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6 things I wish I knew the day I started Berklee

Talk I gave to incoming first-year students at Berklee College of Music today (September 5, 2008)

#1 : Focus. Disconnect. Do not be distracted.

My favorite part of the movies is the training sequence, where a young Bruce Wayne, Neo or Kung-Fu Panda goes to a remote location to be trained relentlessly, nonstop, past all breaking points, until they emerge as a master.

The next few years can be your training sequence, if you focus.

Unfortunately you’re not in Siberia. You’re surrounded by distractions.

You’re surrounded by cool tempting people, hanging out casually, telling you to relax.

But the casual ones end up having casual talent and merely casual lives.

Looking back, my only Berklee classmates that got successful were the ones who were fiercely focused, determined, and undistractable.

While you’re here, presidents will change, the world will change, and the media will try to convince you how important it all is.

But it’s not. None of it matters to you now.

You are being tested.

Your enemy is distraction.

Stay offline. Shut off your computer. Stay in the shed.

When you emerge in a few years, you can ask someone what you missed, and you’ll find it can be summed up in a few minutes.

The rest was noise you’ll be proud you avoided.

Focus. Disconnect. Do not be distracted.

This is your #1 most important challenge. If you master focus, you will be in control of your world. If you don’t, it will control you.

#2 : Do not accept their speed limit.

You don’t get extreme results without extreme actions.

Berklee classes set a pace the average student can keep.

If you want to be above average, you must push yourself to do more than required.

There’s a martial arts saying, “When you are not practicing, someone else is. When you meet him, he will win.”

If you are a writer, you should not only write a song a week, but spend twice as long improving it as you do writing it.

Inspiration is a good start, but it’s the diligence to make every note and every word perfect, that will really set you apart.

Luckily, when I was 17, a few months before starting Berklee, I met a man named Kimo Williams who used to teach at Berklee and convinced me that the standard pace is for chumps.

In just 3 intensive lessons, he taught me 3 semesters of Berklee harmony, so on opening day I started in Harmony 4.

In one intensive lesson, he taught me the whole semester of Arranging 1.

Then I learned I could buy the book for a course I wasn’t enrolled in, and do all the examples myself, without even needing to attend the class. I could approach the department head and take the final exam for full credit. I did this for all the other requirements like Arranging 2, and traditional counterpoint classes.

I graduated Berklee in 2-and-a-half years.

Do not accept their speed limit.

Blow away expectations.

#3 : Nobody will teach you anything. You have to teach yourself.

When I first arrived at Berklee, I was disappointed. My teachers weren’t teaching me. I almost dropped out.

I went home to Chicago and got accepted to Northwestern University. Then I realized their music program was more about memorizing the name of Bach’s many children.

So I came back to Berklee with gusto. I decided to squeeze every bit of knowledge out of this place. Nobody was going to do it for me.

Do not expect the teachers to teach you.

They will present some information to you, but it is entirely 100% up to you to either make the most of it, or waste your time here, and go home and get a normal dumb job.

Berklee is like a library.

Everything you need to know is here for the taking.

It’s the best possible environment for you to master your music.

But nobody will teach you anything. You have to teach yourself.

#4 : Learn from your heroes, not only theirs.

When I was here, I wanted to be a great songwriter, among other things.

Berklee’s songwriting courses are amazing! I learned so much about song crafting that made me look at all of my favorite music with a whole new insight, and forever improved my own writing.

But… I remember a lyric writing teacher saying a good lyric needs to use all 5 senses. He’d say, “Don’t just mention your grandmother. Describe the veins on the back of her hands. Don’t just mention a bedroom. Describe the smell of the dust on the curtains and the sound of the creaky stairs.”

So for years I thought every lyric I wrote was crap unless it described all 5 senses.

Then finally I noticed that my favorite songs by Nirvana or Talking Heads were abstract collages of evocative nonsense.

My favorite glitchy electronic music by Björk is nothing they’d ever teach in a Rock Arranging For Live Performance 1 class.

So I finally realized the one important point I missed while here, that I hope you don’t forget.

