As I leave my sister behind in the greatest city in the world to begin her dramatic writing journey at NYU (not-so-subtle brag: my sister is an uber talented super genius that can write great movies and stuff), I’m reflecting on on the excitement I had moving to Boston 3 years ago at this same time to pursue higher education at Berklee. I’m going to give you 100% honesty about where I’ve been (mentally) the past 3 years.
I came to Boston for the first time in my whole life the fall of 2014 to start my college search and visit my boyfriend, who was a year ahead of me and studying at Berklee. I know what some of you are thinking. Berklee did not call to me because my boyfriend was there. That was a huge bonus, though. I knew I wanted to go to Berklee well before I met my boyfriend. One of the first instructors I ever had, at around age 6, went to Berklee and I thought, “Oh, well, that’s where the musicians go. I’m gonna go to Berklee.” As my love for Susan Tedeschi fostered later on, thanks to my dad, I said, “Susan Tedeschi went to Berklee and participated in the gospel choir and graduated at 20. I’m gonna do that.” (And I did.) When I stepped foot in Boston, it called to me. I was going to live there. When I stepped foot in Berklee, it called to me. I was going to study there. Now, as many of you may know, Berklee is not child’s play. It’s argued to be at the top of the contemporary music school chain nationally and globally. I’m not saying that I thought to myself, “I am certainly talented enough to be here, I deserve this. There’s no doubt in my mind I will get in.” That is not the case AT ALL. I was humbled by the notable alumni and the extreme talent that surrounded my boyfriend everyday. What I mean is a feeling that is hard to describe, but something everyone who has gone through the stress of finding the right college has felt, I think. I felt home when I toured Berklee. My sister felt it when she was accepted into NYU. Some people realize what college ISN’T supposed to feel like and then realize where the right feeling is, and it gives them the courage to make that switch. It happens on many different levels. Despite my relatively low self esteem, I walked into Berklee and felt there was a place for me at this school. Familiarity. Comfort. This place had a lesson for me.
It got to a point where Boston flooded my mind at all times. I did an early action audition (the only audition I’ve ever been confident in or proud of in my life I think- I avoid auditions like the plague), was accepted early, and committed nearly immediately. I couldn’t wait to be with my boyfriend again in the same city and do something completely new and different that I had never experienced before. I was ready to grow and change. I don’t think that’s something I could say prior to prepping for college. Nearly everything about life makes me overwhelmingly nervous. I was aligned with whatever path and purpose is out there for me. There were no doubts in my mind I made the right decision. I was setting the tone for my future at the college of my dreams.
I didn’t feel any mixed sort of emotions moving in. I was eager to learn and to please. I went out of my way to overcome my debilitating social anxiety (yes, another anxiety I also have). I was going to the mixers and events for freshman. I initiated conversations with strangers. I was putting in very real effort to connect with my peers for the first time. My whole life, I’ve always been relatively independent and didn’t mind having a lot of time alone. In fact, most times I preferred it. My closest friends became my closest friends because I was stuck in a Rockit (check out details on Rockit in my “Music” bio under the “About” tab) rehearsal room with them most of the week for hours on end in a place I was extremely comfortable in because I basically grew up in that environment. Beyond that, I had next to no social skills and was left out of a lot. I was/am not an initiator, so if you didn’t invite me or approach me, no friendship would be forged. I never have been able to form many strong bonds with people my age and I was always under the impression, not that they disliked me, but that they had absolutely no interest in me. By the time I graduated high school, I made the decision that I was going to try to take control of that narrative. Being in a strong relationship with my boyfriend at a young age taught me, and continues to teach me, a lot. One of those things was that you can’t assume what someone else is thinking and you have to put all the cards on the table. I couldn’t just assume or accept the fact that I don’t jive with most people, because then I was helping create that story and add to the problem. So, even though I was socializing completely out of my comfort zone, I was eager to grow and get the most out of my college experience. Once I put out that effort, I knew whatever someone else was or wasn’t putting down was on them and at least I put myself out there.
