Why a Berklee Education Is a Good Thing, and Why Bragging About It Can Be a Bad Thing

If I think back to when I first got out of the Berklee College of Music, back in 1989, I remember feeling excited about all I had learned. My head still spinning from the intense and rapid absorption of so much musical information, I also felt a confidence with this newfound knowledge. As I was a young man in my early 20s, this confidence, at times, perhaps bordered cockiness. But still, I had worked hard at Berklee, gained valuable knowledge about music theory, and was proud of this achievement, eager to share this fact with everyone I knew.

“There is a difference between conceit and confidence. Conceit is bragging about yourself. Confidence means you believe you can get the job done.” – Johnny Unitas

But just because you’re fresh off the Berklee boat doesn’t mean everyone wants to hear you announcing this fact, as I would quickly learn. Right after I got out that spring I replied to a couple of classified ads that were looking for a guitarist. One of the conversations went something like this:

“Hello, this is Charlie.” “Hi, my name is Eric and I just got out of Berklee. I’m calling about the ad for a guitar player.” “Click.” It seems I had no sooner said the word “Berklee” before he was hanging up the phone. What’s up with that?

In the years that would follow, I heard similar stories from others, and would also encounter some folks who seemed to resent me simply because I had this education. I remember one time going to see a rock band in a local bar and enjoying listening to the guitar player, who was someone I knew. When I was chatting with him on a break, I asked him about a certain chord he had played in a blues song. “What was that chord you played in Stormy Monday? I’ve never seen it used before.” “I don’t know. You went to Berklee, you tell me.” Ouch, I was shellshocked! I couldn’t understand this hostility, as I was genuinely curious about what he had been playing.

Perhaps he didn’t know the name of this particular chord and felt embarrassed. Perhaps he wishes he had been able to go to a music college and was simply jealous. Maybe I had bragged too much after getting out of school and was unknowingly being perceived as being cocky, and he simply assumed this was at least partially a result of my Berklee experience. Whatever it was, there was apparently some resentment on his behalf to the fact that I had gone to Berklee.

Of course, I wasn’t entirely innocent in every situation either. I remember sitting in at a blues jam somewhere during that time period. After sitting around all night waiting for my turn to play, when it was finally my turn, I felt compelled to share every note I knew (which was a flurry of modal insanity played in rapid fire succession back then), to perhaps “enlighten” what I perceived as a bunch of simplistic, blues musicians. And then I wondered why I only got to play one song. I’m sure I wasn’t the first young gun fresh out of Berklee to make this mistake.

“Knowledge is power.” – Francis Bacon

That was all a long time ago. During those first years immediately following Berklee, I was still trying to figure out how to apply all that theory to practical, everyday musical situations. Slowly, over time, that knowledge began to morph into my everyday musical applications; it started to really become a part of my being. Eventually, I reached a point where I no longer thought about music theory; I just played and heard music, understanding its technicality on a more subconscious level. As theory and music became one in the same, it got easier to play music.

I never use my Berklee education as a conversation piece, unless asked. If someone asks me about my musical training, I don’t hesitate to tell them I went to Berklee. If they are still interested after I tell them that, I’m genuinely excited to share more. I’m certainly not embarrassed about going to Berklee, I’m quite proud of that accomplishment, even though there is a weird stigma attached to it for some.

“Teachers open the door… You enter by yourself.” – Chinese Proverb

Just because you go to Berklee doesn’t automatically make you a great musician. Are all doctors great just because they went to a great medical school? I think not. The school doesn’t make the doctor great, the doctor has to become great at what he does, the school only serves to get him started.

So maybe that’s part of the reason why there’s a weird stigma attached to “Berklee folk”. It’s a great school, but that doesn’t mean you’re automatically great just because you go there. A great college education is simply a foundation, a starting point. It’s what you do with that education, how responsibly you wield your newfound knowledge, and the persona you exude that will create lasting impressions on those around you.

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

How would you perceive a stranger if the first thing they said to you was “Hi, I’m Joe, I just graduated from Harvard.” Depending on the circumstances, my first reaction could be “What a cocky f@#k!” I’ll be be more likely to like that person if they simply said “Hi, I’m Joe, I just moved to town. Good to meet you.” If someone walks into a room full of people and upon being introduced says “Hi I’m Joe, I just got out of Berklee.” it might come across to some as “Hi, I’m Joe, I just got out of Berklee, and therefore, I’m probably better than you, as many musicians don’t have this level of education.”

You never know what preconceived notions someone might have about a particular music school or other entity. To some, it might be a good thing, but to others, it will instantly bring to mind whatever their preconceived notion might be, and they will instantly associate you with that previous perception, even if it’s incorrect. Don’t give them that opportunity. Let them form their own opinions of you based on a neutral starting point.

So don’t wave your credentials in the face of others, but don’t hide them either. Don’t play every note in your arsenal just because you can. And if you have a music education, whether it’s from Berklee or another college, don’t expect that fact alone to open doors. Knowledge is power, and it will definitely come in handy. But an education doesn’t define people or make them great; it’s simply a foundation that should serve to make them better.

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