The teachers are taking their favorite music and using it to teach you techniques.

Learn and appreciate those techniques. They’re great.

But if you only learn the techniques they teach you, you’re only learning their favorite music.

Never think their heroes are better than yours.

You’ll hear a lot about the greats, but whatever you love is great, too.

The same way they will break apart a Shania Twain hit song or a classic Charlie Parker solo to teach you the craft inside, you must learn how to break apart your favorite music and analyze it.

I finally analyzed my favorite Nirvana and Talking Heads lyrics. Finally analyzed the glitches and growls in Björk’s music.

Distilled their ingredients for my own re-use.

Learn from your heroes, not only theirs.

#5 : Don’t get stuck in the past.

While at Berklee, I felt I had to learn Donna Lee, the old bebop jazz standard, to be a good musician.

Got a great gig going to Japan for a month with Victor Bailey on bass.

Here’s one of the best bassists ever, who’s played with Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Sonny Rollins, Sting, and more.

He heard me playing Donna Lee a bit, and said, “Man - jazz was all about inventing something new. For a musician 50 years later to be stuck in the 1950s would be like a 1950s musician being stuck in the 1900s. There’s nothing cool about that.”

A couple weeks later I was at the piano quietly working on one of my own songs, and for the first time he said, “Hey - wow - what is that? That’s great, man. Can you show me?”

Innovation is needed more than imitation.

Don’t get stuck in the past.

#6 : When done, be valuable.

While you’re here, stay locked in the shed.

Enjoy this wonderful isolation, with no responsibility but to improve yourself.

But when you leave here, head to the business aisle of the bookstore and start reading a book a week about entrepreneurial things like marketing.

Never underestimate the importance of making money making music.

Let go of any weird taboos you have about it.

Money is nothing more than neutral proof that you’re adding value to people’s lives.

Making sure you’re making money is just a way of making sure you’re doing something of value to others.

Remember that this usually comes from doing the things that most people don’t do.

For example : how much does the world pay people to play video games? Nothing, because everyone does it.

How much does the world pay people to make video games? A ton, because very few can do it, and lots of people want it.

Be one of the few that is clever enough to make money making music instead of pretending it doesn’t matter.

Be one of the few that has the guts to do something shocking.

Be one of the few that takes your lessons here as a starting point, and pushes yourself to do more with what you learn.

Be one of the few that knows how to help yourself, instead of expecting for others to do it for you.

Be one of the few that does much more than is required.

And most importantly, be one of the few that stays in the shed to practice, while everyone else is surfing the net, flirting on MySpace, and watching TV.

Reader Comments (16)

good post! and i would sign every single aspect of it.....except one: disconnect. imo there's a flaw in your analogy. bruce wayne is able to disconnect while training because without him the movie just can't go on. the plot is waiting for him. that's not happening in real life. if someone disconnects for a longer period of time he might find himself to be a master afterwards alright, but maybe in an obsolete craft (just another analogy). times get faster and one needs to stay ahead of the train or at least with it to not become a relic (think about the "jumping jesus phenomenon", i didn't want to link in here, you can easily google it). thinking that someone could bring you up to speed in five minutes if you were isolated for years seems quite exaggerated to me...
i'd say the key is to select your influences. learn how to tell important from redundant influences. that's harder than to just stay away from everything but a really important point nonetheless. like a smoker who wants to quit but is always surrounded by other smokers.
you said: "There's a martial arts saying, “When you are not practicing, someone else is. When you meet him, he will win.”
i like that one, but if you paused practicing to notice the invention of the firearm, your opponent will lose. in the end disconnecting would be like taking a snapshot of the moment right before you go into the shed and staying in that moment for the time being. and that's like being stuck in the past, your #5.
i disconnected myself at one time for about three years to concentrate on learning and i regret at least part of it. knowing what is going on around you (related to your area of course) is just as essential. maybe a good choice would be to learn the craft of selecting or filtering first.
lock yourself in the shed but make sure it has a window. become an observer rather than an involved, stay on the meta-level. my two cents...
thank you

September 7 | Unregistered Commenteraudiot


You should be on the motivational speaker circuit.