Despite my best efforts, I’m sorry to say I don’t feel I was successful in changing the patterns of my past. Maybe true nature can’t be changed? I try not to put myself in boxes, but I found myself once again with a few close friends (love you guys) and no solid group of any kind. I’ve always been a miscellaneous, group floater kinda gal. That wouldn’t change throughout college, and I reverted back to old habits of not participating in a social scene I had no interest in. My shortcomings in connection when I was pushing myself so hard out of my comfort zone to be better was one of the hits to my confidence that really brought me down. Once again, I felt like an outsider, only this time, I was surrounded by musicians- the only people I usually feel significant to. This was more alienating than before. For the first time, it didn’t just feel like it was me that wasn’t resonating, it felt like my music and what I was all about wasn’t getting through either. I felt voiceless. I felt all the sudden, like I had no idea who I was because I was starting to disconnect from the only thing that I was ever good at and defined me. Other aspects of my Berklee experience would perpetuate this.
Every Berklee student is required a certain amount of semesters of private lessons. Each student takes at least 4 proficiency exams, one at the end of each semester of private lesson, to complete their diploma/degree requirements. A proficiency exam is a performance exam to showcase how proficient you are on your instrument. The requirements differ for every instrument. For voice, you sing a few songs. A classical piece and technical exercise are required. Your first semester at Berklee, you are assigned to your teacher. I’d like to start by saying, I thought my first private lesson teacher was very knowledgeable, talented, and sweet. But she was in no ways right for me. I felt like she had no idea what she was doing with me, and I put my trust in her. People hear the sounds that I make and see what I look like and try to put two and two together and it doesn’t make sense to anyone. Even if you take my looks out of the equation, people seem to find my voice slightly unconventional. Under her instruction, I felt like I lost any kind of progress I made in the classical/head-voice arena I had only started to develop in high school, which messed with other areas of my singing I was comfortable with for years. My proficiency went terribly. My voice teacher messed with my voice, my mind, and by the time I got to the proficiency, I was experiencing performance anxiety unlike any I had experienced in my life. And I butchered it. My body shut down. My voice shut down. I was completely out of control. My fellow musicians, I know what you’re going to say- it’s never as bad as you perceive it to be! Oh, but it was. I’m a straight A student. I not only received a C on a test, but I received a C for SINGING. My private coach I was seeing outside of school, who I’ve been seeing for 6 years, was confused by my results and feedback. My parents were infuriated. At first it was aimed at me, but then they saw what these results had done to me. Everyone feared Berklee was going to do me more harm than good. I went mute to the point where my mom almost took me to the hospital on the day they picked me up from my first semester. I wasn’t there. I wouldn’t eat. I was so beyond shattered and disappointed in myself. Anxiety skyrocketing. I felt my identity had been stripped away, all over some stupid test.
Fast forward to next semester, Alli & the Housecats (my band in college, and hopefully my band to be reborn in the near future) made our first debut after a whole semester of rehearsing our set. A good mix of originals and well known covers by related artists. As much work as we had done, and as much fun as we had, I still felt that group click wasn’t there, which takes a lot of time and patience, but I was getting antsy. I found I wasn’t able to fully let go and put my trust in them. Between my private lesson experience the semester before and this constraint I was feeling on the stage, I went back to watch the performance livestream and found myself in tears hearing pitch problems and vocal issues that I had never had before. I was becoming obsessive. I was going back to old videos and tearing them apart, but also was seeing a freedom I had back then that I was now missing at Berklee.
Virtually, I am still working on undoing the roadblocks I developed in my first semester. In general, I had this feeling at Berklee that I didn’t fit the Berklee mold, of which there certainly is one, ESPECIALLY for vocalists. I’m not saying I didn't want criticism. Of course I wanted to get better. The problem was I wasn’t receiving much of any constructive criticism. The only comments I received were mostly positive, but I generally felt rejected and I hid. I didn’t go for anything, and I should have. I shouldn’t have let what other people thought of me, or what I thought they thought of me, stop me from thriving. I thought my voice was too big and too much, and I silenced myself. Alli & the Housecats didn’t play very many shows because we would progressively get less and less people showing up. One of the last shows we played, we literally had zero people attend besides my roommate’s band who had just played before us and stuck around. Performing was becoming not fun for me at this point. It was another stress amongst a stack of others and I didn’t know what to do about it, because when I wasn’t performing I could feel myself becoming sick.
