By Patrick Sullivan

Cellist Elisa Rodriguez Sadaba

Cellist Elisa Rodriguez Sadaba

Students excited and concerned as two Boston music schools join forces

They’ve been next-door neighbors for decades. And now two of the nation’s most venerable music institutions—the Berklee College of Music and the Boston Conservatory—have joined forces, merging to create a new entity that school leaders hope will help revolutionize education. “There are a lot of things that can go wrong, of course,” says Berklee president Roger Brown, who also heads the combined institution. “But if we do this right, there will be nobody like us in the whole world. The kind of opportunities we can create for students will be unique.”

While this is legally a merger, each school will maintain its own admissions process, as well as separately organized faculty. The combined institution is called “Berklee,” and the conservatory is now named “The Boston Conservatory at Berklee.” The merger, finalized June 1 after unanimous approval by both institutions’ boards of directors, aims to give students at each school better access to the other’s classes and facilities.

Brown ticks off a long list of synergies. The Boston Conservatory, for example, has strong musical theater and dance offerings that could help Berklee students. “You can be an incredible musician, but if you don’t know how to move or embody the music physically, you may not get the job,” Brown says. And students at the Boston Conservatory—often called BoCo—could benefit from learning about film scoring or recording technology. BoCo doesn’t have a single recording studio on campus; Berklee has 17.

But among students, the merger has aroused excitement and nervousness—and some outright opposition. “It was a pretty big surprise,” says Berklee senior Lucas Carbonneau, 20, who was on vacation in Puerto Rico when he got the news. “I woke up and looked at my email and said, ‘Whoa, what?’  But I know administrators have been talking about it for years.”

Some students felt left in the dark, says Carbonneau, president of Berklee’s student government. Others had practical concerns. “Some of the recording-engineer students were saying, ‘The conservatory students better not take any of our studio time,’” he recalls. “But I think both schools have done very well as far as putting everyone at ease.”

Carbonneau himself strongly supports the merger. “It’s a really smart move for both institutions,” he says. “We complement each other very well.”

With roughly 4,500 students on campus, Berklee is some five times larger than the Boston Conservatory, which was founded by violinist and composer Julius Eichberg in 1867. Berklee, born in 1945 as a jazz school, is also strongly focused on contemporary music. The differences in size and focus have some BoCo students wondering whether the merger could affect the conservatory’s values or classical traditions.

“I feel very disoriented,” says Harrison Greenough, an accomplished 19-year-old bass player entering his sophomore year at the conservatory. The merger may turn out to be a good thing, Greenough says, but he believes the decision was made too quickly and without enough consultation with students. “I’m not certain whether we will retain our identity as students of the highly acclaimed Boston Conservatory,” Greenough says. “I applied to the conservatory, not Berklee. Now that we are going to be associated with Berklee, we will be less of a unique institution.”

And Greenough says many fellow music students he’s talked to share similar fears about the merger’s possible effect on the conservatory’s image and educational practices. “That was a concern of mine in the beginning, and I believe it still holds true for a fair number of students,” says Micah Welch, 19, who is studying classical voice at BoCo. “A music conservatory within a music college has never existed before,” she says. “We’re excited to be making history, but also a little nervous. The conservatory existed long before Berklee did, and we have a strict regimen and tradition of training and education that’s very different from theirs.”

But Welch, who is heading into her sophomore year, says she’s convinced the merger will benefit both student bodies. She’s already signed up for a class at Berklee in the fall and hopes to take many more. “I would like to minor in music business, and I can’t do that at BoCo because we don’t have those classes,” she explains.

Welch has also teamed up with Carbonneau to head up an initiative called “Bridge the Gap,” which has already organized more than 20 concerts and other events to bring the two schools closer together. “One of the things I’ll be looking for is how much support the administration gives to Bridge the Gap,” Welch says. “So far it’s been amazing. I’m excited to see how it all plays out. I have a good feeling about this year.”

For some BoCo students, one major question is what the merger means for their employment opportunities. Greenough is concerned that the name change could alter perceptions about the school and perhaps harm his career prospects. “Though it may not be the case, it is certainly on my mind,” he says. Cellist Christian Kay, on the other hand, thinks the new name will help. “Boston Conservatory is a really great school, but so is Berklee,” says Kay, 19, who has finished his freshman year at the conservatory. “Here are these two great schools that have teamed up. I think it should have a positive impact if someone looks at my resume and sees BoCo and Berklee on the same line.”

Kay has already teamed up with a Berklee student composer to help record a film score. He also played in a concert that brought together musicians from both schools to create a giant orchestra.

Such collaborations are music to Brown’s ears. The Berklee president rejects the idea that the identities or traditions of the two schools will be compromised. “If you’re a cellist admitted to the conservatory, you will still study a curriculum very similar to what’s been in place for decades,” Brown says. But Brown, who spearheaded the merger with BoCo president Richard Ortner, does believe the merger will help young musicians cultivate flexibility and creativity. Above all, he says, the aim is to give students at both schools a better chance at carving out lifelong careers in a rapidly changing world.“There’s an underlying hypothesis driving this merger,” Brown says. “There’ve been massive changes in the music industry. Classical and jazz combined make up a bit less than 2 percent of the commercial-music industry. So we need to help young people be flexible and open to other opportunities.”

Meanwhile, Brown notes, there’s an incredible convergence between dance, theater, and music—and a growing erosion of other boundaries. “Who would ever have imagined five years ago that the most popular video on YouTube would be in Korean?” he says, referring to Psy’s record-breaking “Gangnam Style.”

“That guy is a Berklee alum.” And Brown, who recently returned from India, believes this new globalization of music is just getting started. “I think we’re going to see music span genres and national and linguistic borders in a way it never has before,” he says. “And we want our young musicians to be part of these incredible changes.”

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