One thing you mentioned in your post and is worth highlighting:

"Be one of the few that knows how to help yourself, instead of expecting for others to do it for you."

We all need to remember and APPLY this piece of advice.



The New Rockstar Philosphy

September 7 | Unregistered CommenterHoover

So true. I'll say amen 1000 times over! (Now, if only more people would actually follow advice like that)

You have to create your own destiny, especially in a creative business. You can't get too academic of what the "standards" created as a rule. Do what YOU feel, not what you are told you should be feeling. People don't listen to music with a textbook explaining how perfect of a clone it is to the typical "musician's musicians". People want to hear music that's born from passion, soul, and something with a new perspective (something new brought to the table, or maybe something that is familliar, re-evaluated, and even lovingly perverted if the art requires it)

audiot: I think he's saying that instead of immersing yourself in the world all of the time, allow yourself to break off, look from the outside in, and perfect your art as a reflection of that... at least that's what I got from it. I love abstract things like this (sometimes even better than full articles, at least to my twisted brain haha)

It's very inspirational to hear the few people willing to admit this stuff. It's much more common to hear this way of approaching art criticized (especially in academic circles). I always say that you can't teach music. You can teach popular musical techniques that have worked well under certain contexts which you can exploit to your will, but you can't teach music, nobody can..and nobody can tell you what music is to you.

September 7 | Unregistered CommenterBowtie Daddy

one side note: The standard came about as a result of breaking the standards that came before it. We wouldn't have music theory, even without those who rebell against tradition.

September 7 | Unregistered CommenterBowtie Daddy

Brillian article Derek, quite informative AND motivational. Well done!

I especially appreciated the first point, on focus. Far too many talented people get side tracked by a sheer lack of focus.

September 7 | Unregistered CommenterGibbo

Another post that inspires. We should have to pay to read this website!

"If you master focus, you will be in control of your world. If you don't, it will control you."

As soon as I'm done working I'm going back to the shed.

September 7 | Unregistered CommenterDave

I'm taking a Songwriting course at at the moment, and just posted a link here for my classmates. And like I said there, I wish someone had told me this stuff ten years ago when I was starting my undergrad Music degree...

September 8 | Unregistered CommenterBen Walker

Too many great things to quote in this post. Thanks. I needed to read this.

September 9 | Unregistered CommenterConscious

Great post, some really good points. I don't think I could add anything but I would contend with the fifth point. The past is really important and respect and evocation of the past has created some of music's biggest historical moments. The importance is balancing innovation and the past, not necessarily with more of one or the other but whatever you enjoy, as long as it is balanced to a level.

I hope plenty of people read this though, very good advice, not just to musicians.

September 9 | Unregistered CommenterCharo

Thanks Derek.

Another winner on MTT.

September 10 | Registered CommenterAsh Akhtar

That's a fantastic post, so much advice that i can say "yeah i don't do that" or "yeah i wish i knew that at the start of 'this' course" etc.

Thanks for sharing, I'll likely quote from this and trackback in future! :)

September 11 | Registered CommenterLee Jarvis

i seriously wish I knew all this when I started school at The Institute of Production and Recording. So many distractions and I got caught up in every single one of them. It seems I didn't master the distraction until I graduated when I realized that none of those distractions did nothing but delay my ability to master what I want to do. Break yourself from the major distractions, but always stay up with whats new and important. Imagine if somebody is 2000 miles under a rock right now and they come back with the best sound you have every heard... but they never heard of the internet. How will that play out?

September 17 | Registered CommenterKevin Reeverts

thank you.

October 7 | Unregistered CommenterAustin

Quick short bursts. Inspiring.


Very Nice Info! Thank you so much for sharing this.

September 29 | Unregistered CommenterMatias

Great advice in here, I'm in Berklee now and it's pretty annoying how people expect everything done for them, instead of taking it themselves.
One warning for the people who read this, though: don't expect to learn harmony 1-3 in 3 intensive lessons. It won't happen, unless you have a really good understanding of harmony already.

January 7 | Unregistered CommenterVlada

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