I hit a low point in my 4th semester as I was feeling the weight of my homework load, my lack of performing, and the lack of joy in creating. Something personal and unrelated happened in my relationship that made me snap. I was triggered like never before. I suffered multiple panic attacks a day over the coarse of 4 days. For the first time in my anxiety filled life, I reached out for help and started seeing my therapist, which helped me to get on the upswing of my Berklee experience. First off, I was diagnosed with anxiety, officially, for the first time. That may not seem like a relief, but being self diagnosed for years on end would put my mind in so many spirals wondering if I was just making excuses for myself and “I should just be able to cope and do better like everyone else.” Having a professional tell me it wasn’t all in my head made my reality feel valid and like I could take steps to progress from there. We’re going to skip the stuff we went over about my relationship because it’s personal and irrelevant in this conversation, but we would go over my school concerns quite often. She introduced me to the concept of paralysis by analysis. I was over analyzing so much and spending all my time convincing myself I wasn’t worthy of practicing, that even on the days I wanted to sing, I didn’t know where to start. My procrastination on assignments was heavy. Perfectionism was killing me. I was running into more and more complications performing because I was developing stage fright for the first time in my life. I was so in my head that I am STILL trying to get out of it now. I am so grateful for my therapist. I needed that objective authority to validate my experience and give me a fresh perspective. I needed that hour every week to detach from the bubble I would allow myself to get sucked into on campus.
I know this all sounds very heavy, and knowing what you do from my previous blog about my last semester- yea, it was pretty heavy. But, Berklee was still undoubtedly the right place for me. Here’s who and what I loved.
Let’s get to Donna McElroy. Luckily, starting your second semester, you are allowed to choose your private teacher, and I chose wisely. Donna McElroy helped keep me afloat when I had no faith in myself or my voice. She saw value in me and was the first professor to tell me so. “You make me wanna call people,” she used to say. I didn’t feel worthy of the compliment, but couldn’t have been more grateful to feel like I was connecting with a person through my voice again. That same semester, I took her Jubilee Spirit Ensemble- a tribute to the historic Fisk Jubilee Singers, of which she was one back in her college days- and throughout our time in the ensemble together, she would make sure to take the time to discuss the history and plight of African Americans and what this music meant to the African American community. That was so important to me to learn about and recognize, and she makes her students feel welcome in her culture, most of whom, in this ensemble, were white, or at the very least, not black. We became very close in our time together, and she will forever be a blessing in my life.
Another professor I would meet and who would start to bring me back to myself was Nedelka Prescod. While trying to research “THE” gospel choir Susan Tedeschi sang in at Berklee, not realizing before I got there that there would be more than one (duh), I stumbled upon a video of Prescod leading her Roots & Gospel Ensemble in my favorite spiritual, “Wade in the Water,” and then another video of them backing Hozier, certainly my top celeb crush, at his first Newport Folk Festival. I thought, “This ensemble MUST be it.” I emailed her, eager to get on her radar and into her ensemble, my first week at Berklee. At that point she was only there in the summers, but then for the fall registration the next year, I noticed her Roots & Gospel Ensemble on the schedule and had to snatch a spot. I was nervous my first time studying with her. Everyone in the room was older and more skilled than me, but Nedelka had strict rules. This was to be a non-judgmental environment. When she pushed you to try something, you did it. You were not in competition with one another in this room. You were to make mistakes and be human, but also learn from your mistakes, practice, and come in next week not making the same mistakes. This was a breath of fresh air. I came to realize how competitive I saw Berklee to be. No wonder I was shutting down. Competition and I don’t mix. The comparison game is not one I enjoy getting sucked into. Nedelka set her tone, and I was there for it. She was firm, but fair, and oh so fun. Nedelka believed in every individual having something to offer and also heavily believed that there were serious lessons to take away from your ensemble classes. You were not there to play your instrument, internal or external as she called them, be in your own world, and go home with your ensemble experience to be a requirement you filled. I felt accepted and safe in her teaching environment and had a completely different experience each time I took the ensemble, which was so exciting. She forever has my admiration.
