Text by Sarah Freiberg
Photos by Kelly Davidson
On a Friday afternoon in late June, I accompanied a friend to hear her son’s performance in a final concert for the Berklee College of Music’s five-day Global String Intensive. I had no idea what a treat I was in for. As we entered the building, we were greeted by a cacophony of sound, as various groups warmed up in different locations—Celtic music, old-time music, and a Haydn quartet all vied for our attention. It was a perk of being early.
Soon we settled into the cozy concert hall where these various groups took turns performing and jamming onstage. They played amazingly well together, especially for only having met five days before. Each group was made up of at least one instructor and a number of teenage participants who not only performed world music, but also came from all over the world.
According to program director and Berklee string-department chair David Wallace, “Last summer, we had students from every continent except Antarctica. Part of the reason for our diversity is that we hire a sizable number of our current students to collaborate in and accompany our ensembles. In essence, participants get the experience of being a member of Berklee’s incredible string department for a full week.”
The groups I heard were extremely varied in style and size. The concert opened with a Brazilian ensemble comprised of three violins, three cellos (including a bassline provided by amazing cellist and Berklee professor Eugene Friesen), and a guitarist. In the four tunes, there was unison playing, solos for all, great sound effects for a tune titled “Bullfrog,” a nifty arrangement of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 for three cellos, and a rousing samba. This was followed by the “Funkestra,” a full complement of string players playing funk with lots of bow chops for rhythm—and with everyone getting a solo.
The old-time ensemble—three violins, a viola, and cello, as well as a guitar and banjo—was helmed by Bruce Molsky, and they played tunes from the American South as well as a Swedish polka. A more traditional string quartet followed, playing a movement from Haydn’s “Lark” quartet—but throwing in a jazz encore. The final group performed Celtic music with coach Natalie Haas—playing both traditional and contemporary tunes. Every group was polished and poised, and I was blown away.
The Berklee Global String program takes place on the Berklee campus in the heart of Boston June 26–30, 2017, and is open to students ages 15 and older. This is a great place to get hands-on experience in a variety of musical styles, says Wallace. “The population of our students ranges from intermediate to professional, with the solid majority being students in their high-school years. Quite a few already play multiple styles. Others are primarily experienced in one tradition (classical, Celtic, jazz, pop), but they come because they want to learn and experience everything.”
And the students really do get to experience everything. There is incredible stylistic diversity in the program—from bluegrass to progressive 21st-century string-band groups to popular contemporary or world music. And, in addition to the groups I heard, there are R&B, rock, Arabic, and near-Eastern music groups. Wallace says, “We’ve got depth as well as breadth. If your interest is in Gypsy jazz or chamber music or microtonality, you can study those deeply, but you can also get exposed to a wide range of styles.”
Participants work closely with faculty—between Berklee students and attendees, there are approximately 80 students, allowing for a student-to-faculty ratio of 4 to 1. The five days are packed with music. Days begin with a two-hour block of small-ensemble rehearsal, followed by a panel or faculty lecture around lunchtime. In the afternoon, students get a “theory in action” lab on their instruments, a style lab with a different professor, and finally a 90-minute orchestra rehearsal with either Darol Anger or Simon Shaheen.
“People are pretty much engaged from
10 am to 11 pm with full musical experiences.”
After a dinner break, there’s time for practicing as well as concerts and jam sessions. As Wallace puts it, “People are pretty much engaged from 10 am to 11 pm with full musical experiences.”
Rising high-school senior Kieran Binney, a Scottish fiddler, concurs. “It was intense in a good way,” he says. “We were doing 12 hours a day of music, which was a lot of work. I got to learn a bunch about a lot of styles of music I hadn’t encountered before. It was cool.” Friday morning is filled with master classes, in which the students are grouped by instrument and receive detailed feedback from faculty. The week concludes with small-ensemble concerts in the afternoon like the one I experienced.
Binney thoroughly enjoyed the experience, saying that he got a sense of what it is like to be a professional musician from the faculty, and that the theory and style labs really opened his ears. “Most of the learning came from the labs—two hours a day of Arabic or Brazilian or rock music,” he says. They exposed him to new ideas, and, he adds, “I still use some of the practicing techniques I learned in theory lab.”
Wallace is understandably proud of his team. “The faculty for this summer program brings together everyone who teaches Berklee’s undergraduate program throughout the year,” he says. “Because the faculty work together all year, they come together already knowing how to work as a team, and provide what is a very intense, immersive, and joyful experience for students.”