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First-hand accounts of the Berklee experience

Karen Cowley talks about Five-Week


180 international students from all corners of the globe attended the Five-Week Summer Performance Program this past summer. We first heard from Karen Cowley when she attended the Berklee in Dublin program this past April. Cowley won a scholarship to Five-Week there, and we followed her to get the inside scoop on her experience at Berklee: classes, activities, performances, and adjusting to life in Boston. Enjoy!

Shelly Booth: Can you tell us about your top two favorite classes? What topics are you studying, and what’s the most useful advice your teachers have given you?

Karen Cowley: It’s hard to pick only two top favourite classes. . . .

Karen Cowley, on right, and faculty member Gwen Leathers

Karen Cowley, on right, and faculty member Gwen Leathers

I loved theory because I have never done jazz theory before, only classical, and I found jazz theory so interesting. Musicianship was great as my teacher, John Stein, proved very entertaining! My private voice lesson with Dale Pfeiffer was fantastic. I learned so much from her. Style labs gave you the chance to perform each week, as well as invaluable critique on your performance.

My two favourite classes were probably Groove Sections and Rhythm for Voice with Gwen Leathers, and the Singers Drum Circle with Vinx. The class with Gwen was great because you learned how to write a chart for a band, which is very practical and helpful. Also, you got the opportunity to perform almost every week with a professional band backing you. The Singers Drum Circle with Vinx was simply excellent. This was a very personal class where you worked on performance and putting emotion into melodies. I had a lot of laughs in this class and had the honour of being crowned the Best Worst Singer after a game called Ugly Sing on one occasion 🙁

One of the most useful pieces of advice a teacher gave me was when we were discussing what scares us about performance. He said, “My audience started caring about me when I stopped caring about my audience.” I feel this was great advice because it taught me to believe in my songs and my performance, and to stop worrying about pleasing people.

Cowley performs at Five-Week

Cowley performs at Five-Week

SB: It must be hard traveling so far away, and for many students this is their first time away from home. Do you have any advice for international students?

KC: At the beginning I felt a little lost at the Five-Week. Arriving in America on your own is a bit of a culture shock in itself! Unfortunately, upon arriving at Logan Airport, my wallet containing every form of money I had was stolen, so that experience threw me off-focus momentarily!

Moving into the dorms can be slightly hard too. A lot of the American students had parents to help. However, some of the girls and mothers on my floor were extremely kind and helpful to the parentless foreigner! I found the first four or five days of the course very surreal and overwhelming. Some students had attended the Five-Week the previous summer and seemed to know exactly what they were doing, while I felt clueless at times!

Advice I would give would be to come prepared. It might not be a bad idea to track down someone from your country or city who has been to the Five-Week and could give you an idea of what to expect day-to-day.

One thing I would strongly advise is to put a lot of thought and practice into your placement audition, as it decides your levels and what ensembles you are in for the entire five weeks. If you want to get the opportunity to play in one of the Blow-Out concerts, you need to do a good audition.

And don’t be afraid of getting homesick, because I can assure you by the end of it you won’t want to leave!

SB: You talked about how busy you are. Students are in classes for about 20 hours a week. When you weren’t in class, what did you do?

Backstage at Cafe 939

Backstage at Cafe 939

KC: I was always mad busy at the Five-Week, between listening to music for hours in the media centre, trying to choose songs for class, frantically photocopying sheet music for performances, and of course practicing! In my free time I always found a gig or caf show to go to (a “caf show” is a student performance in Berklee’s cafeteria), or an open mic night to participate in. And of course when you are in a dorm with so many amazing musicians it’s impossible to resist the temptation to jam every night! Even if sometimes it stretched into the wee hours of the morning and you felt you couldn’t possibly stay awake anymore, you always found energy if the jam was good.

On weekends we would get the T to Revere Beach if the weather was good. That was a really nice break from the city. Or sometimes we would sit on the docks by the river and just hang out. The dorms themselves were fun because we had a big space to chill or play pool. . . . After seeing a salsa band play at a caf show, my friend from Mexico taught me how to salsa dance in the basement of the dorm. That became my favourite pastime towards the end!

SB: You mentioned the Songwriter Showcase at Cafe 939. How was that?

KC: One of the many highlights of the Five-Week for me was the Songwriter Showcase. I went through two rounds of auditions, and alongside 11 other performers got the opportunity to perform a song I had written. The experience was wonderful, because we got the chance to work on our songs with Mark Simos, a professor of songwriting, and to present our songs to our fellow performers at the critique sessions. The advice I gained was extremely beneficial and inspired me to write more and to put more thought into how I write. The performance itself was so much fun—the atmosphere was fantastic, and I was lucky that my parents managed to come over from Ireland to see me.

Overall I feel that the the Five-Week Summer Performance Program was an experience like no other, one I would recommend to all musicians who are considering music as a career. I feel I have improved so much as a musician. Indeed, it has opened up a whole new world of music and opportunities to me. I now have great friends in every corner of the globe who I really hope I will see and jam with again in the future.

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1 Comment

  1. i love you karen!!!

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