In all this time I haven’t even mentioned my major! I studied Contemporary Writing & Production (CWP), which is Berklee’s fancy way of saying I covered A LOT of ground. CWP is relatively new and sought to create a major that encompasses composing, arranging, and creative mixing/music technology skills all under one roof, to put it simply. Its the producer-in-training major, and one of the highest demanding majors at Berklee. Not unlike every college kid to ever exist, I too suffered from long, sleepless nights (although, very few compared to the average student), tears over work that wasn’t working, and meltdowns over technology not doing its one job- whatever task I was telling it to do in the moment- and proceeding to lose hours of work as my program crashed. All of these feelings, I would argue, are amplified for your music major friends because all of our homework is accompanied by hours of time practicing we are supposed to be able to do. Before getting on to the good stuff, I just wanted to make the disclaimer that CWP was NOT all sunshine and rainbows. To begin the praise, I loved my major. There was no place I would have rather been. I struggled a lot, especially when I had classmates already perfectly proficient in the major they decided to take on and I had decided to enter this field I was a complete newbie in, but because of that, I gained so much. I could see my evolution from start to finish, and I was proud of my progress, even if I haven’t found my own personal production or arrangement style yet. I’m here to tell you CWP-ers, if you can get something to sound good or if you can learn from the thing you made the last time and do better next time, you are a major success. I also want you to know CWP has THE BEST faculty, including the chair, Andrea Pelerojo, who was a huge help to me as I tried to finish my final, very dramatic semester. Also, because the major is so well rounded, you may discover you want to pursue a field you never thought or heard of before. I found I LOVED scoring to picture- specifically advertisements. I thought they were such fun, creative puzzles. I would have genuine joy doing those projects. What that turns into for me, I don’t know, but I wouldn’t have discovered that side of myself if CWP didn’t present those projects to me and offer some very cool, specific classes on the topic. And I can’t express the rush that is finishing a project that you didn’t think was in your skill set and being proud of the final product. Delicious surprise, that’s what that is. A win in a sea of doubts can help you withstand the greatest storms.
Overall, by the time I graduated, I was burnt out, but also so damn proud of myself of the things I DID accomplish, and that includes making it to graduation. I know I didn’t focus a whole lot on the things I did I was proud of that I did or the Alli & the Housecats shows that were well received, but I wanted to take this time to be honest to both you and myself about some hard things I went through because I think it’s more important for the artists out there to know that if you are hurting, second guessing yourself, or feel like you need time to step back from what you’re focusing on because it’s starting to hurt you, that doesn’t mean you are failing or that you are giving up on your dreams. Life goes in phases. Ride this wave out and be present in what it has to teach you. THAT is what I loved most about Berklee. I learned SO MUCH about myself. Every time I would think about if I could or should be anywhere else other than Berklee, the answer was no. We can easily forget pain is our greatest teacher. Berklee taught me what I needed to learn, positive and negative.
If I could give any advice to an incoming college student, it would be get out of your bubble. If your school is starting to feel like your entire world, go out and take a walk. Immerse yourself in something else. I started to cook. It was great because eating was a necessity, so I had to set time aside for it, and it allowed me to feel creative in a new way. Silence was also huge for me. I am super receptive, and being surrounded by constant music and city stimuli overstimulated me and I needed silence to reset my mind and sort through my to-do’s one thing at a time.
I do have something to ask of you before we part from this discussion. College in general, is only the beginning of education. The real learning starts to happen when we start putting that education into practice. I’m entering a new era of life and most certainly am in a transitional phase with a lot of life as I knew it behind me for good. After deconstructing and starting to rebuild myself at Berklee, I’m looking for new inspiration. I have so much to learn beyond college. Tell me, how do you practice? If you’re a singer, producer or yoga practitioner, yes, I definitely want to know what a day in the life of your practice looks like and what inspires you, as it directly pertains to me. I’m looking to develop a new routine I can get excited about. But also, if you are a musician of any kind, artist of any kind, or human of any kind, I want to know how you practice. How do you practice and set aside time for your craft and individual growth? How do you practice taking the skills into the real world to creative positive impact and foster growth in society? I don’t think these are particularly easy questions, but I REALLY want to know your answers. I think it would be a great podcast series, but that’s a project for another time. I’ll put it out into the universe though.
Leave me a comment below!
Catch you later for a lighter story time (promise),