects.

I had never thought of Berklee and gardening before. But it makes sense in finding their new pathway. To purloin Robert Frost’s famous lines with a slightly different interpretation: “I took the (road) less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”

Tony Woodcock Halpin Fellow and Founder & President of Scolopax Arts