A few weeks have passed since we all returned from Athens, but after bumping into one of the Berklee students in Athens back here on campus, I felt compelled to do one final blog post about last semester’s trip.
Much as they might have wished they could resist the well-worn quip, some of Berklee’s students in Athens last semester walked out of their twice-weekly language class at some point muttering to each other, “It’s all Greek to me.” It was funny the first few times, but eventually, they were faced with the cold, hard realization that Greek was the toughest class they had at Nakas and it wasn’t getting much easier as the semester wore on. Despite the challenges of a new alphabet, vocabulary, and grammar, each of the students knew enough to get by. They could certainly order food and ask for directions.
But to the group, one student stood out as their go-to Greek language expert, the one who could always get them out of a jam when they the deltas and gammas looked like stick figures. That person was music education major Jen O’Shea.
“Languages have always been something that I’ve been fairly good at and I find that having known a little Spanish beforehand helped a lot,” Jen said after a group dinner at Hotel Alexandros one night in December. She grew up in Easton, Mass., and during high school, worked the counter at a bakery in nearby Brockton.
“In Brockton there’s a lot of immigrants who don’t necessarily speak English. I didn’t use Spanish all the time but it was really useful to know if they were trying to order something. It was so much easier if I could speak to them in their own language,” she said.
It was also clear from watching Jen how much she enjoyed speaking Greek with the Athenians. She would get a glimmer in her eye and her voice would rise and and fall like a well-composed melody. She also seemed to like being in the center of things, helping sort out problems, finding solutions, and helping the group find its way. All of that bodes well for her future as a music educator.
I asked her if being a musician came in handy for someone who enjoys learning new languages.
“You can be a brilliant musician and not have the grasp of language, but I think that they can easily go hand in hand,” Jen said. “You can approach learning a language like learning how to play music. That’s kind of the way I approach it. I’ll hear something and even if I don’t understand it, I’ll think, ‘Well, what is the message they are trying to get across?’ If this was music, ‘What does their tone of voice tell me? What does their inflection tell me?’ You can get a lot out of that. So even if I don’t always know what they’re saying, I can pick up on social cues and pick up on tone and phrasing, like listening to a solo, and figure it out from there.”
In addition to learning a language, being in Athens inspired Jen to learn everything she could about the music and culture of her temporary home. She studied bouzouki and tumbeliki while keeping her clarinet chops in shape, and she listened to music from all over the world. It helped cement some ideas for graduate study that she’s been considering.
“I’m really into ethnomusicology. I’m thinking of studying that at a higher level at some point. I would love to do more work with other cultures and music and anthropology. It’s so interesting . . . it’s cool.”
Those two words pretty much sum up my whole take on the Athens experience. If you’re a Berklee student, you’ve got to take advantage of this opportunity. It’s too “cool” not to.